Hidden Nearby: John Brown’s Pikes

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John Brown

Few natives of Litchfield County are as closely associated with the Civil War as John Brown. Born in Torrington in 1800, Brown became achieved national notoriety for his actions during the Bloody Kansas crisis of the mid-1850s. This precursor to the Civil War pitted abolitionists and pro-slavery advocates against each other in a violent struggle to determine whether that territory would be admitted to the Union as a free or slave state. In the course of the conflict, Brown and his sons massacred five pro-slavery residents of Pottawattamie in 1856, and he commanded abolitionist forces at the battles of Black Jack and Osawatomie.

The Collinsville train station in an old postcard. The station is now the Crown & Hammer Restaurant & Pub, the crown and hammer being the symbols of the Collins Axe Company. (Photo courtesy of Jason Phillips)

In 1857, Brown used his new-found fame to launch a speaking tour of New England states, raising money to fund his abolitionist crusade in Kansas. While speaking in Collinsville, Connecticut, in 1857 Brown met Charles Blair, a forgemaster at that town’s Collins and Company, a manufacturer of iron products. Brown showed Blair a Bowie knife captured from a pro-slavery leader at the Battle of Black Jack, and asked what it would cost to replicate the knife, produce 1,000, and attach them to six-foot poles. Brown explained that the weapon would allow anti-slavery Kansas to protect themselves and their property from their pro-slavery neighbors. Brown, however, had another purpose. Well acquainted with military history, Brown knew that pikes were the weapon that was associated with the overthrow of the aristocracy. Could 1,000 pikes in the hands of anti-slavery forces in Kansas end the aristocracy of the slaveholding South?

Part of the Collins and Company complex, along the Farmington River Rail Trail in Collinsville

Blair was skeptical of Brown and his potential uses of the pikes and threw out what he thought was an astronomical number: a dollar a pike. Brown didn’t blink and ordered them on the spot. He would pay in installments. Brown made but two requests, that added to his intrigue: use the handles of common hoes for the pikes, and ship the handles separately from the blades.

This all seemed for naught when the Panic of 1857 hit and Brown’s fundraising tour dried up. Blair, who had made approximately 500 of the pikes, stopped production, fully expecting to never hear from Brown again.

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Gerrit Smith, one of the Secret Six. Charles Blair would later testify that some of the money Brown used to pay for the pikes came from a check from Smith.

Brown, however, was nothing if not determined. He turned to private sources of funding:  his famed “Secret Six,” the wealthy abolitionists Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Samuel Gridley Howe, Theodore Parker, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, Gerrit Smith, and George Luther Stearns. Flush with cash from his wealthy benefactors, Brown, in 1859, unexpectedly appeared in Blair’s shop to pay for the pikes. Blair’s level of suspicion was increased, however, as the Kansas crisis had been settled. What would the pikes be used for, he queried Brown. Brown dodged the question by simply replying that the pikes might be useful to him if they were finished. He further added to the mystery by asking for the pikes to be shipped to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Blair carried out the order, crafting 954 pikes, each approximately 10 inches long with a double-edged blade, connected to an ash handle by a single screw.

John Brown pike

John Brown’s Pike #630, courtesy of Kansas Historical Society

From Chambersburg, friends of Brown secretly forwarded the pikes to the Kennedy Farm in rural Maryland, outside Harpers Ferry, Virginia (today West Virginia), site of a large government arsenal and armory. They would be central to Brown’s plan to raid that town as the first step in instigating a nationwide slave revolt. “Give a slave a pike,” Brown said, “and you make him a man.” Brown entrusted former slave Osborne Anderson with the task of distributing the pikes to those slaves who joined the revolt. When, on October 17, 1859, Brown and his supporters raided Harpers Ferry, between 25 and 50 slaves joined them. The pikes were used to guard hostages, in some cases, the masters of the revolting slaves.

The raid, of course, was doomed to failure, and Brown and his men were surrounded the next morning by United States Marines led by Colonel Robert E. Lee. With the uprising put down and Brown in captivity, Lee assigned cavalryman J.E.B. Stuart, another future prominent Confederate general the task of rounding up Brown’s materiel. At the Kennedy House, Stuart found maps, supplies, and hundreds of pikes, enough to equip a small army. A large group of souvenir hunters quickly appeared, and Stuart allowed each to take fifty pikes. These became hot items, some were cut into smaller pieces to serve as relics, and full pikes were sold at the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad station in Harpers Ferry.

