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.

One thing is clear: the African Timbuktu had attracted great interest from Europeans in the decades just before the period we’re interested in. Late eighteenth-century European explorers and geographers were greatly interested, first for scientific reasons but soon for imperial and political ones, in discovering its precise location. There was no record of a European visiting the city before the nineteenth century, but based on reports it was thought to lie near the Niger River and at the intersection of trade routes between the west and east coasts of the continent, making it of geographical and commercial interest. The mystery was enhanced by legends and rumors that described the city as one of great wealth and beauty, further whetting the appetite of eighteenth-century explorers.

In a recent celebrated book on Romanticism and eighteenth-century science, Richard Holmes discusses the mystique that thus surrounded Timbuktu in Europe by 1800:

The great prize was to reach the semi-legendary city of Timbuctoo, somewhere south of the Sahara. Here, it was said, lay a great West African metropolis, packed with treasures and glittering with towers and palaces roofed with gold. It was strategically situated aside the fabled river Niger, at the confluence of the Arabic and African trade routes. Beyond Timbuctoo, it was thought that the mysterious Niger might flow due eastwards, providing a trade route across the entire African continent, and eventually meeting up with the Nile in Egypt. But to the Europeans nothing was known for certain, though many speculative maps had been drawn by military cartographers, such as Major John Rennell’s ‘Sketch of the Northern Parts of Africa,’ presented to the [African] Association in 1790.

This “mythical” Timbuktu of golden palaces and untold wealth contributed to public interest in several late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century attempts by Europeans to reach the legendary city, including the most famous attempts by Scottish explorer Mungo Park. But Park famously failed to reach the city, and he was never heard from again after his party was reportedly attacked on his second attempt, in 1805 and 1806, to explore the extent of the Niger River.

An African American sailor, Robert Adams, claimed to have been to the city about five years after Park disappeared. But his narrative was widely discredited, and meanwhile, the published stories that swirled around Park’s disappearance also meant that the legends of Timbuktu’s wealth were increasingly combined with stories about the dangers for non-Africans (and particularly non-Muslims) trying to reaching the city. This was especially true after the publication of reports that A. G. Laing, another Scotsman, had reached the city in 1826, only to be murdered before he could return to announce his success. Alfred Tennyson’s prize-winning 1829 poem “Timbuctoo” played on both ideas (the brilliant beauty and allure of the city, as well as the danger and difficulty of reaching it) by comparing it to other mythical or “mystick” cities like Atlantis and El Dorado.

But in 1828, a Frenchman named René Caillié finally reached the fabled city and lived to tell the tale, publishing a two-volume book, Travels through Central Africa to Timbuctoo, about his journey. Though some also cast doubt on Caillié’s account, it won him a fair amount of fame on both sides of the Atlantic. And the account of how he did it certainly satisfied readers who probably already assumed, thanks to stories about Mungo Park, that the trek would be perilous.

Indeed, Caillié explained that to reach the city without being enslaved or killed, he had to disguise himself as a Muslim, confine himself in a house for much of his brief stay in the city, and take his notes furtively. But Caillié also punctured any Romantic expectations about Timbuktu that still floated in the European or American imagination, dismissing the “exaggerated notions” that had long prevailed about “this mysterious city, which has been an object of curiosity for so many ages.” In fact, Caillié sheepishly confessed that upon reaching the city, he was sorely disappointed.

How many grateful thanksgivings did I pour forth for the protection which God had vouchsafed to me, amidst obstacles and dangers which appeared insurmountable. This duty being ended, I looked around and found that the sight before me, did not answer my expectations. I had formed a totally different idea of the grandeur and wealth of Timbuctoo. The city presented, at first view, nothing but a mass of ill-looking houses, built of earth. Nothing was to be seen in all directions but immense plains of quicksand of a yellowish white colour.

The only golden nuggets here, in other words, were grains of yellow sand.

