Submitted by Cliff McCarthy, Archivist, Wood Museum of Springfield History
John Brown in Springfield
John Brown came to Springfield in 1846 to establish a commission house for the wool business of Perkins and Brown. True to his affinity for the underdog, the purpose of the business was to represent the interests of the western sheep farmers in their dealings with the powerful New England wool merchants. Perkins & Brown brought into Springfield wool from all over Ohio, Pennsylvania, and western Virginia and figured out that, by sorting the wool into different grades, they could command a higher price from the manufacturers. Perkins & Brown would take a commission of two percent and the profits would go back to the farmers. Finding the New England manufacturers unreceptive to the plan which would cost them more, the company then tried to broker deals with English manufacturers and elsewhere in Europe, but these also never came to fruition. The business closed down its operation in 1849.
Much has been made over John Brown’s failures as a businessman and its importance to his story; even that is a point of disagreement. But that is not the distinguishing feature of his time in Springfield. The real importance of this short period of his life is in the development of his relationships with the anti-slavery community, both blacks and whites.
In the 1840s, Springfield was actually a hotbed of anti-slavery activity. This is not to suggest that this sentiment was universal throughout the population, but the white leadership of the city, its most prominent churches, its most powerful businessmen, its popular politicians, and even its influential newspaper — The Springfield Republican — were arrayed, to varying degrees, against the southern slaveholders. John Brown used his business travels to forge friendships and make contacts among abolitionists throughout New England.
But John Brown stood out among white abolitionists in his ability to relate to the African-American community. He worshiped at the Sanford Street church, also known as the Free Church, the first black congregation in Springfield. He hired local blacks, like Thomas Thomas, for his wool business and he mingled socially with members of Springfield’s African-American community. He spoke with them about his ideas and, more importantly, he listened to them, to their tales of slavery and escape to the north. It is believed that he developed some of his grand plans for ending slavery during this period.
Thomas Thomas recalled this about John Brown: “When he was here he was smooth-faced and had black, heavy hair brushed straight up from his forehead. He always dressed in plain browns, something like a Quaker. He wasn’t tall, nor anything of a giant, as some represent, and he wasn’t at all fierce or crazy looking. He was medium in height and he was quiet and agreeable to talk with. He was a gentleman and a Christian.”
When Frederick Douglass came to Springfield, he met with John Brown and was impressed. He spent an evening with Brown and allowed himself to be influenced by Brown’s thoughts and passions, later writing: “From this night spent with John Brown in Springfield, Mass. in 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.”
Douglass also wrote of Brown: “Though a white gentleman, he is in sympathy with the black man and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery.”
In Springfield, John Brown took the measure of his black friends and was encouraged by their reasoning abilities, leadership capabilities, and their passion for freedom.
At that time, abolitionist Gerrit Smith was granting small farms of 40 acres in North Elba, NY to black families, with the intention of establishing an African-American community, there. Some say this was Smith’s response to the New York legislature, which had re-instituted a land ownership requirement for voting in New York State. When Perkins & Brown folded in 1849, John Brown moved his family from Springfield to join the North Elba community and he took his leave of this city. As we shall see, he returned on occasion and never severed his connections to this place.
Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
In the 1840s, Springfield was a hub of Underground Railroad activity, being a prominent “station” on the northward route from New York to Hartford and on up to Florence or Northampton and eventually Canada. Springfield had railroads and riverboats and wagon roads, all of which were used to transport people seeking their freedom. People escaping from slavery found many friends in Springfield willing to help them and even potential employers, if they decided to remain here. Blacks from the south could live fairly openly in Springfield, knowing that their former masters would have difficulty tracking them and gaining cooperation from the local authorities. The sheriff, for example, was known to tip off the owners of safe houses before searching their premises. The Fugitive Slave Act, passed as part of the Compromise of 1850, sought to change that.