 Charles Blair

Ultimately, the pikes became prized relics of both pro- and anti-slavery leaders. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison considered one of the pikes to be one of his prized possessions. Ardent secessionist Edmund Ruffin sent a pike to each governor of a slave state to be displayed in their capitol building, a constant reminder of the threat to slavery posed by the North. And what of Blair, the Collinsville ironmaster who, perhaps, unwittingly had made it possible for Brown to arm an army of slaves? He was called before a committee of the United States Senate in 1860 to testify about what he knew about Brown’s plans, then returned to Collinsville, where he lived until his death in 1893.

For an excellent discussion of John Brown’s pikes, see this lecture by Professor Jason Phillips of West Virginia University.

 

 

Hidden Nearby: John Brown’s Torrington Birthplace

These ruins are all that remain of the birthplace of one of the transformative figures in American history, John Brown.  The house was built in 1785 and was purchased by Brown’s father, Owen Brown, in 1799.

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John Brown in 1856

John Brown was named for his grandfather, who died when Owen Brown – one of eleven children – was five.  With the family in dire financial straits, Owen was sent to live with various relatives and friends; ultimately, Owen Brown was sent to work at a young age.  He was trained as a cobbler and worked farming local fields in the summer and making shoes over the winter.

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John Brown’s birthplace, in a colorized postcard.

As a teenager he met and married Ruth Mills.  Their first child died before turning two.  They soon after moved to this saltbox-style home in the rocky countryside of Litchfield County.  Here, on May 9th, 1800, John Brown was born.   Of the child’s birth, Owen wrote that there was “nothing very uncommon.”

It doesn’t require too much imagination to speculate that Brown received his military spirit from his namesake grandfather, a Revolutionary War officer.  His religious fervor was likely acquired from his maternal grandfather, a preacher.  The combination of these inherited traits would set Brown on the path to his raid on Harper’s Ferry.

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Connecticut’s Western Reserve

 The Browns left the rocky soil of Connecticut for the more fertile fields of Ohio when John was five.  The Browns were joined in this migration to Ohio by thousands of other families.  Known as Connecticut’s Western Reserve – or even New Connecticut – much of the land of Northeastern Ohio was owned by the Connecticut Land Company.  So many Connecticut residents moved to Ohio that the Hartford Courant published an article wondering who would care for the cemeteries of Litchfield County when all the residents had left.  The Browns would have been familiar with the names of many of the places in their new home state – nearby were Litchfield and Kent, Ohio.  The Browns settled in the small community of Hudson.

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The James Morris School, site of the Morris Academy. Sounds like a future post!

Even with the move, success continued to elude the Browns.  Owen opened a tannery in Ohio, which prospered for a time.  He thrived enough to send Brown back to Connecticut to be educated – at the Morris Academy, in Litchfield.  He hoped to be a Congregational minister, but money ran out and he returned to Ohio and the family tannery.  Here he developed his abolitionist ideals.

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“John Brown’s Fort” in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia

 John Brown would move often in his life, and often struggled financially.  By the 1850s, his abolitionist ideals became militant and he gained notoriety for his actions in “Bleeding Kansas.”  On October 16, 1859, Brown led 18 men in an attack on the federal arsenal and armory in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (today West Virginia).  In Brown’s mind, this was the opening action of a campaign to free the nation’s slaves and create an independent slave republic.  Two days later, U.S. Marines under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee stormed the town’s engine house, which Brown had commandeered as a fort.  Most of Brown’s men were killed or captured.  Brown was wounded in the assault, captured, tried for treason and convicted.  On December 2, 1859, Brown was executed in Charles Town, Virginia (today West Virginia).

His birthplace, meanwhile, was restored in 1901 and opened as a historic house museum, one of the first in Connecticut.  In 1918, however, the house was destroyed by fire.  Still, the forest has been kept from swallowing up the ruins, and in 1932 a granite monument was erected.  In 1997 the site became a part of the Connecticut African American Freedom Trail, and in 2000 the site was acquired by the Torrington Historical Society.

Plans are in the works to improve the visitor experience at the site and to construct interpretive trails on the property.  While these seem to be appropriate actions to commemorate the birthplace of the man whom Herman Melville called the “meteor” of the Civil War, it is certainly a challenge to present the story of a man whom some consider a martyr for a great moral crusade and others a terrorist.