James F. Brown, Freed Slave, Becomes Master Gardener for Verplanck Family at Mount Gulian Historic Site, Fishkill

The Godfather of Soil: Meet James F. Brown: former slave, master gardener, Hudson Valley diarist, and American icon

Myra B. Young Armstead, a history professor at Bard College, took one look at the diary sitting on a table and knew she had found a treasure. This was around 2005. Armstead had been hired as a consultant to help create educational programs for Mount Gulian, the 18th-century Dutch Colonial home of the Verplanck family in Fishkill that is now a National Historic Landmark and museum. Elaine Hayes, the executive director, was giving a tour. “I asked what this book was,” Armstead says. “She said it was the diary kept by the gardener in the 1800s named James F. Brown. And then she said, ‘By the way, he was African American.’ I immediately knew I had to look at it.”

A diary is compelling for any historian, Armstead says. This one covered 40 years, from 1826-1866. “A diary that long made it doubly intriguing,” she says. “And most diaries were kept by the elites, so to learn that this was by a gardener, and an African American — when most at the time were illiterate — made it triply or quadruply intriguing.”

The book at Mount Gulian is actually a photocopy, so Armstead went to the New-York Historical Society, which holds the original. And what she found was… well, pretty boring, actually. “The diary is very flat and uninspiring to read,” she says. “Most readers would put it down after five minutes.”

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Brown writes almost nothing of his inner thoughts and feelings, or about his remarkable life story as a former slave who became a successful, middle-class free man in the Hudson Valley. Instead his entries mostly record mundane daily events “and an awful lot about planting,” Armstead says. “I had a friend read it, and he said it’s a fantastic weather report.”

Nevertheless, Armstead had a hunch there was something more to be learned and a bigger story to be told. She was looking for a new research project, and here it was. That serendipitous stumbling onto a forgotten journal resulted in her recently published book, Freedom’s Gardener: James F. Brown, Horticulture, and the Hudson Valley in Antebellum America (New York University Press, $35). A March article in the New York Times Book Review called the book “beautifully researched” and “bursting with detail.” Though the diary itself may be a snooze, James Brown’s life was anything but.

Say it loud

The biography of a slave is hard to pin down, and James F. Brown’s early story is no different. As best as can be determined, he was born on October 1, 1793 in Maryland, probably in the town of Fredricktown, now called Frederick. He was sometimes known by other names — Anthony Fisher, or Anthony Chase. By 1818, he was in Baltimore, still owned by the Williams family but living as a “quasi-free” slave, as Armstead writes, being hired out to others, living on his own, paying taxes, and saving money.

In 1826, his master, Henry Lee Williams, fell gravely ill and wrote a note stating his desire to free Anthony Chase upon his death. Based on this promise, James/Anthony married another slave named Julia. But when Henry Williams died, his sister Susan Williams, Brown’s legal owner, failed to honor her brother’s dying wish. James pleaded his case and even offered to buy his freedom from her. When she still refused, he penned a letter (as Anthony Chase) to a man he had been hired out to and explained that he had decided to run away. He promised that he would reimburse his owner, Susan Williams, to prove “that I dont mean to be dishonest but wish to pay her every cent that I think my Servaces is worth.” And then he fled to New York City, leaving Julia behind.

He found work with the Verplanck family in 1827. He was waiting on the family at a dinner party around this time when one of the dinner guests recognized him as an escaped slave, and demanded that he be returned to his owner in Maryland. The Verplancks helped arrange for his manumission from Susan Williams, and Brown was finally free. He also began journaling around this time. He probably didn’t know it, but his was one of only a very few journals kept by a black person anywhere in the north. And it got off to a rollicking start; an early entry tells of his secretive return to Maryland, where he purchased Julia’s freedom for $100, which he had saved while working up north.

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freedom's gardener bookThe cover of Armstead’s book

Papa’s got a brand new bag

Mount Gulian, the Colonial-style fieldstone house built around 1730 at Fishkill Landing, was first used as a summer retreat and working plantation by the Verplancks, who lived in Albany and Verplanck Point in Westchester County. During the War for Independence, the family turned the estate over to the Continental Army because of its strategic riverside location across from Washington’s Headquarters at Newburgh. From late 1782 through the summer of 1783, Mount Gulian was the headquarters of General Friedrich Von Steuben, who — along with other American officers — created the Society of the Cincinnati, America’s first veterans’ fraternal organization, at Mount Gulian on May 13, 1783.

In the early 1800s, members of the Verplanck family took up full-time residence at Mount Gulian; by 1829, James Brown was working there as the estate’s gardener, coachman, general laborer — and chief diarist. His journal entries record daily chores, local news, business receipts, favorite recipes, church sermons, and, predominantly, his work tending the landscape.

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Brown also became very active in the burgeoning 19th-century horticulture movement. He attended meetings, corresponded with important white horticulturists like Andrew Jackson Downing and Henry Winthrop Sargent, and gained influence in what was then considered as much an art as an occupation. As such he was more than just a rich family’s gardener; he was a middle-class, upwardly mobile, socially — as well as racially — integrated citizen. As a free and well-paid man, he was able to buy his own house and land, and that gave him the right to vote. On November 8, 1837, he wrote in his diary, “James F. Brown voted for the first time.”

Living in America

As he aged through the Civil War years, Brown’s work and journaling fell off, and he died in 1868 at his home in Beacon. His wife kept his diaries until her death (they are buried together in Beacon’s Saint Luke’s Church cemetery), when they passed to a Verplanck family member with whom she had kept in contact. Eventually, they were donated to the New-York Historical Society, where they have been more or less undisturbed for a century or so, until Armstead and Hayes began their recent collaboration.

What makes this dry, dusty diary important? Hayes, for one, has wanted to look into it since she joined the museum 20 years ago. “We have no idea what he looked like. He left no heirs. Yet his story and the story of Mount Gulian are pretty much a microcosm of all of American history,” she says.

For Armstead, Brown’s journal offers an entry into “the development of national citizenship.” “This guy lived from 1793 to 1868, the first generation of Americans after the Revolution, the generation that forged the American identity,” she says. “The idea of freedom was up for grabs; we were trying to figure out the meaning of it.” Brown, she says, “wasn’t a flamboyant character,” but he exemplifies three important markers in the struggle to define freedom. “First, there was personal freedom versus slavery, which of course he lived. Second, with the economic changes of industrialization in the 19th century, there were wage slaves versus independent labor, and as a master gardener he escaped wage slavery. Third, there was the burgeoning freedom of political expression. De Tocqueville wrote that Americans were all joiners: joining societies to improve health, politics, temperance. This idea that ordinary people can join groups and shape society was unknown in Europe. Brown exhibits this as well: He writes about temperance societies, antislavery talks, horticultural societies, volunteer firefighters, fraternal societies, orphan asylums. He is one of the ordinary citizens affecting larger policies. Through that, he is helping define what freedom is.”

For more information:
The New-York Historical Society has posted James F. Brown’s journals online. You can read them at www.nyhistory.org/slaverycollections.
You can also learn more at the Mount Gulian Historic Site, 145 Sterling St., Beacon. 845-831-8172, www.mountgulian.org


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