Monday, March 6, 2023

Untangling Timbucto and the Roots of Gerrit Smith’s Land Grants of 1846


History has done a poor job of defining and interpreting Gerrit Smith’s 1846 land grants and the Timbucto settlers in North Elba. More recently, scholars have been exploring and telling this rich and fascinating black history of the Adirondacks. However, confusion, fiction, and exaggerations have crept into some narratives. As an independent scholar of history, I believe we need to be vigilant to keep history factual, especially given the current attacks on re-writing and re-framing history. Conjecture and opinions should be stated as such, facts should be backed up by reliable sources and verified by evidence.

Many historical accounts about the land grants and Timbucto are chocked full of errors and myths rather than historical facts. Among these are Alfred Donaldson’s chapter on John Brown in A History of the Adirondacks, Volume II (1921), Mary Lee’s article in New York Times (1929), Beatrice Hughes article in New York State Conservationist (1921), Richard Henry Dana’s article in Atlantic (1871), and various narratives quoting Lyman Epps Jr. These are not reliable sources.

As for more recent accounts, let me present one example from 2023. An article described Smith’s land grants as the “transfer of 3,000 properties in the Adirondack Park to former slaves” and said the Register Book of those grants “contains the factual proof for a plan to give about 3,000 Black men the wealth required to have the right to vote in New York in 1846.” The article also claimed: “The land grants cracked the prejudice that established the voting restrictions that targeted Blacks.” That is a big jumble to unravel right there.

The majority of the 3,000 properties were in Essex, Franklin, and Hamilton Counties in the Adirondacks, but not all; some were in Fulton, Oneida, Delaware, Madison, and Ulster Counties. The vast majority of the black men who received the land were not former slaves; they were free men already living in New York State. The “plan” was just a plan, and one of its intents was to enable 3,000 black men to vote, however, a plot of 40 acres of Adirondack forest did not provide “the wealth required.” In 1846, there was a property requirement of $250 for black men to vote in New York State. Forty acres of unimproved land in Essex County went for about $1 an acre, making it worth about $40.

We can only wish that the land grants had “cracked the prejudice” against blacks in the 1840s. What a better world we would have today if eliminating prejudice were that simple. However, the black settlers were not shut off from the discrimination or bigotry of white people. The granted lots were located among whites, and from the start, Smith said there were “industrious efforts” by whites to dissuade grantees from settling on their lands. Grantees reported incidents of whites exaggerating the harsh living conditions and overcharging for goods. Guides and surveyors sometimes scammed grantees, leading them to lots that did not correspond to their deeds. On the flip side, some whites in North Elba supported the black settlers, and after passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, a group pledged to protect all blacks from bounty hunters.

gerrit smith

Gerrit Smith. Library of Congress photo

Smith’s land grants did nothing to loosen the voting restrictions for black men. Again and again, New York voted to continue the property requirement and it was not removed from the New York Constitution until 1874, four years after the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution required an end to such discriminatory policies. Note that black women had no voting rights, and married women could not own property in New York until 1848. Yet, Smith never granted land to black women. However, when he gave lands to poor whites in 1849, he planned to split the grants evenly between men and women. Then, he changed his mind and gave white women $50 so they could buy their own land.

Researching these subjects requires a good deal of weeding out the prolific myths, legends, and bias before harvesting the factual, historical roots. For many years, I have been researching Gerrit Smith, his land grants, and Timbucto as part of the book I am writing about the history of the John Brown Farm. It was the settlement of black grantees at Timbucto in North Elba that brought John Brown and his family to the region in 1849.

What was Gerrit Smith’s land give-away to black men really about?

It was one of the many efforts undertaken to elevate the conditions of free blacks during that era. In 1846, the prominent black abolitionists chosen by Smith to serve as land agents told a gathering of grantees, “There is no life like that of the farmer, for overcoming the mere prejudice against color.” The agents encouraged grantees to leave “crowded cities and servile employments” and pursue “the manly and dignified labors of agricultural life.” In a farming community, neighbors assisted neighbors; there was “mutual and equal dependence, mutual sympathy – and labour,” which comported to make all citizens equal. The land agents also expressed the wider, larger meaning of the land enterprise. “It is a great experiment in behalf of long suffering, long crushed, down-trodden, and bleeding humanity. It is an experiment for the RACE! not of Africa, nor of Cush, but for the race of mankind!”

