Owen Brown’s Revolver

March 7th, 2011by Olivia MahoneyFiled under: Collections

During the month of March, a revolver that once belonged to Owen Brown will be on view at the Chicago History Museum.  Symbol of a crucial chapter in American history,  this artifact reminds us that the museum’s collection contains pieces of national significance—and illustrates the mysterious journey an object can sometimes take.

Born on November 4, 1824, at Hudson, Ohio, Owen Brown lived a quiet life until 1856 when he joined his father, John, in a militant crusade to end slavery. That spring, they journeyed to Kansas where three other Brown sons lived. At the time, pro and anti-slavery settlers were engaged in a bitter struggle  known as “Bleeding Kansas.” Sometime after 10:00 p.m. on the evening of May 24, Brown’s men dragged five pro-slavery men from their cabins near Pottawatomie  Creek and hacked them to death with broadswords. Owen participated in the killings but John later claimed he had not. He did, however, approve them as an act of self-defense.

On August 20, Brown and thirty-nine followers encountered a large group of approximately three hundred pro-slavery forces near Pottawatomie. Although they were hopelessly outnumbered, Brown’s men fought bravely, killing at least twenty men and wounding forty. Their actions brought national attention and earned John the nickname “Osawatomie Brown” for defending a nearby free settlement that pro-slavery forces burned to the ground.

In September, after the governor ordered a cease fire, John Brown and three sons, including Owen, left Kansas. Owen carried this revolver, which he had picked up somewhere in Kansas. Exactly how he acquired the weapon is unknown, but he claimed ownership by scratching his initials into the bottom of the brass backstrap.

Colt Model 1851 Revolver, 1917.3. Gift of Frank G. Logan

Three years later, Brown carried the revolver with him during his father’s famous raid on the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Staged to incite a slave rebellion, the raid left ten men dead before federal forces took control. John Brown was captured and eventually hanged for his actions, but Owen, using this revolver, fought his way out, fleeing to Canada where he lived during the Civil War.

After the war, Brown returned to Ohio. Leaving his violent past behind, he operated a grape farm. He eventually moved to California, establishing a peaceful mountain homestead near Pasadena, California. Owen Brown, who never married, died at age sixty-five in 1889.

In 1893, Frank Logan, a wealthy grain merchant, avid collector, and trustee of the Chicago Historical Society, acquired the revolver from Brown’s sister for display at the World’s Columbian Exposition. In 1917, Logan gave the revolver to the Historical Society. He also donated this image of Owen Brown taken in the mid-1880s, long after his abolitionist days. The revolver remained on exhibition for many years until the evening of November 14, 1948, when someone stole it by smashing the glass case. The police were called but the thief got away.

Nothing more was heard about the revolver until January 2010 when I learned that a private collector had it in his possession and wanted to return it to the museum. He had purchased it ten years earlier but did not know its history until reading an article about the theft in a gun collectors’ magazine. Fortunately, the article included the revolver’s serial number and identified it as our piece. Now, after a sixty-two-year absence, the revolver is back in Chicago.

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