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Chapter Seven
Preparing to “take the war into Africa”


Unless otherwise noted, all images are from the Boyd B. Stutler Collection




By the time John Brown returned to the West, the situation in Kansas was more settled and his attention had shifted to his larger plan to overthrow slavery. While in New England, he had arranged for Charles Blair, a Connecticut blacksmith, to manufacture samples of pikes. In addition, Brown engaged Hugh Forbes, an English mercenary, to prepare a manual on military tactics and to provide training to his recruits. In July, John Brown crossed into Iowa, reaching Tabor in early August. Forbes arrived shortly afterwards with “The Duty of a Soldier,” but the relationship between Brown and Forbes soon soured when the two disagreed over the details of Brown’s plan, including Brown’s reliance on slaves flocking to his side once the attack was underway. In November, Forbes suddenly left and journeyed to the East, where he created trouble for Brown. Charles Blair
Charles Blair

In the meantime, after a brief trip to Kansas in November, John Brown quickly returned to Iowa, where he shared his plan to attack slavery in Virginia with the men who had joined him—Owen Brown, John E. Cook, John Henry Kagi, William H. Leeman, Charles W. Moffett, Luke F. Parsons, Richard Realf, Richard Richardson, Aaron D. Stevens, and Charles P. Tidd. In January 1858, Brown left the men in Iowa, went to Ohio, and then on to Rochester, New York, to see Frederick Douglass. Brown spent several weeks with Douglass while he worked on his plan and drafted a new constitution of government for the United States that included African Americans as full members of society. He also met with the Secret Six and several prominent African Americans in the North and Canada during the winter and early spring of 1858.

“Whereas slavery, throughout its entire existence in the United States, is none other than a most barbarous, unprovoked, and unjustifiable war of one portion of its citizens upon another portion . . . in utter disregard and violation of those eternal and self-evident truths set forth in our Declaration of Independence:

Therefore, we, citizens of the United States, and the oppressed people who, by a recent decision of the Supreme Court, are declared to have no rights which the white man is bound to respect, together with all other people degraded by the laws thereof, do, for the time being, ordain and establish for ourselves the following Provisional Constitution and Ordinances, the better to protect our persons, property, lives, and liberties, and to govern our actions: . . ." – Preamble to the Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States

Early in May, John Brown and his men, now including George B. Gill and Stewart Taylor, gathered in Chatham, Canada, home to many free and fugitive African Americans and not far from the United States border in Michigan. Brown had called a secret constitutional convention to ratify the new constitution and give legitimacy to the government it created. On May 8, Brown addressed an assembly of nearly four dozen men, comprised of his white recruits and more than thirty blacks. Delegates adopted Brown’s Provisional Constitution, a 48-article document to govern the group while the war of liberation was underway, and elected officers.

Church, Chatham
First Baptist church in Chatham, where the last of a series of meetings were held during the Chatham Convention in May 1858
Richard Realf
Richard Realf
George B. Gill
George B. Gill

John Brown was ready to implement his plan after the Chatham Convention, but the activities of Hugh Forbes forced him to delay. After leaving Brown late in 1857, Forbes had begun writing angry letters to John Brown, a few members of the Secret Six, and Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Then, in May, Forbes approached Sen. Henry Wilson, also of Massachusetts, in the Senate, about John Brown. He also contacted Sen. William H. Seward of New York and Sen. John Hale of New Hampshire. Distressed over what Forbes might know about Brown’s plan and their involvement, the Secret Six wanted to postpone Brown’s undertaking and requested that he return to Kansas to draw attention to himself as part of the Kansas struggle and away from his other plans.

Going by the name Shubel Morgan, over the summer Brown established himself in Kansas near the Missouri border, where he built a small stone and wood fortification. In July, he drew up Articles of Agreement for his company of men. Brown also teamed up with free-state guerilla leader James Montgomery, but he was largely inactive until late in the year, during which time he suffered an extended bout of malarial fever. In November and December, Brown accompanied Montgomery on two expeditions but apparently did not actually participate on either occasion.

John Brown’s most memorable activity came at the end of December, when he crossed into Missouri to liberate some slaves. In response to a plea from a Missouri slave whose family soon would be sold in an estate sale, Brown and his men split into two groups, one led by himself and the other by Aaron Stevens, and entered Missouri. They freed eleven slaves at three plantations, with Stevens killing a slaveholder in the process. Missouri’s governor demanded action, President James Buchanan offered a $250 reward for Brown’s capture, and the Kansas countryside was in a state of alarm, anticipating an invasion from Missouri. Before leaving Kansas in January 1859, Brown penned “Old Brown’s Parallels,” a defense of his Missouri raid that appeared in the New York Tribune. Brown guided the eleven liberated blacks, and a baby born along the way, more than 1,000 miles from Kansas to Detroit, where the fugitives crossed the Detroit River into Canada in March.

James Montgomery
James Montgomery

Brown went on to Ohio, giving lectures on Kansas in Cleveland and Jefferson, and then to New England to see the Secret Six and to raise money. He found Gerrit Smith, George Stearns, and Frank Sanborn firmly supportive; however, Samuel Howe’s support had cooled, Thomas Higginson’s faith in some of Brown’s advisors was shaken by the year’s delay, and Theodore Parker was dying of tuberculosis in Europe. Brown also was met with disapproval of his Missouri raid by some abolitionists from whom he had hoped to obtain funds. Still, he received enough money to arrange, in June, for completion of his order for pikes from Charles Blair. He also arranged for the transfer of weapons then stored in Ohio to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. At the end of the month, he started for Harpers Ferry.


Primary Documents:

Letter, T. W. Carter to George L. Stearns, May 29, 1857
Manuscript, "The Duty of a Soldier," by Hugh Forbes
Letter, John Brown to Frank Sanborn, October 1, 1857
Letter, John Brown to John Brown Jr., February 1858
Letter, E. B. Whitman to George L. Stearns, February 20, 1858
Journal of the Chatham Convention and Provisional Constitution
Form Letter, Chatham Convention Committee, May 1858
Letter, John Brown to Mary Ann Brown, May 12, 1858
Letter, John Brown to George L. Stearns, May 14, 1858
Letter, George L. Stearns to John Brown, May 14, 1858
Articles of Agreement for Shubel Morgan's Company (from Sanborn, Life and Letters)
Letter, John Brown to John Brown Jr., July 9, 1858
Letter, John Brown to Mary Ann Brown, July 9, 1858
Letter, John Brown to Mary Ann Brown, December 2, 1858
Old Brown's Parallels
New York Semi-Weekly Tribune Articles on John Brown and Missouri Slaves
Testimony of Charles Blair to Senate Select Committee
Testimony of Richard Realf to Senate Select Committee
Testimony of Sen. Henry Wilson to Senate Select Committee

Secondary Sources:

“John Brown: They Had a Concern,” by Jeannette Mather Lord (West Virginia History, Vol. 20)


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His Soul Goes Marching On

West Virginia Archives and History