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Exploring John Brown’s New England Roots

A severe looking white man in a suit jacket and tie with crossed arms faces the camera unsmiling
Augustus Washington
Portrait of John Brown between 1846 and 1847.

Evangelical abolitionist John Brown became an icon of American history when he led a raid on a federal armory at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in an attempt to foment a movement to free enslaved people in the region in October 1859. Before that, he left a legacy in Lake Placid, New York and in Connecticut. 

A new Showtime series titled “The Good Lord Bird” – based on the novel by James McBride – explores Brown’s life. WAMC spoke with Torrington, Connecticut Historical Society Executive Director Mark McEachern about Brown’s roots in New England.

MCEACHERN: For one thing, John Brown was pretty young when he lived in Torrington. He was born here May 9th, 1800, and he lived here with his father, mother and siblings until 1805 when they moved west to Ohio as part of that Great Western migration, and they settled in Hudson, Ohio. Here in Torrington, they had a 40-acre farm on the west side of Torrington bordering the Goshen town line. And John's father Owen was a tanner. So there was a small stream on the property, which provided enough water for John Brown's father to establish that tannery up there.

WAMC: What's left of that birth site today?

Well, unfortunately, the house burned in 1918. It was restored in 1903, as one of the first historic homes in Connecticut that was open to the public, and for 15 years, it was quite an attraction. And unfortunately, there was a chimney fire in 1918, and the house burned to the ground. Since that time, there have been no structures on the property. It's the original 40 acres with an additional 60 acres attached to it, and it's currently owned by the Torrington Historical Society. And it's mostly woodland, although the site where the house stood is essentially a clearing in the woods on the side of a town road. And it's, I think it's a very beautiful sight. For me, it's very moving to be there, and to contemplate such a pivotal time in American history and all the repercussions of that period in American history.

John Brown was a deeply religious man. Was there anything going on in the Torrington community that informed his upbringing as a Christian?

Well, his father was extremely religious. And I think John Brown was in a sense to chip off the old block when it came to religion and abolitionism. I think they were things that, lessons that he learned from his father,

Can you expand on that a little bit? What kind of man was John Brown's father?

Owen Brown, was born in West Simsbury, Connecticut. His father was a soldier in the Revolutionary War. He died in service to the country. And Owen Brown was in Norfolk for a couple years. It's where he started his tanning business and then moved to Torrington. Now, the section in Torrington that they moved to is the western part of town, and the Congregational Church there was the first Congregational Church established in Torrington. And I find it very interesting that in, from 1785 to 1787, about 12 years before the Browns moved to Torrington, the pastor of that church was Lemuel Haynes, who was the first ordained African American congregational minister. So I think that says something about the racial tolerance that was afoot in this area of Connecticut at that time period.

How is John Brown remembered in Torrington today?

Well, I think that in Torrington, John Brown is remembered much the same as he is throughout the country. There are those who revere his actions and what he did to end slavery in America. And there are those that not, not so much question his motives, but question his means, and I think that's a divide that exists in Torrington and really throughout the country.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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