Article Archive >> Spring Tourism

Harpers Ferry--John Brown's Famous Insurrection

Harpers Ferry--John Brown's Famous Insurrection

Situated on the banks of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers where the U.S. states of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia meet, the town is surrounded by mountains and is at the bottom of a ravine created by the two rivers.
Harpers Ferry is one of the few towns that the Appalachian Trail passes directly through.
Harpers's Ferry, named for Robert Harper who settled there in 1734 and established a ferry to cross the Shenandoah and the Potomac Rivers.
In 1763, the Virginia General Assembly established the town of "Shenandoah Falls at Mr. Harper's Ferry."
On October 25, 1783, Thomas Jefferson visited Harpers Ferry. He viewed "the passage of the Patowmac though the Blue Ridge" from a rock which is now named for him.
George Washington as president of the Patowmack Company (which was formed to complete river improvements on the Potomac and its tributaries) traveled to Harpers Ferry during the summer of 1785 to determine the need for bypass canals. In 1794, Washington's familiarity with the area lead him to propose the site as the location for a new federal armory and arsenal. Some of Washington's family moved to the area; his great-great nephew, Col. Lewis Washington, was held hostage during Brown's raid.
The United States Armory and Arsenal was established in the town in 1799 and the town was transformed into an industrial centre. Between 1801 and the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, the Armory produced more than 600,000 muskets, rifles, and pistols. The inventor John H. Hall pioneered the use of interchangeable parts in fire arms manufacture at his Rifle Works in the town between 1820-1840.
This industrialization continued in 1833 when the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal reached the town. The canal linked Harpers Ferry with Washington, D.C. A year later, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad arrived.
The town is best known as the site of John Brown's famous insurrection.
At 10 p.m., under the cover of darkness on Sunday, October 16, 1859, John Brown, his two sons, Oliver and Watson, and nineteen others (seventeen white and five colored in all) seized William Williamson, the Harper's Ferry Armory guard as he stood guard on the Potomac Bridge.
After removing the guard, Brown and his men took possession of the Armory Building. At about 1 a.m., on Monday October 17, the insurgents went to the home of Lewis Washington, a slave owner, took him captive, and announced that his slaves were now free. His men also went to the home of John Allstadt, took him and his son prisoner, and announced that their slaves were free.
As the inhabitants of Harper's Ferry woke up that morning, they soon discovered that armed men were patrolling the streets and arresting anyone coming close to the Armory. Finding the telegraph wires cut, the alarmed townspeople sent messengers on horseback to the neighboring towns for help. A train passing through the town from Wheeling was stopped and then allowed to continue. The trainmen spread word at the next stop that the town had been taken over.
A volunteer company from Charles Town, under the command of Colonel Baylor, arrived shortly after noon, took control of the bridge and surrounded the insurgents, who had retreated into the Armory.
Later that day, two companies arrived from Martinsburg and the Armory was attacked, with both sides exchanging fire until nightfall. Five members of the three companies attacking the Armory were killed, as were three insurgents, including John Brown's son Oliver. Seven, including John Brown, were captured, taken to Charles Town, tired, and hanged there in December 1859 for treason--five escaped.
Those opposed to slavery viewed Brown as a national hero, while those supporting slavery viewed him as a villain. Many others supported Brown's objective, but nonetheless condemned his actions. Most historians consider John Brown's actions at Harper's Ferry a precursor to the Civil War.
During the early evening hours, the companies surrounding the Armory restored the telegraph lines that had been cut by John Brown's men earlier in the day. Word of the insurrection then spread quickly across the nation.
The Civil War was disastrous for Harpers Ferry. Given the town's strategic location on the railroad and at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley, both Union and Confederate troops moved through Harpers Ferry frequently. One battle during the war, the Battle of Harper's Ferry, was fought here. In fact, the town changed hands eight times between 1861 and 1865.
In 1944 most of the town became part of the National Park Service and it is now maintained as the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Harpers Ferry is a wonderful place to spend the day!

Printable version

<< back to Articles on Spring Tourism
<< back to All Articles