John Brown was brought up in a strict Calvinist environment, in which he was taught that slavery was a sin.  With a difficult personal life, including loss of his first wife and little success as a businessman, in 1855 Brown set out to do something he had always detested – slavery.  What was the institution of slavery like in our country?    What did Brown do out in Kansas?    Is it ever okay to use violence to bring about needed change?


Objectives:  What was slavery like in the ante-bellum United States? What was being done to appease both the pro-slavery and abolitionists elements in the country? How would you describe slavery? Do you think the country should have done more to restrict it in our country’s early days? Is it ever okay to use violence to bring about needed change? Has our country ever done that? What do you think of John Brown’s activities out in Kansas?


Critical Content:  Review the institution of slavery in North America, up to the time of the Civil War. Consider the various compromises and acts, particularly the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas – Nebraska Act of 1854, and the Dred Scott Decision of 1857. How did pro-slavery elements and abolitionists react to these acts of our government? Look at John Brown’s early life, up through his time in Kansas.

Student Objectives:
Students will:

  • Share their thoughts on slavery, and look at how our country dealt with this institution.
  • Consider how both pro-slavery elements and abolitionists looked at slavery and why.
  • Learn a little about John Brown’s early life, and in particular, his activities out in Kansas in the years 1855 – 1857.
  • Discuss the question: is it ever okay to use violence to bring about needed change?


In Incident at Harpers Ferry: Slavery and John Brown, students will review how slavery developed in North America, and why the institution grew in the years leading up to the Civil War.  They will then look at John Brown’s life, up to 1859, particularly the time he spent out in Kansas in the mid-1850s.


Our Incident at Harpers Ferry unit is divided into two lesson plans, each taking about 40 minutes to complete, and targeted mainly at grades five through eight. Although a class doesn’t have to complete both lessons, it is highly recommended, as the second builds off of the first.   


  • The “Rounds”

  • Questions on slavery

  • Image of John Brown

  • Background on John Brown



1) Download the “Rounds”.


2) Download the suggested questions on slavery.


3) Download the image of John Brown.


4) Background information on John Brown.




First, it is assumed that the class has already done some study of the institution of slavery.  If this is not the case, then the teacher will need to spend more time before starting this unit. However, if the class has already done some work on slavery, it may be a good idea to have the students complete a short assignment the night before starting this unit. That assignment could include some basic questions on slavery in North America.   Use the list of questions provided as an example. If you’ve already assigned this, then spend some time going over what the students found.   This can be done first in small groups of 3-4 students, then as an entire class.


If you haven’t assigned work the night before, then divide the class into small groups of 4 students each, and if available, go to the computer lab (or make use of the computers in your classroom). 


If you have enough computers available, have each team use two computers, so that 2 students are using one computer. Each team can either work together as a whole team, or, even better, divide the questions between the two pairs. Give the teams about 10 minutes, less if you can, to do some research and answer as many questions as they can. Some of the answers may be hard to determine, but encourage the students to do their best to answer all of the questions.


As a team, the two pairs within each team should then share their answers, and discuss the final question on the list. Allow a few more minutes for this activity.


Once the teams have completed their research and discussion, return to the classroom to finish up the lesson.


Now, perhaps using Power Point, go over the questions in the classroom, and see what the teams came up with.  As far as Power Point images to accompany this portion of the lesson, some suggestions might include: the first Africans brought to Jamestown; a map of the British Colonies in the first half of the 18th century, indicating those areas where slavery was allowed (it was allowed everywhere); an image of African-Americans in the Continental Army; Eli Whitney and the cotton gin; a map showing the Missouri Compromise of 1820; a map showing the Compromise of 1850; and so on.


After doing some review on slavery, introduce the next activity, called “Rounds.” This activity is probably not appropriate for younger grades, but students in Grades 7 and 8 – and higher – should have no problem with it.


Ask for 7 – 9 volunteers, students who enjoy reading in front of the class, to come forward. Have them form a line facing the rest of the class and give each student one of the pieces from the “Rounds,” which you can download from this site.


Ask the students in front to read their pieces to themselves, to make sure they’re comfortable reading them. Help them with any words or pronunciation.


