Each June, in the small town of Osawatomie, Kansas, local residents hold a pageant to select a high school girl to be the new "John Brown Queen." The unlikely namesake of this pageant was responsible for the murder of five unarmed men in 1856 along the nearby Pottawatomie Creek. His memory is intertwined with the town's past, for he fought to keep Osawatomie free of slavery.
The annual summer event is a celebration of a man who remains one of the most controversial figures in American history. John brown dedicated his life to the abolition of slavery; for him, any means used to achieve this goal were justified. He was prepared to kill or be killed in this effort, a decisive break with the nonviolent reisistance embraced by most abolitionists at that time.
He has been called a saint, a fanatic, and a cold-blooded murderer. The debate over his memory, his motives, about the true nature of the man, continues to stir passionate debate.
It is said that John Brown was the spark that started the Civil War. Truly, he marked the end of compromise over the issue of slavery, and it was not long after his death that John Brown's war became the nation's war.
John Brown was born into a deeply religious family in Torrington, Connecticut, in 1800. Led by a father who was vehemently opposed to slavery, the family moved to northern Ohio when John was five, to a district that would become known for its antislavery views.
During his first fifty years, Brown moved around the country, settling in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York, taking along his ever-growing family (he would father twenty children). Working at various times as a farmer, wool merchant, tanner, and land speculator, he was never financially successful. He was...