John Brown’s Legacy in the Landscape of Harpers Ferry

The particulars of John Brown’s life are well-documented. So much has been written about him, from his ideas to his appearance, that it is nearly impossible to separate myth from man. He is alternately madman and martyr, freedom fighter and terrorist. An unlucky businessman and father of 20, Brown rose from obscurity to become a radical abolitionist, rubbing noses with some of the greatest American intellectuals of his day. However, Brown’s extreme and often violent tactics have complicated his legacy, rousing widely divergent opinions on how he should be remembered.

John Brown is a central figure in Joseph Barry's  classic book The Strange Story of Harpers Ferry (1903)

John Brown is a central figure in Joseph Barry’s classic book The Strange Story of Harpers Ferry (1903)

Despite the fact that John Brown only spent a tiny fraction of his life in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), the names are inextricably linked to one another.  John Brown’s ill-fated 1859 raid on the little town is considered to be one of the chief catalysts of the Civil War. It is even unknown whether Brown himself truly believed that the raid could succeed. While it did not begin a chain-reaction of slave rebellions as Southerners feared, the event spurred national divisions to unprecedented levels.  For comparison, Brown’s subsequent trial in nearby Charles Town was sensationalized and followed just as closely by Americans as OJ Simpson’s was two decades ago. When he was executed on December 2, 1859, some supporters likened John Brown’s “sacrifice” to the crucifixion.

Since the words “John Brown” connote so many things, the town of Harpers Ferry carries the burden of finding the most appropriate ways to commemorate him. Their tactics have been both conventional (making the area a National Historical Park) and unconventional (opening a John Brown Wax Museum).  The place has also undergone a sharp economic transformation, changing from a sprawling industrial town that was once the site of the federal armory to the popular tourist destination it is today.  The only constant feature of Harpers Ferry’s existence has been the appeal of its dominating landscape. The town is poised in a gap of sharp, rocky heights at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. Yet even the landscape has not escaped the touch of John Brown’s ghost.

A view of Harpers Ferry from Maryland Heights

A view of Harpers Ferry from Maryland Heights

The turn of the century saw the development of a new, flourishing black intellectual movement shaped by figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington.  The fiftieth anniversary (1909) of John Brown’s raid and execution fell in the middle of these changing times. In the absence of an educated white movement that cared about John Brown’s legacy, black intellectuals first assumed the responsibility to stir up interest about him.  On May 30, 1885, an African-American pastor named Alexander Crummell addressed the graduating class of Storer College, which was founded in 1865 to educate free black men and built on the foundations of Harpers Ferry’s old munitions facilities.  He commented on the changing tides of history and the perils of investing oneself too deeply the fight over John Brown’s memory:

The very hills here seem brezzy [sic] with the memories and the purposes of old John Brown.  And so tragic and so august are those memories and purposes, so vivid, too, is the imagination of man, that there is danger not only that the youthful, but even the elder, mind should be carried back with constant and absorbing interest, especially in those memories and purposes.

A 1910 postcard of Storer College

A 1910 postcard of Storer College

Storer College itself continued to be an integral part of this movement to marry history and environment. Increased railroad service to the Shenandoah Valley in the late nineteenth century led to the arrival of thousands of tourists, many of whom were black, from Baltimore and Washington.  The college discovered a lucrative opportunity in renting out their student dormitories in the summertime to vacationing families. Ads for Harpers Ferry flooded black newspapers, which “never failed to mention the town’s historical significance as a complement to its natural splendor.” One such ad shows a passionate effort “to infuse natural surroundings with historical consciousness:”

The visitor to Harpers Ferry is doubly paid, for he not only feels the thrilling impulses which come from a contemplation of the movement of the first martyr of a true and not spurious American freedom, but the natural beauty of the place appeals strongly to the most refined and exalted part of his being.

African-Americans were also the founders of one of Harpers Ferry’s most recognizable historical landmarks. The Hilltop House Hotel was first opened in 1888 by Thomas Lovett and his wife Lavinia. Hiring Storer College students to help manage the business, the Hilltop House held the monopoly on Harpers Ferry lodgings and even attracted the likes of Mark Twain and Woodrow Wilson. Today, the hotel is clearly visible on a bluff overlooking the Potomac. Unfortunately, Hilltop has been closed since 2008, and redevelopment plans have stagnated. The building is no longer structurally sound.

Lovett had reportedly declared “where the martyrdom of John Brown took place, I will build my hotel.”  He was also a trend-setter in the community.  In 1898, the Hilltop House was advertised as having “a complete water system, with tubs and hot and cold water.” Lovett found a way to pump water from the Potomac, installing a 40,000 gallon storage tank on his property, an act which his neighbors began to copy.  Lovett’s choice of locale, inspired by his view of John Brown, tied into notions of racial uplift.  For once, the black population that was concentrated around this high section of land was not isolated in a less-desirable part of town, and enjoyed protection from floods, easy water access, and unparalleled views.

In 1910 Oswald Garrison Villard, a grandson of famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, published a biography of Brown on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of his execution.  When Villard learned that W.E.B. Du Bois was also working on a Brown biography, he wrote to him asking for suggestions on source materials.  Du Bois responded negatively to this request, emphasizing that his work would focus more on “interpretation” than on concrete sources. Du Bois’s sentiment represents a view that history does not have to always be “truthful” in order to be meaningful. In the case of turn-of-the-century blacks in Harpers Ferry, linking history with the land helped them establish a unique and vital presence in their community. To them, Brown was unquestionably a martyr. The rest of his complicated legacy can be saved for another day.

The Hilltop House Hotel as seen today.

The Hilltop House Hotel as seen today.


Africa and America: Addresses and Discourses (Springfield, MA: Willey & Co., 1891), 13.

W.E.B. Du Bois, John Brown; new introduction by Herbert Aptheker (Millwood, NY: Kraus-Thomson Organization, 1973).

Benjamin Ford, “The Health and Sanitation of Postbellum Harpers Ferry,” Historical Archaeology, 28:4 (1994), 49-61.

Andrew W. Kahrl, “The Political Work of Leisure: Class, Recreation, and African American Commemoration at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, 1881-1931,” Journal of Social History, 42:1 (2008), 57-77.

Bob O’Connor, “Many lives had the grand old Hilltop House Hotel,” The Spirit of Jefferson and Farmer’s Advocate, January 15, 2014.

Oswald Garrison Villard, John Brown 1800-1859: A Biography Fifty Years After (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1910).

Susan E. Winter, “Social Dynamics and Structure in Lower Town Harpers Ferry,” Historical Archaeology, 28:4 (1994), 16-26.

Fragment of oil painting "Tragic Prelude" (1938-40) by John Steuart Curry (1897-1946).

Fragment of oil painting “Tragic Prelude” (1938-40) by John Steuart Curry (1897-1946).

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