Archive for Friday, May 28, 2004

John Brown’s descendant shares stories

May 28, 2004


Abolitionist John Brown's great-great-granddaughter Elaine Caldwell never had to go in search of her family's history.

"I've always known," Caldwell said. "I didn't have to learn."

Caldwell, Betty Alder Shermer and Merril D. Peterson shared stories about Brown and his Civil War-era contemporaries Thursday night at the Dole Institute of Politics.

Caldwell, who is from Santa Barbara, Calif., told several stories about how her great-grandfather, Salmon Brown, and great-great-grandmother, Mary Brown, adjusted to life after the hanging of John Brown following the Harper's Ferry raid.

Right after the raid, Mary Brown received many gifts from her husband's backers, but the money soon ran out. The family decided to move to California. While traveling as part of a caravan, they heard that Southerners in the party were plotting to kill them.

"Everybody knew who the Browns were," Caldwell said.

One of the trailer's wheels broke and the Browns left the caravan. They traveled on their own before meeting up with the U.S. Army, which escorted them for 200 miles. The family eventually settled in California.

Caldwell said the family stories passed down emphasized how much John Brown loved his children.

"He was stern and strict, but they never questioned his love," Caldwell said.

Shermer, great-great-granddaughter of August Bondi, read several excerpts from her relative's diary. Bondi, a native European, fought against slavery with Brown in Kansas and then went on to fight three years for the Union during the Civil War. Bondi came back to Kansas and eventually became a founder of Salina.

Shermer said Bondi's childhood experiences during the Austrian Revolution led to a passion for freedom. He wanted to rid the world of tyranny, she said.

Because of this relationship with the historic figure, Shermer and her husband, Lloyd, purchased the oldest-known photograph taken of John Brown. The couple donated it to the Smithsonian Institution.

Peterson, professor emeritus of history at the University of Virginia, wrote a book in 2002 titled "John Brown: The Legend Revisited." Peterson, who was raised in Manhattan and graduated from Kansas University in 1943, said the John Brown legend fell out of favor until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

"He was a historical nonentity, a fanatic, a madman, not worthy of study," Peterson said. "After the civil rights movement he came back into favor and was seen as a fervent, militaristic abolitionist."

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