Osborne Anderson was a dad!

Osborne Perry Anderson, the sole survivor who wrote the only insider account of John Brown’s Oct. 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry — to seize the federal arsenal and incite a slave insurrection — was my way into the story that became a book.

Now, nearly five years after the publication of Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army, they  are no longer “hidden figures,” and I continue to receive requests from public institutions and others who want me to tell their stories.

But history is nothing if not surprising.  Just when you think you know everything there is to know about a subject, you learn there is more.  Case in Point: Osborne Anderson. So far as I and  John Brown researchers, and Anderson relatives, knew, he had no direct descendants.  When he died in 1872, of tuberculosis, there were none among the mourners.  My original source, a Vietnam veteran named Dennis Howard, at first thought he was a grandson, but neither he nor other family historians could connect the dots. So it was a given that Osborne left no progeny.

Anderson, whose father Vincent would be identified as mulatto and whose mother was said to have been a red-haired Irish woman, was born free in West Fallowfield, Chester County, Pa., in 1830.  After passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, he immigrated, along with tens of thousands free and enslaved African Americans, to Canada West, east of Detroit. There he worked as a sales agent, printer and writer for the Provincial Freeman, a newspaper whose editor Mary Ann Shadd Cary was the first Black female editor and publisher in North America.  She was also from Chester County, and Anderson and Mary Ann were already acquainted. I speculated that they had a closer relationship but could find no evidence to support my theory.  Anderson died impoverished in Washington and was buried in Harmony Cemetery, the eventual site of the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station and now also of a mixed-use development.

In 1959, some 39,000 remains were exhumed and moved to the then new National Harmony Memorial Park, near FedEx Field in Landover, Md. It was there I met Howard in November 2000, when a plaque was being dedicated in memory of Anderson, an event I covered for The Washington Post. After I left the paper in 2004, I wrote a much longer article about him for  the paper’s Sunday magazine.  Ever since, Osborne Anderson has always been my lead-in as I tell the story of Brown’s raid and the men who walked to the Ferry in silence “as in a funeral procession,” Anderson’s words in his post-raid account, “A Voice from Harper’s Ferry.”

Howard would organize an Anderson family reunion at the 15th Street Presbyterian Church in Northwest Washington, travel to Chatham, Ontario, researching Anderson’s time spent there, and attend the sesquicentennial of the Brown raid in 2009, when the clan occupied 20 rooms at a Harpers Ferry area motel. Lots of Andersons, all of them collateral descendants. Dennis Howard died in March 2018, three months before Five for Freedom was published.  My research had disclosed that two of Anderson’s brothers had fought in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops, which Howard said made him “very proud.”

And that was that. Until the other week. Following my Zoom webinar with the Chester County, Pa., History Center, a viewer shared new information she had found in the county’s birth records for September 1852.  Judith Ann Nelson had given birth to a baby boy. The father of this “illegitimate” child born out of wedlock was Osborne Anderson. The Shadds had immigrated to Canada in the fall of 1851, but Anderson would not go to work for the Freeman until 1856.

Judith was born in 1827, identified as “mulatto” in the 1830 census, Anderson in 1830. When the boy was born, im 1852, Anderson would have been 22, Judith 25. Did he acknowledge paternity? Did he have a relationship with his son?  Did the boy know the identity of his biological father? And did he have children, who would have been Anderson’s grandchildren?

And what of Judith Nelson?

Remarkably, I didn’t have to wait long to find out.  Clifford Parker, the Chester County archivist, confirmed what I’d suspected, that Judith had married another man. His name was William Henry, and he and Judith apparently raised Anderson’s son, now named Jesse Henry. Judith and William had other children, who were born much later. Judith died in 1895. Jesse was last identified in the 1870 census. His brother John’s 1900 obituary does not list him as living.

The story of Osborne Perry Anderson, the sole survivor of the John Brown raid, now has more detail and nuance but remains incomplete.  Did Jesse Henry marry and have children. Are there any descendants?  If so, will they surface and tell us more about Osborne Anderson’s son?

Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army is available in  hardcover, on Kindle and as an audiobook. To order on Amazon, click here.

Also available on Amazon is my new book Hidden Maryland: In Search of America in Miniature, with sections on The Lost Cause (in Montgomery County), on a reconstructed slave cabin and a Black town today in Prince George’s County, and Black watermen on the Chesapeake Bay. It is available as a paperback, on Kindle, and now also as an audiobook.





  1. David Meyer on March 24, 2023 at 5:34 pm

    Wow! What a twist!

  2. Carrie Cowhered on March 25, 2023 at 4:11 pm

    Fortuitous and fascinating. They don’t really fit together, but they alliterate. I really enjoyed the post. And it shows that you never know what you don’t know . I am going to send it to all my friends to whom I gave the book.

  3. S. Beulah on March 26, 2023 at 1:08 pm

    There is so much we have to find out about African/American history. Thank you for your continued search.
    I appreciated your presentation of stories at the St. Michaels Library, too.

  4. Jeff on March 26, 2023 at 3:58 pm

    Great detective work Gene… have you learned anymore about Dangerfield Newby’s descendants today?

  5. Charles Taylor on October 1, 2023 at 5:28 pm

    Who was his parents? I had a grandfather come to through that area later last name Anderson , he married my great grandmother who was a Harding and they moved to Ann Arbor Mi.

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