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JOHN BROWN IN IOWA

Taken from Iowa in War Times Des Moines, Iowa, W.D. Condit & Co., 1888, Byers, S.H.M.

John Brown
John Brown

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The bells of the churches were tolling in many northern towns on the 2nd day of December, of 1859; for at Charlestown not far from Harper's Ferry, the Virginians were hanging one of the Warriors of the Lord, John Brown, the friend of the oppressed, was on that day, in the words of Emerson,"making the gallows glorious like the cross." The drama enacted that day at Charlestown, was one of the events that precipitated the mighty War of the Rebellion. Misguided or not, sympathy for John Brown and the idea he represented, was well nigh universal in the North. If slavery were an institution, the mere threatening of which, by a handful of men, could shake the whole south and drive its people to the verge of madness, it was an evil dangerous to the existence of the country. So thought reflecting men all over the world. John Brown's name became a synonym for freedom to the oppressed. In the eyes of many, his death was martyrdom. That point reached, and the south had prepared the way for the destruction of the crime on which all southern policy was built. slavery was not more dead at the close of the great Rebellion than it was the day John Brown was hung at Charlestown. From that awful hour, its existence was of form only. Not the North alone, but the world, waited to see if the South, in its terror and desperation, would wage a war to perpetuate a crime that most men felt to be already doomed. Thirty years of threatening to destroy the American government whenever it should cease to make slavery its cornerstone, had not prepared the world to believe that the south was at last in earnest. The ease with which three thousand militia could legally put to death a dozen maimed people at Charlestown, misled the South into supposing that the Northerners would not forcibly resist the unlawful spread of slavery, nor by arms preserve the government of the people.

All this, too, spite of a bitter experience they had so recently suffered in their unlawful efforts to force their accursed institution into free Kansas. John Brown had given the friends of slavery a taste of blood in Kansas that was reckoned up against him on that fatal December day at Charlestown. His career during those Kansas days, when hundreds of freedom-loving men struggled against thousands of oppressors of the weak and wronged, was watched in Iowa as from no other state. He had many friends and sympathizers here. Iowa afforded him his first real refuge place after contest. On Iowa soil were inspired and planned his most daring schemes. It was across her prairies and past her loyal towns he wandered by night and by day, carrying with him liberty for the oppressed. There he rested from struggle, and here he trained and armed the little band of followers who were to share perils and death with him in a cause deemed sacred as the Wars for the Sepulcher. Those were the days of the "under-ground railroad" in Iowa by which fugitives from slavery were helped to the land toward the North Star. The posts of this path to freedom were, to the escaping negro, "as a cloud by day, and as a pillar of fire by night," and every one of them was as familiar to John Brown as his own fireside. He was so often and so closely connected with the state that people almost forgot that he was not an Iowa man. He loved Iowa, and he believed that the sin attempted on Kansas, if successful, would inevitably be visited on Iowa as well. He went farther, and with Lincoln asserted that the country could not much longer exist if slavery were not destroyed.

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If slavery was a sin, a moral wrong, and a danger to the people, for whom the government was made, then any means, however violent, were justifiable in his eyes in order to put it down. He did not believe, either, that a few stray "squatters" had a right to determine laws and government for what might soon be the populous and might state of Kansas; the less so if those laws were the children of sin, and that government a government of fraud and oppression.

When Kansas was thrown open to settlement, the pro-slavery men of the South determined that it should be given over to slavery. The freedom loving people of the North opposed them, and then commenced a mighty war of words outside of Kansas, and of villainous deeds within. Missourians by the thousands invaded the state, mastered the ballot-box, drove off the officials, assumed the government, burned destroyed and murdered and all in the name of a slavery detested outside the South, the world over. John Brown, the gray-haired shepherd of North Elba in New York, recognized in the Kansas struggle that here was to be the first battle ground in defense of human rights, as opposed to outrage and treason. His own sons, free emigrants to Kansas, were crying to him for help to protect their firesides and their lives. The fearless man, strong in refuge of the Lord, buckled on his armor, went to Kansas, and alone, struck blows that made victory possible in the bloody years to come. Few realized that the war for the destruction of liberty on this continent had already begun. Absolute war could not have made the people of Missouri, Arkansas, and other parts of the South, greater violators of law, and right, and justice, than they became when they marched with fire and sword into liberty-loving Kansas.

