John Brown 1859

John Brown’s Autobiographical Letter to Henry Stearns

Source: The Life and Letters of John Brown by Franklin Benjamin Sanborn page 12-17;
Copy Left: this work is free of copyright;
Transcribed: by ObscureAudioHistory.

Red Rock, IA., 15th 1859

MY DEAR YOUNG FRIEND, I have not forgotten my promise to write you: but my constant care, & anxiety; have obliged me to put if off a long time. I do not flatter myself that I can write anything that will very much interest you: but have concluded to send you a short story of a certain boy of my acquaintance: & for convenience & shortness of name, I will call him John. This story will be mainly a narration of follies and errors; which it is to be hoped you may avoid; but there is one thing connected with it, which will be calculated to encourage any young person to persevering effort; & that is the degree of success in accomplishing his objects which to a great extent marked the course of this boy throughout my entire acquaintance with him; notwithstanding his moderate capacity; & still more moderate acquirements.

John was born May 9th, 1800, at Torrington, Litchfield Co. Connecticut; of poor but respectable parents: a descendant on the side of his Father of one of the company of the Mayflower who landed at Plymouth 1620. His mother was descended from a man who came at an early period to New England from Amsterdam, in Holland. Both his Fathers and his Mothers Fathers served in the war of the revolution: His Father’s Father; died in a barn at New York while in the service, in 1776.

I cannot tell you of anything in the first Four years of John’s life worth mentioning save that at that early age he was tempted by Three large Brass Pins belonging to a girl who lived in the family & stole them. In this he was detected by his Mother; & after having a full day to think of the wrong; received from her a thorough whipping. When he was Five years old his Father moved to Ohio; then a wilderness filled with wild beasts, & Indians. During the long journey which was performed in part or mostly with an Oxteam ; he was called on by turns to assist a boy Five years older (who had been adopted by his Father & Mother) & learned to think he could accomplish smart things in driving the Cows; & riding the horses. Sometimes he met with Rattle Snakes which were very large; & which some of the company generally managed to kill. After getting in Ohio in 1805 he was for some time rather afraid of the Indians, & of their Rifles; but this soon wore off : & he used to hang about them quite as much as was consistent with good manners; & learned a trifle of their talk. His father learned to dress Deer Skins, & at 6 years old John was installed a young Buck Skin. He was perhaps rather observing as he ever after remembered the entire process of Deer Skin dressing; so that he could at any times dress his own leather such as Squirrel, Raccoon, Cat, Wolf or Dog Skins; and also learned to make Whip Lashes: which brought him some change at times; & was of considerable service in many ways. At Six years old John began to be quite a rambler in the wild new country finding birds and Squirrels and sometimes a wild Turkeys nest. But about this period he was placed in the School of adversity; which my young friend was a most necessary part of his early training. You may laugh when you come to read about it ; but these were sore trials to John whose earthly treasures were very few, & small. These were the beginning of a severe but much needed course of discipline which he afterwards was to pass through; & which it is to be hoped has learned him before this time that the Heavenly Father sees it best to take all the little things out of his hands which he has ever placed in them. When John was in his Sixth year a poor Indian boy gave him a Yellow Marble the first he had ever seen. This he thought a great deal of; & kept it a good while; but at last he lost it beyond recovery. It took years to heal the wound & I think he cried at times about it. About Five months after this he caught a young Squirrel tearing off his tail in doing it & getting severely bitten at the same time himself. He however held on to the little bob tail Squirrel; & finally got him perfectly tamed, so that he almost idolized his pet. This too he lost; by its wandering away; or by getting killed; & for year or two John was in mourning; and looking at all the Squirrels he could see to try & discover Bob­tail, if possible. I must not neglect to tell you of a very bad & foolish habit to which John was somewhat addicted. I mean telling lies; generally to screen himself from blame; or from punishment. He could not well endure to be reproached; & I now think had he been oftener encouraged to be entirely frank ; by making frankness a kind of atonement for some of his faults; he would not have been so often guilty in after life of this fault; nor have been obliged to struggle so long with so mean a habit.

