Lesson 116:
Dangerfield Newby

An ongoing illustrative history study
This piece originally posted 2/19/2023

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(This is going to be another difficult read; be ready.)

While the account (and the historical weight) of John Brown's unsuccessful 1859 raid on Harper's Ferry is well-known, some of the individual participants are less familiar, and are only just now beginning to be rediscovered. Brown's group of raiders consisted of 22 men who ranged widely in social class and education. Significantly five of those 22 were Black, though Brown certainly had hoped for a great deal more --one of the objectives of the raid was to liberate enslaved people and inspire them to join in a larger-scale insurrection.

Dangerfield Newby - watercolour with pen and ink, 2.5 in. x 3.5 in.At the (probable) age of 43, Dangerfield Newby was likely the oldest of all of Brown's raiders. His exact age is uncertain as he was born into slavery sometime between 1815 and 1820 in Culpeper County, Virginia. Newby's father, a white man named Henry Newby, was himself married to an enslaved Black woman, Elsey Pollard, which accounted for Dangerfield's notably light complexion. Henry Newby eventually obtained his wife's owner's permission to move himself, Elsey, and their 11 children (including Dangerfield) to Ohio, where by law any slaves setting foot onto Ohio soil automatically became free.

Dangerfield himself became a blacksmith by trade, and later married an enslaved woman named Harriet, still in bondage in Prince William County, Virginia. Lacking any legal standing in Virginia, the marriage produced seven children and Dangerfield devoted himself to saving enough money to one day buy his entire family's freedom. Unfortunately Harriet's owner, Lewis Jennings, dealt Dangerfield a setback by selling Harriet and the children to a plantation in Louisiana, and while Newby had indeed accumulated sufficient earnings to attempt to head off the sale, Jennings reneged on the arrangement and changed the conditions of the agreed-upon price. This was almost certainly Newby's motivation to join Brown's raid.

Stalwart in his determination to liberate his family, Newby met with the already-infamous abolitionist in Ashtabula County, Ohio. Throughout the summer of 1859 Dangerfield, along with the rest of Brown's brigade, lived and trained in the Kennedy Farmhouse preparatory to the plan to seize the armory and inspire an armed rebellion among the slaves. Newby's familarity with the area was instrumental in supplying arms and other provisions to Brown's brigade.

Late on October 16, and early into the morning of October 17, Brown's team infiltrated Harper's Ferry, successfully cut the telegraph lines, occupied the armory and took hostages, and set lookouts upon the Potomac and the Shenandoah bridges. Unfortunately that was the extent of the raiders' success; the insurgents were soon outmatched, first by the citizens of Harper's Ferry and then by arriving additional militia. As a manufacturing town there were plenty of guns, but very little ammunition and so Brown's raiders fired pretty much anything they could fit into a gun barrel. One such man was shooting six-inch spikes, one of which struck Dangerfield in the throat, making him the first of Brown's team to be killed.

Newby's body was mutilated; his ears and genitals cut off as souvenirs, and his remains partly eaten by hogs. His body, as well as those of nine other raiders killed, was left in an alley and eventually thrown into a box which went into a pit, without ceremony or clergy. In 1899 the remains of Newby and the other nine raiders would be reburied in a common grave near John Brown's burial site in North Elba, New York. But perhaps most heartbreaking of all were the letters from Harriet that were found on Dangerfield's body:

Dear Husband: I want you to buy me as soon as possible, for if you do not get me somebody else will. The servants are very disagreeable; they do all they can to set my mistress against me. Dear Husband,. . . the last two years have been like a troubled dream to me. It is said Master is in want of money. If so, I know not what time he may sell me, and then all my bright hopes of the future are blasted, for there has been one bright hope to cheer me in all my troubles, that is to be with you, for if I thought I should never see you, this earth would have no charms fo me. Do all you can for me, which I have no doubt you will. I want to see you so much.

Sadly Jennings' sale went ahead, and Harriet and her children were sent to Louisiana, though after the war they returned to Virginia, where some of their descendants still live to this day. In 2020 a number of local elementary schools opted to recognize Dangerfield Newby after decades of obscurity; among other acknowledgements a state highway marker in Culpeper County was approved by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

Highly recommended for further study: Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown's Army by Eugene L. Meyer. Also worth a view: "John Brown's Black Raiders" as shown on PBS's Africans in America (Part 4: Judgement Day), indexed at https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2941.html

Next page - Lesson 117: Edward Brooke, III

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