Resurrecting history

Quad-state region kicks off 150th commemoration of John Brown's raid in April

Quad-state region kicks off 150th commemoration of John Brown's raid in April

March 29, 2009|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE

On an overcast, drizzly day on Oct. 16, 1859, John Brown and his fully armed raiders marched into Harpers Ferry, then in Virginia, marking what some historians argue is the first step toward the American Civil War.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of John Brown's Raid, and his subsequent death by hanging on Dec. 2, 1859.

As a way to commemorate what transpired out of Brown's efforts, the Quad-State region has banded together for a sesquicentennial commemoration of John Brown's Raid, according to Todd Bolton, events committee chair of the Sesquicentennial Quad-State Committee.

"What happened in Harpers Ferry was really the turning point in American history," Bolton said.

Commemorating a controversial figure

Although Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is known for John Brown's last stop in his campaign to abolish slavery, Bolton said Brown's story encompasses more than West Virginia.

As a reflection of that, Bolton said, events throughout the year will take place in Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia. The 150th commemoration kicks off Saturday, April 18, in Harpers Ferry NHP. The event marks the arrival of Capt. John Cook, who would later be part of John Brown's Army of Liberation, to Harpers Ferry to marry Virginia Kennedy.


Events will continue throughout the year and reach a crescendo on Wednesday, Oct. 14, with the four-day academic symposium titled "John Brown Remembered," in Harpers Ferry. On Friday, Oct. 16, the Sesquicentennial Commemoration of John Brown's Raid will begin in Harpers Ferry. Events will continue until December with four more events.

A special Web site,, by the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau has a complete list of events and also educational lesson plans for teachers to incorporate Brown into the classroom.

Bolton said Brown has been a polarizing figure since he led his raid.

"For some he was a hero, for others he was a traitor," he said.

And because of that, he said, Harpers Ferry NHP and the Quad-State committee has made a point not to take a stance on Brown's politics.

A campaign of violence

Brown was an abolitionist who used violence to pursue anti-slavery goals. He led attacks on pro-slavery settlers in Kansas during the Bleeding Kansas period in the mid-1850s, a few years before the Civil War. His goal during the 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry was to capture the federal armory, which held 100,000 weapons, so he could continue his campaign against slavery. "Brown was committed to the elimination of slavery," said Dennis Frye, chief historian at Harpers Ferry NHP and chair of the John Brown Sesquicentennial Quad-State Committee.

Eighteen people died as a result of Brown's raid in Harpers Ferry, including two of the three sons who were part of the raid. He was captured by U.S. Marines led by Robert E. Lee, who would later become a general for the Confederate States of America. After his capture, Brown was convicted of treason and later hanged in Charles Town, W.Va.

Less than two years later, on April 12, 1861, the first shots were fired in the Civil War. "Brown's story is an important component of American history and the subsequent American Civil War," Bolton said.

Frye said this commemoration will be very different from the 1959 commemoration. "Fifty years ago, John Brown was hardly mentioned," he said.

As part of this year's events, Frye will be part of a group of men who will reenact Brown's march to Harpers Ferry. Frye will shed his park-ranger gear for a Rangers uniform and walk on Harpers Ferry road, retracing Brown's footsteps of 150 years ago.

"It's a very solemn, very respectful, living-history experience," he said.

Freedom and civil rights

John Brown's Raid was more than just a strike for the freedom of slaves, said George Rutherford, president of the Jefferson County NAACP.

Without Brown's raid, Rutherford said, there would have been no Niagara Movement in 1905 in Harpers Ferry. The Niagara Movement eventually led to the formation of the NAACP in 1909.

Rutherford said many people today don't know about Brown's history.

"Some people don't realize he was a white man," he said.

The Jefferson County NAACP is just one group that has become involved in planning events in conjunction with the commemoration. A special Descendants Reception will be on Friday, Aug. 14, a precursor to the annual African American Cultural Heritage Festival in Charles Town, W.Va., on Saturday, Aug. 15. The reception, hosted by the NAACP, will recognize descendants of those involved in events surrounding John Brown's Raid.

"It won't just be descendants of John Brown and his raiders," Rutherford said, "there will be family from those who served on John Brown's jury and Capt. (John A.) Washington's family."

Washington, a descendent of President George Washington, was taken prisoner by Brown before the raid.

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