Thomas Thomas remembered: “There were quite a good many colored people in Springfield, and most of them had been slaves who’d taken French leave of their masters. I’ve been a slave myself. That is, there were those said they had a claim on me. I never acknowledged this though, and I never have bowed to but one master, Him, God. But we were in no danger here. Runaways were all the time going through to Canada, mostly stopping with us colored people. They went about openly enough usually, but once in a while there’d be a timid one, or one would fancy he’d seen his master on the street. Then they’d keep dark. But after the fugitive slave law was passed, and some men were carried back from Boston, we all got pretty well scared and a good many went off to Canada.”
Under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act, federal law required local and state authorities to cooperate with slave-catchers who sought to reach into northern communities and drag former slaves back into bondage. Some of these people had been out of slavery for years, had raised families and acquired property. Suddenly, states and municipalities found themselves powerless to prevent the return to bondage of these members of their community.
Boston had three high-profile cases almost immediately which tested the new law. In one of them, a 23-year-old man named Thomas Sims was returned to slavery and thirty-nine lashes in the public square. Reflecting the outrage of the abolitionists, Frederick Douglass wrote, “Daniel Webster has at last obtained from Boston…a living sacrifice to appease the slave god of the American Union.”
One of the first things John Brown did in response to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, was to return to Springfield and help organize the members of the black community. He sought out his friend, Thomas Thomas, and consulted with him. He likely conferred with the Rev. John Mars, who preached from the pulpit of the Sanford Street Church that the time had come “to beat plowshares into swords.” At a meeting on January 15, 1851, John Brown gathered with members of Springfield’s black community and organized the Springfield Branch of the U.S. League of Gileadites. The Gileadites took their name from the Biblical Mount Gilead, where Gideon led the Israelites to freedom.
League of Gileadites
One of the most astonishing things about the League of Gileadites is that there was a document. Apparently, its first appearance in print was in a New York newspaper called The Independent in March of 1870. The author of the article, William Wells Brown, had himself escaped from slavery before the Civil War. In the article, Wells Brown makes reference to the original manuscript. That manuscript was also mentioned by F. B. Sanborn in his book, The Life and Letters of John Brown, which was published in 1891, and which also contained a version of the text in a slightly edited form. The whereabouts of the original document is unknown or even if it still exists.
Beginning with his “Words of Advice”, John Brown put on paper his thoughts about how the Gileadites should function. He began with the slogan, “Union is Strength” and laid out some principals around which the organization should be built. He stressed “personal bravery” and how it “charms the American people,” stating that “no jury can be found in the Northern States that will convict a man for defending his rights to the last extremity. This is well understood by Southern Congressmen, who insisted that the right of trial by jury should not be granted to the fugitive.”
Brown went on to advise:
“Should one of your number be arrested, you must collect together as quickly as possible, so as to outnumber your adversaries…”
“Let no able-bodied man appear on the ground unequipped, or with his weapons exposed to view.”
“Your plans must be known only to yourself, and with the understanding that all traitors must die, wherever caught and proven to be guilty.”
“Do not delay one moment after you are ready: you will lose all your resolution if you do. Let the first blow be the signal for all to engage; and when engaged, do not do your work by halves, but make clean work of your enemies…”
“After effecting a rescue, if you are assailed, go into the houses of your most prominent and influential white friends with your wives; and that will effectually fasten upon them the suspicion of being connected with you, and will compel them to make common cause with you…”
And this tidbit: “You may make a tumult in the court-room where a trial is going on, by burning gunpowder freely in paper packages, if you cannot think of any better way to create a momentary alarm, and might possibly give one or more of your enemies a hoist. But in such case the prisoner will need to take the hint at once, and bestir himself; and so should his friends improve the opportunity for a general rush. A lasso might possibly be applied to a slave-catcher for once with good effect.”
“Hold on to your weapons, and never be persuaded to leave them, part with them, or have them far away from you.”
And lastly: “Stand by one another and by your friends, while a drop of blood remains; and be hanged, if you must, but tell no tales out of school. Make no confession.”
