Iowa History Project
Making of Iowa
Old John Brown
While Iowa was aflame with slavery agitation, and Kansas was reddened with the blood flowing in civil war between "Border Ruffians" and "Abolitionists", or "Free State Men"; while squad after squad of emigrants hastened across the Iowa prairies to Tabor, where they lay under arms waiting a favorable opportunity to slip onto the disputed grounds; while slavery supporters were using their best efforts to secure Kansas for the South, and hints were abroad that Kansas having been made a slave State, Iowa's turn would come next, there appeared in Iowa John Brown - Osawatomie Brown, he was called. To-day he is better known by the simple title, "Old John Brown."
John Brown was a familiar figure in the Kansas troubles. He had gone to Kansas - the "bleeding ground" - from New York, burning to take an active part in the struggle to establish freedom in the Territory.
Six sons had preceded him. The outrages committed against them had speedily brought the gray-haired father to the rescue. When one of the sons was murdered, another crazed, and two dragged about in chains, John Brown was filled with but a single thought. He wanted revenge. He determined to bring about the overflow of the slave power.
Brown had a log cabin near Osawatomie, Kansas. While he was absent in pursuit of a band that held his two sons as prisoners, the village was attacked by "border ruffians" and destroyed. It has been said that John Brown was insane. Surely he had cause enough.
On a fine October day in 1856 a traveler on mule back, and leading a horse, entered the little Quaker village of West Branch, Cedar County, Iowa, and halted at the tavern "Traveler's Rest". James Townsend, a worthy Quaker, was tavern keeper. He came to the door to welcome the guest.
The stranger, instead of giving his name outright, as he stiffly dismounted, said:
"Sir, have you heard of John Brown, of Kansas?"
Certainly Townsend had. All the Quakers had. Nearly everybody in the country had. The landlord in reply calmly took a piece of chalk from his waistcoat pocket, and marked a large "X" on Brown's broad-brimmed hat, on the back of his coat, on the horse and on the mule, as token that nothing was to be charged for entertainment. Then he said:
"Friend, put the animals in that stable, and walk into the house. Thee is surely welcome."
In the tavern the two men had a good, long talk. What they said is not recorded, but beyond doubt Brown told his host of affairs in Kansas, and in return received much useful information concerning the progress of anti-slavery sentiment in Iowa. The "Traveler's Rest" was famed for its buckwheat cakes and sorghum, and while eating these delicacies old Osawatomie probably found opportunity to gather important knowledge.
West Branch was near the route of the "Underground Railroad", so that James Townsend possessed accurate and fresh news regarding the course of events.
As has been told, Tabor, in Fremont County, was an important point during the Kansas contest. It also was the first "Underground Railroad" station for fugitives from Missouri. At Tabor the "Free Soilers" halted ere advancing to the scene of battle. Tabor at times looked like a town in state of siege. Wagons of the emigrants were grouped or "parked" in the public square, with the stars and stripes floating from the center. The corners were protected by cannon, while the "Free Soil" settlers, armed, patrolled the lines. The sight of large bodies of men drilling on the common heightened the effect.
All kinds of munitions of war were conveyed into Tabor, so that after crossing into Kansas the "Free State Men" should not lack for means with which to defend themselves and their property.
In August, 1857, Brown appeared at Tabor, with a communication for the Rev. John Todd. In August, 1856, the Massachusetts-Kansas State Committee had sent to Kansas two cannon, two hundred Sharp's rifles, sabers, cartridges and clothing for use by the anti-slavery settlers of that Territory. These articles had gotten as far as Tabor. There they had been stored in the Todd barn.
After leaving West Branch, John Brown visited the East, and the Massachusetts Society had willingly given him permission to take the rifles from Tabor. An order to this effect he now landed to the Rev. Mr. Todd.
Brown had a plan to lead a company of well-drilled men into Kansas against the "border ruffians", and free the Territory from the rule of slavery. While in the East he had met Hugh Forbes, a fencer and drill master, and had engaged him to instruct the recruits. Forbes came to Tabor with his employer. Brown's scheme included an insurrection of the slaves of the slave States, so that slavery people would be obliged to attend to their own affairs, and let Kansas alone.
