Descendants of John Brown, Abolitionist

By Katherine Scott Sturdevant Premium

Q: Where can I find information on descendants of John Brown, the abolitionist, who came to Virginia and then to South Carolina?


A: John Brown fought his own “holy war” for the abolition of slavery, and his immediate descendants fought at his side. Born in Torrington, Conn., in 1800, he was descended from abolitionists who had many children. (See He had two wives and a total of 20 children, although many did not survive to adulthood. With first wife Dianthe Lusk, he had John Jr., Jason, Owen, Frederick, Ruth, and Frederick II. Dianthe died in childbirth in 1832, so he married Mary Ann Daly in 1833. She bore Watson, Salmon, Sarah I, Charles, Oliver, Peter, Austin, Annie, Sarah II, Ellen I, Ellen II, and Amelia. John Brown was such a dedicated abolitionist that he sometimes lived among African Americans to help them, and he brought his children and in-laws into his exploits.

Two events highlighted Brown’s activism. In Kansas in 1856, his supporters—including some of his sons—murdered some pro-slavery settlers in revenge for a recent raid on an abolitionist town. In 1859, his group raided the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry (Virginia, now West Virginia), expecting to arm a slave rebellion. Thwarted, Brown was hanged for treason and became an abolitionist martyr. Some of his sons died in his raids, but both sons and daughters spawned descendants. For the Brown family history, see Gerald McFarland’s A Scattered People: An American Family Moves West (Ivan R. Dee, $16.95), especially his source note. This book will also serve as a model for developing Brown family narrative in historical context. Also, contact the Hudson (Ohio) Library and Historical Society at and see to learn about son Owen Brown.

For more on Brown’s life, see the Web site of the PBS documentary “John Brown’s Holy War” at as well as biographies such as Warren and Stephen Oates’ To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown (University of Massachusetts Press, $20.95) and Web sites such as There is also a well-regarded novel dramatizing Brown, Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks (HarperCollins, $16). Recently, the Brown family Bible, including family information dated 1839, was restored to its special case at the Harper’s Ferry museum. For a discussion of “The Madness of John Brown” and whether his family line carried insanity, see the chapter by that name in James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle’s After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection (Knopf, $38.75). If your family is related to John Brown’s, you have a wealth of family and historical material to access, including pivotal, dramatic events in American history.