Back on August 1, 1846, when white abolitionist Gerrit Smith of Peterboro, New York (one of the wealthiest men in the country and largest landholders in the state), announced his plan to give plots of about 40 acres to 3,000 black men, he said he chose this group because they were “the poorest of the poor, and the most deeply wronged class of citizens.” He was also influenced by the “mean and wicked exclusion” that kept these men from voting unless they owned a landed estate of at least $250. (There was no property requirement for white men.) Smith expected the grantees to be “free colored brethren.” What he meant by “free” is unclear, however, very few of the grantees were fugitives or even formerly enslaved.

Many of the Timbucto grantees in North Elba were born as free blacks in New York or other states, yet they have been persistently mischaracterized as slaves from the South. Furthermore, no reliable evidence supports the claim that there was an established route of the underground railroad through North Elba. A few fugitive slaves may have passed through, but neither Flanders farm, John Brown Farm, nor Timbucto were associated with regular underground railroad activity.

After decades of debate, it seemed that the fugitive myth and the underground railroad myth had been put to rest. Unfortunately, they have arisen once again. After looking at the Receipt Book of Land Grants which lists the location, size, and recipients of land given away by Smith, some people believe they have found proof that the grantees were slaves. A digital copy of the book, available at the New York State Archives, states its fuller title — Receipt Book of Land Grants from Gerrit Smith to “colored and poor white slaves from the South.” However, evidence disputes this title. The land grant program was intended for free blacks living in New York State in 1846, not “slaves from the South.” Smith also gave free land to poor whites living in New York State in 1849-50, but not “poor white slaves from the South.” Did such people exist?

The text added to the title of the Receipt Book is an error, probably written many decades later. The quoted text does not appear on the cover; it is on the first page with a sworn statement of authenticity of the typed, carbon copy dated August 22, 1936.

Smith’s land give-away to black men was not about freeing slaves, not directly. Smith called himself an Agrarian who believed owning a piece of property, even a small farm lot, meant independence. He further hypothesized that colonies of blacks with thriving farms could destroy prejudice and elevate the race. This would demonstrate that blacks could prosper outside of slavery and help “to loosen the bands of the enslaved portion of their outraged and afflicted race.”

Gerrit Smith believed the greatest anti-slavery measure was land reform. “Abolish slavery to-morrow,” he said, “and the land monopoly would pave the way for its re-establishment,” since white males essentially controlled the land.

Smith’s land give-away to black men was not focused on voting rights.

Back in 1846, Gerrit Smith publicized enfranchisement as one of the goals of his land scheme, and in May of 1848, black abolitionist William Henry Garnet gave a sermon to the grantees, advising: “O, brethern be faithful to your duty at the ballot box,” and vote for men “who do not oppress, and enslave their fellow men.” But voting rights were rarely mentioned afterwards by Smith, black land agents, or black grantees. John Brown wrote about them once; in 1849, he advised the settlers of Timbucto and Blacksville, “do not go to any expense about voting next spring until we can get ready to take hold of that matter right.” Brown suggested they hang on and be patient, and “do not let any one forget the vast importance of sustaining the very best character for honesty, truth, industry and faithfulness.”

Voting was a back-burner issue for the grantees, especially for those who tried to move to the Adirondacks and become farmers. Many issues, more vital than casting a ballot, stared them full in the face. They had to chop trees to make clearings, build a house, cultivate the soil, and plant crops in a remote land of wild animals and ferocious insects.

Most grantees had no tools or implements for such tasks or any previous backwoods or farming experience. And, few had any spare money. When Smith gave lands to poor white men, he supplied them with $10 to help them get started. Black grantees got no help from Smith. No wonder few black families moved to their lands, and even fewer stayed for more than a year or two.

In 1857, Smith declared that his experiment had not been productive. “Of the three thousand colored men to whom I gave land,” he said, “probably less than fifty have taken and continue to hold possession of their grants. What is worse, half the three thousand, as I judge, have either sold their land, or been so careless as to allow it to be sold for taxes.” Smith stated that many of the unoccupied parcels were in Essex and Franklin Counties, while most of the parcels in the central part of State were still occupied.

