Today In Western History: Happy Birthday, Potowatamie John

 May 9,

Today in 1800, the man credited with providing the spark that lit the powder keg known as the Civil War was born in Torrington, Connecticut.  The fourth of the eight children, John was born to Owen and Ruth, and he could trace his ancestry all the way back to 17th-century English Puritans.  The family moved west to Hudson, Ohio, in 1805, where Owen opened a tannery.  Owen soon hired an apprentice, Jesse R. Grant, father of future general and U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant.

Ulysses H. Grant, 18th President
Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War hero and 
18th President of the United States

Owen became a supporter of the Oberlin Institute (the original name of Oberlin College) in its early stage, although he was ultimately critical of the school’s “Perfectionist” leanings, especially renowned in the preaching and teaching of Charles Finney and Asa Mahan.  John withdrew his membership from the Congregational church in the 1840s and he never officially joined another church, but both he and his father Owen were fairly conventional evangelicals for the period with its focus on the pursuit of personal righteousness.  John’s personal religion is fairly well documented in the papers of the Rev Clarence Gee, a family expert, now held in the Hudson [Ohio] Library and Historical Society.

John led a relatively quiet life until he heard about the murder of Elijah P. Lovejoy, in 1837.  In response to the murder, John publicly vowed: “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!   From 1846 to 1850, when he left Springfield, John was a regular parishioner at the Free Church, where he attended frequent abolitionist lectures by the noted 

Born a slave as Isabella ("Bell") Baumfree, she became known as Sojourner Truth and was an Abolitionist, author, human rights activist

and celebrated  abolitionists Sojourner Truth and the dynamic Frederick Douglass.  In 1847, after speaking at the “Free Church”, Frederick Douglass spent a night speaking with John, after which he wrote, “From this night spent with John in Springfield, Mass. 1847 while I continued to write and speak against slavery, I became all the same less hopeful for its peaceful abolition. My utterances became more and more tinged by the color of this man’s strong impressions.”

Frederick Douglass, born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. He was born a slave, but became an Abolitionist, Suffragist, Author, Editor, and Diplomat
Frederick Douglass, born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. He was born a slave, but became an Abolitionist, Suffragist, Author, Editor, and Diplomat

Over the next twelve years, all of America came to know John, although not all of America was happy to know him.  In particular, the citizens of Pottawatomie, Kansas were not pleased to see him.  Nor were the citizens of Harpers Ferry, Virginia, a few years later.  Here John had 

Robert E. Lee, General CSA, Hero of the Confederacy
Robert E. Lee, General CSA, Hero of the Confederacy

the opportunity to meet two future Southern heroes, Col. Robert Edward Lee and Lt. James Ewell Brown Stuart, known to his friends as Jeb, when they came to arrest him for his failed insurrection.

James Ewell Brown "Jeb" Stuart, CSA General
James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart, CSA General

John was hung for this, and his death sparked the War Between the States, and an anthem to victory for one side.  Blow out the candles for John “Potowatamie” Brown.



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