John was never quarrelsome; but was excessively fond of the hardest & roughest kind of plays; & could never get enough [of] them. Indeed when for a short time he was sometimes sent to School the opportunity it afforded to wrestle, & Snow ball & run & jump & knock off old seedy Wool hats; offered to him almost the only compensation for the confinement, & restraints of school. I need not tell you that with such a feeling & but little chance of going to school at all : he did not become much of a scholar. He would al­ways choose to stay at home & work hard rather than be sent to school; & during the Warm season might generally be seen barefooted & bareheaded: with Buck skin Breeches suspended often with one leather strap over his shoulder but sometimes with two. To be sent off through the wilderness alone to very considerable distances was particularly his delight; & in this he was often indulged so that by the time he was Twelve years old he was sent off more than a Hundred Miles with companies of cattle; & he would have thought his character much injured had he been obliged to be helped in any such job. This was a boyish kind of feeling but characteristic however. At Eight years old, John was left a Motherless boy which loss was complete & permanent for notwithstanding his Father again married to a sensible, intelligent, and on many accounts a very estimable woman; yet he never adopted her in feeling; but continued to pine after his own Mother for years. This operated very unfavorably upon him; as he was both naturally fond of females; &, with all, extremely diffident; & deprived him of a suitable connecting link between the different sexes; the want of which might under some circumstances, have proved his ruin. When the war broke out with England: his Father soon commenced furnishing the troops with beef cattle, the collecting & driving of which afforded him some opportunity for the chase (on foot) of wild steers & other cattle through the woods. During this war he had some chance to form his own boyish judgment of men & measures: & to become somewhat familiarly acquainted with some who have figured before the country since that time. The effect of what he saw during the war was to so far disgust him with Military affairs that he would neither train, nor drill; but paid fines; & got along like a Quaker until his age finally has cleared him of Military duty. During the war with England a circumstance occurred that in the end made him a most determined Abolitionist: & led him to declare, or Swear: Eternal war with Slavery. He was staying for a short time with a very gentlemanly landlord since a United States Marshall who held a slave boy near his own age very active, intelligent, and good feeling; & to whom John was under considerable obligation for numerous little acts of kindness. The Master made a great pet of John: brought him to table with his first company; & friends; called their attention to every little smart thing he said or did: & to the fact of his being more than a hundred miles from home with a company of cattle alone; while the negro boy (who was fully if not more than his equal) was badly clothed, poorly fed; & lodged in cold weather; & beaten before his eyes with Iron Shovels or any other thing that came first to hand. This brought John to reflect on the wretched, hopeless condition, of Fatherless & Motherless slave children: for such children have neither Fathers nor Mothers to protect & provide for them. He sometimes would raise the question is God their Father?

At the age of Ten years, an old friend induced him to read a little history, & offered him the free use of a good library; by ; which he acquired some taste for reading: which formed the principle part of his early education: & diverted him in a great measure from bad company. He by this means grew to be very fond of the company & conversation of old & intelligent persons. He never attempted to dance in his life; nor did he ever learn to know one of a pack of Cards from another. He learned nothing of Grammar; nor did he get at school so much knowledge of common Arithmetic as the four grand rules.

This will give you some general idea of the first Fifteen years of his life; during which time he became very strong & large of his age & ambitious to perform the full labor of a man; at almost any kind of hard work. By reading the lives of great, wise & good men their sayings, and writings; he grew to a dislike of vain & frivolous conversation & persons; & was often greatly obliged by the kind manner in which older & more intelligent persons treated him at their houses: & in conversation; which was a great relief on account of his extreme bashfulness. He very early in life became ambitious to excel in doing anything he undertook to perform. This kind of feeling I would recommend to all young persons both Male & female: as it will certainly tend to secure admission to the company of the more intelligent; & better portion of every community. By all means endeavor to excel in some laudable pursuit. I had liked to have forgotten to tell you of one of John’s misfortunes which set rather hard on him while a young boy. He had by some means perhaps by gift of his Father become the owner of a little Ewe Lamb which did finely till it was about Two Thirds grown; & then sickened and died. This brought another protracted mourning season: not that he felt the pecuniary loss so heavily: for that was never his disposition; but so strong & earnest were his attachments. John had been taught from earliest childhood to “fear God & keep his commandments;” & though quite skeptical he had always by turns felt much serious doubt as to his future well being; & about this time became to some extent a convert to Christianity & ever after a firm believer in the divine authenticity of the Bible. With this book he became very familiar, & possessed a most unusual memory of its entire contents.

