John Brown — Pittsfield and the American Revolution


John Brown was a lawyer and soldier from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, who rose to prominence in the early days of the American Revolutionary War. Brown is most famous for his role in the Capture of Fort Ticonderoga (1775) and the Canada Campaign (1775–1776).

Battle of Stone Arabia, Fort Klosk, 1780, John Brown, Historical Marker

John Brown Quick Facts

  • Also Known As — Brown is often referred to as “John Brown of Pittsfield” to differentiate him from other historical figures named John Brown.
  • Born — John Brown was born on October 19, 1744.
  • Parents — His parents were Daniel Brown and Mehitable Sanford.
  • Died — Brown died on October 19, 1780, on his 36th birthday.
  • Famous For — Browns is most famous for his mission to Canada, participation in the Capture of Fort Ticonderoga, and feud with Benedict Arnold.

John Brown Overview and History

John Brown was born on October 19, 1744, in Haverhill, Massachusetts. He graduated from Yale in 1771 and became a lawyer in Tryon County, New York in 1772. In 1773, he moved to Pittsfield, Massachusetts where he supported the Patriot Cause and was a member of the Committee of Correspondence. Brown was also elected as the town’s representative to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in October 1774.

Brown’s First Mission to Canada

In December 1774, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress established a committee to communicate with Canada. Brown was a member of the committee, along with Samuel Adams, Dr. Joseph Warren, Dr. Benjamin Church, and Colonel Seth Pomeroy.

The committee put together a series of letters and pamphlets to be distributed in Canada. These documents outlined the plight of Boston and Massachusetts and asked Canada to join with them. Then the committee chose Brown to carry the documents to Montreal and deliver them to the city’s Committee of Correspondence. His mission had two purposes:

  1. Assess Canadian support for the Patriot Cause, to see if Quebec would send delegates to the Second Continental Congress.
  2. Establish a network of spies in the Province.

While traveling through New Hampshire on his way to Montreal, he realized the strategic importance of Fort Ticonderoga and learned it might be vulnerable. 

On March 29, he returned to Massachusetts and reported his findings to Samuel Adams and Joseph Warren, including that Canada did not intend to send delegates to Congress. In a letter, Brown wrote:

“One thing I must mention as a profound secret. The Fort at Ticonderoga must be seized as soon as possible, should hostilities be committed by the king’s troops. The people on New-Hampshire Grants have engaged to do this business, and, in my opinion, are the most proper persons for the job. This will effectually curb this Province, and all the troops which may be sent here.”

Capture of Fort Ticonderoga

Following the outbreak of the war, the information delivered by Brown led the Massachusetts Provincial Congress to hire Benedict Arnold to organize an expedition to capture Fort Ticonderoga. Arnold joined up with another expedition, led by Ethan Allen, that had the same objective. Brown was also involved, and the Americans captured Fort Ticonderoga on May 10, 1775 (see Capture of Fort Ticonderoga). Brown was sent to Philadelphia to deliver the news to the Second Continental Congress.

Capture of Fort Ticonderoga, Allen and Delaplace, Chappel
Ethan Allen confronts William De La Place, commander of Fort Ticonderoga. Image Source: Fort Ticonderoga, Online Collections.

Brown’s Second Mission to Canada

On July 6, 1775, John Brown was commissioned as a Major in the regiment of Colonel James Easton. Between July 24 and August 10, he led a scouting mission into Canada and reported his findings to General Philip Schuyler at Crown Point, New York.

Canada Campaign and the Battle of Longue-Pointe

Brown then joined the expedition under the command of General Richard Montgomery who was moving into Canada. When Montgomery needed more men, Brown and Ethan Allen left Montgomery and went on a recruiting mission.

During this expedition, they decided to try to capture Montreal, but Brown failed to execute his portion of the plan. Allen was captured by the British at the Battle of Longue-Pointe (September 24–25, 1775).

Brown rejoined Montgomery and played a key role in the Battle of Chambly (October 19, 1775). The capture of Chambly was a critical step that led to the American victory at the Siege of Fort St. John.

During the Battle of Quebec (December 31, 1775), Brown led a failed attack against British forces.

Battle of Quebec, Death of Richard Montgomery, Trumbull
This 1786 painting by John Trumbull depicts the death of General Richard Montgomery at the Battle of Quebec. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Retreat from Canada

On August 1, 1776, Brown was appointed as Lieutenant Colonel in the Connecticut Regiment, under the command of Colonel James Elmore. During the American retreat from Canada, Brown fought in the battles around Lake Champlain. 

