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.