Now some of the things I have been telling of; were just such as I would recommend to you: & adopted them as part of your own plan of life; & I wish you to have some definite plan. Many seem to have none; & others never to stick to any that they do form. This was not the case with John. He followed up with tenacity whatever he set about so long as it answered his general purpose: & hence he rarely failed in some good degree to affect the “things he undertook. This was so much the case that he habitually expected to ‘Succeed in his undertakings. With this feeling should be coupled; the consciousness that our plans are right in themselves.

During the period I have named, John had acquired a kind of ownership to certain animals of some little value but as he had come to understand that the title of minors might be a little imperfect: he had recourse to various means in order to secure a more independent; & perfect right of property. One of these means was to exchange with his Father for something of far less value. Another was by trading with other persons for something his Father had never owned. Older persons have sometimes found difficulty with titles.

From fifteen to Twenty years old, he spent most of his time working at the Tanner & Currier’s trade keeping Bachelors hall; & he officiating as Cook; & for most of the time as foreman of the establishment under his Father. During this period he found much trouble with some of the bad habits I have mentioned & with some that I have not told you of: his conscience urging him forward with great power in this matter: but his close attention to business; & success in its management; together with the way he got along with a company of men, & boys; made him quite a favorite with the serious & more intelligent portion of older persons. This was so much the case; & secured for him so many little notices from those he esteemed; that his vanity was very much fed by it : & he came forward to manhood quite full of self-conceit; & self-confidant; notwithstanding his extreme bashfulness. A younger brother used sometimes to remind him of this: & to repeat to him this expression which you may somewhere find, “A King against whom there is no rising up.”

The habit so early formed of being obeyed rendered him in after life too much disposed to speak in an imperious or dictating way. From Fifteen years & upward he felt a good deal of anxiety to learn; but could only read & study a little; both for want of time; & on account of inflammation of the eyes. He however managed by the help of books to make himself tolerably well acquainted with common Arithmetic; & Surveying; which he practiced more or less after he was Twenty years old. At a little past Twenty years led by his own inclination & prompted also by his Father, he married a remarkably plain; but industrious & economical girl; of excellent character; earnest piety; & good practical common sense; about one year younger than himself. This woman by her mild, frank, & more than all else; by her very consistent conduct; acquired & ever while she lived maintained a most powerful; & good influence over him. Her plain but kind admonitions generally had the right effect; without arousing his haughty obstinate temper. John began early in life to discover a great liking to fine Cattle, Horses, Sheep, & Swine; & as soon as circumstances would enable him he began to be a practical Shepherd; it being a calling for which in early life he had a kind of enthusiastic longing: together with the idea that as a business it bid fair to afford him the means of carrying out his greatest or principal object. I have now given you a kind of general idea of the early life of this boy; & if I believed it would be worth the trouble; or afford much interest to any good feeling person; I might be tempted to tell you something of his course in after life; or manhood. I do not say that I will do it.

You will discover that in using up my half sheets to save paper; I have written two pages, so that one does not follow the other as it should. I have no time to write it over; & but for unavoidable hindrances in traveling I can hardly say when I should have written what I have. With an honest desire for your best good, I subscribe myself,

Your Friend,

P.S. I had like to have forgotten to acknowledge your contribution in aid of the cause in which I serve. God Almighty bless you; my son. J. B.