Clipped from Google Books at

So … where does all of this get us in our search for an answer to why the New Jersey and New York settlements, founded respectively in the 1820s and the 1840s, took their name from Timbuktu? Well, the various reports of journeys to Timbuktu from Park to Caillié certainly mean that around the time of these settlements’ founding, there was a discourse surrounding the African city and, as a quick Google Books search reveals, there was a fair number of published mentions of the place on both sides of the Atlantic between 1800 and 1850.

But what “Timbuctoo” signified to readers in these years is more ambiguous. To sum up what we’ve seen so far, there were several things that the name “Timbuctoo” might have conjured up for someone in early nineteenth-century America, especially by 1830:

  • the site of a great, riverine African civilization of surpassing wealth and beauty
  • an extraordinarily remote, dangerous and difficult-to-reach place
  • a disappointingly “ill-looking” and decidedly non-wealthy place surrounded by desert
  • a Muslim city, hostile to outsiders, where all the “native inhabitants” were, as Caillié wrote, “zealous Mahometans”

The question, then, is this: Which of these ideas was intended by the people who named the “Timbuctoo” settlements in New Jersey and New York?

Of course, what this quick survey reveals is that it would be hard to answer this question decisively without knowing for sure how these places got their names and who did the naming. What if, for example, these African American settlements were actually named by white neighbors who were hostile to the settlements?

That possibility is not ruled out by anything in the Post article about New Jersey and is still conceivable in the case of the North Elba community. But in that case, the name could have been intended as an epithet used by whites to belittle a community of black outsiders. Worse, the name could have been a joke intended to suggest the incongruity between what must have been the great hopes of the free black inhabitants and their actual living conditions. As I reported in Part I, twentieth-century Adirondack historian Alfred L. Donaldson viewed the “Timbuctoo” name for John Brown’s North Elba community as a “half-humorous, half-pathetic legend,” and the brief history I’ve sketched in this post makes it plausible to imagine hostile whites using the name in the same way a century before Donaldson wrote. A contemporary magazine article provides at least one such example of a racist, parodic essay from the period that pokes fun at Timbuctoo.

Abolitionists and Timbuktu

On the other hand, what if, as seems most likely in the case of John Brown’s Timbucto, these settlements got their names from African Americans themselves or from white abolitionist sympathizers? In that case, the question of “why Timbuctoo” yields a quite different set of likely answers.

To antislavery groups, the name would have been most attractive because of the original legends surrounding Timbuktu as a city of great wealth and civilization. In fact, in the few years before Caillié reached the African city, abolitionist and antislavery writers still took for granted the largely positive legends surrounding Timbuktu and used them to advance different kinds of antislavery arguments.

For example, in an 1824 article in the North American Review, a writer sympathetic to the aims of The American Colonization Society, which advocated the removal of free black men and women from the United States to western Africa, mentioned “Timbuctoo” in order to support the colonizationists’ argument. This writer described Timbuctoo as a civilized place where African youths were sent from great distances “to be instructed in Arabic learning” and to study the Koran. The tendentious conclusion this colonizationist drew was both that Africa needed the Christian missionaries that free black Americans could supply, and also that “the natives of Africa are in some degree sensible of their ignorance, and willing to be made wiser.”

Despite the backhanded compliment in such lines, here was a vision of Timbuctoo starkly different from those of racist parodists. And even farther from parody was an article that appeared in the Baltimore-based antislavery newspaper the Genius of Universal Emancipation in 1826. The Genius used reports about the wealth of interior African cities to argue that the degradation of Africans often cited by proslavery apologists had only occurred in those places where European slave trading had ravaged the continent. Citing Timbuctoo in particular, the Genius contended that “in those parts [of Africa] never prophaned by the unhallowed foot of a slave dealer–civilization advances and the arts of social life [flourish]–the natives cultivate the cotton and indigo.”

