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John Brown

John Brown was born into a New England family that taught him to hate slavery and love the Bible. He spent much of his boyhood in Ohio, and in 1820 married Dianthe Lusk, who bore him seven children before she died in 1830. The next year, 31 year old Brown married 16 year old Mary Anne Day, by whom he fathered 13 more children. Brown was a failure at the different business ventures he tried. He built and sold tanneries, speculated in real estate, raised sheep, surveyed, and farmed, but his true concern was with the institution of American slavery. As early as 1834 he had written that he intended to devote his life to the abolition of slavery.

In 1849, Brown settled his family in North Elbe, N.Y., an all-black community. He worked as a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad, and became obsessed with the idea of helping to overthrow the institution of slavery. In 1855 he migrated, with a wagonload of guns and ammunition, to the Kansas Territory and became a leader of the antislavery forces fighting to bring the territory into the Union as a free state. On the night of May 23, 1856, insisting that he was acting as an instrument of God, Brown and four of his sons went from home to home in the proslavery settlement along Pottawatomie Creek, dragged out the unarmed men, and hacked them to death with swords in front of their families.

Brown developed a grandiose plan to establish a stronghold for escaped slaves in the Appalachian Mountains and went back east to raise funds for his mission. Brown was openly admired by some of the country's leading abolitionists and a group of them, the "secret six," agreed to finance his scheme for an armed slave uprising. In July 1859, Brown, under an assumed name, rented a farm in Maryland just north of Harpers Ferry, Virginia, to prepare for his mission. By October, he had only 21 men in his band, but trusting that God was on his side, on the evening of the 16th he announced, "Men, get on your arms. We will proceed to the Ferry."