During the Canada Campaign, Brown became caught up in disagreements with Benedict Arnold that led to inquiries into their conduct. By February 1777, he had his fill of the conflict with Arnold and resigned from his commission.

Note — see the entry on Benedict Arnold for more details on the conflict between him and John Brown.

Benedict Arnold, Portrait, Illustration
Benedict Arnold was wounded at the Battle of Quebec. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Saratoga Campaign — Brown’s Raid on Ticonderoga

During the Saratoga Campaign, Brown returned to the field.

General Benjamin Lincoln sent an expedition, led by Brown, to attack Fort Ticonderoga. Brown’s force included Green Mountain Boys from Seth Warner’s Regiment.

On the morning of September 18, Brown attacked and captured an outpost near Lake George. His forces surprised the British and took nearly 300 prisoners while freeing 100 Americans.

Meanwhile, Captain Ebeneezer Allen and his men climbed Mount Defiance and overwhelmed the British artillery unit that was stationed there. Then Allen and his men fired on Fort Ticonderoga with the British cannons.

Brown demanded the surrender of the fort, but the British commander refused. The two sides traded cannon fire for four days. When Hessian reinforcements arrived, the Americans evacuated.

Saratoga Campaign — Battle of Diamond Island

After Brown moved away from Ticonderoga, he sailed to Diamond Island on Lake George. Brown had heard the British had supplies, including gold, at a small outpost on the island. The island was fortified with cannons, gunboats, and troops under the command of Captain Thomas Aubrey. At 9:00 on the morning of the 24th, Brown and his men tried to land on the island. However, the British suspected the attack and had fortified the island. When Brown and his men approached, the British opened fire with the cannons. The only battle of the war that took place on Lake George ended with Brown retreating to Skenesborough.

Protecting the Mohawk Valley

After serving at the Battle of Bemis Heights, Brown resumed his law practice in New York.

In 1778, he was elected to the General Court and became a county court judge in February 1779. In the summer of 1780, Brown marched to the Mohawk Valley with the Massachusetts forces to stop raids that were being carried out by Loyalists and their Native American Indian allies.

Death at Fort Keyser

On October 19, 1780, Brown and 45 of his men were killed in an ambush at the Battle of Stone Arabia and Klock’s Field.

John Brown, Pittsfield, and the Solemn League and Covenant

The following is from The History of Pittsfield (Berkshire County), Massachusetts by Joseph Edward Adams, which was published in 1869. This selection provides background on Brown and his role as a leader in the Patriot Cause in Pittsfield and Berkshire County’s adoption of the Solemn League and Covenant.

Section headings, minor text corrections, and notes have been added to improve readability and context.

Parliament Passes the Boston Port Act

The spring of 1774 brought events which everywhere consolidated the Whigs, and made broad the dividing lines between those who would defend, and those ready to surrender, the liberties of the Province.

The act of Parliament which soon became infamous as “The Boston Port Bill” — excluding commerce from the harbor of that town, and removing the seat of government to Salem — received the royal assent on the 31st of March, and was printed in the Boston newspapers of May 10.

Note — for more information on the Boston Port Act, see the following:

More Intolerable Acts

The acts “for the better regulating the government of the Province of Massachusetts Bay,” and “ for the impartial administration of justice” in the same, followed closely, and wrought an entire abrogation of the charter in all those particulars by which it afforded protection to civil or personal liberty.

Note — for more information, see:

Mandamus Councilors

Under the new laws, councillors created by royal mandamus, and the superior judges appointed by his Majesty’s governor, held office during the king’s pleasure. All other officers, judicial, executive, and military, were appointed by the governor, independently of the Council, and — except the sheriff, who could only be displaced with consent of the Council — were removable by the same sole authority. 

The governor’s appointing power, — a grievous fountain of corruption, even with the checks provided by William’s charter, — now concentrated with the new right of removal in the unchecked control of the king and his automatic representative, was fearfully augmented.

Town Meetings Restricted

Town Meetings, permitted to be held for the election of municipal officers and representatives, were strictly confined in their functions to the bare casting of the necessary ballots; and special meetings were allowed only with license first had of the governor, designating what matters alone they might consider. 

The selection of jurors — previously made, as now, by the selectmen, with the ratification of the towns — was given to the king’s sheriffs. 

The Quartering Act of 1774 and the Administration of Justice Act

Acts, passed almost simultaneously with the others, provided for quartering troops in America, and for the transportation to England for trial of persons charged, like the soldiers implicated in the Boston massacre, with murders committed in the support of the royal authority. 

The enactment of despotism was complete. 

Note — for more information on these acts, please see:

Impact of the Intolerable Acts on Pittsfield and Massachusetts

In the new system of government, hardly a vestige remained of those safeguards, which, in the Colonies even more absolutely than in Great Britain, were essential to the preservation of liberty. 