Fortunately for this country, the people of Kansas were not cowards. Had they been, they would have been overcome. Human slavery would, like a ghost, have stalked into all the territories. The slave power would have had its way. The War of the Rebellion would not have been heard of, and the great crime that disgraced the Nation in the eyes of the world would have been perpetuated for forever. The Lord willed that it should not be so, and the instrument he chose for his purpose, like Saul Of Old, was found tending the flocks of the field. In all his encounters with the slave-power, and with the southern invaders of Kansas, John Brown was a hero, and his heroism saved the state to freedom, let that be written on his monument. Had he failed, Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, and the whole Northwest might have been given over to the barbarism of slavery. That would have been the logical and intended sequence of the Dred Scott decision. John Brown's heroism in Kansas made that outrageous verdict of no avail. No wonder that the people of Iowa honored his name, for his success was partly by their help and sympathy, and his victory conferred blessings on their children.

In all the central part of Iowa, there were loyaly stations of the under-ground railroad. Many were the brave and true men who, in those days, spite of abuse and calumny and loss of property, kept the beacon fires of liberty burning in the state. Men like William Penn Clark, J.B. Grinnell, Suel Foster, Jacob Butler, James Parvin, Senator J.C. Jordan, Thomas Mitchell, George W. Drake, Col. John Edwards, John Teesdale, John Todd, James McCoy, H.M. Hoxie, H.D. Vowney, Dr. Jesse Bowan, Ransom L. Harris, and scores of others, faithful to the end, labored without money and without price, serving the cause of the oppressed, feeding, clothing and giving drink to the despised, and pointing them to the North Star. They were the first names on the roll of honor of the state.

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Very many of the leading men and the Abolitionists of the state knew the hero of Ossawattamie personally. At the fireside of many he was an intimate friend. The places he most frequented were the towns of Tabor, on the Missouri river, and West Liberty and Springdale, in Cedar county, with occasional visits to Grinnell, Des Moines, and other points, where he was sure of true friends and substantial aid.Tabor was the nearest under-ground railroad post to the South, and its people were largely freedom-loving Abolitionists from Oberlin, Ohio. There were times in those days, when little Tabor presented more an appearance of war than it ever did during the great Rebellion. It was not a very uncommon thing, of an autumn evening in 1856 or 1857, to see the little public square filled with from a dozen to twenty covered wagons, a little park of artillery, and scores of armed "free state" emigrants, on their way to Kansas.

"The cannon were placed in the center," says John Todd, of Tabor, an eye-witness "with the Stars and Stripes mounted on the gun carriage. The covered wagons were arranged in a circle around the cannon - tents were pitched outside the wagons, camp fires were kindled outside the tents, outside of all, were placed the sentries. Often, on the following day, a hundred men drilled on the village common. Not infrequently we heard of men killed in the conflict in Kansas, who, but a few days before, passed through our village."

The wounded and the sick of the Kansas emigrants were sometimes brought back to Tabor. So it was that John Brown, bringing a wounded son-in-law, shot in Kansas, made his first visit to Tabor in August of 1856. He made no stay then, but hurried back to the defense of Lawrence against a horde of Missouri ruffians. It must have been an impressive sight, when old John Brown entered Lawrence, armed to the teeth, and accompanied by seven sons and sons-in-law, to help keep Kansas free from the oppressor.

In the following September, John Brown and four of his sons, on a journey eastward, rested in Tabor for several weeks. Again, in 1857, almost the entire summer was spent by Brown in Tabor, drilling his followers in the use of arms, and disciplining them for battle. He had with him Col. H. Forbes, a drill-master, and there were stored in the village quantities of sabres, muskets, cannon and ammunition. It was believed by the people there that Capt. Brown was preparing to resist another suspected invasion of Kansas by the border ruffians of Missouri.

Positive knowledge of his plans was not obtainable. "Brown was a man of few words," says one of the townspeople, "and kept his own counsels."

