While the John Brown Farm State Historic Site is the former Adirondack home of a famed abolitionist, the farm also is part of a larger story about an ambitious, well-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful effort in those rugged mountains before the Civil War to help free African Americans gain prosperity and political rights.
Located just outside of Lake Placid, the 270-acre farm occupied by Brown’s family reflects his common belief with prominent New York State abolitionist and social reformer, Gerrit Smith, as well as many others in that movement, that owning and farming land would aid people of African descent move from enslavement to freedom.
Throughout most of human history, the ownership of property in the form of land has been greatly esteemed. During medieval times, property set apart the landed gentry from the serfs, while in colonial-era New York it meant the wielding of political power by the “Lords of the Manor” over their rent-paying tenants.
Political power after the American Revolution was narrowly held, compared to today, as property ownership was directly linked to whether a man of any color could participate in civil engagement. In the 1906 book, A Political History of the State of New York, De Alva S. Alexander noted that “The right of suffrage was so restricted that as late as 1790 only 1,303 of the 13,330 male residents of New York City possessed sufficient property to entitle them to vote for governor.”
In 1790, legal slavery still existed in the new state of New York. There also were quite a number of free men of African descent but like men of other races, they had to own property to be able to cast a ballot.
In New York, men regardless of race had to hold a minimum of $100 worth of property before they could participate in elections. In 1821 New York state ratified its second constitution, which required Black men to have at least $250 worth of property (about $5,700 in today’s dollars) while eliminating any such property requirement for whites. This change almost completely disenfranchised the Black community.
Such discrimination was opposed by Smith, a wealthy, land-rich abolitionist and social reformer in Madison County who also owned 120,000 acres of land in the Adirondacks across Essex, Franklin and Hamilton counties. In 1846, Smith offered a free piece of that land to any Black man willing to stake a claim.
Broken into 40 to 50-acre parcels, deeds for Smith’s land were granted to individuals and families, with the idea that with improvements land values would increase beyond the $250 requirement, giving not only industry and wealth to the family, but also the right to vote to the male head of household.
Throughout the 19th century, farming as a way to both sustain a family and grow financial wealth was pushed as the preferred way for free people of African descent to become valuable members of society.
Since enslaved people of African descent had worked on farms, it was a collective belief by Smith and other abolitionists that farming, husbandry, and related industries were natural bridges to civil advancement. However, he and many others pushing this idea didn’t consider that working a mono-crop plantation in the mild climate of the South was very different from clearing timbered forests in northern New York.
Nor did they think about those who had spent their entire lives in urban environments. Many viewed Smith’s generosity as truly expansive, but few, including Smith himself, took a close look at the land he’d shared or considered the substantial costs involved in getting a productive farm up and running. The maps with their neatly drawn sections looked good on paper but the actual parcels were often filled with thin soil, rocky terrain and ancient trees in a land with poor roads, brutal winters and a shortened growing season.
Unaware of such hurdles, thousands of people from across the mid-Atlantic states applied for the free land. Men from New York City, and many Hudson River and Central New York counties, were among those who traveled north. About 3,000 people accepted land, with initial settlers facing numerous challenges with varying degrees of success. Gerrit’s scheme and arrival of early homesteaders, especially those struggling with limited farming knowledge, caught the attention of the abolitionist John Brown, who lived in Springfield, Massachusetts at the time.
Brown had grown up on a farm and wanted to be of service in Smith’s project, by being a living example of how things were to be done and available to provide direct assistance if needed. Brown wrote to Smith, saying he’d like to support the new farmers by renting acres for himself and his growing family. Smith took Brown up on his offer, and it wasn’t long before the Brown family found themselves with their own bit of Smith’s mountain paradise near what is now Lake Placid.
The close proximity of some of the plots lent to the natural development of colonies or small villages which gave both support and protection to those living there. North Elba saw a long standing African American community as a result.
Other grantees arrived from outside of New York. Articles appeared in Black newspapers bringing people from Philadelphia and other southern cities, many taking up the plough for the first time in their lives. Sometimes plots were granted, but those seeking a new way of life never appeared. None of Smith’s acreage in Hamilton county was ever given out.
This area near Lake Placid also was home to another small colony called Timbuctoo, named for the ancient center of learning in the African nation of Mali, and was mentioned by Brown in several of his surviving letters. The presence of it in his writings gives focus to an exhibit on the historic site, sponsored by the friends group John Brown Lives! titled ‘Dreaming of Timbuctoo.’ (Click on the slideshow below) On-going archeological research keeps the memory of this colony alive, even as it and other sites of these intrepid homesteaders have long ago faded from the area.
Despite the hardships, a few grantees of Smith land prevailed to become established and active residents of the Adirondacks. Lyman Erastus Epps arrived in 1849, with his wife and two of his eight children. Epps left a rich legacy of his life in the area. Not only did he farm, but he also taught music to local residents in North Elba, was a charter member of its first church, was one of the founders and an early trustee of the Lake Placid Public Library. He also became a well-known guide in the High Peaks region of the central Adirondacks.
Brown himself was ever on the move and spent little time at the farm, although his wife and younger children were there. He and his older sons spent time in Kansas and other locations as part of their abolitionist activities, which eventually culminated in his failed raid with three of his sons on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va. in 1859.
In addition to being the benefactor of the Adirondack project, Smith was very involved with the Underground Railroad – a network of abolitionists who helped guide escaped enslaved people to freedom – and his estate in the Madison County hamlet of Peterboro was an official stop that abolitionist Harriet Tubman and others used regularly. The remains of his estate are part of New York’s Underground Railroad Heritage Trail and a National Historic Landmark.
Putting historical figures like Brown, Smith and Epps into the full communities in which they lived allows us to see a vast tapestry. No one lives alone in a silo, they are part of a multicultural, multi-linguist world much like what we live in today. Enrich the story, look beyond the obvious tale, and see what was really going on. You’ll discover one of our most treasured secrets, what a wonderful place we live in!
Cover Shot- John Brown Farm State Historic Site, NYS Parks Timbuctoo photographs courtesy of John Brown Lives!, exhibit curator Amy Godine and exhibition designer Karen Davidson Seward.
Post by Lavada Nahon, Interpreter of African American History, New York State Parks
Sally E. Svenson, Blacks in the Adirondacks, 2017
Leslie M. Harris, In the Shadow of Slavery, African Americans in New York City 1626-1863, 2003
Tom Calarco, The Underground Railroad in Upstate New York, 2014