Practically, nothing whatever in the perverted Constitution interposed between the people and the sovereign’s will: for the House of Representatives, mighty as it proved by its advice, was, in its legislative capacity, reduced to utter impotence by the governor’s inexhaustible prerogative of prorogation and dissolution; by the unqualified veto which he, as well as the puppet Council, might exercise upon all its acts; and by the independence of its appropriations, enjoyed by the governor and judges, who, by another still recent innovation, received their salaries directly from the Crown.

Thus two departments of the Provincial Government — the judicial and the executive, including the council and the military — were the mere registrars and instruments of the king’s will; while the third, if it consented to assume the role to which it had been assigned, was more insignificant for good than either.

Heretofore the people of the Colonies had been alarmed by measures of Parliament, which, not otherwise oppressive, were taken in violation of their privileges, either under. the charter or as English subjects. They had detected, in the occasional exercise of powers which infringed upon colonial rights, the insidious design of overthrowing them altogether. Now the very citadel of all right was attacked, not by veiled advances, nor by sapping hidden foundations, but by bold and crushing assaults upon its most jealously-guarded defences.

Massachusetts Responds to the Intolerable Acts

Thanks to the prescient leadership which had kept Massachusetts alive to the impending danger, she was ready to meet it when it came. The excitement, with the news of the obnoxious acts of Parliament, spread inward from the capital, and everywhere roused the same spirit of indignation and determined resistance. 

In every direction, nothing was heard of but meetings and patriotic resolutions. 

May 12 — two days after the publication of the Port-Bill — the delegates of eight neighboring towns, summoned by the Boston committee, met at the selectmen’s room in Faneuil Hall, and adopted spirited measures to unite the colonies in defence of the common liberties; and it was, perhaps, to a missive sent out by this little assemblage, that the petition for the first Pittsfield Town Meeting held in this emergency alludes. 

Note — According to this account, the Boston Port Act was first publicized in the newspapers on May 10, 1774.

The petition, however, was dated on the 24th of June; and, early in that month, rough drafts of the regulating acts, and news of their probable passage, were received by the Boston committee, and dispersed over the country with so good effect, that, on the 20th,  “The Boston Gazette” was able to pronounce “the aspect of affairs highly favorable to American liberties…the whole continent seeming inspired by one soul, and that a rigorous and determined one.”

John Brown and Pittsfield Leaders Take Action

It was due partly to its remoteness from the capital, and partly, doubtless, to the still potent Tory influence, that Pittsfield manifested a dilatory spirit that never again appeared in her patriotic councils. 

But, on the 24th, a petition was presented to the selectmen, requesting them to convene a Town Meeting, “to act and do what the town think proper respecting the circular letter sent out by the town of Boston and other towns in this Province; and such other matters as the town shall think proper in regard to the invaded liberties and privileges of this country.”

This petition was signed by James Easton, John Strong, Ezekiel Root, Oliver Root, Timothy Childs, John Brown, Matthew Wright, David Noble, Daniel Weller, and James Noble; and the selectmen to whom it was addressed were David Bush, William Francis, Dan Cadwell, Eli Root, and Israel Dickinson. 

The warrant for a Town meeting on Thursday, the 30th of June, was signed by all the selectmen except Cadwell; and it was accordingly held, Josiah Wright presiding as moderator.

John Brown and the Pittsfield Committee of Correspondence

The first action taken was to appoint “a standing committee to correspond with the correspondent committees of this and other Provinces” and it was thus constituted: Rev. Thomas Allen, Deacon James Easton, Mr. John Brown, Deacon Josiah Wright, Mr. John Strong, Capt. David Bush, Lieut. David Noble.

Note — see Committees of Correspondence for more details on the role these organizations played in communication between towns and colonies during the American Revolution.

Pittsfield Adopts the Worcester Covenant

The meeting then adopted the “Worcester Covenant” — the most stringent form of the solemn league and covenant, by which individuals bound themselves, and towns their citizens, not to purchase or use any goods the production of Great Britain or her West-Indian Colonies, or which had been imported through her companies trading to the East; and, generally, agreed to act together in resisting the aggressions of the mother country. 

Brown and the Berkshire County Convention at Stockbridge

Deacon James Easton, John Brown, and John Strong were chosen delegates to a county congress, to be held at Stockbridge, on the sixth of July; and the meeting adjourned to the 11th, to await their action, but not without first resolving to keep the 14th as a day of solemn fasting and prayer.

