As part of the theme and commemoration of Black History Month, it is only fitting to highlight the power of love and family depicted in the film Django Unchained. Albeit a tragic love story, Dangerfield and Harriet Newby exemplify the true meaning of love and courage.
Editor’s Note: This account of Dangerfield Newby, the real Django, comes from African Archives. Please follow and support their historical storytelling of American history and culture.
Dangerfield Newby is the actual man on which the movie Django Unchained is loosely based. He was a member of the John Brown raiders. He joined the gang to save his wife, Harriet and children from slavery. —Dangerfield Newby (1815 – October 17, 1859) was the oldest of John Brown’s raiders, one of five black raiders, and the first of his men to die at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.
Born into slavery in Fauquier County, Virginia, Newby married a woman also enslaved. Newby’s father was Henry Newby, a landowner in Fauquier County. His mother was Elsey Newby, who was a slave, owned not by Henry, but by a neighbor, John Fox. Elsey and Henry lived together for many years and had several children, although interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia. Dangerfield was their first child. Dangerfield Newby, his mother and his siblings were later freed by his father when he moved them across the Ohio River into Bridgeport, Ohio.
John Fox, who died in 1859, apparently did not attempt to retrieve Elsey, Dangerfield, or any of his siblings. Dangerfield’s wife and their seven children remained in bondage. A letter found on his body revealed some of his motivation for joining John Brown and the raid on Harpers Ferry. Dangerfield Newby’s wife, Harriet Newby, was the slave of Jesse Jennings, of Arlington or Warrenton, Virginia. Newby had been unable to purchase the freedom of his wife and seven children. Their master raised the price after Newby had saved the $1,500 that had previously been agreed on. Because all of Newby’s other efforts had failed he hoped to free them by force.
Harriet’s poignant letters, found on his body, proved instrumental in advancing the abolitionist cause. Newby was six foot two. On October 17, 1859, the citizens of Harpers Ferry set to put down the raid. Harpers Ferry manufactured guns but the citizens had little ammunition, so during the assault on the raiders they fired anything they could fit into a gun barrel. One man was shooting six inch spikes from his rifle, one of which struck Newby in the throat, killing him instantly.
After the raid, the people of Harpers Ferry took his body, stabbed it repeatedly, and amputated his limbs. His body was left in an alley to be eaten by hogs. In 1899 the remains of Newby-plus remains of nine other raiders-were reburied in a common grave near the body of John Brown in North Elba, New York. Dangerfield Newby’s wife, Harriet and her children were sold to a Louisiana slave owner after the raid.
Additional information and an official biography, by Virginia Changemakers also states that Dangerfield Newby (ca. 1820-1859) was born in Culpeper County, the oldest child of Henry Newby, a white man, and Elsey Newby, an enslaved black woman. In 1858, Henry Newby sold his land in Culpeper and moved with his family to Bridgeport, Ohio, thereby freeing his wife and their children.