In West Virginia, where the swift-moving Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet, abolitionist John Brown and his supporter’s hopes and dreams to end slavery without a full-blown civil war ended in a bloody standoff and arrests in 1859. Today, Harpers Ferry is a great place to wander around historic buildings, shops, cafés, self-guided historical exhibits, and museums. The valley and mountains are beautiful and filled with history going way back. And it’s not all so tragic!
John Brown and his supporters hoped to start a rebellion by arming slaves and forcing slave-owners to end this inhumane practice. Only two federal arsenals manufacturing weapons existed – in Harpers Ferry and a town in Massachusetts. John Brown’s determined band, who must have known the odds against them, included three free black men, one freed slave, and one fugitive slave.
Frederick Douglass warned John Brown that the arsenal, in a town wedged between mountains and two rivers, would be impossible to hold with so few men. Brown and 19 men successfully captured the arsenal but were unable to gather enough men to support them. They retreated to the arsenal’s firehouse, which was later known as John Brown’s Fort.
John Brown, and the last holdouts who didn’t escape, were captured. Over 80 armed U.S. Marines under Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee stormed the building. Two of Brown’s supporters were killed, and one Marine died. But their actions lit the fire that 18 months later set off the Civil War to eliminate slavery for good. If you are wondering what happened to John Brown, I’ll tell you at the end.
John Brown’s Fort has been on the move. First, it was dismantled and sent to Chicago for the 1893 Columbian Exposition and abandoned. A female journalist in D.C. started a campaign to bring it back. Alexander Murphy, a local farmer, allocated five acres on his land a few miles from its original location. Multiple Civil War battles took place on Murphy’s farm, and it’s also part of the National Park Service. John Brown’s Fort was placed on a scenic bluff overlooking the Shenandoah River.
But the fort didn’t stay for long and was still on the move. In 1903, Storer College, an integrated but primarily Black college, bought the fort. When the college closed in 1955, the National Park acquired the fort and moved it to, hopefully, its final site. Because of the construction of a railroad embankment, a historical marker is on the exact site, and the fort stands about 150 feet away.
During the Civil War, West Virginians split off from Virginia and the Confederacy of Southern States to join the Union. Perhaps they were inspired by the rebellion. John Brown would be proud. Harpers Ferry’s armory and arsenal were destroyed during the four long years of war, and the town changed hands at least eight times. The town was reportedly easy to seize and hard to hold and called the best strategic point in the whole South. The fort was admired by Union troops and cursed by the Confederates.
After the Civil War, Harpers Ferry became a popular tourist destination. Frederick Douglass praised It as the place where the end of slavery began. Train connections from nearby Baltimore and D.C. made it accessible for many. At that time, John Brown’s Fort and the ruined walls of the old Arsenal still stood on their original foundations.
The Bolivar-Harpers Ferry Public Library is outside the historic park but not far from town. The local library was built in 1977 as part of the Library Services Act and had a great selection of books and videos for sale when I visited. I donated a new copy of my latest novel, Project Onion, to the friendly librarian, so there’s another reason to stop by!
What’s so fascinating is all the names and deep history here. English settlers arrived at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, about 200 miles south. This part of Virginia was part of the Indian District of Cickacoan. But in 1691, with settler expansion, the county was renamed Essex, losing its Indian designation. In 1801, Jefferson Country was created, which still exists today, and named for President Thomas Jefferson, who took office that same year.
Bolivar, included in the public library’s official name, is a small-town adjoining Harpers Ferry. In 1825, local citizens got the okay to name their town Bolivar after a South American revolutionary hero who helped six countries obtain independence from Spain. Bolivar’s full name is a mouthful and quite a signature: Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Ponte Palacios y Blanco.
Bolivar became an official designated town 16 years before Harper’s Ferry. The apostrophe in Harper’s was removed in 1891 when the government decided to remove apostrophes from all place names. The almost forgotten Peter Stephens, a squatter, launched the first ferry here in 1733. Less than a hundred years later, Wager’s Bridge replaced the ferry in 1824. So, place names, like much in life, is all about the right timing and lots of luck.
But the original name of the area was Mudfort. Not that surprising with the muddy riverbanks, and early settlers built forts to live in or near. Rumor has it the original name came about because the boys of Mudfort threw better mud balls and could successfully repel their rival’s attacks from down by the ferry.
