“I want to free all the negroes in this [slave] state ... if the citizens interfere with me I must only burn the town and have blood.”
- John Brown, October 1859
John Brown and the people with him planned and executed a raid on the National Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Brown's contemporary, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, tells the story of the raid in this Address at the 14th Anniversary of Storer College. Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, May 30, 1881.
On the night of the 16th of October, 1859, there appeared near the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, a party of nineteen men—fourteen white and five colored. They were not only armed themselves, but had brought with them a large supply of arms for such persons as might join them. These men invaded Harper's Ferry, disarmed the watchman, took possession of the arsenal, rifle-factory, armory and other government property at that place, arrested and made prisoners nearly all the prominent citizens of the neighborhood, collected about fifty slaves, put bayonets into the hands of such as were able and willing to fight for their liberty, killed three men, proclaimed general emancipation, held the ground more than thirty hours, were subsequently overpowered and nearly all killed, wounded or captured, by a body of United States troops, under command of Colonel Robert E. Lee, since famous as the rebel Gen. Lee. Three out of the nineteen invaders were captured whilst fighting, and one of these was Captain John Brown, the man who originated, planned and commanded the expedition…[He] was brought into court, subjected to a nominal trial, convicted of high treason and inciting slaves to insurrection, and was executed. His corpse was given to his woe-stricken widow, and she, assisted by Anti-slavery friends, caused it to be borne to North Elba, Essex County, N. Y., and there his dust now reposes, amid the silent, solemn and snowy grandeur of the Adirondacks.
John Brown's raid helped catapult the nation into Civil War. The war had a disastrous effect on Harpers Ferry, leaving a path of destruction that wrecked the town's economy and forced many residents to flee forever. Because of the town's strategic location on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley, and near Washington, DC, United States and Confederate troops moved through Harpers Ferry frequently. The town changed hands eight times between 1861 and 1865.
On April 18, 1861, less than 24 hours after Virginia seceded from the Union, U. S. soldiers set fire to the Armory and Arsenal to keep them out of the hands of approaching Virginia militia. The fires destroyed the Arsenal and 15,000 weapons, but the Virginia militiamen and local townspeople put out the flames. The Virginia soldiers then shipped the weapon-making equipment south. When they abandoned the town two months later, these soldiers, now Confederates, burned most of the factory buildings and blew up the railroad bridge. On July 4, 1861, Harpers Ferry citizen Frederick Roeder was caught in crossfire between U. S. and Confederate forces and became the first Harpers Ferry civilian casualty of the war.
When the Federals returned to Harpers Ferry after the Battle of Antietam, they transformed the surrounding heights into fortified bastions to protect the garrison and the railroad.
These defenses were put to the test from July 4 to July 7, 1864, as Confederate General Jubal Early led his Army of the Valley to Harpers Ferry en route to an attack on Washington, DC. The U. S. garrison here successfully held out against Early, delaying him for several days and helping save Washington.
Later that summer, U. S. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan used Harpers Ferry as his base of operations to wage a successful campaign in the Shenandoah Valley against Gen. Early’s army.
Ceramic shards and hearth features tell the story of Indigenous people using the Harpers Ferry area as far back as 1200 B.C. People from the Algonquian and Iroquoian linguistic groups lived in the Shenandoah and Potomac valleys. The first Indigenous people to encounter Europeans were coastal groups in present-day Virginia around 1520. As Europeans moved west from the Atlantic coast, they came into conflict with Indigenous people settled in this area. By the 1700s the Shenandoah "valley no longer housed any kind of permanent [Indigenous] settlements. …only the Tuscarora and Shawnee tribes lived on the land in temporary villages." Just a handful of accounts written by Europeans mention Indigenous people by the early 1700s; reports of conflicts between Shawnee and Europeans in 1707, the "Great Pumpkin Flood of 1753" describing floodwaters carrying pumpkins from Native American farms and a mention of a man called "Gutterman Tom" who arrived with the first European settler of Harpers Ferry are all that remain.
African American history has deep roots here. The first free Black family settled in this area in colonial times. The first known enslaved person in Harpers Ferry was brought here by the town founder and sold upon his death. Enslaved and free African American labor supported the growth of the U.S. Armory and Arsenal in Harpers Ferry. Harpers Ferry was used by freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad.
Free and enslaved people of color fought with John Brown to end American slavery. Colonel Tubman, as Brown called Harriet Tubman helped to recruit and raise funds for the attack.
During the Civil War, United States Colored Troops recruited soldiers in the area. The only African American Civil War field officer, Major Martin Robinson Delaney, was born in this area.
Civil Rights giants like Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois were drawn to Harpers Ferry. African American students sought an education here, first at the Freedman's Bureau school and later at Storer College—one of the first schools to offer higher education to people of color.
African American efforts enshrining John Brown paved the way for Harpers Ferry to become a National Historical Park. More than 250 years after the first family settled the area, Jefferson County still boasts the longest established African American community in the state.
The physical and historical geography of the Harpers Ferry area shows how landscapes shape human history and how humans profoundly affect natural landscapes—a powerful reminder that the actions of today determine the opportunities of tomorrow.
The Harpers Ferry water gap has attracted human attention for centuries. Indigenous people, early European settlers, and canal and railroad used the gap in the Blue Ridge as an avenue of travel and transport. The rivers that carved the gap also produced power for the town's mills and factories. Hardwoods from the mountains provided charcoal for industry and fuel for stoves. Harpers shale afforded excellent building material. Although severe floods sometimes ravage what human hands have built, the land here has proven resilient.
Before the Civil War, Virginius Island boasted several private industries, including a sawmill, flour mill, machine shop, two cotton mills, tannery, and iron foundry. Lewis Wernwag, a noted bridgebuilder from Philadelphia, was one of the island's first entrepreneurs. Following the war, two water-powered pulp mills were erected along the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. Today only ruins remain of Harpers Ferry's 19th-century industrial heyday.
Last updated: August 12, 2022
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
National Park Service
PO Box 65