Lesson Plan

Incident at Harpers Ferry: Slavery and John Brown

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Grade Level:
Fifth Grade-Ninth Grade
Civil War, History, Military and Wartime History, Slavery, Social Studies
35 – 40 minutes
Group Size:
Up to 24 (4-8 breakout groups)
Slavery, John Brown, Kansas-Nebraska Act, Abolitionists, Dred Scott Case, harpers ferry


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.  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"