Robert Harper, the town’s namesake, was born near Philadelphia in 1718. Quakers asked him to build a meeting house in the Shenandoah Valley in 1747. On his way, he saw the potential for using the waterpower where the Potomac met the Shenandoah Rivers. In 1763, the Virginia General Assembly established the town “Shenandoah Falls at Mr. Harper’s Ferry.”
The restored Harper House, the oldest structure in town, is located at the top of stone stairs and higher than High Street. The building was constructed between 1775 and 1782 and served as a tavern for some names you probably recognize – President George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Sadly, Mr. Harper didn’t get a chance to live here since he died in 1782. He was buried in a cemetery further up the hill on land he donated.
George Washington visited Harpers Ferry in 1785 before he became President in 1789. He proposed establishing an armory and arsenal here in 1794, and the government purchased 125-acres from Robert Harper’s descendants. The only other armory and arsenal was built in Massachusetts. Armories produced most of the small arms (muskets, rifles, and pistols) used by the U.S. Army. Washington knew Virginia and the area well. His home, Mount Vernon, is only 70 miles away. He also had other connections to John Brown. His great-great-nephew, Colonel Lewis Washington, was a hostage during the raid. His brother, Charles Washington, founded nearby Charles Town where John Brown was put on trial.
Further uphill on the worn stone steps, which might be original and past an old church, leads to Jefferson Rock with a view of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. In 1783, Thomas Jefferson called the view stupendous and how it was worth a voyage across the Atlantic. That’s a huge compliment. You can imagine how challenging it was to sail from Europe to the USA back then.
Harpers Ferry bustled and grew until the 1930s when it was hit by the double disasters of the Depression and a major flood. In 1944, Harpers Ferry became a national monument and later a park. The National Park Service maintains the historic site and sets ground rules on parking with free shuttle buses. Less traffic keeps the small-town ambiance more authentic, and their support helps. Old properties require lots of often costly maintenance! In 2015, a fire destroyed two historic business-apartment buildings, but they were luckily rebuilt.
Today, you can stroll along a combination walkway next to the railroad bridge above the Potomac River to Maryland. If you walk across the bridge, you have also been on the Appalachian Trail. Harpers Ferry is called the trail’s psychological midpoint, so if you are up for a longer hike, now’s the time to decide. If you keep going either direction, please add a comment to this blog to tell us about it!
So, what happened to John Brown after he and his men were arrested? Mr. Brown and six of his men were taken to Charles Town, the county seat, to stand trial at the courthouse, seven miles from Harpers Ferry. They were imprisoned in a jail across the street. The jail and much of the town got destroyed during the Civil War, and today a Post Office is there.
Despite being injured and unable to walk, he was carried across the street on a stretcher to sit through his trial. He was found guilty of treason, murder, and fomenting (which means rousing or inciting) a slave insurrection. The sentence was devastating – death by hanging. But this wasn’t in vain. His actions brought more attention to the injustice of slavery, and his rebellion is called the spark that started the Civil War 18 months later.
His final words, written while imprisoned, said, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”
If only John Brown had succeeded, we might have been spared four long years of Civil War, so much economic loss, and 700,000 deaths. John Brown was buried at his farm in Elba, New York, which today is a state historic site and became a national historic landmark in 1998.
A few blocks from the historic Charles Town Courthouse, there’s another public library. In 1927, Miss Elsie Bogardus Murphy, a wea wealthy philanthropist from Maine, founded the library in memory of her mother. The library also administers the county’s historical museum located behind the museum. Kudos to Miss Elsie and others like her!
If you’d like to know more about John Brown, I highly recommend the TV mini-series, The Good Lord Bird, on Showtime. The show isn’t 100% accurate, but it was an entertaining portrayal of the rebellion and John Brown, and I want to watch it again. The miniseries is based on the novel, The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, that might be available at your local library!
Karen Stensgaard is a novelist and has published three novels with more on the way. The Good Lord Bird includes a fictional character named Onion, and she couldn’t help but smile at the lovable character since her current novel was called Project Onion. Her next book will tackle modern-day racial issues in Europe. P.S. Sign up for a reminder if you’d like to see the next blog… wherever it is!