On the evening of October 16th, 1859, twenty-two men captured the attention of a nation on the brink of civil war when they seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). One of these men was their leader John Brown—a radical abolitionist who wanted to capture arms and ammunition to start a slave liberation movement throughout the American South. Another one of the raiders was Osborne Perry Anderson—a twenty-nine-year-old from Chester County, Pennsylvania.
Osborne Perry Anderson was said to have been born on July 17, 1830 in West Fallowfield Township. He moved to Canada in 1851. Anderson is remembered today as one of five African American men who joined in Brown’s violent 1859 raid, and he was the only one of the five to survive. His book, A Voice from Harper’s Ferry, an eyewitness account of the attack, was first published in 1861. He wrote it “to save from oblivion the facts connected with one of the most important movements of this age … the overthrow of American slavery.”
Used with permission from the West Virginia State Archives. (Boyd B. Stutler Collection.)
But what about the family Anderson left behind in Chester County? There are brief genealogies for Osborne Perry Anderson but they provide little, if any, documentation. We set out to find out what we could in available records.
According to the federal census, Osborne’s father was Vincent Anderson and he had three younger brothers: James, John, and Manuel (Emanuel). Various genealogies identified Osborne’s mother as Sophia Taylor. Thanks to our friends at the Chester County History Center Library, we know that Vincent Anderson and Sophia Taylor were married April 8, 1830 by James Walton, a justice of the peace in East Fallowfield. The 1850 federal census lists Osborne, James, John, and Manuel Anderson in Vincent Anderson’s West Goshen household, but there is no mention of Sophia. Vincent later appears in West Chester census records—in 1860 Osborne’s three brothers are listed with him.
Little has yet been found on Osborne Perry Anderson’s brothers – a problem compounded by researching common names such as “James,” “John,” and “Anderson.” It is possible that James and John enlisted in the United States Colored Troops in the Civil War, but we have not found enough documentation yet to confirm that the same James and John Anderson listed in military service records at the National Archives (and in our USCT database) were indeed Osborne’s brothers.
Vincent Anderson was a laborer. It is likely that the family frequently moved to find work—thus creating inconsistent appearances in tax records. Vincent does show up in court records, however, both as a witness and as a defendant. In June 1844, Anderson was briefly held in the Chester County Prison as he waited trial for allegedly making threats against John Dorsey. His court appearances frequently relate to altercations with Thomas and Mary Brown and their son William. In 1869, Thomas and William shot out the window of Vincent’s bedroom during the night. This case highlights another difficulty in tracking the Andersons – Chester County’s government records often do not indicate race. So the court papers never identify Vincent Anderson or the Browns as Black, but a newspaper account of the shooting published by the Intelligencer Journal (Lancaster, PA) does. If you are looking for common surnames like “Anderson,” the identification of someone’s race helps narrow the search.
1870 West Chester tax records identify Vincent Anderson as a laborer.
An earlier court record points to a more significant neighborhood connection – this time with the Shadd family. Abram D. Shadd posted bond for Thomas Brown in an 1844 case in which Vincent Anderson was a witness. Who was Abram D. Shadd? He was a civil rights advocate and the father of Mary Ann Shadd. The Shadd family moved to Canada, where Mary Ann Shadd edited and published The Provincial Freeman—a newspaper for the Black community that supported anti-slavery and other reforms. Osborne Perry Anderson was working with Shadd when he met John Brown, and it was Shadd who assisted him with the publication of A Voice from Harper’s Ferry.
On December 12, 1872, Vincent Anderson left West Chester for his son Osborne’s funeral in Washington, DC. Osborne Perry Anderson, who survived the John Brown raid and a perilous escape back to Canada, died of consumption in the nation’s capital at the age of 42. Just over six years later, Vincent Anderson fell ill with pneumonia. He was admitted to the Chester County Poorhouse on January 31, 1879. He died 21 days later, on February 21st. He was 76 years old.