Click the map of Iowa to explore the route
After conducting a raid into Missouri on December 20, 1858, John Brown, with twelve men, women, and children freed from slavery, plus ten of his own men (including three Iowans), crossed into Iowa on February 4, 1859 to begin a fateful final journey across Iowa during February and March.
Brown was no stranger to the territory, having traveled in Iowa many times before. This time was different, with some Iowa residents taking a dim view of his recent exploit. In spite of this, supportive sympathizers aided the party as it proceeded.
Ten months later Brown was dead, having been captured and hung after the former Kansas fighter and his band attacked the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia on October 16, 1859. The brash action ignited great controversy and became a catalyst leading to Civil War.
The Kansas-Nebraska struggle arose after 1854 over whether the territories would become slave or free states. This made western Iowa an important staging area for free state forces and also an area of operations for those engaged in aiding fugitives escape enslavement.
The northward flight of persons from enslavement in western Missouri often brought them first to a rural Iowa hamlet known as Civil Bend, just upriver from Nebraska City. From there they would be directed to Tabor and then eastward across Iowa toward Chicago and Canada.
For Iowa residents this participation was a dangerous and illegal business. Many avoided involvement in the slavery issue and wanted to keep black settlement out of the state, while others saw the state standing forth as a beacon of anti-slavery hope.
The outward flow of runaway slaves spread tension in Missouri and other border slave states while the larger Kansas conflict enraged both North and South, killed the Whig Party, made the Republican Party, split the Democratic Party and guaranteed Lincoln’s election.