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People & Events
The Missouri Raid


In December, 1858, John Brown led a few men across the Missouri border from Kansas and attacked two proslavery homesteads, confiscating property and liberating slaves.

For Brown, the attack was an unqualified success and bolstered his hopes for his larger raid planned against Virginia. But he was also presented with a challenge: he had eleven freed slaves in his care, and he needed to get them to Canada.

Brown had been sent to Kansas by his Boston backers, the "Secret Six," while they raised money to finance his raid on Harpers Ferry. It had been a strategic move, designed to throw off those tracking Brown’s movements (plans for the raid had been leaked). Brown was told to go to Kansas and make his presence known, thereby distancing himself from Harpers Ferry, at least geographically.

Brown achieved this goal with distinction; news of his Missouri attack quickly spread and he was once again in the national papers. A man had been killed in the raid, however, and Brown was cast as both a murderer and a thief. President Buchanan even offered a $250 reward for John Brown’s capture. Brown mockingly responded by offering $2.50 for the arrest of Buchanan.

There were few abolitionists Brown could look to for support. Although there was a general consensus on the evils of slavery, there were great divisions over the best way to end it. Few advocated the taking of life. Also, violence between free-soil and proslavery forces had almost ceased in Kansas; Brown’s actions threatened an eruption of bloody retaliations. As one settler pointed out, "He [Brown] could strike a blow and leave. The retaliatory blow would fall on us."

On January 20, 1859, Brown set out with the liberated slaves, marching through a bitter prairie winter, eluding capture along the way. When they sought shelter in a tavern from a driving snow storm, news of their presence quickly spread. One of Brown’s men would write of the altercation that followed:

"We now learned that there were about 80 ruffians waiting for us at the ford. We numbered 22 -- all told, or men, black and white. We marched down upon them. They had as good a position as eighty men could wish...but the closer we got...the farther they got..."

Such was the terror of John Brown’s name. In the end, the ruffians fled, three were captured.

The Leavenworth "Times" wrote, "Old Captain Brown is not to be taken by ‘boys’ and he cordially invites all proslavery men to try their hands at arresting him."

Through a combination of stealth and luck, they evaded capture. When possible, they took shelter at stops along the Underground Railroad. But the further east Brown traveled, the more he found people sympathetic to what he’d done.

The Fugitive Slave Law -- which allowed Southern bounty hunters to take fugitive blacks out of free states and return them to bondage in the South -- had infuriated abolitionists. John Brown’s liberation of slaves from the South seemed a just response.

On February 25 the caravan was enthusiastically welcomed in Grinnell, Iowa. Congregational ministers offered Brown sympathy and support in behalf of the townspeople, and the town’s founder, Joseph Grinnell, provided money and supplies.

On March 9 they traveled by boxcar from West Liberty to Chicago. There, the detective Allan Pinkerton raised over $500 for Brown and arranged for another boxcar to take them to Detroit.

On March 12, 1859, after eighty-two days and over a thousand miles of hard travel, John Brown saw the rescued group of thirteen (a baby had been born along the way) off on a ferry bound for freedom in Canada.


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