James Redpath was 17 years old when he emigrated to America, leaving his Scottish homeland to settle in Allegan County, Michigan. He was enthralled by pioneer life, but had little interest in the fundamentals of farming that otherwise engaged his family. His first love was writing, and his subject rarely varied: slavery. He would write passionately against the institution, using his words to influence opinion throughout the North.
Horace Greeley, influential editor of the New York "Tribune," became aware of Redpath’s writing and invited the boy to come work for him. By age 19, Redpath was an editor at the paper.
Influenced by Greeley’s reform advocacy, Redpath decided to go to the South to witness slavery firsthand. He conducted interviews with slaves, publishing his accounts in antislavery newspapers and later as a collection titled, "The Roving Editor." He provided Northern readers a rare perspective on the hardships of slavery:
"Have any of your children been sold?" I inquired.
"Yes," she said, sobbing, the tears beginning to trickle down her furrowed cheeks, "three on 'em. Two boys were sold down South -- I don't know where they is; and my oldest son was sold to Texas three years since.... it seems as if this life was to be a hard trial to colored people.… I's no hopes of seeing my boys agin this side the Land."
In 1856 Redpath went to Kansas, where violence between free-state and proslavery forces were threatening to ignite an all out war. His reports to the New York "Tribune," Chicago "Tribune," and the St. Louis "Democrat," kept Northern readers abreast of the unrelenting struggles of the free-state cause, and provided a taste of the lawless frontier:
In this region when men went out to plow they always took their rifles with them, and always tilled in companies of from five to ten...Whenever two men approached each other, they came up pistol in hand, and the first salutation invariably was: ‘Free State or Proslave?’ It not infrequently happened that the next sound was the report of a pistol.
To ensure his stories reached Kansans, Redpath started his own newspaper, "Crusader of Freedom." His first printed words left little doubt of his politics: "I enroll myself a Crusader of Freedom until slavery ceases to exist."
Redpath’s crusade took a remarkable turn on the day he met John Brown. The murder of five proslavery men along Pottawatomie Creek had electrified the territories. John Brown stood accused of committing the killings, and U.S. troops and Missouri militia were searching the countryside for him. Redpath found him first after stumbling across his encampment in the woods.
Near the edge of the creek a dozen horses were tied, already saddled for a ride for life, or a hunt after Southern invaders... Old Brown himself stood near the fire. He was poorly clad, and his toes protruded from his boots...
It was a prophetic meeting for both men. Brown represented something of a romantic ideal to Redpath -- a Northerner who fought back.
I have spoken of the rumors of midnight murder in the Pottawatomie region. Captain Brown was accused of having done the deed -- the charge is false.
Whether he knew about Brown's involvement in the Pottawatomie killings or not, Redpath proceeded to write about Brown as if he was a noble hero, a "warrior-saint" who’s actions were directed by a higher order.
After every meal, the old man would retire to the densest solitudes. he would say that the Lord had directed him in visions; that, for himself, he did not love warfare, but peace.
The interview was John Brown’s debut in the press. But it wasn’t until the battle of Osawatomie that John Brown, the abolitionist hero, fully emerged. At the end of August, almost three months after the Pottawatomie killings, some 250 Border Ruffians attacked the free-soil town of Osawatomie. Brown defended the town with 30 men. He fought desperately, but Osawatomie burned to the ground. His son, Frederick, was killed by a bullet through the heart.
Redpath’s report of the battle spread across the country; almost overnight, John Brown was propelled to national attention. Soon after, when he rode into the free-soil town of Lawrence, a crowd gathered to cheer -- "as if the President had come to town." Even in New York John Brown was now famous. Less than two weeks after the battle, a drama called "Ossawattomie Brown" celebrated him on Broadway.
Three years later, after Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Redpath would write in defense of his actions. As historian Paul Finkelman writes, "He was one of the first antislavery men to declare Brown’s raid a victory, because, ‘his mission [was] to render slavery insecure,’ and this he certainly had done."
After Brown’s execution, Redpath wrote a biography on the abolitionist, with a large percentage of the profits going to the Brown family. The book was a huge success, selling over 40,000 copies in its first months.
The hangman would send Redpath a piece of the scaffold on which Brown was hanged. He treasured it for years, labeling it, "A Bit of the True Cross, a Chip from the Scaffold of John Brown."