By 1847, abolitionist presses were running hot in New England, Nat Turner's Insurrection had bathed Southampton County, Virginia in blood, and an ardent abolitionist from Connecticut named John Brown began hatching plots to free the slaves. In 1851 he founded an abolitionist league to resist the Fugitive Slave Act that required runaway slaves to be returned to their masters. In 1856 Brown traveled to the newly-opened western territories and lead a guerilla fight against pro-slavery settlers in the violence that later became known as 'Bleeding Kansas.' In 1858 Brown launched another raid in Missouri that freed 11 slaves.

Yet, by 1859 four million African Americans remained enslaved in the United States, and John Brown hatched another plot to raid the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). He planned to seize the 15,000 muskets and rifles that were stored there and use the weapons in a battle to free the slaves. Situated on a bluff above the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, Harpers Ferry was one of the first federal military and industrial complexes in the United States. It is bounded by Maryland Heights to the north and the Loudoun Heights of Virginia to the east. This scenic water gap through the Blue Ridge Mountains provided a natural passageway and trade route as water power fueled the Industrial Revolution at Harpers Ferry.

harpers ferry view from jefferson rock

Harpers Ferry is surrounded by the Maryland Heights and the Loudoun Heights of Virginia where the Potomac River cuts through the Blue Ridge creating a famous view that is visible from Jefferson Rock.

On the evening of October 16, 1859, John Brown and his band of 21 men captured the night watchman and seized the federal armory at Harpers Ferry taking control of the armory, arsenal, rifle works and bridges. They took local slave owners as hostages and freed their slaves. The following morning U.S. Marines under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee arrived, closed all escape routes and killed half of Brown's men. The first man killed in the raid was Dangerfield Newby, a former slave who joined Brown in the hopes of freeing his wife and children whose master was short of cash and in the process selling them down to the plantations of Louisiana. Brown holed up in the fire engine house with four of his men until his capture, and the federals freed Brown's hostages and returned the slaves to their owners.

Brown was subsequently tried and convicted of treason, inciting slave rebellion, and murder. He famously sat on his own coffin while riding to the gallows where he was hanged in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia). With a Bible and a shouldered rifle, John Brown - like Nat Turner - presaged and precipitated the Civil War with carefully planned and organized servile insurrection and bloody rebellion.

The history of John Brown's Raid is preserved and interpreted at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. A shuttle bus from the park's visitor center takes visitors to Lower Town, the site of the raid. The walking tour of Lower Town is truly a step back in time among the original 19th century buildings that were there during the time of John Brown's Raid. The tour includes John Brown's fire engine fort, the U.S. Armory site, the John Brown Museum, an African American History exhibit, as well Civil War exhibits. A rather steep and rocky trail climbs to Jefferson Rock and rewards hardy hikers with panoramic views of Harpers Ferry. In addition, there's shopping, dining and accommodations along High Street within a short walking distance of John Brown's Fort.

Pictured at the top: The ca. 1848 fire engine fort used by John Brown and his men still stands in Harpers Ferry.

harpers ferry armory site

Interpretive signs at the original armory site at Harpers Ferry tell this history of the armory from its founding by George Washington through the Civil War.

harpers ferry high street shops

Adjacent to the National Park and within walking distance of John Brown's Fort, High Street features shops, restaurants and accommodations.

Historical Photos

john browns fort murphys-farm john brown

John Brown's Fort as it now stands on the banks of the Shenandoah River, a few miles from Harpers Ferry, 1895 (Library of Congress) John Brown, James Wallace Black, 1859 (Library of Congress)