Abolitionist John Brown’s ties to the Adirondacks, why it matters today
The recent release of “The Good Lord Bird,” a TV mini-series on Showtime portraying abolitionist John Brown, has resulted in renewed interest in the life and motivations of the man whose ill-fated attack on a U.S. armory at Harper’s Ferry, Va. preceded the Civil War.
The TV mini-series has also resulted in a renewed interest in Brown’s connections to Upstate New York – specifically the Adirondack town of North Elba near Lake Placid. That’s where Brown owned a farm and where he was buried after he was hanged following his failed raid on the armory.
Brown’s farm in North Elba was named a state historical site in 1896. His former farmhouse and burial site is open year-round for tours, special events, and recreation.
And this year, following the death of George Floyd and the many “Black Lives Matter” protests that swept across the country, the state and the Adirondack region, another feature was added at the farm: “The Memorial Field for Black Lives.” The display features small placards stuck in the ground highlighting the names of 50 unarmed black men and woman who were killed across the country by law enforcement officials and others.
It was the inspiration of Karen Davidson Seward, a Saranac Lake resident and graphic artist who was appalled by the shooting death and delayed arrests earlier this year of Ahmaud Arbery. He was a young, unarmed black man in Brunswick Ga. who was out jogging and was chased down and shot by two white men who believed Arbery was fleeing a burglary.
“It was stunning how he was hunted like an animal,” Seward said. ” I wrote a sign I was going to wear in a sandwich board in a memorial march and that started me on this.”
What brought Brown to the Adirondacks?
It came down to Brown supporting the efforts of Gerrit Smith (1797-1874), an Upstate real estate baron and social reformer living in Peterboro in Madison County, who was a dedicated and influential abolitionist who played a critical role in the operations of the Underground Railroad in New York.
The end of slavery in New York took place following a series of legislative actions from 1799 to 1827, according to nyhistory.org. However, black New York men were not allowed to vote unless they owned at least $250 of land – a restriction that remained until after the Civil War.
In response, Smith came up with a “scheme of justice and benevolence” that he hoped would help Black families.
Between 1846 and 1850, Smith transferred ownership of 120,000 acres of undeveloped, Adirondack wilderness that was divided up into 40-acre parcels and handed them over to 3,000 free, black New York residents.
In 1849, Smith gifted a farm lot to John Brown and his family, who moved to North Elba with intentions of helping the black settlers.
“The project drew black families from urban areas where they had previously held jobs as cooks, barbers, and domestic workers,” according to Adirondack.net.
The best known of the all-black settlements established as a result of Smith’s offer was named Timbucktoo.
Not all who took up Smith on his offer ended up relocating to the Adirondacks. Some remained where they were and used their land holdings to exercise their right to vote. And those who relocated up to the Adirondacks, found it a tough go.
“For most, farming untouched land proved to be a massive challenge that they were not prepared for. Cutting down evergreens, clearing rocks, and securing money to pay taxes on the land were just some of the obstacles settlers were faced with,” according to Adirondack.net.
Many of the Black settlers found the situation to be more than they could handle and moved away shortly after arriving. By 1855, efforts ended for the most part, with only a few families choosing to stay.
Who was John Brown?
Brown was born in Connecticut in 1800 and raised in Ohio in a “staunchly Calvinist and anti-slavery family,” according to history.com. “He spent much of his life failing at a variety of businesses and declared bankruptcy at the age of 42.”
“In 1837 his life changed irrevocably when he attended an abolition meeting in Cleveland, during which he was so moved that he publicly announced his dedication to destroying the institution of slavery,” according to history.com. “As early as 1848 he was formulating a plan to incite an insurrection.”
Brown remained at his Adirondack farm until 1855. He kept his ownership of the farm and decided to move to Kansas where five of his sons had relocated.
With the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, there was conflict over whether the territory would be a free or slave state. Brown believed violence was needed to to quell the proslavery faction and bring Kansas into the Union as a free state. In an act of retaliation for the sacking of Lawrence, Kan. by pro-slavery forces, on May 24, 1856, Brown, three associates, and five of his sons attacked and killed five pro-slavery settlers with broadswords, in what became known as the Pottawatomie Massacre, according to civilwaronthewestern border.org.
