When people discuss the Civil War, they are usually able to recall a few battles from high school U.S. History, most taking place in the southern United States. The name John Brown may be familiar, but his relationship with Josiah Bushnell (J.B.) Grinnell, benefactor of Grinnell College, may be less well known. Brown was a radical abolitionist, often forced to engage in violence to work towards his goal of ending slavery. From Bloody Kansas to the raid on Harper’s Ferry that cost him his life, he walked the line between martyr and terrorist, the answer depending on which side of the war was asked. J.B. Grinnell, founder of the town and benefactor of the college, was very sympathetic to Brown’s cause as “the most important abolitionist in Iowa”, as well as a conductor on the Underground Railroad (Kerr 3). When Brown was passing through the town of Grinnell on his way to assist slaves on their journey to emancipation in Canada, Grinnell allowed him to hide his guns and followers in his home. It seems that Grinnell as a town has been fairly progressive since its founding, and that J.B. Grinnell’s ideas have shaped the mission of Grinnell College.
Brown and his party of newly emancipated slaves arrived in the newly-founded town of Grinnell on February 25th, 1859, just over nine months before his execution for crimes against the state of Virginia and murder. Brown scouted ahead and went to the home of J.B. Grinnell and discussed his mission with him.
Grinnell was quick to offer his support and use of his parlor for storage of arms and Brown’s party. According to Florence Stewart Kerr, Grinnell College class of 1912, “his welcome in the town of Grinnell was warm and even enthusiastic,” unlike in several other Iowa towns (Kerr 3). The town itself was subjected to criticism and hideous remarks from major Iowa newspapers after word got out the residents had readily received Brown (Soike 151-152).
Brown addressed the town at a church, discussing the violence in Kansas and Missouri, and making clear his dedication to the goal of ending slavery. He declared there “we are far on our journey and ready to die in open field. We can shoot 60 times a minute and even the women are practiced dead shots” (Mills 101-102). Brown’s goal was to get his party of men, women, and children to freedom in Canada, and J.B. Grinnell used his influence to get them a train car to take them all the way to Detroit where they were able to safely cross into free territory. After this was accomplished, John Brown began his crusade to take the armory in Harper’s Ferry, which would ultimately lead to his capture, trial, and execution.
Two core beliefs of Grinnell College are social justice and self-governance, and it is probably assumed that these ideas were put into place fairly recently with the many progressive movements in the last 50 years. However, that is not the case. The town of Grinnell has been an epicenter for forward-thinking individuals since its establishment in 1854, and the college has adopted that idea since its own formation. While John Brown’s history was dark and violent, his goal was just, and J.B. Grinnell’s offer of assistance shows the long history of progressive thinking and social justice that is present on Grinnell College’s campus to this day.
Kerr, Florence Stewart. “John Brown in Grinnell.” The Tanager, Feb. 1926.
Mills, George. “The Crusade of John Brown.” The Annals of Iowa 35 (1959), 101-112.
Soike, Lowell J. “Iowa and the Martyrdom of John Brown.” Necessary Courage: Iowa’s
Underground Railroad in the Struggle against Slavery, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, 2013, pp. 137–171.
Des Moines Register. “John Brown’s route across Iowa.” Digital Grinnell. Grinnell College and
Des Moines Register, 1859, https://digital.grinnell.edu/islandora/object/grinnell:186
Des Moines Register. “When Josiah Grinnell’s Home Concealed John Brown’s Guns.” Digital
Grinnell. Des Moines Register, 1859, https://digital.grinnell.edu/islandora/object/grinnell:185
“Hon. Josiah Bushnell Grinnell of Iowa.” Library of Congress. Library of Congress, 1855-
“J.B. Grinnell House.” Digital Grinnell. Child Art Rooms, Poweshiek History Preservation
Project, 1870, https://digital.grinnell.edu/islandora/object/grinnell%3A11090
“John Brown Portrait.” Ohio History Connection. Ohio History Connection, 1855-1859,