This is the second in a guest blog series written by Rochelle Bush, resident historian of Salem Chapel BME Church and community advocate in St. Catharines, as part of the Museum’s Black History Month commemorations. Read Part I here.
Meeting John Brown
Harriet Tubman more than likely returned to St. Catharines after leaving the home of Fredrick Douglass in early January 1858 to care for her elderly parents. We don’t really know her whereabouts at this time so it is also possible that she continued to visit with friends in New York State or she may have returned to Maryland to rescue her sister.
We do know that on April 7th,1858, Tubman was in St. Catharines at the boarding house she rented. The boarding house, which no longer stands, was located in the “Colored Village” on North Street behind the British Methodist Episcopal Church (BMEC) which she attended. The Black settlement was located on the outskirts of the town. It was at this boarding house where she received and met, John Brown, a notorious, radical abolitionist, for the first time on April 7th.
John Brown was a white anti-slavery activist who “believed he was raised up by God to strike the death blow to American slavery.” He also thought that the only way to end institutionalized slavery was with violence. In 1837, at the age of 37, Brown dedicated his life to the destruction of slavery. Ten years later he began to share his revolutionary ideas with selected, like-minded friends. Twenty years after swearing an oath to destroy slavery, Brown put his plan into action. Brown first gained national attention in the mid-1850s during the “Bleeding Kansas” crisis. It was a territorial battle between pro-slavery and anti-slavery sympathizers for control of the land and the State. One side wanted Kansas to become a “Slave State” and the other a “Free State.” In late May 1856, Brown led a group of abolitionist activists to Pottawatomie, Kansas. He wanted to retaliate against pro-slavery agitators that had sacked Lawrence, Kansas, a town that had been founded by anti-slavery sympathizers. Brown and his men murdered five “professional slave hunters and militant pro-slavery settlers.”
Brown’s participation in this bloody battle for Kanas was breaking news and Tubman would have quickly become aware of this violence.
John Brown visited Fredrick Douglass about a week or so after Tubman left that January of 1858. At that point, he and Douglass had been friends for about a decade. Brown stayed with Douglass for three weeks. During this time he discussed his plans to bring slavery to an end and he drafted a copy of his “Provisional Constitution” a document outlining a new structure of government he envisioned. John Brown was anxious to meet with Tubman. He wanted to enlist her help in recruiting an army of fighters in St. Catharines for his pending assault to end slavery.
On April 5th John Brown arrived in St. Catharines. He stayed for ten days. Brown was accompanied by Jermain Loguen, a Black abolitionist and UGRR station manager of Syracuse, New York. Loguen spoke to Tubman without Brown. She agreed to meet him and said, “The old man might visit her home, for nobody would hurt him there.”
On the same day that Brown arrived the St. Catharines Journal ran an article about the state of the town’s two lavish spa hotels.
Eleazer Williams Stephenson, Esq., proprietor of the grand 200-room Stephenson House located on the banks of the Twelve Mile Creek, announced that his hotel was open for business and that, “guests and invalids may rest assured that the Stephenson House is still the place to make their home.” The Welland House, which was closed for the winter because it was undergoing renovations, informed the public that it was scheduled to open on the 1st of May and that “a grand Ball and Dinner” on April 28th would be held to show off the newly updated facility. The newspaper article directed readers who could not find rooms at the large hotels to the St. Catharines House where the “overflow crowd would be accommodated.” It is quite possible that John Brown checked into one of the grand hotels when he arrived in St. Catharines. At the very least, while in St. Catharines, he would have toured the spectacular facilities.
When Brown met Tubman on at her St. Catharines boarding house, there were probably no less than a dozen Black men at the meeting with Tubman. Jermain Loguen, who arranged the meeting most likely attended the meeting, along with William Howard Day, a Black abolitionist who was living in St. Catharines at the time.
