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.

Three years before John Brown moved his family to upstate New York, the wealthy white abolitionist Gerrit Smith divided 120,000 acres of his land there into small parcels and donated small deeds to free black New Yorkers. Much of the land was deep in the Adirondack Mountains and difficult to locate, much less to farm. Dishonest surveyors led some of the deed-holders to land that wasn’t theirs, while some settlers mistakenly squatted on land belonging to someone else.

In fact, upon his arrival in Essex County in 1849, one of the first things John Brown did, having worked as a surveyor before, was to write to Smith on behalf of three black settlers–James H. Henderson, and two brothers, Thomas and Samuel Jefferson–who had settled and built improvements on Lot 93 in Township 12. Henderson and the Jeffersons probably settled on Lot 93 because the lands they had been deeded by Smith were in a virtually inaccessible wilderness. But Lot 93 actually belonged to a man named Pliny Nash, who had a lease-to-buy contract with Smith. Nash allowed Henderson and the Jeffersons to live on the land, and Henderson significantly improved his acres, clearing land and building a house. But he and the Jeffersons were concerned about their claims. Apparently before Brown arrived, one Jefferson paid money to Nash, and on June 20, Brown wrote to Smith that he would help “some of our colored friends” buy out Nash’s claim. He forwarded a draft for $225 to transfer the deed to Henderson, Samuel Jefferson, himself, and his son Jason Brown, who would divide the lot “among themselves.”

Despite the difficulties facing settlers like Henderson, black abolitionists in New York (including Frederick Douglass, who at the time edited a newspaper in Rochester, and Willis A. Hodges, the co-editor of another black newspaper in New York City) praised the Smith donation. Between 1847 and 1849, New York’s African American press buzzed with advice to settlers and lists of emigrants. Many, including Hodges, believed settlers on the “Smith lands” could escape the immorality and danger of the city and become self-sufficient. Hodges moved to a Franklin County settlement in 1848; others, like Henderson and the Jeffersons, moved near the Essex County villages of North Elba and West Keene.

John Brown appears to have first called the Essex County settlement “Timbucto” in 1848, when he began corresponding with Hodges about the Smith lands. Six letters from Brown to Hodges, all written in 1848 and 1849 before Brown’s family arrived in Essex, were later published in the New York Evening-Post shortly after Brown’s execution. (Download a PDF image of these letters, taken from the Evening-Post.) Three of them refer to a settlement in Essex County as “Timbucto.”

Because of those references, many writers now use the name “Timbucto” to refer to the entire African American settlement around North Elba, where at least some members of Brown’s family remained more than a decade later and where Brown’s body was buried after his execution. In the earliest drafts of my article on Brown, I also used “Timbucto” and “North Elba” interchangeably, following this common usage.

But along the way, several discoveries made me reconsider that naming decision, and I started wondering how “Timbucto” got its name in the first place. First, the name “Timbucto” was used disproportionately by Brown himself and by members of his family. The Evening Post article that published the letters to Hodges even claimed explicitly that Brown himself named the settlement, though it did not reveal the source of this information beyond the letters themselves. There is very limited evidence that black settlers also used or played a role in choosing the name. One letter by James H. Henderson, which was published in the North Star, Frederick Douglass’s newspaper, on February 16, 1849, was addressed from “West Keene Timbucto, Essex Co.” But this is the only hit returned from a search for “Timbucto” in a digitized edition of the North Star made by Accessible Archives. And since Henderson reported in the letter, dated January 29, that Brown had recently visited Essex and met Henderson, it is still possible that Brown, who had used the name “Timbucto” in an earlier 1848 letter to Hodges, was the one who dubbed the settlement. Aside from references to “Timbucto” in the correspondence of Brown and his family, of which there were several more, Henderson’s is the only clear example I know of in which an African American settler used the name.

Second, even among the Browns, references to “Timbucto” appear to have been confined to the first year or two after they moved to Essex County. The late Edwin Cotter, the long-time curator of the Brown farmstead and state historic site at North Elba, noticed this while conducting his researches on the area. Cotter’s papers (PDF) are now available to researchers at the library of SUNY-Plattsburgh, and when I visited this archive, I found a typed note by Cotter in which he compiled a list of what he believed to be the only references to “Timbucto or Timbuctoo.” These included the three letters to Hodges, Henderson’s letter in the North Star, and a letter from Brown’s oldest son John Brown Jr. to his mother Mary Brown in October 1849. I know of at least one other reference to “Timbucto” in the Brown family correspondence, but it–like the others–occurred before 1850. This supports Cotter’s hypothesis that after 1849 or 1850 “the name is never used again.”

