By Madison Petrella
This mysterious, unassuming artifact was found in the Historic Huguenot Street collections a number of years ago. With it was a note claiming it to be a piece of John Brown’s gun used during his raid on Harpers Ferry. How did this object end up all the way in New Paltz, NY? No one knows. This object was found in collections without a trace. Is this really a piece of the famous John Brown’s gun? Well, there’s no way to prove it’s not.
John Brown (1800-1859) was an abolitionist whose failed attack on the West Virginia town of Harpers Ferry is credited with being one of the events that provoked the tensions between the North and the South to the breaking point that resulted in the Civil War. Brown grew up in Ohio in the early 1800’s where he tried his hand at a few business ventures without success.1 Having grown up in an anti-slavery family, he attended an abolition meeting in Cleveland in 1837 where he was inspired to such an extent that he publicly dedicated himself to the anti-slavery cause right then.1
Brown spent the rest of his life fighting for the abolitionist cause, taking a more militant approach to combatting slaving. He even incited an episode of guerrilla warfare in Kansas during the summer of 1856 that resulted in the deaths of many, including one of his sons.1 Brown returned to the East in 1857 and began fundraising for his larger goal: inciting a slave insurrection. This series of attacks meant to incite an insurrection was to begin with Harpers Ferry in 1859.
Although many of Brown’s friends, including Frederick Douglas, warned Brown that his plan was doomed to fail he insisted on continuing regardless, his faith undaunted. On October 16, 1859, Brown, along with 20 men, composed of both white and black men and 3 of Brown’s sons, attacked the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry. They took 60 civilian hostages and found refuge in the arsenal’s engine house where they remained surrounded until the arrival of the US Marines on October 18, 1859.2 Brown and his men were defeated by a group of Marines under the leadership of Colonel Robert E. Lee. During the raid, 10 of Brown’s men were killed, including 2 of his sons, 5 men escaped, and the rest were captured along with Brown and were tried and quickly executed on November 2, 1959.
When Brown was captured, his gun was confiscated from his possession and gifted to the governor of Virginia as a souvenir3. The gun was then passed on to friends of friends and then relatives, disappearing for a long time from any records until it was supposedly found in the 1990’s in the closet of a descendent of one of the last known people to allegedly have possessed the gun after the Virginia governor.3
Now, there’s no way to prove that this is an actual piece of John Brown’s actual gun, and the one (or one of the ones) he wielded during his raid on Harper’s Ferry no less, but regardless, it sure makes for a good story to be passed down through the years.
1 History.com Staff. “John Brown’s Harpers Ferry.” History.com. A+E Networks: New York, 2010. Web. 6 June 2016.
2 “The Raid on Harpers Ferry.” Africans in America: PBS Online, 1998. Web. 6 June 2016.
3 Wallauer, Amy. “John Brown’s Rifle Back in Harpers Ferry.” Herald-Mail Media: Hagerstown, MD, 30 May 1998. Web. 6 June 2016.