How a nonprofit, archeologist and filmmaker came together to showcase a little-known Adirondack settlement
By Holly Riddle
John Brown Farm State Historic Site sits at the end of an out-of-the-way road outside Lake Placid, overshadowed by the Lake Placid Olympic Ski Jumping Complex. There, visitors find the homestead and grave of a somewhat misunderstood and often overlooked historic figure, whose influence on, and part in, the abolitionist movement was substantial. Inside, visitors find a small exhibit detailing a Black settlement named after a flourishing medieval trade hub in what is now the West African country of Mali: Timbuctoo.
The Dreaming of Timbuctoo exhibit details an initiative championed by wealthy Adirondack landowner Gerrit Smith to provide Black men with $250 worth of property — the requirement for Black men to vote in 1846. Smith parceled up his own landholdings and granted thousands of deeds, drawing in Black families from around the state and country to settle throughout Essex and Franklin counties. One of the settlements that developed out of this initiative became known as Timbuctoo.
“It’s Black history in the Adirondacks. It’s freedom history in the Adirondacks. It’s a story about the struggle to obtain equal access to the ballot,” says Martha Swan, founder and executive director of the organization that acts as the official Friends Group of the John Brown Farm State Historic Site.
But despite the John Brown Lives! organization’s efforts, the story of Timbuctoo isn’t one that you’ll come across in most history texts and, until recently, you’d be hard-pressed to find a documentary on the subject. One filmmaker from Albany, however, has changed that.
Paul Miller is a director of communications at the University of Albany. In addition to his day job, about eight years ago, he says, he decided to pursue his master’s degree in documentary studies. When looking into ideas for his thesis, his advisor told him about the work at John Brown’s farm.
In addition to telling the history behind Timbuctoo and similar settlements, Miller’s documentary, “Searching for Timbuctoo,” follows Kruczek-Aaron’s excavations at John Brown Farm State Historic Site and her team’s hope to identify the exact location of Timbuctoo, previously lost to time, much like the story surrounding it. While this goal is not achieved by the film’s end, Swan hints at future excavation projects at the historic site to come.
A story of the forgotten
Miller began filming in 2017 and just recently began showing the documentary, with screenings across the region over the last few months. Miller says one of the main pieces of feedback he receives during these events is that most New Yorkers weren’t previously familiar with this important piece of Adirondack history.
“This is a story of people that time has forgotten and the fact that I could help bring them back to life for people, whether it was Gerrit Smith or the Black settlers at Timbuctoo, [and that] I was able to help tell their story so they wouldn’t be forgotten to time — having that sense of responsibility was motivating for me,” he says.
Next up: “Searching for Timbuctoo” has a screening in March slated for the National Abolition Hall of Fame. Curator of the Timbuctoo exhibit at John Brown Farm State Historic Site, Amy Godine, also has a book on the subject coming out next year.