With Brown at Tabor was his son Owen. Forbes proved to be a vain, worthless man, and returned East. Owen and his father had learned considerable from the drill master, but only a very few Tabor citizens knew of the preparations. The drilling took place in the house of Jonas Jones.
Brown enlisted a number of followers, who came from Kansas and reported to him at Tabor. Towards the las of November the party, in wagons drawn by mules, left Tabor, and after a hard trip across the prairies reached Springdale, Cedar County, the last of December.
Springdale is a Quaker settlement not far from West Branch. In 1857 it was a thriving, peaceful little place. It had been recommended to Brown during his previous stop at West Branch.
John Brown had now abandoned his Kansas invasion project. He was bent on a greater task. While on the ride from Tabor to Springdale he had discussed an invasion of Virginia itself, the hotbed of slavery. He held that an uprising of the slaves there would be successful, because of the mountainous character of the country. He also was thinking of establishing a military school at Ashtabula, Ohio, where he forces could study for their duties.
He had intended to stay at Springdale only a few days. But he found it difficult to dispose of the teams. Money was scarce. He decided to spend the winter among the Quakers of Iowa.
The Brown party numbered eleven. One in it was a negro. The company was an interesting one, and quite a boon to the village. John Henrie Kagi was a journalist and a stenographer; Aaron D. Stephens - enlisted as C. Whipple - had been in the army, and had resisted an officer who was brutally beating a soldier; Richard Realf was a poet; John Edwin Cook was not only a poet, and handsome, but was a deadly shot. All the men were brave as could be.
John Brown was housed at the residence of John H. Painter, a kind, hospitable Quaker, and one of the funders of the settlement. The rest of the band had quarters at the dwelling of William Maxon, about three miles north of the village. Maxon was not a Quaker, but it was thought best to avert suspicion, as much as possible, from the sect. The Maxon cellar, it will be remembered, was a hiding place for fugitive slaves.
John Brown and his man remained in Springdale until spring. They drilled, indulged in athletic exercises calculated to make them quick and strong, and studied tactics. Evenings they held debates, mock legislatures, and other programs of amusements and instruction. They also made calls. The eldest in the party was only thirty, the youngest was eighteen. They were engaged in a dangerous and romantic life. So it is no wonder that love sprang up between several of the visitors and the pretty Quaker maidens. Springdale people not in the secret thought their guests were preparing to return to the Kansas conflict.
With tears and heartfelt farewells the Quakers saw the Brown conspirators depart. Before going the members of the party wrote their names on the white wall of the Maxon parlor. For many years, even after the building was a deserted ruin, the writing could still be deciphered. Two new recruits, George B. Gill and Steward Taylor, of Springdale, accompanied the expedition. Edwin and Barclay Coppoc, sons of one of the oldest Quaker residents, Ann Coppoc, enlisted, but did not at this time take their leave.
Thus John Brown went away from Springdale. He postponed his descent upon Virginia, and for the present his men separated.
But again the relentless old enthusiast traversed Iowa. Again Springdale people saw him. He had been back to Kansas, and at Christmas-tide, 1858, a slave by the name of Jim slipped over the Missouri border to Brown's camp, and implored his aid. Jim said himself and some fellow slaves were about to be town from their families and sold south. They wanted to escape.
Without losing time, John Brown and his followers made a daring raid into Missouri. They met with opposition, but in spite of it rescued eleven slaves and bore them into Nebraska. In the foray, a slave owner, about to fire upon a division of the party, was shot and killed. The whole country rang with the boldness of John Brown.
Then came the flight over the "Underground Railroad" through Iowa. In February, 1859, the refugees and their escort reached Tabor. The negro members now numbered twelve, for a child had been born since the escape from Missouri. An old school house was placed at the disposal of Brown by the Tabor citizens. On Sunday Brown requested that thanks be given in church for the preservation of himself and men, and the rescue of the slaves. A public meeting was called for the next day.
