Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Julie Winch

Second Advisor

Roberta Wollons

Third Advisor

Kibibi V. Mack-Shelton


History remembers radical abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859) as the man who directed the slaughter of five pro-slavery settlers in Bleeding Kansas in 1856 and for his failed October 1859 raid on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. But before he committed these infamous and life-defining acts, John Brown lived and worked in Springfield, Massachusetts, from 1846 to 1849. Though originally drawn to Springfield to work as an agent for wool growers who were being taken advantage of by powerful New England mill owners, it was during his time in western Massachusetts that the nature of Brown’s abolitionism changed. While Brown was a committed abolitionist before he moved to Springfield, a position he inherited from his father and the region of Ohio where he spent his formative years, most of his early actions on behalf of the cause took the form of small, symbolic gestures. During his residency in Springfield, Brown met with Frederick Douglass for the first time and revealed to him an early version of his plan to destroy slavery. He also penned an advice essay to the black community entitled “Sambo’s Mistakes,” and founded the all-black mutual defense organization called the League of Gileadites to resist attempts at enforcing the new Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Through each of these episodes, Brown demonstrated a more practical and radical orientation to the abolition of slavery than he had prior to moving to Springfield. The environment in Springfield helped inspire this shift in Brown. Springfield had a significant abolitionist community by the time of Brown’s arrival, many of whose members acted as agents for or conductors on the Underground Railroad. Springfield was also home to the third-largest African American community in Massachusetts. Brown spent a considerable amount of time with members of this community, hiring them to work in his wool warehouse and praying with them in the town’s only African American church. The environment and people in Springfield helped Brown become the man who would stoke the flames of sectional discord with his actions in Bleeding Kansas and his failed raid on Harpers Ferry.