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Please Don't Quote Me

By Caralee Aschenbrenner

Harper’s Ferry, Virginia was as good a place as most when it came to building a federal armory/arsenal in those early days of limited communication. Communication by wheels or the written word, a period when there was no telegraph lines nor unrutted roads to carry the heavy equipment and finished armaments and so forth from the village to the “outside world.”


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Harper’s Ferry, always small in numbers, has had, however, many important events occur there, an inordinate number compared to its size that were connected immediately to future history-changing, even landmark events. Scanning the internet or your comprehensive American history book will give you a better idea than these few brief lines.

Robert Harper had first settled at the confluence of two formidable rivers in 1747, the Potomac and the Shenandoah. It was the water power that drew him there in order to build a grist mill and to start a ferry business.

Then, in 1794 President George Washington named it as a site for a federal armory/arsenal, the rivers being transportation for the input/output of such manufactories. It was not only the water power but the remote site in the thickly forested wilderness far from the coastline where an enemy would roam by ship or foot. Its character was set for the next six, seven, eight decades. An iron foundry, machine shop, sawmill and other factories went up plus the Hall Rifle Works whose innovative engineers had the idea for interchangeable gun parts. And so the Industrial Revolution began.


Harper’s became a hub of industry in the seemingly endless wilderness where residents kept to themselves, for themselves, amid the mountains and rugged hills.

During the Civil War the village was controlled by both Yankee and Confederate troops, it changing hands eight times. Occupation caused more destruction than any battle could have done. Houses being torn down for firewood or to keep factories out of enemy hands.


In 1867 Storer College was founded, one of the first integrated schools opened to educate former slaves. There in 1906 a series of meetings were held as a place for black leaders to discuss issues. It was a forerunner of the NAACP.

Harper’s Ferry is also the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the 2,180 mile long path that parallels the Atlantic coast, though at a distance! It is a challenge for many even if done in stages. The village is also the center of the 3,000 plus acreage that is the Harper’s Ferry National Park that has many attractions, man-made and natural. The streets of the “Ferry” are lined with hikers, bikers, canoeists, tubing people plus history buffs, architectural and archeological buffs, fishermen and seeker/travelers who enjoy the aura of such culture and quaintness.


rom falling into Rebel hands, enough remained that the CSK could move it to the South and put it to use again. It was an exciting occupation, either side.

At that same time Virginia had seceded from the Union, a terrible time for our nation. By 1863 Harper’s Ferry annexed itself to the newly formed state of West Virginia where it remains today. It is another chapter in the intersecting story of the little village that has never been more than a few hundred in number.


Due to its waterside location and the benefits of the waterpower it has also suffered more than a dozen devastating floods but has endured and rebuilt. Water has been its life’s blood, so to speak. It has made its history as well as the terrible events visited upon it by John Brown, the religious zealot.

Born in 1805, John Brown, from a large family of sixteen children, planned to study for the Congregational ministry but when he reached eighteen a wandering foot took hold and he set off to many parts and served in several basic trades to make a living. At twenty he married the first time and had seven children. With the second wife there were thirteen, some of who followed him into the zealotry for which he became noted. They were devout anti-slavery.


In 1849 he and family settled in a Negro village in North Elba, New York. It was on land donated by a well-to-do Bostonian, Gerritt Smith, who was a strong Abolitionist. He would figure in Brown’s crusades in the future.

The nation was diversely unsettled everywhere. A massacre had occurred in Kansas against the anti-slavery people (Kansas was undergoing free soilers v. pro-slavery).

Brown seeking vengeance with a few followers including a couple sons and joining five sons who had already gone before, went to a pro-slavery settlement and pulled five men from their homes and hacked them to death. The question had arisen, was he a murderer or a hero?

We next find Brown and his “crusaders” in Canada where he announced that he would set up a “government” in the mountains of Virginia and nearby, where escaped slaves could come and be defended and assisted away by a slave route. But they’d need guns with which to defend them, wouldn’t they! The Kansas murders had occurred in 1856. By now it was 1858 and plans were being plotted to find enough armaments, ammunition, etc. for the upcoming “rendezvous” of escaped slaves and others willing to help.

By the summer of 1859 John Brown and about a dozen and a half followers rented a farmhouse near Harper’s Ferry, scouting the site. They were described as “armed and disciplined;” sixteen whites, five former slaves.

Gerritt Smith, the Boston philanthropist, had gathered other anti-slavery-ites to support the campaign of John Brown so there was no lack of money for the upcoming event.

On the night of October 16, 1859 Brown attacked the arsenal. Local militia had no effect at the stand-off ... A day passed, another night and then a squad of U.S. Marines were called in, under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee, made short work of the raiders. Ten of them had been killed including two of Brown’s sons. Brown himself was seriously wounded. Escapees were captured and very shortly executed.

John Brown was jailed at nearby Charles Town where in court he was found guilty of murder, slave insurrection and treason against the Commonwealth (Virginia).

He had been described as a “monomaniac.” And at the trial it was brought out that many of his ancestors and relatives were “emotionally disturbed.” Brown himself was labeled as “mentally ill.”

He, however, refused to plead insanity. In a speech before the court he, in part, stated that, “I believe that I have interfered as a I have done and admitted I have done on behalf of His despised poor; it was not wrong but right.”

He was convicted on strong evidence of past deeds and hanged on December 2, 1859. He was buried at North Elba, New York, the Negro community where he and family had lived ten years earlier.

At first glance it would appear that John Brown’s raid had utterly failed because he was unable to succeed in an armed insurrection but all references hail the raid at Harper’s Ferry had “eventuated the Civil War.” Certainly an act, while much overblown, accomplished ultimately what Brown had set out to do.

This event even more unsettled the country. Sectionalism prevailed. The South saw that anti-slavery could succeed. The North was divided on the method ... New Englanders, such as intellectual writers as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau thought of John Brown as a “hero and a saint.” Rising political stars such as Abraham Lincoln and experienced Republicans, considered John Brown as “ill-advised” but got no where in their stand. And the Civil War occurred.

Newspapers were filled with highly charged, dramatic news. Street corner debates were common. The nation was in constant discontent.

Despite its occurring over one hundred fifty years ago we are familiar with the Civil War folk song, “John Brown’s Body” to ensure that we still recall the event at Harper’s Ferry so long ago and so far away.

Why, you say, are we having this history lesson concerning Harper’s Ferry? Because it also is connected directly with northern Illinois and still is.

Check in next week.


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