When John Brown, and Lane and their followers had driven the Missouri vandals back into the shadows from which they came, it was in Brown's mind but a step to follow them there and attempt to take from them the human chattels they held in a bondage bitterer than death. As long as history shall last, John Brown's efforts to free his fellow man from bondage will be remembered with thankfulness and tears. Men will no longer ask whether his methods were wisest, or even protected by laws.

Had he been successful, his name, even at that very hour, would have been linked with the name of Washington, as a benefactor of mankind. John Brown believed in God's Golden Rule. "It were better," he cried, "that every man, woman and child should pass from the earth by violent death, than that one jot of this rule should fail in this country." Such heroism of thought had never been known. "This man," cried Emerson, "is the truest hero-man I ever met." "Do you know," said Theodore Parker, "this is one of the extraordinary men of this age and nation?"

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"I will put his picture there beside that of Victor Hugo," exclaimed Secretary Seward, for he struck the boldest and highest of any man who ever breathed American air." If John Brown so impressed the intellectual giants of America, what must have been the impression made on the ordinary People by his heroism? In Kansas, the highest respected and the commonest loved him. If help was wanted, if defense against outrage, John Brown's simple camp in the woods would be hunted up and the story of distress laid before him.

One evening, about the good Christmas time of 1858, a poor stave, named "Jim" slipped over the Missouri line into Kansas, to tell John Brown how himself and some of his friends were the next day to be separated from their families and sold south. He appealed for help. The cry for deliverance was not in vain. That night, John Brown, accompanied by trusted friends, crossed the border and rescued eleven slaves from cruel task-masters. Shortly, he was traveling with them along the under-ground railroad of Iowa toward the North Star. That was his most important journey through the state. Great rewards were offered for his arrest. It was death in those days to be convicted of carrying slaves out of Missouri. James Buchanan, President of the United States, joined in offering rewards for the return of men and women to slavery and for the capture of God's minister. To the children of free America to-day, the story must seem incredible. Spies were sent on Brown's tracks, and officers bearing warrants and offers of reward. He was pursued as only assassins and murderers are pursued; so intent was the government of Missouri, and of the United States, in protecting the villainy of slavery. No wonder that when he reached his friends in little Tabor, some of them stood back and feared to offer the fugitives the hand. It was the 12th of February, 1859, that John Brown, with his fugitive slaves, and escort of a few armed whit men, entered the town of Tabor. To one of the negro fugitives a child had been born on the way, making their number twelve. This child was named John Brown. They stopped at the home of George B. Gaston, the founder of the village, till over Sunday. On that Sabbath morning, as the village preacher was commencing his services, the following note was handed to him, and he read it to the congregation. "John Brown respectfully requests the church at Tabor to serve public thanksgiving to Almighty God in behalf of himself and company, and of their rescued captives in particular, for His gracious preservation of their lives and health and his signal deliverance of all out of the hand of the wicked hither to. "Oh!" give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endureth forever."

That Sunday, the people of Tabor, anxious to know how so many slaves had been freed, set on foot an inquiry, and by close questioning learned of Brown's raid by night into the state of Missouri - that the party had divided on entering the state, had taken away the slaves, and with them certain teams of their masters for transportation; also, that the party not under Brown's command had killed the master of one of the slaves, just as he was reaching for his gun to fire upon them. The law and the propriety of all this was much questioned by the people of Tabor, and John Brown was invited to explain and justify his course at a public meeting on the morrow. In the meantime, a resident of Missouri, passing through Tabor, stopped over to attend the meeting. Brown heard of the presence of what he believed an enemy, or a slaveholder's spy, and refused to proceed with his address, unless the Missourians were compelled to withdraw. The request was refused, and with feelings of grief, Capt. Brown himself withdrew. The meeting at once passed resolutions condemning the raid into Missouri.

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The old hero retired to his quarters greatly grieved, feeling that those in whom he had a right to trust had left him - possibly, would betray him. He called for his arms, made immediate and close inspection as if preparing for a conflict, and left his old-time friends and Tabor, forever. The march through Iowa with his contrabands was difficult and full of danger. All the enemies of freedom in the state were astir, and watching for him. "John Brown and his niggers" were to be headed off, and captured, dead or alive. Those who offered food, or rest, or lodging, did so at the peril of their lives. Never in their history had the true courage of the old Abolitionists been so necessary as now. They were threatened in advance of his coming. "Feed John Brown, give him shelter, show him the way, and your roofs burning above your heads shall be the penalty." was shouted clear across the loyal state. To her shame, Iowa had men in her borders capable of doing all of this - the same men who in later and fiercer times, sought to cripple her strength, when traitors were at their country's throat.

