Harpers Ferry is a historic town located in the lower Shenandoah Valley of Jefferson County, West Virginia. Situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers where Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia meet, it is the easternmost town in West Virginia.
The area was first settled in 1733, when a squatter named Peter Stephens, made his home near “The Point,” which is where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet. There, he established a ferry from Virginia (now West Virginia) to Maryland, across the Potomac River. Because of its low elevation, the place was unflatteringly referred to as the “hole.”
Fourteen years later, in 1747, a man named Robert Harper passed through the area while traveling from Maryland to Virginia, and recognized the potential for industry, provided by the power of the two rivers. He soon paid Stephens 30 British guinea for his squatting rights. The land was actually owned by Lord Fairfax and in April 1751, Harper purchased 126 acres of land from him.
Though a ferry had been operating across the Potomac River for years, Harper was “officially” granted the right to operate a ferry there by the Virginia General Assembly in 1761. Two years later, the town of “Shenandoah Falls at Mr. Harpers Ferry” was officially established.
Another man who purchased land from Lord Fairfax was Gersham Keyes who settled on land about a mile west of Harper. By 1790, Keyes farmed, owned a grist mill, saw mill, blacksmith shop, and two distilleries. Other people also purchased land in the area and before long, another community formed which was called Mudfort.
In 1783, when Thomas Jefferson passed through Harpers Ferry he called the site “perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature.”
Two years later, George Washington, who was working to make improvements along the Potomac River, traveled to Harpers Ferry during the summer of 1785. Wanting the Potomac River to be an avenue of commerce to the west, the establishment of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal began. On his visit, Washington also saw the potential for the location of a new United States armory and arsenal, because of its abundant water supply and forestry for wood.
More than a decade later, in 1796, the federal government purchased a 125-acres from the heirs of Robert Harper and in 1799, construction began on the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. At that time, it was one of only two such facilities, with the other located at Springfield, Massachusetts. Together they produced most of the small arms for the U.S. Army.
Harpers Ferry then became an industrial center with more factories established in the area. Between the years of 1801 and 1861, they produced more than 600,000 muskets, rifles, and pistols.
In 1803, the Lewis and Clark Expedition was outfitted with weapons for their western journey at Harpers Ferry. On March 16, 1803, Meriwether Lewis arrived with a letter from Secretary of War Henry Dearborn to the Armory superintendent Joseph Perkins to provide the necessary guns and hardware needed for the transcontinental expedition. In addition to arms, ammunition, knives, and repair tools, Lewis also needed the armory to construct a collapsible iron boat frame of his own design. The difficulty in construction delayed the departure of the expedition, but it was finally completed and Lewis departed.
In 1810, the area was surveyed and the settlement of Mudfort was described as having a good tavern, several large stores, a library, and a physician. By 1825, the town population was 270 and the same year, the citizens petitioned the Virginia Assembly to become a town. It was then named Boliver, after South American freedom fighter Simon Bolivar. The petition was granted and the town of Bolivar came into existence 16 years before Harpers Ferry was granted a charter.
In 1833 the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal reached Harpers Ferry, linking it with Washington, D.C., and a year later, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad began service through the town.
By the early 1840s, Harpers Ferry had grown to about 3,000 people, with a number of businesses, including hotels, saloons, and bawdy houses. In 1851, the town was officially organized with a mayor, recorder and nine town councilmen.
While the armory in Harpers Ferry was a large part of the economic development of the area, most of the land was agricultural, with wheat and corn as primary crops. The people of Harpers Ferry were employed in manufacturing, while Bolivar was primarily called home to farmers and merchants.
On the night of October 16, 1859, abolitionist John Brown, led 21 men on a raid of the federal armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Brown, who called himself the “Commander in Chief” of the “Provisional Army of the United States,” along with five black and 16 white men, hoped to secure the weapons, arm the slaves, and start a revolt across the south.
Brown and his men were able to overrun the arsenal, but the next morning, they were surrounded by townspeople and soon, a company of U.S. Marines arrived, led by Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart. In the meantime, Brown and his men were holed up in an Armory guard and fire engine house. On the morning of October 19, the soldiers overran Brown and his followers, and in the battle, ten of Brown’s men were killed, including two of his sons. Afterward, the engine house became known as “John Brown’s Fort.”
John Brown, who had been wounded during the battle, was then tried by the state of Virginia for treason and murder. He was found guilty on November 2, 1859, and the 59-year-old abolitionist went to the gallows a months later on December 2.
Before his execution, he handed his guard a slip of paper that read:
“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”
It was a prophetic statement. Although the raid failed, it inflamed the already present tensions between the North and South and brought the nation closer to the Civil War.