In Osawatomie, grapple with the ‘endless human questions’ of abolitionist John Brown
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This eight-part series explores the Kansas African American History Trail
I drove through the east-central Kansas prairie to learn more about “Osawatomie” John Brown, as he was known to his enemies. I had to admire the courage of the abolitionists in the 1850s who uprooted their familiar lives back east and moved west to settle what became known as the Promised Land.
In the fall 1855, John Brown, the most consequential white abolitionist of his time, made this journey. He joined five of his sons in the year-old town of Osawatomie to help bring in their first year’s crops and to counterbalance the influx of pro-slavery settlers into the territory.
“He was a Calvinist who believed God gave us the ability to solve our own problems,” says Grady Atwater, curator of the John Brown Museum State Historic Site. “If you see an evil like slavery and don’t do anything about it, you are as complicit as the evildoer when Judgement Day comes.”
For a time, Brown lived in the home of the Rev. Samuel and Florella Adair, Brown’s half-sister. They, too, were abolitionists; their home was a critical stop along the Underground Railroad. The Missouri border was just 15 miles east.
The Brown Museum is a stone pergola encasing the Adairs’ original 19th century cabin. Walk in his footsteps, as the floor is the original. The cabin is cramped, with two rooms downstairs and one bedroom upstairs. Original period furniture and household artifacts illustrate the sparse life on the plains.
In the spaces in and surrounding the cabin, portraits, period photos, newspaper clips, maps, even weapons tell the story of Brown’s role in the Bleeding Kansas Border War. You can learn about his forays into Missouri to free enslaved people, his retaliation against confederate guerillas for their deadly raids in Kansas and his final act of insurrection at Harpers Ferry.
A 12-inch blade, an attachment to a 6-foot spear, grabbed my attention. Brown ordered 950 of these from a blacksmith to outfit his “soldiers” in Virginia. His grand plan was to arm escaping slaves in the state to create a “Provisional Army of the United States” strong enough to free all enslaved people in the South.
Atwater says the first question many visitors ask concerns the man’s mental state.
“There’s a common misperception of John Brown,” Atwater said. “He was not a lunatic. He was a cool head in the middle of hot-headed people.”
On Oct. 16, 1859, Brown and 21 followers took over the U.S. military arsenal in the northern Virginia town of Harpers Ferry. The group included five Black men, plus two of Brown’s sons.
After a two-day siege, 10 of his men were killed. Five escaped. Seven, including Brown, were captured, tried and executed. On Dec. 2, Brown was hanged. A few years later, Union troops were heard singing about their fallen hero: “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave … his soul’s marching on.”
“Harpers Ferry wasn’t simply a prelude to secession and the civil war. In many respects it was a dress rehearsal,” writes Tony Horowitz in his excellent history “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War.”
He leaves a legacy, Atwater says: “Brown addresses endless human questions. At what point do I stand up and act? At what point is it morally proper to use violence? That’s why he’s still relevant.”
The Museum is one stop on the Kansas African American History Trail, eight places that tell important stories of African Americans in Kansas and U.S. history.
When you visit
John Brown Museum State Historic Site is in the John Brown Memorial Park in Osawatomie. There are several weekends throughout the summer and fall observing both Brown and the Civil War history of the region. Learn about the town’s rich past at the MoPac Railroad Depot Museum and the adjacent Osawatomie History Museum. Many visitors add a ride (bicycle or horseback) along the 118- mile Flint Hills Trail. It originates in Osawatomie and is the longest trail in the state.
Frank Barthell is a former video producer at the University of Kansas. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.