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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
John Brown and the Underground Railroad
Jun. 8, 2014 1:00 am, Updated: Jun. 19, 2014 8:34 am
On Oct. 16, 1859, John Brown and his small band of abolitionists seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va.
His plan was to arm his band of raiders and recruit as many slaves and sympathizers as possible to end slavery forcibly in this country. He failed when gunshots alerted nearby officials and most of his party was either killed or captured.
Reports reaching Iowa in November 1859 from Harpers Ferry said that the excitement there was reported to be increasing daily. Rumors abounded that abolitionists were planning more incursions and the town was in a state of siege.
Whether or not that was true, the raid was credited for being an element in the start of the Civil War.
What is true is that Brown's foray into Virginia began in small towns in Iowa.
On an October morning in 1856, a weary Brown arrived at the Traveler's Rest, an inn run by Quaker James Townsend on the outskirts of West Branch.
Brown already was becoming known as the man who headed the border skirmishes between Kansas and Missouri in his ardent support of banning slavery. His efforts in Kansas had led to several bloody encounters and the escape of many slaves through the Underground Railroad. He received a warm welcome from Townsend.
Brown stayed only a few days then, but returned in December 1857 with a retinue of nearly a dozen men, several wagons and mules and a number of slaves on their way to freedom.
They had come from Tabor, in western Iowa, where the Massachusetts-Kansas free-state committee had delivered 20 boxes of Sharps rifles in support of the abolitionists' cause. The group also had sent Brown a new 'prairie schooner” wagon that he fitted out for his passenger business. It also served to help transport the rifles east to Pedee and then West Liberty in Cedar County.
Pedee was described in 'The Annals of Iowa” as the Quaker settlement of Cedar County, the center of which was the quiet little village of Springdale. Pedee also was a station in the Underground Railroad. Escaped slaves were hauled by wagon from the slave territory in Missouri to Pedee, then shipped at night to Chicago by rail.
The Quakers at Pedee made Brown's work far easier than at other, more dangerous points. Even though Iowa was a free state, the federal fugitive slave law applied. A person caught aiding a runaway slave was subject to a severe fine and jail time. Brown himself escorted many of the escapees across the prairies and safely onto the rail cars.
Brown's group stopped at the Springdale home of William Maxson, about 3 1/2 miles north of West Branch, whose basement was a station in the Underground Railroad. With his men settled for the winter, Brown headed east to drum up some additional financial support.
In his absence, the men rose at 5 a.m., practiced military drills before noon in fields east of the house, read, wrote and practiced shorthand in the afternoons and held debates in the evenings. They also carved their names in the stone foundations of the basement and plotted their raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry in Virginia.
Brown rendezvoused with his men in Springdale before he started out for Harpers Ferry. The new wagon, loaded with the guns that Brown's men would use at Harpers Ferry, traveled to West Liberty where shipped east under the guise of carpenter's tools.
Among the men who set out with Brown on his Harpers Ferry raid were six men from Iowa: Steward Taylor, Jeremiah Anderson George Gill, Charles Moffat and two Springdale brothers, Edwin and Barclay Coppoc.
Taylor and Anderson were killed at the arsenal, Gill and Moffat were not part of the raid, Edwin Coppoc was captured and executed with Brown, and Barclay Coppoc escaped. He secretly worked his way back to his home in Springdale, but the government of Virginia had put a large bounty on his head. He was trailed by officers, specifically a special agent named Camp, who expected to take him back to Virginia for execution.
Camp arrived in Iowa City from Richmond with requisition papers, only to find that the state capital recently had moved to Des Moines. Before he took a stage west, he ascertained that Barclay Coppoc was at Brown's old headquarters. All he needed was Gov. Samuel Kirkwood's signature on the papers.
Arriving in Des Moines, Camp presented his documents to the governor. Kirkwood, who was from Iowa City, had been one of two men there who were contacts for slaves on the Underground Railroad.
He was acquainted with the Coppoc family and was reluctant to sign, knowing that to do so would be consigning the young man to death. Kirkwood told Camp he would look over the papers carefully and requested that the agent return in several hours.
Unhappy with the delay, Camp nevertheless had no choice but to wait. The governor found a ray of hope when he discovered a legal discrepancy.
When Camp returned, Kirkwood told him he would have to consult with legal authorities before he could honor the requisition.
Infuriated, Camp expressed himself to the governor in a very loud voice, alerting several anti-slave officials nearby of the agent's purpose in seeing the governor.
Immediately, word was sent to Springdale urging Coppoc to flee the country. When Camp returned to Iowa City, it was without the requisition papers. Kirkwood had refused to sign them.
The Maxson home, where the Harpers Ferry raid was plotted, lay in ruins by 1950. Laura Gray, who owned the farm from about 1900, said that when the house was in fair condition, the state sent officials to survey and perhaps restore the place, but nothing ever came of it.
Sightseers continued to strip the building, taking away pieces of walnut trim as souvenirs. Today, a marker placed there in 1924 by the Iowa Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution is the only reminder of the historic old house.
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