The next section of the document is titled “Agreement” and begins with a kind of preamble, pledging allegiance to a “just and merciful God” and to “the flag of our beloved country.” And then follow nine “Resolutions” which largely restate or embellish the preamble:
“1. Resolved, That we, whose names are affixed, do constitute ourselves a Branch of the United States League, under the above name.
2. Resolved, That all business of this Branch be conducted with the utmost quiet and good order; that we individually provide ourselves with suitable implements without delay; and that we will sufficiently aid those who do not possess the means, if any such are disposed to join us.
3. Resolved, That a committee of one or more discreet, influential men be appointed to collect the names of all colored persons whose heart is engaged for the performance of our business, whether male or female, whether old or young.
4. Resolved, That the appropriate duty of all aged, infirm, female, or youthful members of this Branch is to give instant notice to all other members of any attack upon the rights of our people, first informing all able-bodied men of this League or Branch, and next, all well known friends of the colored people; and that this information be confined to such alone, that there may be as little excitement as possible, and no noise in the so doing.
5. Resolved, That a committee of one or more discreet persons be appointed to ascertain the condition of colored persons in regard to implements, and to instruct others in regard to their conduct in any emergency.
6. Resolved, That no other officer than a treasurer, with a president and secretary pro tem., be appointed by this Branch, until after some trial of the courage and talents of able-bodied members shall enable a majority of the members to elect their officers from those who shall have rendered the most important services.
7. Resolved, That, trusting in a just and merciful God, whose spirit and all-powerful aid we humbly implore, we will most cheerfully and heartily support and obey such officers, when chosen as before; and that nothing but wisdom, undaunted courage, efficiency, and general good conduct shall in any degree influence our individual votes in case of such election.
8. Resolved, That a meeting of all members of this Branch shall be immediately called for the purpose of electing officers (to be chosen by ballot) after the first trial shall have been made of the qualifications of individual members for such command, as before mentioned.
9. Resolved, That as citizens of the United States of America we will ever be found true to the flag of our beloved country, always acting under it.”
Then, came the names of twenty-seven people — not signed, but written in the handwriting of John Brown — and the cryptic note “and seventeen others,” making a total of forty-four. Click this link to see the list of Named Members of the League of Gileadites.
This is an amazing document. Think of it. A group of African-Americans, many of whom were recently enslaved, organizing an illegal, armed network for mutual defense. This was a very bold and risky action in the North, but it was a Southerner’s worst nightmare. In putting their names on this document, these people were risking their lives.
Who Were the Gileadites?
So who were these courageous people? I’ve researched each of the 27 names on the document, but many of these people’s identities are difficult to know. They were, after all, fugitives and many did not stay in Springfield long. There were, in some cases, multiple people in Springfield with the same or similar names, so I’ve made the “best guess” in some instances.
First, the names on the document are all of African-Americans, as far as I can tell. This is supported by the document itself which speaks only of “colored people” as members. This is in contradiction to the belief, promoted by some organizations, that the Gileadites were an example of interracial cooperation. Perhaps, there were sympathetic whites in the group, but their names do not appear.
Secondly, they were largely transplants from the southern states. Of the 27 names, I could find probable birth places for about half. Ten of fourteen were from Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia, and one from Alabama.
Third, there were several likely “noms de plume” or pseudonyms used. “Reverdy Johnson” was the name of the former U.S. Senator from Maryland and Attorney General of the U.S. The name “C. A. Gazam” may be a fabrication, since no one of that name, or anything like it, is known in Springfield.
The occupations of the Gileadites were varied. There were six in hospitality services (cooks, waiters, barbers); five in trades (woodworker, whitewasher, shoemaker, millwright, machinist); five laborers, and one farmer.
And there were at least four women among those named.
Of those who were named on the document, we know the most about the life of William Green. He published his story in 1853 under the title, A Narrative of Events in the Life of William Green, Formerly a Slave, Written by Himself. More on the life of William Green can be found at this link.