A few black settlers stayed in North Elba, and some obtained the ballot. According to the 1855 state census, ten black men voted in North Elba that year:  William Carasaw, Josiah Hasbrook, Lyman Epps, Leonard Wurts, Lewis Pierce, Silas Frazier, Isaac Craig, Henry Dixon, Thomas Jefferson, and Samuel Jefferson. How many were able to vote in other years or in other places because of the land grants? Only more research can answer that question, but based on Smith’s statement in 1857, the number is nowhere near 3,000 or even 1,500. I would guess it is much lower.

If the top priority of Smith’s experiment, which he once called a “scheme of justice and benevolence,” was enfranchising black men, it was not a fruitful plan. Given his vast wealth and landholdings, there were faster and surer ways of enacting justice and enabling some black men to meet the $250 property requirement.

In 1848, Frederick Douglass cheered for the land scheme, calling it “an era in the history of the free colored men in this State.” Yet, wagonloads of grantees did not flock to the Adirondacks, and even Douglass did not settle on his granted lot. Within a year, his optimism was dissipating, and he feared Smith’s experiment would become a “curse.” In 1853, Douglass concluded that Gerrit Smith had not conveyed a “blessing” on the black grantees.

Farming was a “noble profession,” said Douglass, but black men did not want to leave the city and their network of family and friends. He believed there were other, better means of elevating free blacks and proposed “the establishment of an Industrial College to teach the important branches of the mechanic arts” as a superior alternative to farming initiatives.

frederick douglass

Frederick Douglass. Library of Congress photo

What was Timbucto ?

Because of its connection to John Brown and Lake Placid, Timbucto has attracted much greater attention than any of the other grantee enclaves. Going back to 1400-1600, Timbuktu (Timbuctoo, Timbucto, or the French Tombouctou), was the site of a great African civilization of exceptional wealth, beauty, and learning in Mali. It was a remote, dangerous and difficult-to-reach place, hence, by the 1830s, the idiom “from here to Timbuktu” became part of English vernacular to indicate a remote place, far, far away. In the 1840s, Timbucto appeared in connection with the black settlers in Essex County. The name had a short and narrow life, according to written historical sources. It was only used in 1848 and 1849, and it appeared in only six letters of the time.

John Brown made the first known recorded use of the moniker Timbucto in October of 1848. After his first visit to the black grantees in Essex and Franklin Counties, Brown headed towards his home in Springfield, Massachusetts, making a stop in Troy to send supplies to the settlers. He wanted to help them survive the winter and “make all as happy and comfortable as possible.” In a letter to grantee Willis Hodges, dated October 25, 1848, Brown explained that he sent three barrels of pork and three barrels of flour to Port Kent (for Blacksville) and two barrels of each to “Timbucto.”

Since Brown used the name immediately after visiting the grantees, he or Hodges or grantee James Henderson probably chose it, in reference to the African city of Timbuktu. Perhaps it was simply a pet name or private joke between two or three of them.

On January 22, 1849, John Brown sent another letter to Hodges, relaying news that the settlers were “middling well at Timbucto.” A week later, grantee James Henderson wrote a letter from “West Keene, Timbucto, Essex County.” This letter was published in the North Star on February 16, 1849, exposing the term Timbucto to a large audience. Yet, no readers questioned the name or referred to the name.

On May 22, 1849, John Brown and his family arrived in Westport, New York, on their way to move to a rented farm (the Flanders farm) in North Elba. Brown wrote that he had “reached Essex County” but was “detained from going to Timbucto.” (This letter was misdated 1848; other historical records confirm the family moved to Essex County in May of 1849.)

On September 7, 1849, John’s daughter Ruth (living at the Flanders farm) wrote that “the folks are all very well down to Timbucto,” and then mentioned several “colored people” — Mr. Rice, Mr. Epps, Mr. Hall, and Mrs. Reed. About a month later, on October 15, John Brown Jr visited his siblings at the Flanders farm, and wrote that after reaching “Keene” and visiting the family, he had also visited “Timbucto.”

What do these historical letters tell us about Timbucto?

