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.

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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.

 

 

East Cemetery: The Grave of Jeph Africa

Rev. Judah Champion (Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society)

Rev. Judah Champion (Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society)

Judah Champion was minister of Litchfield’s Congregational Church from 1753 to 1798. This was a prominent position, one that came with a commensurate salary. For Champion, moving to Litchfield came with a 2,000 pound bonus, an 800 pound salary, and 20 acres of land. Alain White, in his history of Litchfield, describes how only the most prominent of Litchfield were in a financial position to own slaves. This clearly included Champion who owned several slaves, including Samson, Kate, and Jeph.

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Jeph’s grave in the East Cemetery indicates he was a Revolutionary War veteran, but his name does not appear in the Roll of Honor of Litchfield County Revolutionary Soldiers. Jeph’s grave is interesting at several levels. It is an impressive stone, inscribed “Here lies the body of Jeph Africa servant of the Rev. Judah Champion, who died June the 5th 1793.” The text as well as the magnitude of the headstone suggest that it was paid for by the Champion family.

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Also interesting is the carving at the top of the stone. The modern explorer might associate it with a pinwheel, but pinwheels didn’t appear until the next century. The whirligig was a medieval predecessor of the pinwheel, but it seems unlikely that a toy would be carved on to an 18th century gravestone. Is it perhaps a representation of the rising sun, which carries both religious connotation and harkens to the continent of Africa? Or could it be a wheel, representative of divine power, prominently featured in Ezekiel 1: “Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne

The grave is also notable as the inspiration for an 1838 writing of Nathaniel Hawthorne. In his American Notebooks, the author shared his observations of Litchfield, which include his reflections on Africa’s grave (although he incorrectly cites it as the grave of Julia Africa):

“In Connecticut, and also sometimes in Berkshire, the villages
are situated on the most elevated ground that can be found, so that
they are visible for miles around. Litchfield is a remarkable instance,
occupying a high plain, without the least shelter from the winds,
and with almost as wide an expanse of view as from a mountain-
top. The streets are very wide, two or three hundred feet, at
least, with wide, green margins, and sometimes there is a wide
green space between the two road tracks. Nothing can be neater
than the churches and houses. The graveyard is on the slope, and at
the foot of a swell, filled with old and new gravestones, some of
red freestone, some of grey granite, most of them of white marble,
and one of cast-iron with an inscription of raised letters. There
was one of the date of about 1776, on which was represented the
third-length, bas-relief portrait of a gentleman in a wig and other
costume of that day; and as a framework about this portrait was
wreathed a garland of vine-leaves and heavy clusters of grapes.
The deceased should have been a jolly bottleman; but the epitaph
indicated nothing of the kind.

“In a remote part of the graveyard, remote from the main body
of dead people, I noticed a humble, mossy stone, on which I traced
out ‘To the memory of Julia Africa, servant of Rev.’ somebody.
There were also the half obliterated traces of other graves, without
any monuments, in the vicinity of this one. Doubtless the slaves
here mingled their dark clay with the earth.” 

Hidden Nearby: New Milford’s Underground Railroad Monument

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Two leading figures of the abolitionist movement, John Brown and Harriet Beecher Stowe, were natives of Litchfield County. As such, they would likely have been pleased by the county’s role in the Underground Railroad.  While much of the history of this secret route by which fugitive slaves were ushered to Canada is clouded in myth and legend, there is substantial documentation for a route that passed from the coast to Waterbury, then to New Milford, Washington, Torrington, Winchester and Winsted before crossing into Massachusetts.

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New Milford’s Quaker Meetinghouse, at 300 Danbury Road (Rt. 7).

Quakers took the lead in operations in New Milford, and the Old Friends’ Meetinghouse, which still stands on Route 7 south of town, was a prominent center of activity. Two Centuries of New Milford, an early 20th century history, documented the role of other locations in town in the Underground Railroad:

In the later days of slavery in the South there were several stations of the Underground      Railroad in this vicinity. Mr. Charles Sabin’s house in Lanesville was one, and the                house of Mr. Augustine Thayer on Grove Street in this village was another. Mr. Thayer      and his good wife devoted their lives to the Abolition cause. They helped many poor            slaves on their way, rising from their beds in the night to feed and minister to them, and      secreting them till they could be taken under cover of darkness to Deacon Gerardus          Roberts’ house on Second Hill, from there to Mr. Daniel Platt’s in Washington, and so        on, by short stages, all the way until the Canadian border was reached.

A second prominent stop in Washington was at the home of Frederick Gunn, who established the Gunnery School in 1849.

As fugitive slaves reached Torrington, they likely sought refuge at the home of Isaiah Tuttle and his son, Uriel, who lived in the Torringford section of town. Uriel was president of the Litchfield County and the Connecticut Anti-Slavery Societies. Of his anti-slavery activities, Deacon Thomas Miller wrote, “His efforts and undying zeal in the cause of emancipation are too well known to the public in this state to need a delineation… His house was literally a place of refuge for the panting fugitive, and his purse and team were often employed to help him forward to a place of safety.”

Isaiah Tuttle House, on Torringford Street, Torrington. Courtesy of Connecticut Freedom Trail

Isaiah Tuttle House, on Torringford Street, Torrington. Courtesy of Connecticut Freedom Trail

Other reported stops on the Underground Railroad include the home of Joshua Bird, a deacon at the Bethlehem Congregational Church who lived on the town Green. Henry Terry, grandson of the clockmaker, lived on North Street in Plymouth. An ardent abolitionist, he allegedly had tunnels running from his cellar to an outbuilding to whisk slaves to safety. The presence of tunnels like these fed Southern fears about Northern complicity in helping slaves escape, and the belief that the election of Lincoln in 1860 would lead to legalization of the Underground Railroad were major factors in the decision of southern states to secede from the Union in the winter of 1860-61. Interestingly, when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued almost two years into the war, the number of fugitive slaves making their way to the north dropped precipitously, as they only needed to reach Union lines, not Canada, to achieve freedom.

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Looking to commemorate her town’s role in the Underground Railroad, New Milford resident Frances Smith conceived the idea of a monument at the head of the town green, in the shadow of the Civil War monument. Sculptor Ray Crawford provided the design, which depicts a broken chain, symbolizing the end of slavery. The monument was dedicated on November 17, 2013.