John N. Howard also had a compelling narrative. He grew up on the plantation of Talbot T. Gorsuch outside of Baltimore. As a child, he learned from his master’s children how to read, write, and calculate numbers in his head. By age 20, he had worked himself into a position of some trust and authority and was allowed to go into the city to buy and sell goods. On one of these trips, he learned from a Quaker that there were places where Negroes were free and slavery was illegal. He learned the name of an Underground Railroad agent , a Quaker in Baltimore, who gave him an address of another in Philadelphia.
With this little information, he started forth to freedom, taking the woman he loved and hoped to marry once they were free. They left one night in the company of a young Negro boy who rode with them for sixteen miles before turning back for home and returning their horses to pasture before they could be missed the next morning.
The young couple proceeded on foot and had several close calls. Howard related one incident, when he was stopped by a white man, this way:
“He asked me if I had my master’s pass. I told him of course. He asked me to show it. I refused. He insisted. I drew a small pistol and told him that was my pass. He raised a rifle at me. I leaned against the muzzle of the rifle and told him I would die there with him or go on free. I felt the rifle tremble against my breast; it dropped at my feet and the man stepped aside. His life was worth something to him, while mine was worth nothing. I would rather have died than gone back.”
Sticking with his network of Quakers, Howard was hidden for several days in an unoccupied house near the banks of the Susquehanna, while transportation across the river could be arranged and his pursuers searched for him close by. Once across the river, another Quaker contact put them in a freight car bound for Philadelphia. At one point, a trainman unlocked the door to their car and asked them a few questions. The trainman then read to them a handbill giving their description and offering a reward for their return. When the couple quickly denied having seen anyone matching that description, the trainman hesitated, then turned away, locking the car door and letting them go on their way.
From Philadelphia the couple found passage by boat to Connecticut where they were married by Rev. Porter, pastor at Farmington, where they remained for a couple of years. The Reverend’s son, who would become president of Yale College, was at the time pastor at Springfield’s South Church and he brought the Howards to this city.
John N. Howard was a very respected member of the black community, having worked variously as a truckman, a laborer, and the sexton at South Church. He owned real estate valued at $600 in the 1850 census. A group of Springfield people sought to purchase Howard’s freedom to insure his safety after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, but Howard refused to let them. He and his family went to Canada for a time.
Beverly C. Dowling’s name heads the list of names on the Gileadite document. He was born in Virginia and ran an eating saloon in Springfield and was a barber, for a time. Historian Clifton Johnson stated that B. C. Dowling and John N. Howard were considered Thomas Thomas’ lieutenants in the Gileadites. Dowling died in 1856, in his early forties, of consumption.
Those men had their names affixed to the Gileadites document, but we know there were at least seventeen others who were involved with the group. A curious omission from the list is Eli Baptist. Born a freeman in Cumberland, PA, Baptist came to Springfield in the 1850s. He initially found work in a blind factory and, when that company closed, he began peddling soaps and candles for R. M. Cooley.
Baptist then went to Haiti as a colonist, taking up the invitation of that country’s president. The colonists, 200 in all, were promised free passage, a land grant, and support for a year. But conditions were difficult and disease was rampant. After three and a half years, only 35 of the initial colonists remained. Eli Baptist gave up the project and returned to Springfield disillusioned.
Haiti’s loss was Springfield’s gain as Eli Baptist became one of the city’s leading citizens. There was hardly a position in the church that he did not hold at some point, from deacon to Sunday school superintendent. While his name is mentioned in almost every source about the Gileadites, none ever exactly claims that he was a member. In his obituary, however, it is stated, “Mr. Baptist remembered, among other things, the time when [John] Brown went to Sanford Street church and distributed bowie knives among the colored people of the congregation and the excitement of that period never ceased to impress him.” His obituary also called him “probably the most notable colored man in the city,” at his death in 1905.
