Thursday, June 24, 2010

Random Shots from Charles Town and the Kennedy Farm

While in the Washington D.C. area this past week I journeyed up I-270 to Frederick, Maryland and then headed west on 340 to Harpers Ferry to do some research. I was attempting to find out more information on Benjamin Mills, who was the Master Armorer at the time of John Brown's raid. Mills also happened to be a Kentuckian and one of Brown's hostages. But, before going to do my research at the park's archives, I drove on a few miles more to Charles Town, West Virginia.

Although I had been to Harpers Ferry a number of times before, until this trip I had never taken the extra time to go on into Charles Town. Other than the beautiful and huge historic house for sale that I passed as I entered the town, the first sight that caught my eye was the old Jefferson County Courthouse (pictured above).

The courthouse was originally built in 1808 on a lot donated by Charles Washington, (George's brother) the town's name sake. In 1836 that courthouse was replaced by a larger structure which is included in the present building.

Unfortunately, I was there too early and before they opened and didn't get to see inside, but apparently, according to the sign, "visitors are welcome."

Of course, the reason I visited the courthouse was because it is where John Brown was tried and convicted for treason for his role in the Harpers Ferry raid. The building maintains most of its historical integrity, and it doesn't take too much imagination to think what the scene must have been like outside the courthouse during the duration of the trial.

Interestingly, the Jefferson County Courthouse served as the venue for another and later high-profile court case. In 1922 miners were tried there for their role in the "Battle of Blair Mountain," which had occurred on the West Virginia/Kentucky border and pitted striking miners against the state of West Virginia as well as federal troops.

Naturally, while in town, I wanted to find the location where Brown was hanged. Following the directions on a town wayside map I proceeded about four blocks or so from the courthouse and found the historical marker pictured above. A house has been built adjacent to the location, but an iron fence and large yard gives one the understanding that the hanging happened "within these grounds." A huge swarm of pesky gnats were out in full force at the hanging sight so I didn't stay too long.

After visiting Harpers Ferry, (which I will describe in a future post) I asked for directions to the Kennedy Farm from the visitor center attendant. She quickly provided a one page sheet with information on the history of the site and direction on how to get there. What looked like a simple drive out there proved to be quite the adventure.

The Kennedy Farm is where Brown and his men gathered in the months and weeks leading up to the raid. Brown had sent one of his men, John Cook, on to Harpers Ferry about a year in advance of the raid to scout the area and gather information. Cook lived in the town and even married a local woman during his stay. In July 1859 Brown and his sons Oliver and Owen along with raider Jeremiah Anderson arrived in the area. Using the alias of Isaac Smith, Brown rented the Kennedy farmhouse on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, about seven miles from Harpers Ferry.

Brown told locals that asked that he was in the area to do some mining; so the wagons that brought additional men, weapons, and ammunition were not as suspicious. In addition, he had his daughter Annie, and daughter-in-law Martha (Oliver's wife) come to the Kennedy Farm from upstate New York to keep house and make it appear more like a settled home to the passing neighbors.

In the weeks before the raid more men would arrive including free blacks John Copeland and Lewis Leary from Oberlin, Ohio. Brown consulted with the well-informed Cook about the make up of the town and the local slave population. On September 30 Brown sent Annie and Martha back to New York, and on October 16, after a passionate prayer, Brown said, "Men get on your arms; we will proceed to the Ferry."

The house (pictured below) has been carefully restored to appear as it did in 1859. It is not open to the public except for advanced scheduled tours and has a chain link fence around the grounds, so I was not able to get a real close look at it.

If Brown was looking for an out of the way place, but one that was not too far from his planned attack, then the Kennedy Farm was the perfect location. I didn't think I would ever get there. The road is winding and hilly enough to the twenty-first century automobile traveler. I can only imagine what it must have been like for the nineteen century horse and wagon traveler. There is no real good way to get there in the present day. You have to travel way out of your way to even get to the road that takes you there since there is no automobile bridge across the Potomac from Harper Ferry. I chalked it up to adventure and pretended that I was on one of the curvy roads of my native East Tennessee. But, in the end it was worth the drive, and although I wish I could have seen inside the house, I doubt they get the visitation that would permit it to be open without an appointment.

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