In 1734, the Quaker colonist Robert Harper was given a patent on 125-acres, currently the present location of where the town resides. In 1761, Harper established a ferry across the Potomac, making it easy for settler to move into the Shenandoah Valley.
On October 25, 1783, Thomas Jefferson visited Harpers Ferry. He viewed “the passage of the Potomac through the Blue Ridge” from a rock which is now named for him and Jefferson the site “perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature.”
In 1796, the federal government purchased a 125-acre parcel of land from the heirs of Robert Harper. In 1799, construction began on the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. This was one of two such facilities in the U.S., the other in Springfield, MA. Between these two arsenals, they produced most of the small arms for the U.S. Army. Between 1801 and 1861, when it was destroyed to prevent capture during the Civil War, the armory produced more than 600,000 muskets, rifles and pistols. Inventor Captain John H. Hall pioneered the use of interchangeable parts in firearms manufactured at his rifle works at the armory between 1820 and 1840 and his M1819 Hall rifle was the first breech-loading weapon adopted by the U.S. Army.
Harpers Ferry, however, is best known by many today for John Brown’s raid on the Armory on October 16, 1859. John Brown, a radical abolitionist, led a group of 21 men in a raid on the arsenal. Five of the men were African American, three free African Americans, one a freed slave, and one a fugitive slave. During this time, assisting fugitive slaves was illegal under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Brown attacked and captured several buildings as he hoped to use the captured weapons to start a slave uprising through the south. The first shot mortally wounded Hayward Shepherd, a free black man who had been a night baggage porter for the B&O Railroad running through Harpers Ferry near the armory. The noise from that shot roused Dr. John Starry from his sleep, where he walked from his nearby home to investigate the shooting, and came face to face with Brown’s men. Starry told the men that he was a doctor; but, it was too late to save Shepherd. Brown’s men allowed Starry to leave. However, instead of going home, Starry went to the livery and rode to neighboring towns and villages alerting residents to the raid.
When Starry reached nearby Charles Town, the church bells were rung to rouse the citizens from their sleep. John Brown’s men were quickly pinned down by local citizens and militia, and forced to take refuge in the engine house adjacent to the armory.
The secretary of war asked for the assistance of the Navy Department for a unit of United States Marines, the nearest troops. Lieutenant Israel Greene was ordered to take a force of 86 Marines to the town. In need of an officer to lead the expedition, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee was found on leave nearby and was assigned as commander, along with Lt J.E.B. Stuart. Lee led the unit and the whole contingent arrived by train on October 18. After negotiations failed with Brown, they stormed the fire house and captured most of the raiders. Brown was tried for treason against the State of Virginia, convicted and hanged in nearby Charles Town. The raid was a catalyst for the Civil War.