Col. John Ashley of Sheffield presided in the congress at Stockbridge; and Theodore Sedgwick, then a young lawyer of the same town, was clerk.

Thomas Williams of Stockbridge, Peter Curtis of Lanesborough, John Brown of Pittsfield, Mark Hopkins of Great Barrington, and Theodore Sedgwick, were appointed to consider the obnoxious acts of Parliament, and “report their sense of them.” Whatever their report was — and it was certainly patriotic — it was unanimously adopted.

The following delegates were appointed to draft “an agreement to be recommended to the towns of the county for the non-consumption of British manufactures” — Timothy Edwards, Esq., of Stockbridge, Dr. William Whiting of Great Bamngton, Dr. Lemuel Barnard of Sheffield, Dr. Erastus Sergeant of Stockbridge, and Deacon James Easton. And they reported the subjoined league and covenant, which was unanimously adopted, “paragraph by paragraph.”

Berkshire County Convention Solemn League and Covenant

Whereas the Parliament of Great Britain have, of late, undertaken to give and grant away our money without our knowledge or consent; and, in order to compel us to a servile submission to the above measures, have proceeded to block up the harbor of Boston; also have, or are about to vacate the charter, and repeal certain laws of this Province heretofore enacted by the General Court and confirmed to us by the King and his predecessors: therefore, as a means to obtain a speedy redress of the above grievances, we do solemnly and in good faith covenant and engage with each other: —

1st, That we will not import, purchase, or consume, or suffer any person for, by, or under us, to import, purchase, or consume, in any manner whatever, any goods, wares, or manufactures which shall arrive in America from Great Britain from and after the first day of October next, or such other time as shall be agreed upon by the American Congress; nor any goods which shall be ordered from thence from and after this day until our charter and constitutional rights shall be restored, or until it shall be determined by the major part of our brethren in this and the neighboring Colonies, that a non-importation or non-consumption agreement will not have a tendency to effect the desired end, and until it shall be apparent that a non-importation or non-consumption agreement will not be entered into by the majority of this and the neighboring Colonies — except such articles as the said General Congress of North America shall advise to import and consume.

2d, We do further covenant and agree, that we will observe the most strict obedience to all constitutional laws and authority and will at all times exert ourselves to the utmost for the discouragement of all Ucentiousness, and suppressing all disorderly mobs and riots.

3d, We will exert ourselves, as far as in us lies, in promoting peace, love, and unanimity among each other; and, for that end, we engage to avoid all unnecessary lawsuits whatever.

4th, As a strict and proper adherence to the non-importation and nonconsumption agreement will, if not seasonably provided against, involve us in many difficulties and inconveniences, we do promise and agree that we will take the most prudent care for the raising of sheep, and for the manufacturing all such cloths as shall be most useful and necessary; and also for the raising of flax, and the manufacturing of linen; further, that we will every prudent method endeavor to guard against all those inconveniences which might otherwise arise from the foregoing agreement.

5th, That if any person shall refuse to sign this, or a similar covenant, or, after having signed it, shall not adhere to the real intent and meaning thereof, he or they shall be treated by us with all the neglect they shall justly deserve. particularly by omitting all commercial dealings with them.

6th, That if this, or a similar covenant, shall, after the first day of August next, be offered to any trader or shopkeeper in this county, and he or they shall refuse to sign the same for the space of forty-eight hours, that we will from thenceforth purchase no article of British manufacture or East-India goods from him or them until such time as he or they shall sign this or a similar covenant.

It was further resolved that the delegates should severally recommend the distressed circumstances of the poor of Charlestown and Boston to the charity of their constituents, and that their contributions should be “remitted in the fall in fat cattle.”

John Brown and the Massachusetts Provincial Congress

The following is from The History of Pittsfield (Berkshire County), Massachusetts. This selection provides background on Brown and his role in the Massachusetts Provincial Congress.

Section headings, minor text corrections, and notes have been added to improve readability and context.

Gage Calls for an Assembly of the Massachusetts General Court

Massachusetts, in the fall and winter of 1774–5, was busy with preparation for the impending conflict. Gov. Gage issued his precept for a General Court, to be held at Salem on the 5th of October. 

Worcester Calls for an Assembly of the Towns

The committee of Worcester suggested an assembly of the towns, by their delegates, in Provincial Congress; and the Suffolk Convention fixed upon Concord as the place, and the 11th of October as the time, for the meeting.

John Brown and the Pittsfield Committee of Instruction

Pittsfield, like many other places, refused to send a representative to Salem; but chose John Brown delegate to the congress, and appointed, as committee of instruction, Capt. Charles Goodrich, Deacon Josiah Wright, Dr. Timothy Childs, Deacon James Easton, and Lieut. Eli Root.