We know that Brown and Tubman were devoutly religious. They were practicing Christians. And, we know the two shared “a common belief in direct action against the institution of slavery.” According to one source, “their first meeting included a strange ritualistic greeting by John Brown, in tribute to Tubman’s history of leadership of bands of escaping fugitives. When Brown entered he shook hands with her three times saying “the first I see is General Tubman, the second I see is General Tubman, and the third I see is General Tubman.”
Unfortunately, “there are no sources to explain what exactly was discussed at Tubman’s home” during the meeting with John Brown.” However, another source speculates that Brown “entrusted Tubman with organizing a band of fugitives willing to fight along with him, hoping that she, too, would be at his side when the attack came.” When the meeting concluded we know that “Brown said goodbye and called her “General Tubman” again.
On April 8th, the day after his meeting with Tubman, Brown wrote to his son, John Brown Jr., and said, “I am succeeding in all appearance, beyond my expectations.” Brown also claimed that “There is the most abundant material and the right quality in this quarter, beyond all doubt.” As for Harriet Tubman, Brown told his son that she “hooked on his whole team at once” and that, “He is the most of a man, naturally, that I ever met with.” Yes, John Brown referred to Harriet Tubman as a man. He was more than likely paying her a compliment and probably thought she possessed more courage than most men. When they met again on April 12th “Brown gave Tubman $15 towards her rent and other expenses.”
Black Men Arrested
During Brown’s visit to St. Catharines, a local newspaper reported that two Black men were arrested for “street fighting on the Sabbath.” The men arrested were Levin Parker, a Marylander who may have received escape instructions from “Moses”, or Tubman, absconded during the October exodus six months earlier, and James Burrell, a freedom seeker from Williamsburg, Virginia. Burrell fled from enslavement in March 1854 and first made his way to Philadelphia. There, he was interviewed by William Still and admitted that the fear of the auction block caused him to leave his wife and their two children whom Burrell understood were the legal property of their enslaver. On the day of the altercation, one newspaper account states that,
Parker attempted to steal the heart of Burrell’s beloved Dinah, which proceeding did not all suit Mr. Burrell. Meeting each other on Sunday last, a discussion arose as to the lawful possessor of Dinah’s affections, which resulted in Burrell using some threatening language towards his rival. Parker told him if he laid a hand on him he would blow his brains out ― we think this would be a very difficult job to perform on either ― when Burell knocked him down ― Parker instantly sprang to his feet, drew a pistol and fired, and then, after throwing away the weapon, ran off.
Parker and Burrell were arrested and jailed. At their arraignment, it was noted that “Burell had a very narrow escape ― the ball passing within an inch or two of his head.” Both men, for causing a disturbance on Sunday, “were fined $20 each.”
Tubman met with John Brown again on April 14th. At this time “Brown gave Tubman $25 in gold from “G. Smith’s Draft.” The name “G. Smith” refers to Gerrit Smith, a white abolitionist residing in Peterboro, New York. Smith was one of six white men who were financially backing Brown’s scheme. The other five were from New England. They would become known as the “Secret Six.”
During his ten-day visit, “Brown was cautious; he didn’t want to arouse suspicion as to why he was in St. Catharines.” Brown left St. Catharines on April 15th. He was making his way to Chatham, with a stop in Ingersoll, Ontario. Tubman was supposed to meet him at the train station. She did not appear. Almost twenty months would pass before the St. Catharines residents would learn that, John Brown, the militant abolitionist, had been in town.
White Man Found Dead
During the early morning of April 15th, the day of Brown’s departure, the town’s white elites would learn that a young white man of high privilege was found dead in the jail. This shocking news would spread throughout the country and across the ocean to Great Britain.
A local newspaper reported that “A man named William Allan, better known as “Scotch Will,” was found dead in the Lock-up on Thursday morning last” and that he was “the nephew of Mr. Allan, of the firm of Edmondson, Allan & Co., Proprietors of the Canadian Line of Ocean Steamers.” William Allan had been incarcerated in the St. Catharines jail for the entire winter. The newspaper account reports that Allan’s appearance, when discovered was horrific, and that “great agony having undoubtedly been endured as death terminated the struggle.” The Allan’s were one on the wealthiest families in Canada.
