In 1842 Ann Lynch Coppoc of Ohio suddenly became a young Quaker widow with six children (Levi, Maria, Edwin, Lydia, Barclay and Joseph). Left without much means she had to accept help and split the children up to to live with various friends and relatives. Eight years later, about 1850, she inherited $100 and used it to reunite her family. Many Quakers were moving west and settling in Iowa where the government was selling land for $1.25 an acre so she got her children together and moved to the area that would become Springdale, in Cedar County. The oldest boys, Levi (18) and Edwin (15) built the house and started a farm.
Within a few years Ann married Joseph Raley, a widower with four children (Eliza, Jordan, Absalom and Asenath) and he came to live on her farm. Like many Quakers, Ann opposed slavery and her farm became a “station” on the Underground Railroad where many freedom seekers stopped on their journey north. Even though Iowa was a free state, the Fugitive Slave Law meant no one with brownish skin was safe anywhere in the country.* Ann was an outspoken, rabble rousing kind of Quaker and her sons learned from her. However not as she intended, Levi, Edwin and Barclay all got in trouble with the Quaker meeting for dancing and fighting and being unrepentant about it. Levi became Springdale’s first constable. At some point Ann also ran a store in town. Over the next several years Maria, Lydia and Levi all died of tuberculosis.
When little Ann Lynch was about five, Thomas Jenkins was born in Virginia where he worked as a slave. Later he was taken to Tennessee, then Missouri.
Meanwhile, John Brown (1800-1859) like Ann, grew up in northeastern Ohio and by the 1850’s completely dedicated his life to the abolition of slavery. He was not a Quaker, but he was on a mission from God and he believed that violence was required as morality and politics had failed. The cause of abolition brought John Brown to Springdale, a town of Quakers who hated both slavery and violence.
After participating in bloody guerilla warfare in Kansas (and here I am glossing over a great deal of mass killing) the eleven men of Brown’s militia spent the winter of 1857/58 in Springdale. They boarded with a family on a local farm while Brown himself went back east to raise money and support. The men studied military books, read poetry, and did drills out in the yard with guns and wooden swords. They dated the Quaker girls. For entertainment on long winter nights they held mock legislatures and debates that the community attended. That winter is when Edwin and Barclay Coppoc got involved.* Jeanette Mather Lord reports how fondly the elders spoke of that winter with the interesting and passionate young abolitionists in residence.
Despite striking contradictions, the radically pacifist Quakers loved John Brown. Did they not understand his position on violence? Did they somehow mentally separate his aims and his means? Or did they secretly support his use of violence? Lord discussed this with her mother. Basically, John Brown inspired confidence:
The meeting “were united in their testimony for peace…in their efforts to free the slaves and in their disapproval of the use of force by Brown. They spoke their minds frankly and forcefully at every opportunity without fear. Yet, Mother would continue, when John Brown stated that he felt he was called by the almighty God to deliver the nation from Slavery and that his mission was “divinely appointed,” the Friends could not doubt him. With their belief in the “Inner Light” and “that of God in Everyman” the Quakers expect one’s conduct to be in agreement with the inner revelation. The individual must assume full responsibility for his spiritual decisions. Hence they responded to John Brown with an unwillingness to judge him or to set themselves up against him As Brown walked among them, they shared the burden of his soul, the great weight of the shackles of the thousands of men in bondage.”
Early in 1859 John Brown and his men came through Springdale again, this time with a group of twelve enslaved people they’d forcibly liberated from farms in Missouri. Federal marshals and vigilantes were in hot pursuit but never caught them. The freedom seekers were secretly transported in a boxcar from West Liberty to Chicago and John Brown personally saw them cross the border to Chatham, Ontario. A baby was born during the trip and named John Brown. Another young couple from the group were married by a local magistrate while in Springdale. Here they are in a studio portrait many years later:
In October of 1859 John Brown and his small militia, (including Edwin and Barclay Coppoc – their friend Elza Maxson, from Springdale, arrived too late) carried out their raid on the United States Arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. The grand plan was to seize the arsenal and use the weapons to arm a huge slave insurrection and despite their wholehearted intent, they failed. Barclay was among those that escaped. Edwin was among those caught.
Perhaps just before the raid in the fall of 1859 Thomas Jenkins had “some kind of trouble” with his master and escaped on foot even though it meant leaving his wife and child behind in Missouri. He said that he walked at night, following the North Star, and slept hidden in cornfields during the day. He ate raw field corn to survive. He finally arrived in Springdale in November and Lord wrote that his feet were so frozen his boots had to be cut off. As soon as he could he continued on to Canada. He certainly must of gotten an earful regarding the Springdellian’s (just made that up) old friend, “the Old Man,” John Brown. He a could easily have still been recuperating in the Springdale area on December 2, when Brown and Edwin Coppoc were executed by hanging.
On the day of Edwin’s execution a friend came to be with Ann who let her in and said, “I’m glad thou art come. Edwin was hanged at one o’clock today.” On December 3, Barclay Coppoc came home. He had been in hiding and was still being pursued by authorities so from then on he was always armed and under the protection of his also-armed friends. He was read out of the meeting for carrying a weapon. In 1861 Barclay joined the Union army and was killed when Confederates burned the train trestle he was traveling across. I don’t know if you are keeping count, but this left Ann Raley with one child, Joseph, who was also put out of meeting for bearing arms. Two of her husband Joseph’s children were long grown and married and the third, Jordan, classified as “idiotic” on the census, remained at home.
Good old Springdale, Iowa, now only a wide spot in the road, where Thomas Jenkins arrived in 1859 and chose to return to a decade or more later, was not any old Springdale. It was a real hot spot and kind of bonkers, with religious people going all out as best they could and not always getting it right. Or maybe they did.
Another story, kind of related but not perfectly: George and Maria Tyler and eight of their children were one of the other Black families that returned to settle in Springdale after the war. They had been sold away from each other and managed to find each other and most of their children after they were free. George was at Pikes Peak (you know, the Gold Rush) with his master when they got word of John Brown’s execution. Apparently the master, Colonel Johnson, turned and handed George his papers right there. George, Maria and some of the children are buried at North Liberty Cemetery, also near Springdale and literally around the corner from the house Brown’s men stayed in during the winter of 1957/58.
* The Fugitive Slave law was basically a bounty system, not unlike the new abortion law in Texas. Under it Black people could be detained if suspected of being runaways and had to be returned to their owners. If an owner was not found and the person could not prove somehow that they were free they were auctioned off on the courthouse steps. So making it to Iowa was good, but they were still being pursued.
*in other times and circumstances we would say they were “radicalized.”
- Acton, Richard. The Story of Ann Raley: Mother of the Coppoc Boys. The Palimpsest vol. 72, no.1, pp. 20-33. State Historical Society of Iowa. https://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4929&context=palimpsest
- Horwitz, Tony. Midnight Rising; John Brown and the Raid that Parked the Civil War. 2011, Henry Holt and Company
- Soike, Lowell J. Necessary Courage; Iowa’s Underground Railroad in the Struggle Against Slavery. 2013, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City.
- Lord, Jeanette Mather, “John Brown: They Had a Concern” West Virginia History, 20:3, April 1959, pp.163-83.
- Obituary of Maria Young Tyler, West Branch Times, West Branch, Iowa, Thursday, March 13, 1890
- Photos of Barclay and Edwin Coppoc from A topical history of Cedar County, Iowa, Volume 1 (1910) Clarence Ray Aurner, S.J. Clarke Publishing Company