National Capital Region: Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Painting showing a line of meeting delegates, with suits and umbrellas, crossing a field to gather in front of a small building.
"Marching to a Monument For Freedom" portrays the delegates of a meeting of the Niagara Movement, held at Harpers Ferry in August of 1906.

By Richard Fitzhugh, 1994. Courtesy of Richard Fitzhugh.

Quick Facts

1861 - 1865 Civil War era
1895 - 1909 Period when John Brown's Fort was located at Chambers-Murphy Farm
  • Featured Artwork: Marching to a Monument for Freedom, Richard Fitzhugh, 1994
  • Associated Cultural Landscape Reports:

John Brown's Fort, originally a fire engine and guard house, is brick with three arched doorways.
John Brown's Fort now stands near its original location in Lower Town, Harpers Ferry.

NPS Photo, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

John Brown Fort

Abolitionist John Brown believed he could free the slaves, and he intended to begin the movement at Harpers Ferry.

On the evening of October 16, 1859, Brown and his group of 21 raiders seized the United States Armory and Arsenal. They planned to take hold of the 100,000 weapons at the Arsenal in order to arm a slave uprising. However, before two full days had passed, most of his men were killed or wounded. Brown and the remaining raiders were taken captive when U.S. Marines stormed the Armory fire enginehouse on October 18.

John Brown was convicted and hanged on December 2, 1859, charged for "conspiring with slaves to commit treason and murder."

The Niagara Movement at Harpers Ferry
Drawing of the raid at John Brown Fort
The caption on this illustration, which appeared in 'Harper's Weekly' in November 1859, reads: "The Harper's Ferry Insurrection. The U.S. Marines storming the Engine House, Insurgents firing through holes in the wall."

Historic Photo Collection, Harpers Ferry NHP

The structure that came to be known as John Brown's Fort was constructed in 1848 as the Armory's fire engine and guard house. In 1891, the fort was sold and transported to Chicago for display near the World's Columbian Exposition. After reportedly attracting only 11 visitors in ten days, the building was closed, dismantled again, and left on a vacant lot.

In 1895, the fort returned to Harpers Ferry when it was rebuilt in a field on Murphy's farm, about three miles outside of town and overlooking the Shenandoah River. In Fitzhugh's painting, delegates to the 1906 Niagara Movement meeting approach the fort. The date of the meeting places the scene at the Murphy's farm location. On that morning, with a light rain dampening the West Virginia landscape, about one hundred Niagrites made the two mile sunrise pilgrimage to the farm.

Nearing the small brick building, a physician from Brooklyn bent and respectfully removed his shoes and socks. Others followed him as they approached the hallowed ground, marching single-file around the fort to the sounds of The Battle Hymn of the Republic and John Brown's Body.

The building was acquired by the National Park Service in 1960 and has stood at its present location since 1968, now just east of the original site at the armory in Lower Town.

John Brown's Fort at the site of Storer College, ca. 1910.
John Browns Fort next to new Lincoln Hall at Storer College, ca. 1910. In 1909, Storer College purchased the fort as an addition to the campus landscape and converted it into a museum and monument.

NPS/Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Archives (HAFE 8678)

In 1994, Washington, D.C. artist and illustrator Richard Fitzhugh was commissioned by the Harpers Ferry Historical Association and the West Virginia Branch of the NAACP to create this painting, which accompanied "The Call for Justice and the Struggle for Equality: Niagara and Beyond" exhibit at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

The painting depicts a procession of Niagara Movement delegates making their way toward John Brown's Fort on August 17, 1906. Ceremonies at the historically significant building were devoted to the memory of well-known abolitionist John Brown. The meeting was an important cornerstone in the foundation of the modern civil rights movement.

John Brown's Raid remains a part of the legacy of our nation's struggle with slavery and civil rights, directing the nation's attention on the moral issue of slavery as it marched towards civil war.

Visitors to Harpers Ferry NHP take a tour of John Browns Fort.
After the closure of Storer College, the National Park Service conducted tours of John Brown's Fort at the site. The area surrounding the fort at that site included a mortared stone wall and simple wood slat benches (ca. 1955).

NPS/Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Archives (HF 0320)

The painting was informed by a variety of sources, including photographs taken of the fort in the late nineteenth century, a group photograph of the men taken as they returned from the march, and a description of the morning's ceremony from "Allies for Freedom" by Dr. Benjamin Quarles.

Aerial view of Harpers Ferry, showing the town surrounded by rivers and hills.
Lower Town at Harpers Ferry


Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Located the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers and including land in three states, the themes of history at Harpers Ferry are equally difficult to distinguish from each other.

The landscape has been a backdrop to manufacture, the arrival of the first successful American railroad, John Brown's fight against slavery, and education of former slaves in one of the earliest integrated schools in the country. Thomas Jefferson remarked upon the natural features of this landscape, and Meriwether Lewis traveled here in 1803 to gather supplies from the United States Armory and Arsenal for the transcontinental expedition.

The landscape of Lower Town, one of many cultural landscapes identified and documented within the park, is defined by five major periods of growth and development. It is a landscape shaped by the complex forces of natural and human influence. Commercial development in the town developed alongside industrial development, and the influence of technology and engineering stand beside the picturesque impressions of a rural landscape. The scene is traversed by rivers and railroads, its history framed by forces of conflict, floods, settlement, industry, and recreation.

Did you know?

John Brown's Fort was moved four times.

Originally located at the Armory Grounds/Musket Factory in Lower Town Harpers Ferry, it was moved to Chicago for the 1893 Chicago World Exposition, to the Murphy Farm about two miles outside the town of Harpers Ferry (the location depicted in this painting), to Storer College, and then to its present location in Lower Town.

Discover how you can visit the fort and the many cultural landscapes of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park at the park website.

Park map with stars indicating the former and current locations of John Brown's Fort.
The blue star indicates the current position of John Brown's Fort within the park, not far from its original location.

NPS, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Last updated: June 28, 2018