“I am something of a pioneer.” John Brown and North Elba, Part 1

John Brown

John Brown has an interesting and often unfortunate life prior to his arrival in Kansas. By the time the nation’s most troubled territory came into the news, he had failed at business in multiple states. He dreamed already of revolution. Brown told his family that he envisioned going into the South with an armed band to free slaves. They would raid, terrify the enslavers, spirit those who didn’t want to or couldn’t fight up to Canada, and keep the rest in the mountains. Once he had a core group going, they could spark a general uprising that would purge slavery from the land. Brown thought he might get a start of it with the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. His antislavery convictions won him the notice of Frederick Douglass, who called at his Ohio home and praised Brown in his paper long before anyone but neighbors and business associates knew John Brown as anything other than a man with an unexceptional name.

Smarting from his recent failures at business, most recently in wool, and the protracted illness of his son Frederick, 1848 found John Brown near to the end of his rope. He heard that abolitionist Gerrit Smith, who donated some land to Oberlin College that Brown helped survey in 1840, wanted to establish a colony of black Americans in far Upstate New York. There, away from most hostile whites, they might prosper in peace. Few had taken Smith up on the offer for free land, more than a hundred thousand acres of it, on account of the distance and the bitter Adirondack winters. Those few lived in a small community called North Elba.

Gerrit Smith

In April of that year, Brown went to Smith’s mansion and presented the abolitionist with an idea:

I am something of a pioneer. I grew up among the woods and wild Indians of Ohio, and am used to the climate and the way of life that your colony find so trying. I will take one of your farms myself, clear it up and plant it, and show my colored neighbors how much work should be done; will give them work as I have occasion, look after them in all needful ways, and be a kind of father to them.

This all has more than a whiff of racist condescension to it, but the free black population of the North largely lived in cities. Smith’s colonists might genuinely have lacked ordinary farming experience and certainly had little opportunity to work land so remote and cold as North Elba. Either way, Brown impressed Smith and he agreed on the spot. Smith’s grant in hand, Brown went straight there and fell in love. The surroundings reminded him of “Omnipotence” and his “dependence” upon the Almighty.

Brown also found a colony in disarray. The land remained unsurveyed, so no one knew if they had the right parcels or not. Nor did it make for prime farm land. Their plight moved Brown, who would later sent them barrels of pork and flour. He imagined himself as their kind leader, teaching them agriculture, self-improvement, and religion. Brown aimed to make from this disorder and confusion a model community. He just had to close up his failing wool business first.

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