On June 21 1820 Brown married Dianthe Lusk. In 1826 they moved to Pennsylvania, where Brown built a tannery. Dianthe died in 1832, shortly after giving birth. On June 14 1833 Brown married sixteen-year-old Mary Day. She eventually bore thirteen children with Brown, in addition to caring for the five children from his previous marriage.
In 1836 Brown moved his family to Franklin Mills, Ohio, and borrowed money to buy land in the area. He suffered great financial losses in the economic panic of 1837 and was declared bankrupt by a federal court on September 28, 1842.
In 1847, in Springfield, Massachusetts, Brown first met Frederick Douglass. Douglass wrote about Brown, "though a white gentleman, he is in sympathy a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery." At this meeting Brown first outlined to Douglass his plan to lead a war to free slaves.
Brown moved to the black community of North Elba, New York, in 1849. The community was founded when Gerrit Smith, a wealthy abolitionist, donated 120,000 acres of his property in the Adirondacks to black families who were willing to clear and farm the land. As many of the new farmers were unfamiliar with the farming way of life, Brown established his own home there and taught his neighbors how to farm the rocky soil. It was very unusual at this time for a white man (even an abolitionist) to associate and socialise with blacks in this way.
In June of 1855 Brown moved to Kansas where some of his sons had settled. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 meant that the residents of the territories would soon vote on whether or not to allow slavery. Proslavery forces were terrorizing the region, using threats and violence to influence elections in an attempt to make Kansas a slave state.
On May 24 1856, in retribution for a pro-slavery attack on the town of Lawrence, Brown lead a party that murdered five proslavery settlers in Pottawatomie Creek. Brown later said that he had not participated in the killings but that he did approve of them.
John Brown's struggle with proslavery forces in Kansas brought him national attention and to many Northern abolitionists he became a hero. His defense of the free-soil town of Osawattomie earned him the nickname "Osawatomie Brown," and a play by that name soon appeared on Broadway telling his story.
Brown spent the next 2 years travelling New England raising funds. Franklin Sanborn, secretary for the Massachusetts State Kansas Committee, introduced Brown to several influential abolitionists in the Boston area in January of 1857. This group was later called the "Secret Six." They funded Brown allowing him to raise a small army.
On October 16 1859, Brown leads 21 men in an attack on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The arsenal was a large complex of buildings that contained 100,000 muskets and rifles. He planned to seize the weapons and arm local slaves. They would then head south and a general revolution would result. The 21 raiders included a fugitive slave, a college student, and several free blacks. Three of the men were Brown's sons.
The raid initially went well. They cut the telegraph wires and easily captured the armory which was being defended by a single watchman. They also gathered hostages, including Col. Lewis Washington, great-grand-nephew of George Washington.
Things started to go wrong when an eastbound Baltimore & Ohio train approached the town. The train's baggage master tried to warn the passengers. Brown's men yelled for him to halt, then opened fire. The baggage master, Hayward Shepherd, became the first casualty of John Brown's war against slavery. Ironically Shepherd was a free black man. For some reason, after shooting Shepherd, Brown allowed the train to continue on it's way. News of the raid reached Washington DC by late morning.
In the meantime, local farmers, shopkeepers and militiamen firing from the heights behind the town pinned down the raiders in the armory. At noon, a company of militamen seized the bridge blocking the only escape route.
The remaining raiders took cover in the engine house, a small brick building near the armory. By morning the building was surrounded by a company of U.S. Marines under the command of Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee.
A young lieutenant, J.E.B. Stuart, approached under a white flag and told the raiders that if they surrendered their lives would be spared. Brown refused and the Marines stormed the building. Brown was beaten unconscious after his belt buckle deflected a bayonet thrust. Twelve of the raiders were killed as was one of the Marines.
On November 2, after a week long trial and 45 minutes of deliberation, a Charlestown Virginia jury finds John Brown guilty of murder, treason, and inciting a slave insurrection.
He was hanged on December 2 1859.
After the Civil War, Frederick Douglass wrote: "Did John Brown fail? John Brown began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic. His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him.."