There are two John Browns that are famous in the Adirondacks. The more famous, of course, is John Brown the abolitionist who is buried in North Elba near Lake Placid.
The other John Brown, of Old Forge fame, is of the same family that founded Brown University in Rhode Island, and quite unlike Brown the abolitionist, the Rhode Island Brown vigorously defended slavery while he was a member of Congress in 1799-1801. He was an extremely wealthy man; he owned one of the largest shipping fleets in the world and routinely shipped goods from China to Great Britain and North America.
Being good friends with George Washington, he supported the Revolutionary cause by providing huge storehouses of Chinese gunpowder to the military. In 1792, his son-in-law, John Francis, who was involved in the family business, went to New York City to accept a $210,000 payment for Chinese tea that had been delivered to England. According to one version of the story, he got drunk and instead of getting proper payment for the cargo, accepted a quick claim deed for 210,000 acres of land in the New York Wilderness.
This New York Wilderness eventually became known as John Brown’s Tract. In an effort to make the best of what Brown felt was an awful business deal, he fought a long legal battle to get clear title of the property. It was not until 1798 that he was able to begin work on the property and in the meantime Francis had died.
Brown divided his land into eight townships and named the parcels after mottos he had used to inspire motivation in his business dealings. He began to develop his first parcels, which he named Industry and Economy, and by 1802, Brown had built one of the Adirondacks’ first roads, a crude, but workable lane from Boonville to what is now Old Forge. He also built a barn, sawmill, gristmill, frontier store, and a few houses. Brown fully expected his tract to become productive but in his lifetime he would never know just how rocky and infertile the region was.
When John Brown died in 1803, his development in the “New York Wilderness” fell into disrepair, but several years later his second son-in-law, Charles Frederick Herreshoff, moved to the tract and built Herreshoff Manor, which is located just a half-mile from the intersection of Rt. 28 and Russell Road. He offered strong incentives to get settlers to farm the land, but the farms failed. The mountainous terrain was unproductive and the growing season too short. When the farms failed, Herreshoff turned to raising sheep. When the sheep business failed, he turned to iron ore mining. When the mines proved to be unproductive he gave up. Herreshoff committed suicide in 1819 and soon the land began to fall back to nature.
The original Herreshoff Manor, however, remained standing and although it, too, fell into disrepair, Nat Foster eventually leased the residence and brought it back to a livable condition around 1832. Foster was famous in the region for his hunting and trapping prowess and was widely known as one of the best shots in the Adirondacks. It was said that he killed seventy-six deer and thirty to forty bears in one season.
In the summer of 1833, Foster’s intense dislike of Indians came to a head when a local Native American, Peter Waters, threatened to kill Foster after an argument that left him with a large bloody gash on his arm. Instead of nursing the wound, Forster returned home to get his gun and ran the three miles down the lake to what is now known as Indian Point and blew Waters out of his boat. The following summer Foster stood trial and was acquitted, but he was never quite the same. Fearful of revenge, Foster left Herreshoff Manor and moved to Pennsylvania for a time, but later moved back to Boonville where he died in 1841. No sign of Herreshoff Manor exists today. (Editor’s note: Read more about Herreshoff manor here.)
Photo courtesy of the Town of Webb Historical Association