Based on the letters, I have formed the following conclusions. Timbucto was a descriptor for the black settlers in Essex County, specifically for those living in the western part of the Town of Keene (what would become the Town of North Elba in 1850). The residences of the John Brown family — the rented Flanders farm on Lot 110 and the historic farm on Lot 95 — were not part of Timbucto. Ruth and John Jr clearly stated that Timbucto was separate from the Flanders farm. Ruth referred only to black people as residing in Timbucto.

Timbucto did not refer to the entirety of the Town of North Elba, nor was it the previous name of North Elba. Timbucto was not used as a term for the entire Smith land scheme encompassing 120,000 acres and 3,000 grantees. Lastly, a minor point, it was spelled with one ‘o.’ Timbucto, not Timbuctoo.

In my opinion, the name referred to a community or colony, conceptually. Timbucto was not a physically self-contained black settlement, nor were black abolitionists trying to create a segregated black colony. “An Agricultural life also tends to equality in life,” they stated in 1847. “The community is a community of farmers. . . . whether of the proscribed or any other class, they are all alike farmers.” Thus, class and caste cease to exist, and no one is above the other, which creates “an equality of rights, interests and privileges.” I surmise that the terms western Keene and Timbucto disappeared in late 1849 in favor of the newly-formed North Elba, an integrated community.

Photo at top: An artistic depiction of the original Timbuktu. Courtesy of the Library of Congress


“In the Adirondacks, a pre-Civil War fight for voting,” Adirondack Explorer, February 12, 2023.

Gerrit Smith to Charles Ray, November 16, 1848.

“Meeting in Jay,” Essex County Republican, October 26, 1850.

Octavius Brooks Frothingham, Gerrit Smith, A Biography (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1878).

An Address to the Three Thousand Colored Citizens of New York Who Are the Owners of 120,000 Acres of Land … Given to Them by Gerrit Smith Esq., 1846.

Frances J. Schulte, The Little Statesman (Chicago: The Schulte Publishing Company, 1895).

Henry Highland Garnet preaching to Smith grantees in Troy, NY, in North Star, May 12, 1848.

“Letter from Mr. Gerrit Smith,” New-York Tribune, August 10, 1857.

“Gerrit Smith’s Land,” North Star, February 25, 1848.

Frederick Douglass, “The Smith Lands,” North Star, January 5, 1849.

Proceedings of the Colored National Convention, 1853.

“John Brown in Essex County,” Evening Post, December 20, 1859.

James Henderson to Henry Highland Garnet, Jan. 29, 1849, in North Star, February 16, 1849.

Proceedings of the National Convention of Colored People, and Their Friends, Held in Troy, NY on the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th October, 1847.

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Sandra Weber is a writer, storyteller and performer who portrays Kate Field’s “Among the Adirondacks” lecture. Weber has authored several Adirondack books about regional history and women including Breaking Trail (with Peggy Lynn), Mount Marcy, and Two in the Wilderness. She lives in a log cabin in Elizabethtown, NY.

16 Responses

  1. Tim says:

    Excellent, fact-based article. Thank you.

  2. James Reinhard says:

    Thanks for this clarification.

  3. Linda Friedman Ramirez says:

    Readers should consider a visit to John Brown Farm and the Dreaming of Timbuctoo exhibit hosted by JBL!
    Open Wednesday-Monday, 9am-4pm.

    • Linda Friedman Ramirez says:

      Clarification: This permanent exhibit is in the upper barn and you might want to check with JBL! to make sure the exhibit is open prior to the spring. hosts events through the spring and summer.

      • Cheryl Craft says:

        This wonderful exhibit is at John Brown Farm (NY State Historic Site). The upper floor of the historic barn is not yet open for the season.Though the lower floor visitor center may be open sooner, the traditional date is May 1 for exhibits opening.

  4. louis curth says:

    Ms. Weber, Thank you for this informative article. I agree with you that we need to be vigilant to keep history factual. That need for historical accuracy leads me to raise a small peripheral question with you.

    In the fifth paragraph you wrote; “Note that black women had no voting rights, and married women could not own property in New York until 1848.” This, however, doesn’t jive with my own family research, which required my widowed (white) great, great, grandmother to obtain special legislation granting her the right to own property out near Rochester after her husband died unexpectedly on August 29, 1850.

    Is there some reason you know of why she would have needed to do that after the 1848 date you cited?