Another black man known to have been among the Gileadites was Robert Wright. Wright was born with the slave name of Moses Bartlett Sohn on a plantation near Richmond, Virginia in 1814. He escaped in 1840 by using the free papers he purchased for 50 cents from of another black man named Robert Wright, whose name he then kept. He was captured on his journey north, but when brought before a judge, the judge determined that he matched the description on the papers and declared him a free man. He arrived in Springfield on his 26th birthday.
In this city, Wright worked as a waiter in a coffeehouse, where he met prominent merchant James Byers, who then hired him to be his personal servant on a fishing trip to Canada and on other occasions, afterwards. Wright also ventured to California in the gold rush where he worked for miners and made some money before returning east. After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, he lived for a time in Greenfield where a group of citizens purchased his freedom. Robert Wright returned to Springfield, where he worked as a cook and in various other jobs, and lived to be 90 years of age, dying in 1904.
No discussion of the League of Gileadites is ever complete with mention of Thomas Thomas, although his name appears nowhere on the document. He is always given credit as one of the leaders of the organization and one of John Brown’s closest friends. Thomas Thomas’ story can be found at this link.
So what did the League of Gileadites mean, in the big picture? Was it mostly symbolic? I think not.
Earlier, I mentioned the article by William Wells Brown in which the text of the Gileadites manuscript first appeared. After describing the contents of the document, the author reflected on his visit to Springfield in 1854, shortly after the rendition from Boston back to slavery of a fugitive named Anthony Burns. This event had aroused great excitement in New England and, especially in Springfield, where slave-catchers were expected to make a similar attempt in this city.
“As night drew near,” William Wells Brown wrote, “the excitement among the blacks became more intense; and a feeling of de[s]pair and revenge seemed depicted upon the countenances of the colored people, which feeling was shared by many of the whites, who deeply sympathized with the intended victims. With a friend, we visited the locality where most of the colored people resided, a little after eight o’clock in the evening, and when the excitement was at its h[e]ight. The clear moonlight enabled us to see the black sentinels stationed at the corners of the streets and alleys approaching the dusky neighborhood, in the midst of which stood a large two-story house, occupied exclusively by colored families. After submitting to an examination that satisfied the outposts that we were of the right stripe, we were permitted to pass, and one of their number was sent in advance of us to prevent our being disturbed. By special invitation, we were conducted to the ‘hot room,’ as it was called, of the large building. On entering, we found this to be a room of about thirty by forty feet square, in the center of which stood an old-fashioned cook-stove, the top of which seemed filled with boilers, and all steaming away, completely filling the place with a dense fog. Two lamps, with dingy chimneys, and the light from the fire, which shone brightly through the broken doors of the stove, lighted up the room. Eight athletic black women, looking for all the world as if they had just returned from a Virginia cornfield, weary and hungry, stood around the room.
Each of these Amazons was armed with a tin dipper, apparently new, which had no doubt been purchased for the occasion. A woman of exceedingly large proportions — tall, long-armed, with a deep scar down the side of her face, and with a half grin, half smile — was the commander-in-chief of the ‘hot room.’ This woman stood by the stove, dipper in hand, occasionally taking the top from the large wash-boiler, which we learned was filled with boiling water, soap, and ashes. In case of an attack, this boiler was to be the ‘King of Pain.'”
Wells Brown goes on to relate his conversations with those preparing for battle, who intended to “fling hot water on ’em,” and scald their very hearts out. The author finished his piece with these observations:
“Returning to the depot to take the train for Boston, we found there some ten or fifteen blacks, all armed to the teeth and swearing vengeance upon the heads of any who should attempt to take them.
True, the slave-catchers had been there. But the authorities, foreseeing a serious outbreak, advised them to leave the city; and, feeling alarmed for their personal safety, these disturbers of the peace had left in the evening train for New York. No fugitive slave was ever afterward disturbed at Springfield.”