John Brown had begun to speak at this meeting, when he perceived the presence of a stranger whom he suspected of being a Missouri slave owner. Old Osawatomie said he must decline to talk unless this man withdrew. The man remained and Brown left the hall.
Tabor people were not wholly in sympathy with him, this time. They had learned that he had taken slaves from owners by force, and that one slave owner had been killed. Tabor, although strongly opposed to slavery, did not approve of such a course.
Thus John Brown and his party set out again on their march eastward, feeling that they had not been well treated at the Fremont County town.
Officers of the law were now keen on the trail of Old John Brown. Rewards were offered by the State of Missouri and by the United States for his arrest. Death was to be his penalty. yet he steadily pressed on.
Following the "Underground Railroad", the company reached Grinnell, February 20. Here J. B. Grinnell furnished shelter. The slaves were concealed in the barn, while the escort sat at the Grinnell fireside. In five days all were at Springdale, with teh United States Marshal hot on the scent.
At Iowa City lived W. P. Clark. Kagi and Spencer, of the escort under Brown, donned hunting coats, and disguised as sportsmen, walked to Iowa City, and sought the services of Clark. With the assistance of Grinnell, he succeeded in procuring a freight car for use by Brown. Early in March the negros were hurried across the country to West Liberty and loaded into the car. Straw had been spread on the floor. Brown, Kagi and Stephens, heavily armed with rifles and revolvers, guarded the operation. The fugitives shivered in the raw air. The little baby, who had been named John Brown, cried loudly.
When the passenger train from the west came in, the freight car, with Brown and the negroes locked inside, was coupled on. Kagi and Stephens entered a coach. Away the slaves were whirled to liberty, for in a short time they had crossed the border at Detroit into Canada.
Once more John Brown was seen in Iowa. There are reports of a visit by him to his former haunts in Cedar County, but probably his last stay in the State was at Tabor, in September, 1859 - less than two months before the affair at Harper's Ferry. He came on Sunday to the house of Jonas Jones. In taking leave that evening, he said:
"Good-bye, Mr. Jones. I do not say where I am going, but you will hear from me. There has been enough said about bleeding Kansas. I intend to make a bloody spot at another point, and carry the war into Africa."
Before this, Edwin and Barclay Coppoc, awaiting word at Springdale, had received their summons and had gone. In July Brown had written them from the East, telling them to join him at once.
"Mother, we are going to Ohio," said Barclay.
"Ohio!" exclaimed the woman. "I believe you are going with old Brown. When you get the halters round your necks think of my words."
But the Coppocs went, despite their mother's tears and warnings. Then, in the middle of October, came the news to Springdale that a crazy old man - so the paper styled him - with twenty followers, had attacked the Government arsenal at Harper's Ferry, and had defied the troops. The story of John Brown's rash deed, of his defeat and capture, is well known in history.
Of the Iowa men who enlisted at Springdale, Taylor was shot and killed; Edwin Coppoc was captured and hanged; Gill was not present at the conflict; Barclay Coppoc escaped, and after an exciting flight over the mountain of Maryland and Pennsylvania, arrived home in Springdale December 17. He was almost starved, and so exhausted that, although the officers were closely pursuing him, he was unable to go farther until he had obtained rest and food.
Night after night the Springdale people maintained armed watch around his quarters. A signal was arranged by which the citizens could be summoned to resist any attempt to arrest him.
In January, John Painter received from a horseman, sent from Des Moines, a message signed "A Friend," saying that an official from Virginia was at the capitol after a requisition for Barclay Coppoc. The first requisition was faulty. A second was secured. The sheriff of Cedar County was commanded to apprehend the fugitive.
This the sheriff had no intention of doing. He went to Springdale, and in a loud voice inquired of everybody he met the whereabouts of Barclay.
"I want to arrest him," said the sheriff.
Of course no one told him where the man was. So the sheriff made report to Des Moines, gravely stating that evidently Barclay Coppoc was not in Cedar County.
It was high time Coppoc escaped. One night, in disguise, he made his way out of the State, and soon reached Canada. Here he was safe.
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