Because of the limited usage of the name “Timbucto” in contemporary sources, Cotter also wondered whether “Timbucto” might have been meant to refer not to the whole Essex County settlement of which Brown was a part, but instead to one small part of it. “If the whole town was called Timbuctoo,” asked Cotter in his notes, “why was the name only used up to the fall of 1849?” His notes continue:

Why did the Browns not use it later to describe the town or the whole area? There were blacks here later but nobody we know of ever used the word Timbuctoo. Why? The only answer must be is that there was a small place or area the Browns and the blacks called Timbucto. The blacks in the place called Timbuctoo must have left here early, maybe as early as late 1849 or 1850 because the name is never used again.

The evidence I’ve seen supports this hypothesis, too, because on the occasions when the Brown family referred to Timbucto, they implied that it was a separate place from the location where they initially resided–a rented farm in West Keene. Most of the letters that the Browns wrote from or to their new home in 1849 and 1850 were addressed “Essex” or “Keene,” and never “Timbucto,” unlike Henderson’s letter in the North Star.

Not until March 1850 does “North Elba” even appear in the datelines of the Browns’ letters that I have examined, which may be because North Elba was officially considered part of Keene until 1850. But what seems clear is that when the Browns referred to “Timbucto,” they were not referring to where they themselves lived–the rented farm in West Keene. Instead, when John Brown Jr. visited his siblings at the farmstead in the fall of 1849, while both his parents were absent, he wrote to Mary Brown that after reaching “Keene” and visiting the family he had also visited “Timbuctoo,” suggesting it was a separate place. An earlier letter from Ruth, Brown’s daughter, to her absent mother also reported that “the folks are all very well to [or tow?] Timbucto, I believe,” before mentioning several African American settlers specifically. This suggests that there were several families living between the place Ruth called Timbucto and the Browns’ own farm.

If “Timbucto” was not a name used by the Browns for the entire settlement of Smith grantees or the area that included their rented farm, then where was “Timbucto”? One plausible answer is that “Timbucto” referred narrowly to the farms of Henderson and the Jefferson brothers clustered together on Lot 93. The Cotter collection at SUNY-Plattsburgh also includes some typed notes from 1994 by local historian Mary MacKenzie, who gives some compelling reasons for this theory. And though she doesn’t mention it in her notes, the idea that “Timbucto” was a name for the Henderson-Jefferson conclave would help explain why Henderson addressed his letter to the North Star from “Timbucto” while no other black settler that I know of used the name.

If “Timbucto” never did refer to the entire settlement of African Americans in Essex County, as Cotter and MacKenzie both suspected, then that raises the question of how the name lived on. As MacKenzie points out in her notes at SUNY-Plattsburgh, the name got a new lease on life from the chapter on Brown and North Elba in Alfred L. Donaldson’s two-volume History of the Adirondacks, published in 1921. According to MacKenzie, Donaldson relied on the memories of white “old-timers” still living in the area, and his resulting depiction of the black settlement as a laughable shantytown amounted to a flagrantly racist caricature. Donaldson mocked Gerrit Smith’s plan to found a “negro colony in the mountains” as a “pure chimera,” suggesting that the likelihood of “an escaped slave” creating a “so-called Adirondack farm” was about the same as the likelihood that “an Italian lizard” would survive on a “Norwegian iceberg.” And he didn’t stop there:

The farms allotted to the negroes consisted of forty acres each, but the natural gregariousness of the race tended to defeat the purpose of these individual holdings. The darkies began to build their shanties in one place, instead of on their separate grants. Before long about ten families had huddled their houses together down by the brook, not far from where the White Church now stands. The shanties were square, crudely built of logs, with flat roofs, out of which little stove-pipes protruded at varying angles. The last touch of pure negroism was a large but dilapidated red flag that floated above the settlement, bearing the half-humorous, half-pathetic legend ‘Timbuctoo’–a name that was applied to the whole vicinity for several years.

The reliability of Donaldson’s reportage here is undercut by his clear contempt for “the darkies.” He provides no source for his claim that the name Timbuctoo “was applied to the whole vicinity for several years,” and the passive construction of that sentence is a telling indication of the mystery surrounding who actually began calling it that. Donaldson also added the odd detail of a red flag reading “Timbuctoo” raised above the settlement. That detail has been picked up by some later writers and makes an appearance in Russell Banks’s fictionalized historical novel about John Brown. But until Donaldson mentioned it, the flag does not appear in any earlier source that I know of.

MacKenzie apparently believed that Donaldson simply invented the flag in order to underline the bathos and “negroism” of the whole experiment. It is possible, though, that there was at some point a flag remembered by local residents with whom Donaldson spoke. If there was a flag, however, it doesn’t shed much light on how the name came to be attached to the area. Was it a “half-humorous, half-pathetic” name jokingly used by hostile white neighbors, and then repurposed by defiant black settlers who made the name their own? Or was it used by Brown and/or Henderson to refer to the Lot 93 farms, only to then be picked up in the neighborhood and immortalized by a flag put up to mark the spot by unknown parties–perhaps even long after the settlers had left? The Donaldson account does not permit us to say, so that the questions of how “Timbucto” got its name–or who named it–remain somewhat mysterious.

