Birth of John Brown

Richard Cavendish charts the early life of the abolitionist John Brown, born on May 9th, 1800.

An 1846 daguerreotype of Brown.
An 1846 daguerreotype of Brown.

Early in 1799 a young tanner named Owen Brown arrived to start a new life in a farmhouse he had bought at Torrington in Connecticut with his wife Ruth and two small children. Craven, who had been working as an itinerant cobbler, claimed descent from one of the Mayflower pilgrims, Peter Browne (though this is now considered doubtful). He and his wife were both deeply religious and Craven believed that the United States of America was God's vehicle for the return of Christ to the earth, but that the Second Coming was being prevented by the abominable evil of slavery.

Owen's tanning business failed to prosper, but in May Ruth gave birth to a boy they named John after his paternal grandfather. There were three more children to come. Young John was a thin, solemn child, who grew up among incessant prayers and Bible readings in a dour household where the rod was not spared and he was frequently thrashed. He recalled afterwards that his father had taught him `to fear God and keep His commandments' and to be kind to blacks, whose enslavement was a sin against the Almighty.

When John had just turned five, in June 1805, the Browns packed all they possessed into an ox-drawn wagon and moved to Ohio. Another family went with them. It was a thrilling experience for a small boy, and his father let him help with the driving, as they moved through a vast wilderness where there might be Indians and there were certainly rattlesnakes of alarming proportions. Their arrival in July at a village called Hudson, south-west of Cleveland, brought to an end what has been described as one of the few enjoyable experiences in John Brown's life.

The family's new log cabin home was cold and draughty, and there was little to eat at first, but John made friends with some Indians and acquired a pet squirrel named Bob Tail which soon either ran away or was killed, which made him miserable. According to his own recollection, he began to develop a `bad and foolish' habit of lying to keep himself out of trouble and escape punishment. Then, when he was eight, his mother died. This was a catastrophic blow. His father remarried a twenty year-old girl called Sally Root by whom he would have ten more children, but John could never get on with her and for years continued to pine for his mother.

At the age of twelve, or so he told a friend long afterwards, John swore `eternal war with slavery' after seeing a slave boy beaten to death with an iron shovel. He had many years before him still, and two wives and eleven children of his own - all of whom he whipped with dedicated frequency and sometimes made them flog him in return until the blood ran but perhaps his fundamental stern and fanatical character, like an Old Testament prophet returned to life, had already been formed. Far in the future lay terrorist murders, Harpers Ferry, trial and execution, and John Brown's body lies a mouldering in the grave...'

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