References to “Timbuctoo” in antislavery literature also spiked slightly in 1828 thanks to the publicity that year surrounding Abd al-Rahman (or Abduhl Rahahman, in contemporary sources), who became widely known to Americans in that year because of his improbable, but apparently likely, story. Born the son of a Fulbe chief in Africa, Abd al-Rahman spent 40 years as an American slave before he was recognized in Natchez, Mississippi, by a white man whose life had been saved in Africa by Abd al-Rahman’s father. When Henry Clay, an ardent colonizationist, discovered his story, he and the Society campaigned for the emancipation of the “Prince of Timbo” so he could return to Africa, and the Colonization Society sponsored a celebrated lecturing tour in the North. In Washington, the Prince met with President John Quincy Adams, who recorded the encounter in his diary on May 15, 1828 (click for a page image of the diary). As he toured Northern cities, Abd al-Rahman also attracted crowds who were fascinated by his ability to write Arabic script. (He often wrote out souvenir cards with what curiosity-seekers thought was the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic; it turns out that, unbeknownst to his admirers, he was writing bits of the Koran.)

Though Abd al-Rahman was from “Timbo,” several sources I’ve seen changed this to “Timbuctoo,” perhaps conflating the two places in ignorance. It is difficult to reconstruct Abd Al-Rahman’s own reports about his life because his broken English was usually transcribed by people like his colonizationist sponsors who had either a loose or tendentious understanding of African geography. (Some writers also claimed he was from Morocco.) But Abd al-Rahman appears to have reported that he had been educated in Timbuctoo, which some might have confused with his homeplace. (President Adams’s diary entry said that Abd al-Rahman named “Tombuctoo” as his “home.”) At any rate, for abolitionists and colonizationists already inclined to imagine Timbuctoo as the seat of a great interior Africa kingdom and a site of Arabic and Islamic learning, Abd al-Rahman was a perfect illustration.

But Abd al-Rahman captured the interest of African American abolitionists in particular, especially the early pan-Africanist and black emigrationist John Brown Russwurm. Russwurm had mentioned the “far-famed city of Timbuctoo” in an 1827 essay published in the New York City Freedom’s Journal, the first African American newspaper in the United States. And in Russwurm’s pioneering article, “The Mutability of Human Affairs,” Timbuctoo appears as part of a larger, mournful argument about how the great ancient civilizations of Africa have been forgotten. (You can download a full, PDF issue of Freedom’s Journal in which Russwurm’s essay appeared here, thanks to the Wisconsin Historical Society’s archive of the paper.) In 1828 the Journal reported with great interest on Abd al-Rahman’s Northern tour; in one issue (PDF) Russwurm reprinted an article from the New York Journal of Commerce reporting on the presence of the “native Prince of Timbuctoo,” continuing that “Abduhl Rahahman” had been confirming the glowing reports of the African city’s commercial wealth and opportunities. Russwurm also met Abd al-Rahman himself in Washington, and he mentioned the encounter in a Freedom’s Journal article on August 29, 1828 (PDF). Russwurm reported that Timbuctoo was one of several cities of great size in the African interior and praised Abd Al-Rahman’s extensive learning:

It must be evident to every one that the Prince is a man superior to the generality of Africans whom we behold in this country. His education is also superior; and when we take into consideration his Alma Mater, our astonishment becomes greater. He is a fine Arabic scholar, and even now, at his advanced life, 66, writes an elegant hand. He appears to be well versed with the Geography of the interior of Africa, and states many facts concerning the different tribes, and the source and discharge of the Niger, of which we were ignorant. It has ever been the current belief that Timbuctoo was the only city of size in the interior; but the Prince assures us that there are two others nearly as large near the banks of the Niger.

Such articles are clear examples of the ways that antislavery writers by the 1820s could fold limited information about Timbuktu into their arguments against slavery. Though I don’t currently plan to undertake the additional research, I have a hunch that additional digging would reveal other instances like these of abolitionists using the positive stories surrounding Timbuktu. (It would also be interesting to find out if there was abolitionist discourse surrounding the claims of the African American sailor who earlier said he had been there.) This brief tradition of discourse about the city explains why African American abolitionists and writers also appear to have been quite interested by the journeys of Laing and Caillié to the city. The Freedom’s Journal, for example, noticed the reports about Laing and Caillié in several issues in late 1828 and 1829 (especially on December 26, 1828; as well as on March 28, 1829; and August 10, 1829).

