An 1860 Letter From John Brown, Jr.

A while back, I was fortunate enough to acquire this letter written by John Brown, Jr., the oldest son of the abolitionist John Brown, just a few months after his father’s ill-fated raid on Harpers Ferry and his subsequent execution. John writes from his Ohio home to his family in North Elba, New York: his married sister, Ruth Brown Thompson; his stepmother, Mary; his half-sisters, Annie, Sarah, and Ellen; his half-brother Salmon Brown; and his widowed sister-in-law Isabel “Bell” Brown. Presumably he anticipated that the letter would be handed around freely; hence the “cousins.”

John Jr. had not been to Harpers Ferry, but had hidden and shipped weapons for his father. After the raid, he refused to testify before a congressional committee investigating the incident.

In his letter, John Jr. refers to the death of Martha, the widow of his half-brother Oliver. Martha, whose husband was killed during the raid, died just weeks after giving birth to a short-lived girl. Watson Brown, another half-brother, also perished during the raid. His widow, Bell, had given birth to Watson’s son, Freddy, not long before the raid. (Sadly, Freddy would die as a toddler.)

“Mr. Redpath” was journalist James Redpath, who was writing a biography of John Brown. Barclay Coppoc and Owen Brown (John Jr.’s younger brother) had been among John Brown’s men but had not gone to Harpers Ferry, having been left behind in Maryland to guard a stash of weapons. Realizing that their cause was lost, they escaped into the hills. Barclay Coppoc, whose brother was executed for his role in the raid, later joined the Union Army. He died in a train accident that may have been the result of Confederate sabotage. Jeremiah was Jeremiah Brown, a younger half-brother of the elder John Brown. One of the few prosperous members of the Brown family, Jeremiah was living in Hudson, Ohio.

Annie and Sarah, John Jr.’s half-sisters, attended Franklin Sanborn’s school in Concord, Massachusetts, although Annie, traumatized by recent events, stayed for only a short time before coming back to North Elba. She returned the following year, however. John Jr. and Wealthy’s son Johnny had broken his leg the year before.

The rumored move to Worcester that John Jr. feared never took place, nor did he and his wife and son, Wealthy and Johnny, move to North Elba. Instead, John Jr. and his family settled in Put-in-Bay, Ohio. The others moved at various times to  California. All remained there except for Salmon Brown, who later moved to Portland, Oregon, and Jason Brown, who returned in his old age to Ohio.

In his letter, John quotes from William Cowper’s 1785 poem “The Task.”

Photo from my collection

Dorset Ashtabula Co. O[hio]

March 26th 1860

Dear Sister Ruth Mother Brothers Sisters and Cousins

I have yours informing me of the death of  our dear Sister Martha. My heart bleeds again, though my Faith assures me that she is now in that better land, where she finds “rest” on the bosom of love. You say she was something of a believer in Spiritualism. The name of “Spiritualist” conveys an idea so indefinite that almost every one gets a different idea from it. If to believe that Death is but a stepping stone to a higher mode of existence that we take with us into that state of being all that we now are, except the grosser material form—that, after death the disembodied are yet near to earth and earthly friends interested in them in proportion to the strength of their love, and often communicating their thoughts and emotions, especially through silent impression—that in that state of being the spirits of the departed are subject to the laws of progression and retrogression as here; I say if to believe this is to be “a spiritualist” then I am one. If to believe all that comes to us is labeled “from spirits,” then I am not  one.

You will see by the paper I sent you that Mr. Redpath, Barclay Coppoc, and Owen are with me. The two latter are now absent from here for a few days but will soon return.

The negative of Oliver’s Photograph was accidentally broken so we shall now have to depend on a copy. Jeremiah took the one I have of Oliver to Cleveland and had copies taken which are very good though much darker than the original picture. If I can procure one I will send to you.

I am very glad that Annie and Sarah are at Mr. Sanborn’s school. Have sent Annie a paper also; will write her soon. I should write much oftener if it were not for the constant stream of company we have and so much besides to do.

Mr. Redpath said there has been some talk of our folks moving from North Elba and establishing some where in the vicinity of Worcester Mass. I do hope not. From the necessities of the case the family would be forced into a class of society which in a pecuniary respect at least they could not stand with as equals. The desire to be equal so far as externals go would be “irrepressible” and would insensibly lead into an extra expense of living which would not be counter-balanced by the advantages which some may fancy would be gained by such change of location. Our family were not made to shine in the drawing-rooms of wealth and distinction—the wild and rugged “Adirondacks” with their pure air, clear streams and placid lakes constitute our most natural surroundings. It is so for me and mine at least.

Every day serves to strengthen my determination to make my home among those granite peaks as soon as possible. I sigh “for a lodge in some vast wilderness; some boundless contiguity of shade.”

I am very anxious to obtain a picture of Watson, where can I? Dear Sister Bell, I want to see you and your little son and all of you, so much more than I can say. But I must wait ‘till I’m better able to meet the expense of the journey to see you.

Johnnie is now able to walk quite well again, though he still favors that leg some yet. –Wealthy will write as soon as she can take a spare moment. Our comers and goers keep her too busy.

My warmest love to all, and believe me always

Your affectionate son and brother

John Brown Jr.

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