In Search of John Brown’s Timbucto, Part II

In Part I, inspired by a Washington Post article about archaeologists who are uncovering an early nineteenth-century African American town in Timbuctoo, N.J., I set out to discover how another black community in upstate New York got the name “Timbucto.”

As I explained in that post, being certain about who named the New York “Timbucto” (which is most famous for its association with the famous abolitionist John Brown, who once lived there or near there) is not easy and may be impossible. The extant evidence suggests that Brown and his family members first used the name “Timbucto” in the late 1840s to refer to a small cluster of farms near North Elba that was settled by the families of three free black men. But even if we could settle the question of who named “Timbucto” (or Timbuctoo, N. J., for that matter) it would not settle the related question of why that name was chosen.

That’s the question for this post: Why would the name “Timbuctoo” be attached to these early nineteenth-century African American communities, one founded in the 1820s and the other at the end of the 1840s?

Surely in both cases the name referred to the African city of Timbuctoo or Timbuktu. But that means that to answer the question of “why Timbuctoo” we need to know what Americans between 1820 and 1850 would have known or thought they knew about the African city. What associations would the African Timbuktu have had in the minds of those who named these towns, whoever they were? To answer that question, we would need to paint a picture of the place of the African Timbuktu in the broader landscape of antebellum American culture. We’ll need to explore the print culture, newspapers and books from which people in New Jersey or people like John Brown would have learned about the African city.

A full picture of how Timbuktu was represented in American culture would require a larger research project than I can undertake for this post, though it seems like a do-able project that would be of great interest. It is possible, though, to sketch a preliminary portrait of Americans’ likely impressions of Timbuktu in the decades bounded by the founding of Timbuctoo, New Jersey, and John Brown’s move to the Adirondack mountains. It’s a portrait that includes not just John Brown, but an early Pan-Africanist named John Brown Russwurm, a French explorer named René Caillié, and a famous African Muslim prince who was enslaved, brought to America, and then freed in 1828 after he had been recognized by a white man who had met his father in Africa.

But unfortunately (or interestingly, depending on how you look at it) this fascinating portrait still does not decisively settle the question of why these two Timbuctoo communities got their name.

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In Search of John Brown’s Timbucto, Part I

Recently the Washington Post reported on the ongoing excavation of a nineteenth-century African American settlement called Timbuctoo in New Jersey. This long-buried community, now evident only in the traces of found Mason jars, crumbling bricks, and the memories of the community’s living descendants, was founded in the 1820s “by freed blacks and escaped slaves” who bought the land from Quaker abolitionists.

The story of this Timbuctoo was news to me. But it immediately caught my eye because of my past study of the abolitionist John Brown, whose famous antislavery raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, had its sesquicentennial anniversary last year. Brown’s raid is widely known as one of the events that contributed to the coming of the Civil War. Less widely known is that ten years before Harper’s Ferry, in 1849, Brown moved his family to upstate New York to live near a small free black settlement in Essex County, near Lake Placid.

And coincidentally, this settlement in North Elba, New York, which is also apparently under excavation, was also sometimes referred to as Timbucto.

When reading the Post article I was first struck with the obvious question: how coincidental was the fact that these two free black communities in New Jersey and New York shared their unusual name? Is it possible that Brown knew of Timbuctoo, New Jersey, when he moved to New York in 1849? Or did abolitionists between the 1820s and the 1850s simply refer often enough to Timbuktu–the difficult-to-reach city located in the West African interior–to make that name a familiar and meaningful one to both Brown and the New Jersey settlers?

Those questions raise another big question: why the name Timbuctoo? As the Post article notes, the New Jersey settlement “was probably named after Timbuktu, the town in Mali near the Niger River, although researchers are still trying to find out how and why it got its name.” I can sympathize with these researchers’ difficulty, because while doing research for a scholarly article on John Brown, I briefly spent time trying to figure out “how and why” Brown’s “Timbucto” got its name. Answering those questions was not as easy as I thought it would be. In this post, I’ll talk about the question of how Brown’s Timbucto got its name, and in Part II, I’ll consider the question of why it bore that name.

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