Inconclusive Conclusions

These context clues combine to make it clearer why “Timbuctoo” might have occurred to African Americans as a name for their community in New Jersey (founded, apparently, in the decade of Caillié and Abd al-Rahman), and also why John Brown might have applied the name to the cluster of farms settled by James H. Henderson and the Jefferson brothers in New York.

But this brief sketch of “Timbuctoo” in antebellum American culture still does not allow us to say definitively why these settlements got that name, because the name was still clearly multivalent. We cannot be certain about the meanings it conveyed to the people who lived in the New Jersey and New York communities. It certainly seems plausible that it had a positive connotation to free black Americans like those who inhabited the New Jersey town. But other, more subversive or ambivalent meanings may have been intended.

For example, it’s noteworthy that one of the antislavery groups most interested in Timbuktu was the Colonization Society, which ultimately won legal emancipation for Abd Al-Rahman. Believing that Al-Rahman could help introduce Christianity to Arabic-speaking Africans in his homeland, the Society also helped pay for his journey back to Africa, where Al-Rahman died in 1829 before reaching his long-lost homeland. By 1829, most Northern free black communities back in the United States (with the exception of a few black abolitionists like Russwurm) were mobilizing against colonizationism and the Society, insisting that the United States was their homeland and that they intended to stay put. It may be telling that after 1830, references to the name Timbuctoo, while relatively common in Freedom’s Journal did not appear other than once or twice in other African American titles from the period included in the Accessible Archives database of antebellum free black newspapers. So perhaps the selection of the name “Timbuctoo” for a New Jersey town was meant to convey, in the colonizationist atmosphere of the 1820s, a subtle but biting political message: home was here.

Ambiguity also clouds the apparently straightforward use of Timbuctoo by abolitionists when we turn to John Brown’s New York settlement. This is especially true when we recall that by 1849, thanks to Caille’s book, more realistic reports about Timbuktu had begun to appear. If Brown was the one who named Timbucto in New York, it seems most probable that he meant in some way to reference the African civilization. But it is also possible that for him, his family, or the settlers themselves, the name connoted (as it sometimes does in vernacular slang today) a place that was remote and difficult to reach. It might even have conveyed some of the disjuncture that settlers experienced between their expectations about the Adirondacks and the harsh farming and living conditions they discovered there, especially in the winter.

John Brown himself always promoted the agricultural potential of the Adirondacks, though he too commented on North Elba’s remoteness and isolation and celebrated the construction of new bridges and roads to make the area more accessible. But some of his sons were less optimistic about the climate and fertility of the soil and questioned the grandiose hopes that might have been implied in their father’s use of the name “Timbucto.” For example, when John Brown Jr., Brown’s eldest son, first visited the family farm near North Elba in 1849, he sent an ambiguous report to his mother (who was then away):

We reached Keene a week ago last Tuesday evening. Found all well. Although it rained most of the time while we were there, we visited most of the important places. Such as Timbuctoo &c.

There are really without joking, many things to recommend that country. Among them may be reckoned the pure air and water, almost insuring good health and a total exemption from trouble by neighbors geese.

In addition to indicating, as I suggested in Part I, that the Browns themselves did not live in the place they called “Timbuctoo,” Brown Jr.’s letter leaves unclear whether he was “joking” about Timbuctoo’s being an “important” place. Or maybe he was poking fun at the contrast between the paradise implied by the name and the dismal weather while he was there.

At any rate, after this first visit Brown Jr. seemed impressed by the “country” his father had settled in. In subsequent years, however, Brown’s other sons soured on the climate and geography and tried to dissuade Brown Jr. when he and his wife briefly considered moving to North Elba, around the time that James H. Henderson froze to death in the woods. Jason Brown referred to the place sarcastically in 1853 as “Father’s New Palestine,” lending further support to the idea that John Brown had used the name “Timbucto” for its positive connotations, and told his eldest brother that “North Elba would do tolerably well, for a colony of Norwegians if they had none of them ever heard of a temperate climate.” Owen Brown, another brother, was more direct in giving his reasons why John Brown Jr. should not settle in the area:

