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John Brown letterbook

Identifier: MS 0155


Letterbook containing a draft of an essay entitled "Sambo Mistakes" written by abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859).


  • circa 1847


Conditions Governing Access

Access is restricted to the original book due to fragility. A photostatic copy is available to researchers.

Conditions Governing Use

The reproduction of materials in this collection may be subject to copyright restrictions. It is the responsibility of the researcher to determine and satisfy copyright clearances or other case restrictions when publishing or otherwise distributing materials found in the collections. For more information visit the MCHC’s Rights and Permissions page.

Biographical Note

Born in Torrington, Connecticut, abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859) spent the majority of his childhood in Ohio learning the family trade of tanning animal skins. A chance encounter with a freedom seeker, who arrived at the family home in hopes of finding aid, made an indelible impression on Brown and significantly contributed to his investment in the anti-slavery movement. From 1846 to 1850, Brown lived in the ideologically progressive city of Springfield, Massachusetts and became involved in transforming the city into a major center of abolitionism. In May of 1856, Brown's exploits for the anti-slavery cause turned violent. After following five of his sons to the Kansas territory, he started a campaign to bring Kansas into the union as a slavery-free state. In retribution for the attack by pro-slavery forces on the town of Lawrence, Kansas, Brown and his guerilla band of abolitionists went to a town near Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas and killed five slavery-supporting settlers. For the rest of 1856, he continued to fight against pro-slavery proponents in the Kansas and Missouri territories.

By the summer of 1859, Brown's focus turned to initiating a nationwide armed revolt. Using the alias Isaac Smith, he rented the Kennedy Farm in Washington County, Maryland, which was approximately seven miles from the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Brown believed that a raid on the federal arsenal for weapons to arm enslaved persons would help rally the nation to action in support of his cause. The farmhouse served as the headquarters for Brown and his followers as they gathered weapons and studied local maps in preparation for the attack.

On October 16, 1859 Brown and twenty-one of his men seized the Harpers Ferry armory and took several hostages. On the following day, President James Buchanan ordered a company of U.S. Marines, under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee, to retake the arsenal. By October 18th, Lee and his company of Marines cornered Brown and his fellow raiders in the armory's engine house, forcing them to surrender. Eighteen people died during the attack on Harpers Ferry, including ten of Brown's men and one Marine. Within a week, Brown was brought to trial in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia) and charged with treason against the Commonweath of Virginia. The jury quickly found him guilty and the state executed Brown by hanging on December 2, 1859. Although the raid on Harpers Ferry did not proceed as Brown planned, his actions ultimately intensified the polarization between abolitionists and pro-slavery advocates and less than two years after his attack the United States erupted into Civil War.


1 Volumes

Language of Materials


Custodial History

In 1883, Clifton W. Tayleure mailed this letterbook as a gift to the Maryland Historical Society and included with it a note briefly describing how he came into the possession of an item belonging to John Brown. As a member of the Baltimore City Guard, Tayleure participated in the suppression of Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. After the capture of Brown on October 18, 1859, Tayleure was one of the men tasked to search Brown's headquarters at Kennedy Farm for any remaining conspirators of the raid. Although the farmhouse had been abandoned, Tayleure did find a trunk filled with maps, military books, papers and the letterbook. He presented these documents to the authorities, which were then used as evidence in the trial against Brown, but decided to keep the letterbook in his possession. He held onto the item for over two decades until he decided to offer it to the Maryland Historical Society, as he would "be very glad to have it find a resting place amongst the archives of the society you represent."

Letter from Clifton W. Tayleure to John H.B. Latrobe, November 3, 1883, MS 2008, MdHS.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of Clifton W. Tayleure, November 1883.


  • Kennedy Farm. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  • Centennial observance: John Brown Raid, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, October 15, 16, 17, 18, 1959. Historical booklet. (1959).


Written on cover of letterbook: "John Brown's Letter Book taken by C. W. Tayleure. From John Brown's residence at the Kennedy Farm, Washington County, Maryland, on the evening of the day of the capture of Brown at Harper's Ferry—Oct. 18th 1859."

Scope and Contents

The John Brown letterbook contains a faded, handwritten draft of an essay entitled "Sambo Mistakes." Comprised of three chapters, Brown composed this essay circa 1847 for The Ram's Horn, a New York abolitionist newspaper published by free Blacks. In this memoir-style essay, Brown assumes the guise of an African American man who reflects on his misspent life of pursuing trivial objects instead of fighting for equality. It's presumed that this essay was published in The Ram's Horn sometime between 1848 and 1849 but as there are no extant copies of that newspaper remaining, the letterbook contains the only existing version of this text.

Guide to the John Brown letterbook
Under Revision
Sandra Glascock
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Revision Statements

  • 2019-07-23: Manually entered into ArchivesSpace by Emily Somach.

Repository Details

Part of the H. Furlong Baldwin Library Repository

H. Furlong Baldwin Library
Maryland Center for History and Culture
610 Park Avenue
Baltimore MD 21201 United States