One thing the Donaldson paragraph may unintentionally do, however, is strengthen MacKenzie’s idea that “Timbucto” referred to the small cluster of Henderson and Jefferson farms on Pliny Nash’s land. That may be why Donaldson’s sources gave him information suggesting that some black settlers “began to build their shanties in one place, instead of on their separate grants.” “After all,” as MacKenzie puts it in her notes at SUNY-Plattsburgh, at one point there was “a total of 16 black people living on the land—8 Hendersons and 8 Jeffersons. All three houses were possibly close to Pine Brook, a handy source of water,” which may explain Donaldson’s location of “Timbuctoo” near a brook.

Of course, the circumstantial evidence that “Timbucto” was actually a name for the cluster of Henderson-Jefferson households does not help answer the question of “how” that name was assigned. But it might help solve the riddle Cotter identified–which is the question of why the name “Timbucto” disappears from the primary sources almost as soon as it appears. If the name was not used by Brown or other settlers after around 1850, as I suspect, then it may be because both Henderson and the Jeffersons did not stay in the area very long.

Remember that shortly after arriving in North Elba, Brown wrote to Smith attempting to purchase the deed for the Timbucto farms on Lot 93 for $225 so as to divide it between himself, his son, Henderson, and the Jeffersons. But not long after that, Brown wrote to Smith again asking him instead to credit the $225 to his own purchase of Lot 95. Henderson apparently continued paying Nash for his claim on Lot 93, but both Jefferson brothers soon left the area for several years, not returning until 1854.

Henderson remained but, on October 15, 1850, he wrote a frustrated letter to Smith. Smith’s agent had told Henderson that he could not purchase acreage in Lot 93, though Brown had apparently suggested otherwise. Now, evidently having heard rumors that the Jeffersons were trying to sell their lots and fearing his would be sold from under him, Henderson appealed to Smith: “i wood [sic] not like to loos [sic] my house and improvements.”

Tragically, however, Henderson had not secured his title before he froze to death in the woods in 1852. Shortly thereafter, Henderson’s wife left “Timbucto” and placed his children in the Colored Orphan Aslyum in New York City. Other African American settlers remained on the Smith lands around North Elba, but with both the Hendersons and the Jeffersons now gone from Lot 93, perhaps “Timbucto” was no more.

[Proceed to Part II of this series.]


You can read more about the “Smith lands” in any biography of John Brown and in recent books like John Stauffer’s The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (2009) and Leslie M. Harris’s In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863 (2003). Also see Willard B. Gatewood, Jr., ed., Free Man of Color: The Autobiography of Willis Augustus Hodges (1982). § For Edwin Cotter’s notes about the name Timbucto, see “Timbucto or Timbuctoo,” in Box 28, Folder 307, of the Cotter Collection at SUNY-Plattsburgh. § The information in this post about James H. Henderson, the Jefferson brothers, and Lot 93 relies on James H. Henderson’s letter (January 29, 1849) to Henry Highland Garnet, published in “Communications,” North Star (Rochester), February 16, 1849; and the following items in the Cotter Collection at SUNY-Plattsburgh: James H. Henderson to Gerrit Smith, 15 October 1850 (typed copy made by Mary MacKenzie), Box 20, Folder 239; John Brown to Gerrit Smith, 20 June 1849 (typed copy), Box 12, Folder 143; John Brown to Gerrit Smith, 8 November 1849 (typed copy), Box 12, Folder 140; “Samuel Jefferson-Thomas Jefferson,” and “James H. Henderson” (typed notes compiled by Mary MacKenzie and dated 1994), Box 11, Folder 136. On the placement of Henderson’s children in a New York orphanage after his death, see Harris, In the Shadow of Slavery, p. 278. § For the two cited references to Timbucto in letters by Brown’s children, see John Brown Jr. to Mary Brown, 13 October 1849, John Brown Jr. Papers, Ohio Historical Society, MSS 47; Ruth Brown to Mother, 7 September 1849, John Brown Papers, Kansas Historical Society, Folder 1.12 (viewed on microfilm). § Since Mary MacKenzie’s death in 2003, her many writings on Adirondack history have been compiled and published, many of them in this online book, The Plains of Abraham. The book reproduces some of her notes on Henderson and North Elba from the Cotter collection (see pages 135-138) and also includes a chapter laying out MacKenzie’s argument that the “Timbuctoo” name was an invention of Donaldson’s (see pages 158-159). MacKenzie incorrectly states that Timbuctoo was never used by any African American settler or by anyone other than John Brown himself, but the gist of her argument here deserves notice.


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