John Brown was born May 9, 1800 in Torrington, Connecticut, into a family that traced its roots back to the Puritans of the 1600s. The extended family was strongly opposed to slavery. John’s parents moved to Ohio, just two years after it became a state, when John was five.
The winter he was 12, Brown was trusted by his father to drive a herd of cattle north from Ohio to the Michigan Territory to provision U.S. troops sent there in the war of 1812. One winter night he stopped at the cabin of an old slaveholder who praised his maturity and courage and helped feed the herd. The old man kept a slave boy, about Brown’s age. For some reason he flew into a rage and began beating the boy with the iron fireplace tools. Brown was utterly appalled at the switch from kindness to sadistic cruelty and remembered the event painfully for the rest of his life.
At 16, wanting to become an evangelical Congregational minister, he enrolled in the Morris Academy but the family could not afford for him to finish. He returned to Ohio where he became a successful tanner. He married Dianthe Lusk in 1820 and the first of his 20 children was born the next year.
Like many ambitious young frontier men he pursued a wide variety of business enterprises. After initial success, he fell sick in 1831 and subsequently sank deep into debt. Moreover, two of his sons died, followed by the death of his wife Dianthe, who had borne seven children.
Later in this same year, on August 21, the slave Nat Turner led a rebellion of slaves and free blacks in Southampton County, Virginia. His rebels went from plantation to plantation, gathering horses and guns, and freeing the slaves who would join them. Turner was arrested and executed but not before he had planted in John Brown’s mind the idea of leading a slave revolt.
In 1833 he married Mary Ann Lusk who bore him thirteen children, six of whom survived into adulthood. His child-rearing methods were highly unusual for the time, insisting that boys must be able to do “women’s work” and vice-versa. He did punish his children with a cowhide belt when they committed a sin, but then gave them the belt and insisted that they whip him with equal intensity. Brown was also a vocal advocate for women’s rights and became friends with the likes of Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Abby Kelley Foster.
On November 7, 1837, Elijah P. Lovejoy, a Presbyterian abolitionist minister and journalist, was murdered by a pro-slavery mob in Alton, Illinois. Brown was deeply outraged and publicly swore an oath: “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!”
In 1846, Brown moved his business to the ideologically progressive city of Springfield, Massachusetts, whose population was deeply committed to the anti-slavery movement. It was in Springfield that Brown met Frederick Douglass in 1847.
Illustration by Zoe McDonnell.