    • Sandra Weber says:

      The New York State Married Women’s Property Act of 1848 is well-documented. It had great significance in the fight for women’s rights. Here is just one source you may find of interest.

      The law allowed married women to hold property in their own name, in general. That does not mean that in a specific case, a property automatically passed to his widow. The contents of a will (if one existed), co-owners on a property deed, estate laws, and other factors might come into play.

      • louis curth says:

        I appreciate your prompt reply, Ms. Weber, and also the helpful site you directed me to. As you point out, other factors may well have made the legislative route the best way to expedite the help needed by a widow faced with caring for two small children in a very uncertain future. Sadly, far too many women and children, irregardless of the hue of their skin, still continue to face such uncertain futures. That is concerning…

        I thank you and apologize for this distraction from your main topic of “Untangling Timbucto”.

  5. Constance Barone says:

    I’ve been researching four men from the Town of Hounsfield – Sackets Harbor who were listed as receiving land. Have you found any information on them in your research? Peter Burroughs, Alfred Hadley, John Umber, and Lewis Drew.

    • Sandra Weber says:

      Constance, I have not done any research on grantees in Jefferson County. I am so glad to hear that there are people across the state digging into this topic. Good luck with your search.

    • Sandra Weber says:

      Constance, I have not researched grantees in Jefferson County. I am happy to hear that people in other parts of the state are digging into this topic. Good luck with your search.

  6. David G Gullette says:

    There is a good (fictional) treatment of Timbucto(o) in Russell Banks’ excellent novel about John Brown, CLOUDSPLITTER, much of which takes place on the family farm in North Elba.

  7. Cheryl Craft says:

    Thanks, Sandra, this article was definitely needed! The Gerrit Smith plan had some glaring flaws. And as far as I know, he never visited the Adirondack lands himself. It is interesting that you conclude the role of eventually gaining voting rights was de-emphasized by Smith, because he created the land grants following the 1846 defeat at the ballot box of an amendment to NY’s constitution to eliminate the $250 property requirement for black men. Smith, of course, had advocated for that repeal. It seems to me that if even half the new landowners had been successful, a dent would have been made in the quest for voting rights. Of course, given conditions on the ground and lack of resources available, that was not achievable. It doesn’t surprise me that John Brown saw voting as secondary, given the more proximate struggle to survive going on in that locale. As to the spelling ‘Timbucto’; although John Brown had a singular and effective writing style, you probably know he was not known for his spelling prowess!

    • Sandra L Weber says:

      Cheryl, thanks for your comments and the good work that you do. I have not found any evidence that Smith visited the grantee lands. He seemed to have a very hands-off interface with the entire project. He enlisted prominent black men to choose the grantees and handle the details. You are absolutely correct that, in 1846, Smith was vocal in attempting to defeat the $250 property requirement for black men voting. And that was one of his goals in the land grants to blacks but talk of voting rights faded away. My point: voting rights for black men was not the sole purpose or even the main goal of Smith’s land grants. The experiment was about land ownership, farming, and elevating the conditions of free blacks. There is so much to learn from the experiences of these amazing men and women who came to the Adirondacks — and how they dealt with a heap of unforeseeable events, such as the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law.

      Most letters written by common people in the 1800s are filled with spelling, grammar and punctuation that today we judge as “errors.” As I stated in the article, the Mali city of Timbuktu had various spelling in earlier centuries: Timbuctoo, Timbucto, and the French Tombouctou. The only historical records of 1848-49 are the six letters, including one by a black grantee, which all spell it Timbucto. What evidence is there for favoring Timbuctoo, with two ‘o’s?

  8. Sandra Weber says:

    A reader’s sharp eyes pointed out an error. In the section on voting rights, it should be black abolitionist “Henry Highland Garnet,” not William Henry Garnet. I apologize for my mistake and thank the astute reader.

  9. Cheryl Craft says:

    I think your scholarship will do a lot to broaden our understanding of this era. As for Timbucto(u) (oo), etc., it seems Timbuctoo was commonly used by English-speaking writers of John Brown’s era, and into the 20th century; though Timbuktu is probably more common now. For us “Moderns” the only problem I see with using John Brown’s spelling without all the context you provide is that it would be mispronounced, and the association with the original place/term more of a mental leap. On reflection, I’m glad you used his spelling in your article.

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