In 1819 Captain Alexander Allan established a shipping company in Scotland with one vessel that sailed between Scotland and Quebec. In 1826, his second son Hugh Allan moved to Montreal and opened a successful shipping business. He was joined several years later by his younger brother Andrew. Two other brothers maintained offices in Greenock and Liverpool. By 1839, Hugh Allan had bought more sailing vessels. He would continue to expand the company and the shipping routes throughout the 1840s and he established “Canada’s celebrated “Allan Line” of transatlantic transport.” Hugh Allan was a successful business tycoon. In the 1850s, he served as President of the Montreal Board of Trade and President of the Montreal Telegraph Company and was instrumental in extending telegraph lines across Canada. Allan owned a coal mine company in Nova Scotia as well as tobacco, paper, textile, and steel companies in Ontario and Quebec and he later headed the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. In 1854, “the Allan consortium incorporated the Montreal Ocean Steamship Company” and two years later the firm was awarded the government’s multimillion-dollar mail contract from Montreal to Britain.
Fourteen years after the death of his troubled nephew in the St. Catharines jail, Hugh Allan was knighted by Queen Victoria in recognition of his services to Great Britain and Canada.
John Brown, while at the train station or while on his way to Ingersoll may have discussed the tragic, yet breaking news about William Allan with other passengers.
Brown remained in Ingersoll for a few days. He returned to the US, collected his band of followers, and then went to Chatham. He never heard from Tubman. She was last seen on April 15th, 1858 in St. Catharines. Three weeks later, she was still nowhere to be found.
St. Catharines Tourist Season
Life in St. Catharines continued on. As the summer season approached, vacationers were starting to converge on the town. A lot of money was about to pour into St. Catharines over the next six months. Local businesses and the surrounding villages wanted to reap some of the financial benefits. Many came up with crafty ways to attract the predominately Southern vacationers. In the April 29th edition of the St. Catharines Journal, the countryside Village of Port Dalhousie reported as a “local improvement” that “no colored people inhabited the town.”
On May 6th Tubman’s whereabouts were still unknown. She may have travelled to Maryland to make another attempt to collect her sister Rachel with some of the money she received from John Brown. Tubman may have been visiting friends in New York State. It’s also very likely that she remained in St. Catharines with her parents. Tubman may have found employment at one of the hotels for the summer season.
According to several sources, John Brown was in Chatham from May 8th to 10th. Tubman was not there. Brown held a private meeting with thirty-four Black men and twelve of his followers. Brown’s clandestine meeting became known as the “Chatham Convention.” He hoped that after this meeting he would be able to move forward with his attack against the “Slave Power” during the summer months. No one from St. Catharines attended the meeting. Brown spoke to the Chatham crowd about his plan to “begin a war to end slavery by provoking an armed uprising of slaves.” The group also discussed and approved the Provisional Constitution he wrote five months earlier at the home of Fredrick Douglass.
It was during Brown’s time in Chatham that “his plans to overthrow the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia were placed on hold.” Brown would learn that one of his early recruits, a white man named Hugh Forbes, who Brown hired to instruct his band of followers in military combat, became disgruntled and disclosed the plans. Forbes wanted more money and he wanted the authority to make the decisions. He wrote a series of letters to several people and expressed his concerns. The security leak frightened Brown’s financial backers, the “Secret Six”. They summoned Brown to Boston for a meeting in late May and postponed the planned raid until further notice. Brown agreed to the delay and went back to Kansas.
Harriet Tubman was more than likely in St. Catharines when she heard that Brown’s plans were put on hold. One source states “With the raid on hold indefinitely, Tubman turned her attention to her family and household and aged parents” who were living in St. Catharines.
Rochelle Bush is the owner and operator of Tubman Tours Canada, the resident historian at the Salem Chapel, BME Church Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad NHS, a member of the Historical Society of St. Catharines, and a past Advisory Board Member of the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre. Bush is a native of St. Catharines and a descendant of African American freedom seekers.