A couple of years ago, I acquired these two letters written by John Brown, Jr., to Franklin Sanborn in 1885 and 1895. John, Jr., was the oldest son of the abolitionist John Brown, and Sanborn had been one of the senior Brown’s backers known as “The Secret Committee of Six.” Sanborn later published a biography of John Brown, along with a number of articles, and the 1885 letter references some publisher’s proofs he sent to John Jr. for his input.
Born in Hudson, Ohio, in 1821, John Jr. worked variously as a schoolteacher, as a phrenological lecturer, as his father’s assistant in the wool business, and as a farmer before he went to the territory of Kansas in 1855. An outspoken abolitionist who was elected to the territory’s Free-State legislature (not recognized by the federal government), he did not participate in his father’s 1856 “Pottawatomie massacre,” where five pro-slavery settlers were murdered, but he was arrested nonetheless. Already in the throes of a mental breakdown at the time of his arrest, he was maltreated and for a while lost touch with reality altogether. He spent much of the summer and early fall of 1856 in prison, where he regained his sanity. After being released on bail, he returned to Ohio. Although he helped store and ship weapons, raise funds, and recruit men for his father’s famous Harpers Ferry raid, he did not go to Virginia himself and thus was spared his father’s fate.
After the Civil War broke out, John Jr. helped recruit troops and served as a captain with the Company K of the Kansas Seventh. He developed crippling rheumatism, however, and left the service in 1862. He, his wife, Wealthy, and their son, Johnny, moved to Put-in-Bay, Ohio, from where these two letters were written, and grew grapes. A daughter, Edith, was born after the war. John Jr. spent the rest of his life in Put-in-Bay. By 1893, he was suffering from heart trouble, which was still plaguing him when he wrote to Sanborn in January 1895. On May 2, 1895, just a few months after the second letter was written, John Jr. suffered a fatal heart attack.
Put-in Bay, O, Feby 16, 1885
My Dear Friend
The last mail (Saturday evening) brought me the first twelve pages of the “proof.” The wrapper appeared to fit so loosely that I fear some portion of what you did send is lost. I have read it carefully and added a “note” as you will see. Yesterday I took it over to Gibraltar and read it to Owen [John’s younger brother, who served as a caretaker at the estate of the wealthy financier Jay Cooke]. We are all much pleased with the beginning, and that you have included in this the little autobiography of our old dear Grandfather [Owen Brown, Sr., the elder John Brown’s father] as written by himself. I notice in the proof, absence of any mention in that memoir of the birth of my Uncle, Oliver O. Brown (Lemuel’s father). Was this overlooked in copying, or did it fail to appear in Grandfather’s manuscript? Don’t know if this omission can now be supplied. I wrote to Aunt Marion Hand in regard to this, last evening.
A few days since I wrote her sending the first, second and fourth of the six questions you sent to me and by last mail I received in reply the following, dated at Wooster, Ohio, the 12th.
“Your letter of the 9th received, and I hasten to reply. As it regards my Father’s letters to your Father, and replies, I think they are scattered among the different families. I do not remember to have seen one of your Grandfather’s letters to your Father. Sometime after Father’s decease when Mother was about to leave the old home, and had found places for articles of furniture that she did not wish to take, Jeremiah [a half-brother of the senior John Brown] did take the desk which must have had most of the papers that Father had retained. The first time I was at his house after this, he said to me that Father’s death was there, and we looked it over together, I taking some of your Father’s and two or three of Brother Salmon’s letters, some of which you have. Where there have been so many changes as in our family within the last thirty years, it would be difficult to find correspondence unless it was special: still there must be in that old desk (if fire has not eaten it up) some of what you seek. I will write to Lucy [here John Jr. adds a footnote to Sanborn explaining, “i.e., Jeremiah’s daughter at Hudson, O”] to day asking her to send you what she can find. I do not know whether I sent you or Ruth [John Jr.’s sister] all I had, but will ascertain, as it will be in Wellington if I have any left. As to your Father’s going as Surveyor to Virginia, Rev. John Keep of Oberlin was one of the oldest Trustees of Oberlin at the time, and his son, Rev. Theodore Keep now living in Oberlin, I think could probably tell more than any other person now living, of what there was in connection with that gift of land to the College. [John Brown had been engaged by Oberlin College to survey some land it held in what is now West Virginia.]
“Brother Salmon was editor of the New Orleans Bee, a large paper, one half in French, one half in English. I remember it well, but do not think a copy could be found short of New Orleans. It would date back to 1829, 30, 31, 32 and 33: 1833 the year of his death. I do not remember the street or locality in which it was published. Perhaps you may have friends going to the Exposition that would take the trouble to enquire and perhaps find the paper still published.”
I send you the only letters I have of Uncle Salmon. When read, please return them to me.
By Wednesday’s mail I will send you what I have written in reply to your questions.
Yours–John Brown, Jr.
Put-in-Bay Ohio Jan. 28, 1895
Yours of the 24th inst. did not arrive until today owing to severe storm rendering it impossible to cross with small boat from Catawba Island until this morning. Our last mail before to day, reached here on Thursday the 24th.
The Steamer American Eagle laid up here on the 5th of this month. Since then we have had no steamboat crossing and in consequence the mails have been extremely irregular, and crossing by passengers with small boat iron clad with runners attached for service either in open water or on ice strong enough has been not only difficult but dangerous. Have reckoned much on you visiting us, and greatly regret that I cannot send you a more favorable report of our situation as to travel. Should the weather remain cold for a few days so that the ice on the channels could become thick and strong enough to resist high wind and waves I should feel like urging you to secure a new experience, that of crossing one of the channels of Lake Erie with horse and sleigh. As it is I cannot ask you to take the extra risks and incur extra expense, but hope for a visit at a more favorable time. The Eagle is not likely to be brought out before the opening of navigation in the spring.
My family are enjoying pretty good health this winter except myself and even in my case the very painful attacks of neuralgia of the heart are not quite so frequent, but I am greatly troubled with shortness of breath, a rather new phase of the old difficulty perhaps.
Should you meet Mrs. Stearns, please say to her that her very precious letter was duly received and I hope to send her a word in reply soon.
With sincere regards to you all and hoping to yet receive a visit from yourself and Mrs. Sanborn I am ever
Faithfully your friend,
John Brown, Jr.
To: F. B. Sanborn Esqr.
C B & 2 R.Rd.