From post to post, well armed, and sustained by courageous friends, John Brown marched his weary way across the state. The path he went evils honor's path, and history should mark its milestones in letters of gold. At Grinnell, the party of fugitives were the guests of the founder of the town, Hon. J.B. Grinnell, himself a devoted Abolitionist of the old heroic school - a man whose name has become linked with all that is noble in the state's history. Here John Brown rested, and at the fireside of his friends fought over the conflicts that have made him famous in Kansas. In an adjoining room were stacked the arms and sabres with which he had been carving a road to freedom. Hidden in the barn were the human beings who for the first time were breathing man's free heritage - free air. Even then, at that quiet fireside, there was planning in his mind the fierce conflict he proposed to enter among the mountains of Virginia. At an antique desk, still the valued souvenir of Mr. Grinnell, John Brown wrote a part of the Virginia proclamation. Sitting by that fireside, he uttered words of heroic wisdom, worthy of the prophets. A price as set upon his head, but he feared not. "It were nothing to die in a good cause," he said, "but an eternal disgrace to sit still in the presence of the barbarities of American slavery." "Providence has made me an actor; slavery, an outlaw." "An old mans should give more care to end life well than to live long." "A man dies when his time comes; and a man who fears, is born out of time." These were the words of a man whom his enemies affected to pronounce "crazy". Of such craziness has come all the heroism, all the virtue of the world.

While at Grinnell, a plan was proposed by Workman, a government official at Iowa City, for Brown's capture. One glance of the old man's fearless eye, one tick of a gun that never missed its aim, and Provost Workman and his slavery-loving squad left the way open wherever John Brown would go. By the middle of March, the contabands were over the border to Detroit, joined to hundreds of others, saved to their birth-right by the same heroic hand. Later, the old hero was in Iowa again, tarrying mostly at West Liberty, Cedar county, preparing for his attack on Harper's Ferry - and at Springdale. His life here was much as it had been at Tabor-in quiet preparation for the blow that he hoped might end slavery under a government that affected to be free. The people loved him, and the children went out of their way to see his kindly face, and be greeted by the singular stranger in their midst, whose patriarchal words and ways seemed so simple and good.

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In the rooms of the State Historical Society, at Iowa City, one sees a little brass cannon, presented by Col. Trowbridge, the efficient custodian of the place, and a personal friend of John Brown. So long as state pride shall last in Iowa, so long shall this piece of ordnance be revered as a precious souvenir of the dark days; for it is one of the cannon used by John Brown in his defense of liberty in Kansas.

When the blow at Harper's Ferry was struck, its very haste defeated its proper end. Organized help was probably ready to John Brown, when the telegraph flashed the news of his capture. Had Sufficient force joined him to have made that first blow successful, there is scarcely a doubt but a general insurrection on the part of the slaves of the South would have given them their freedom without the bloody war of which John Brown's history was but a prelude. No man in this country realized so much as John Brown that the Southerners were preparing to destroy the government. His hope was to destroy slavery first, recognizing the crime of its existence as the only possible reason for a desire for secession. He believed proper any and all means that might accomplish the end, and reckoned his own life as nothing, if only the oppressed could be free. Possibly his methods were not the best, but he believed them to be approved by Almighty God. They seemed feeble in their results at first, but there sprang from them the forces that destroyed the most shameful iniquity of the world - slavery, in a land consecrated to freedom.

Possibly John Brown was not worldly-wise in his plans, but in the shadow of the scaffold there rested in his heart that peace of God which passeth all understanding. Of his hero comrades, nearly all suffered the martyr-death that he did - death for a principle made sacred by command of God. One of them, Barclay Coppic, escaped the Virginia massacre, and came to his home in Iowa. His surrender was demanded by the arrogant Virginians, that he, too, might die. Coppic, however, was never surrendered, and the Virginians' hands were saved the blood of one more martyr.


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