“By 1857, Brown returned to the East and began raising money with plans to spark a mass uprising of enslaved people. He was able to get financial backing from six prominent abolitionists, known as the “Secret Six,” and set about putting together a small army of 22 men that included five Black men and three of Brown’s sons,” history.com said. “The group rented a farm near Harpers Ferry and prepared for the assault.”
On the night of Oct. 16, 1859, Brown and followers raided the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. The plan was to use the firearms seized to help liberate slaves. The effort failed and Brown was captured by forces led by then-Col. Robert E. Lee.
Brown was imprisoned at Charlestown, Va, tried and found guilty of treason, murder and slave insurrection. He was hanged on Dec. 2, 1859.
Following his execution, Brown’s family continued to live on the farm in North Elba. Brown’s body was brought back to the Adirondacks and he was buried in front of his home on the farm. Several of his followers were also buried there years later.
John Brown’s Farm today
For decades, various groups and individuals have participated in annual visits to John Brown’s farm, particularly on May 9 during Brown’s birthday or Juneteenth Day. Dating back to the early 1920s for example, representatives from the John Brown Memorial Association Philadelphia NAACP would visit the site on Brown’s birthday and lay a wreath on his grave – a practice that continued into the 1970s.
Among the most recent and significant supporters of the historical landmark is John Brown Lives, a social justice/educational group founded in 1999 and headed by Martha Swan, a Syracuse native and high school Spanish teacher now living in nearby Westport.
The group’s mission, according to its website: “Is not just to honor John Brown’s forceful voice in bringing an end to slavery, but to take his lead and follow in his footsteps, promoting social justice and human rights through reflection and activism, awareness and exploration, kinship and individual action.”
Among the group’s early efforts was the creation in 2001 of “Dreaming of Timbuctoo, ” an exhibit featuring enlargements of historic photographs and documents about the effort. A traveling display of the exhibit, curated by writer and journalist Amy Godine, of Saratoga Springs, has been seen by thousands as it has been installed twice at the New York State Fair, and been shown in museums, schools, universities and even a penitentiary.
Since 2016, a permanent “Dreaming of Timbuctoo” exhibit, which was designed by Seward (who created the Memorial Field for Black Lives), has been on display at Brown’s farm.
A number of events are held annually on the farm, but were cancelled this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In recent years, there has been the annual “Spirit of John Brown Freedom Award” handed out during the annual John Brown Day celebration that occurs every May 9 on Brown’s birthday and the “Blues at Timbuctoo Concert and Conversation” each fall.
In late August, John Brown Lives hosted a violin vigil in the Memorial Field at the farm to observe/mark the police killing of a young Black man, Elijah McClain, in 2019 in Colorado.
“Elijah played the violin and would go to the animal shelter and play to calm and soothe the animals,” Swan said. “We put out the call for local and visiting string players to join in a community ‘string along’ as part of the vigil.”
Three songs — “Amazing Grace,” “We Shall Overcome” and “Let My People Go” — were performed by the more than a dozen musicians who gathered. Erin Champion, of Syracuse, was among those who participated with her violin.
“It was an amazing event,” Chapman said.
The Memorial Field for Black Lives will remain at the John Brown Farm until Nov. 1.
Reaction to the TV mini-series
Brendan Mills, site manager of John Brown Farm State Historic Site, was asked for his opinion about the “The Good Lord Bird” and its depiction of Brown.
He mentioned that actor Ethan Hawke, who portrays Brown in the mini-series, visited the farm about a year and a half ago and that he gave Hawke and his wife a tour of the grounds.
“I’m not favorable to it,” Mills said of the TV series. “It’s a farcical look at the situation and his life. It takes a comedic tone toward slavery and those who tried to end slavery.”
Mills said he’s frequently asked by visitors to the farm whether John Brown was insane.
“He was a sane man dealing with an insane system” Mills said. “A democracy that tolerates slavery. I question where sanity lies in that situation.”