Dear Brother & Sister, Men are blessed with reason, for their guide, Then is it not the duty of every man, to exercise his reason to the full extent, & allow its requirements to be the guide of all his actions? Are we governed, as much by reason, as we are by fancy, by Suden [sic] impulse, & our present inclinations? I noticed in a Letter from Ruth, that you have agreed to move to North Elba, in 2 Years. Well, This has a cold chilly wet look about it. Two years of experience in that latitude, have induced me to think so. When I first arrived in that romantic region, which was on the 30th of May I think, Hiram Brown said we have hard frosts here, every month in the year, I thought he was joking, but it was all true while I lived there. All the mountains were then spoted [sic] with mighty snow banks, & on the 6th of June we could not clear away the manure from the Barn because it was half Ice yet, & the gras had not started, or if it had it did not look as if it had,

Here was a picture of the area once called “Timbucto” that was more like the disappointing discoveries that Caille had made when he reached Timbuktu and found it a land of “no vegetation but stunted trees and shrubs,” with soil “totally unfit for cultivation.” Owen’s reference to the area as a “romantic region” again suggests that when his father used the term Timbucto, he had the fabled, “mystick” city of Tennyson, Abd al-Rahman, and Mungo Park in mind more than the dangerous, distant, arid desert of Caille. But the fact that both connotations were available to antebellum Americans who spoke of Timbuktu underlines the difficulty of knowing why two early nineteenth-century African American communities got the name “Timbuctoo” without being able to answer, first, who named them and what their views about the communities were.

Which is to say, in sum, that I can only end this search for John Brown’s “Timbucto” with more questions that need to be asked, more directions to be explored, a few scraps of contemporary discourse about Africa that might be used as maps, and a word of empathy for the researchers who, according to the Post article that inspired these posts, are still trying to figure out how and why Timbuctoo, New Jersey, got its name.


There is a decent summary of European attempts to reach Timbuktu on Wikipedia, but I also relied on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Mungo Park, as well as Galbraith Welch’s The Unveiling of Timbuctoo: the Astounding Adventures of Caillié (1938); and Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (2008). The quote from Holmes comes on p. 212. § For the supporter of colonizationism who mentioned Timbuctoo, see “The Sixth Annual Report of the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States …,” North American Review (January 1824), available in the American Periodical Series Online database from ProQuest. § For the article in the Genius of Universal Emancipation, see p. 260 in the 15 April 1826 issue, also available in the APS Online database. § There is a fascinating biographical sketch of Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima in Jill Lepore’s A is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States (2002), pp. 111-136. You can also see a portrait of him at the New York Public Library website. § You can read more about Russwurm in a new biography by Winston James, The Struggles of John Brown Russwurm: The Life and Writings of a Pan-Africanist Pioneer, 1799-1851 (2010). The issues of Freedom’s Journal cited or used in this post were published in 1827 (April 6, April 13); 1828 (August 29, October 31, December 26); and 1829 (February 28, March 28). § The quoted letters by John Brown’s sons can be found in the John Brown Jr. papers at the Ohio Historical Society, MSS 47: see John Brown Jr. to Mary A. Brown, 13 October 1849; Owen’s letter contained in Jason Brown to John Brown Jr., 15 February 1853; Jason Brown to John Brown Jr. and Wealthy Brown, 13 March 1853.


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3 thoughts on “In Search of John Brown’s Timbucto, Part II

  1. Pingback: South Jersey Digital » Blog Archive » Timbuctoo II

  2. I was pleased to happen across your interesting article. It’s fascinating stuff, particularly considering how little most of us know about this relative near history. When I was growing up “Timbuctoo” was one of those mystical far away places no one really knew anything about. Possibly one of those places Bugs Bunny would frequent.

    Since my particular interest is John Brown Russwurm I also benefit from your generosity in sharing the links to your useful sources. In turn I have added this info to my John Brown Russwurm page.

    Also, congrats on your adoption of Creative Commons licensing.

    So, a round of thanks on all fronts.

  3. i am the lead archaeologist, at Timbuctoo in New Jersey, I would like to discuss our work with you in more detail