Gage Refuses to Meet with the General Assembly

Gage, angered and alarmed at the spirited attitude of the towns, revoked his precept of assembly, and announced that he would not meet the representatives. 

Note — see General Thomas Gage for more information on the military Governor of Massachusetts and Commander-in-Chief of British forces in North America.

Establishment of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress

Ninety of them were, however, present in Salem at the appointed time; and having, with studious regard to etiquette, waited all that day for his Excellency to appear, resolved themselves into a Provincial Congress, “to be joined by such other persons as had been, or should be, appointed for that purpose, to take into consideration the dangerous and alarming situation of public affairs in the Province, and to consult upon measures to promote the true interest of his Majesty, and the peace, welfare, and prosperity of the Province.”

After a consultation of two days, the congress issued an address, advising its constituents of the “unconstitutional, unjust, disrespectful, and hostile conduct,” by which the governor had deprived the Province of its accustomed legislature; and adjourned to merge itself in the assembly, which was, by the will of the people, convened at Concord on the following Tuesday.

John Brown at Concord with the First Provincial Congress

In the latter body, John Brown took his seat as representative from Pittsfield. It did not assume to enact laws: but its advice, given to towns, committees, and the people at large, was respected as statutes rarely are; and no town responded to these counsels with more zeal and promptitude than Pittsfield.

John Brown and the Continental Association

The following is from The History of Pittsfield (Berkshire County), Massachusetts. This selection provides background on Brown and his role in Pittsfield after the town adopted the Continental Association and established a Committee of Inspection to enforce a trade embargo against British merchants.

Section headings, minor text corrections, and notes have been added to improve readability and context.

Pittsfield Adopts the Articles of Association

The Continental Congress was treated with no less deference than the Provincial; and, Dec. 5, the town voted “to adopt the Continental resolutions in full, and particularly the 11th article.”

These were the famous Resolutions of Association, signed by the delegates in Congress, Oct. 20, 1774: by which, in a series of fourteen articles, they bound themselves and their constituents not to:

  • import any of the productions of Great Britain or her dependencies after the 1st of the following December, 
  • not to export to those quarters after the 10th of September; 
  • to entirely discontinue and discountenance the slave-trade; 
  • to encourage frugality, economy, and industry, and promote American agriculture, arts, and manufactures, especially that of wool;
  • to discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially horse-racing, gaming, cock-fighting, and play-going; 
  • to wear no mourning on the death of a friend, more than a black ribbon on the arm or hat for a gentleman, and a black ribbon and necklace for a lady,
  • and to give no more gloves and scarfs at funerals. 

Finally the “Associators” bound themselves not to take advantage of the scarcity produced by non-importation to raise prices. 

Note — for more information on the First Continental Congress and the Continental Association, please see:

The Pittsfield Committee of Inspection

Some of the articles of agreement were devoted to the means of enforcing the others; and the 11th, which Pittsfield specially adopted, provided that a committee should be appointed in every town, county, and colony, whose duty it should be “to observe the conduct of all persons within its precinct concerning the Association;” and if any delinquency was proved to the satisfaction of a majority of its members, “to publish the name of the offender in ‘The Gazette,’ — to the end that all such foes to the rights of British America might be publicly known, and universally condemned as the enemies of American liberty, and that all patriots might thenceforth break off all intercourse with him or her.”

The persons chosen to compose this formidable committee in Pittsfield were, Eli Root, Timothy Childs, Charles Goodrich, Dan Cadwell, Josiah Wright, James D. Colt, and Stephen Crofoot. This was the Committee of Inspection, and as yet distinct from that of Correspondence; to which latter Messrs. Goodrich, Childs, Root, and William Francis were added at the next meeting. 

John Brown and the Pittsfield Committee to Regulate Disturbances and Quarrels

In addition to these two bodies, there was a committee appointed upon the suppression of the courts, “to sit as arbitrators, to regulate disturbances and quarrels, and to take the Province law for their guide.” This consisted of Deacon Wright, William Francis, Lieut. Root. Capt. Bush, Capt. Israel Dickinson, Ensign John Brown, and Capt. Goodrich.

John Brown APUSH Review

John Brown is associated with APUSH Unit 3: 1754–1800, which is part of our Guide to AP US History (APUSH).

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  • Article Title John Brown — Pittsfield and the American Revolution
  • Date 1744–1780
  • Author
  • Keywords John Brown, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, American Revolution, American Revolutionary War, Massachusetts Provincial Congress, Canada Campaign, Capture of Fort Ticonderoga, Battle of Quebec
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 14, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 10, 2024