When all the students in front are ready, explain to everyone that they are about to hear excerpts from Southern newspapers from before the Civil War. Some of what they’ll hear is a bit strange, and some of the words they’ll hear are words we don’t use anymore. Tell the students that they’ll talk a bit about what they hear, then ask the first student up front in the line to read his/her piece.


These excerpts are actually advertisements for runaway slaves. The teacher doesn’t have to say this; the students will figure this out right away.  Each piece describes the runaway slave – “had an iron bar around the neck”, “had a scar on her cheek…” “She has had her right foot broke.” Each will provide the opportunity to discuss what life as a slave was like, and what slave owners often had to do to prevent their slaves from running away.


Now explain to all that the students are going to hear these “voices” of the some 4 million slaves at the time of the Civil War in a different way. The student at the right end of the line will read his/her piece, and when he reaches the name on his piece, he will finish reading, and the person to his left will begin reading his/her piece. Thus there will be an overlap in the reading as this process continues right to the last person at the left of the line.


Now it’s time to consider John Brown, and his life up to 1859. Before doing this, however, ask the students if they have any questions based on what they’ve done so far, and perhaps also pose the question: Is it ever okay to use violence to bring about needed change? Or, before discussing Brown, ask the students what changes they would like to make in their world. What would they like to change about their community? Or their state? The country? The world? From that, lead them into a discussion of what John Brown wanted to change.


It’s not necessary to provide a complete history of John Brown’s early life, but some background would probably be useful: born in Connecticut in May 1800; moved to the wilderness of Ohio when he was five; his mother died when he was 8, and father re-married; brought up as a Calvinist; taught that slavery was a sin; he claimed later that he first observed the cruelty of slavery at the age of 12, when he witnessed the beating of a young black male; married twice (first wife died in child-birth); had 20 children (nine didn’t live to their teenage years); tried his hand at a variety of businesses but never did well in any of them; moved out to Kansas in October 1855, at the urging of some of his sons who were already there.


Spend some time discussing the situation in Kansas in the mid-1850’s, after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Abolitionists were not happy with this act of Congress (why not?), but it allowed the residents of those soon-to-be-new states to decide whether or not they wanted slavery. As a result, pro-slavery elements and abolitionists rushed into Kansas and they fought over the issue. It became known as “Bleeding Kansas,” and it turned into a violent place. John Brown and his crew were right in the middle of it, committing various atrocities (particularly at Pottawatomie Creek in late May 1856, when he and his followers murdered five pro-slavery men). 


Depending on how far you get with this lesson, it might be wise to give the students to find out a little bit about John Brown as a homework assignment. You can download a suggested homework assignment. Break up the questions, so no one student has to answer all of the questions. Determine which questions need to be addressed by how far you get in this class.



  1.  The students can be assessed by how much they cooperate, work together, and take part in the various activities in class.
  2. If you’ve completed all of the steps listed above, there are a number of other possible homework assignments: the first idea is to have the students find out a little bit about Harpers Ferry in the years just before the Civil War. What was made there for the U.S. Government? Why do you think they chose that spot to produce weapons? How large was the town?  Where is Harpers Ferry located?  What state is that today?  What important railroad line ran through the town?
  3. A second potential homework assignment is to have the students pretend they are a settler out in Kansas in the 1850’s and for them to write a letter to friends or relatives back East, explaining his difficult life in that territory is.  As a settler in Kansas, you might even have met John Brown or one of his followers. Or perhaps you have witnessed some of the fighting in Kansas.
  4. A third possible homework assignment might be to write a journal entry as a slave.  Because slaves were generally not allowed to learn to read or write, the students may want to replicate their difficulty with writing in their journal entries.

Park Connections

Harpers Ferry’s history includes six major topics, the most well-known, of course, being John Brown’s Raid in 1859. Although the weapons factories no longer exist, the fire engine house, now called “John Brown’s Fort,” the building in which Brown was captured, still stands, although in a different location.  Many of the buildings that Brown and his fellow Raiders saw in October 1859 are still here, and the park has a John Brown Museum and a Black Voices Museum.  

Additional Resources

  • John Brown's Raid, National Park Service History Series, Harpers Ferry Historical Association, 2009
  • Midnight Rising, Tony Horwitz
  • John Brown titles on our Suggested Reading page


slavery; abolitionists; Compromise of 1850; Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854; Dred Scott Decision, 1857; "Bleeding Kansas"