James F. Brown, Runaway Slave, Master Gardener and Journal Keeper
Of all the many personalities connected with Mount Gulian and the Verplanck family and homestead, few have led a life as unique and as fully documented as James F. Brown. Born a slave as Anthony Fisher on a farm in Fredericktown MD around 1793, James F. Brown escaped from bondage by going north to freedom in New York City. From 1829 until 1866 he kept a journal about everyday life in Dutchess County NY as a free man and trusted employee, working for the Verplanck family as an important member of the household. The journals of James F. Brown are now housed at the NY Historical Society in Manhattan, with selected transcripts available at Mount Gulian.
An early journal entry states: "On the 11th of august (1827) I arrived in New York accompanied by my wife Julia and I went to Boston the 14th in the Schooner 'Advance'. - J F. Brown." This entry authenticates exactly what date he and Julia arrived in NY, but nowhere does Mr. Brown state by what conveyance he made his way to freedom or why he quickly sailed on to Boston. It could be that Boston was perceived as safer from slave catchers than Manhattan at that time, or that he had friends in Boston who could assist him. Yet sometime before March 1828 he returned to Manhattan where he found work for the Verplancks as a waiter, whereupon they facilitated his manumission.
In New York, according to the story handed down in the Verplanck family, James F. Brown found work as a waiter for them. A dinner guest recognized him as a fugitive slave and demanded that he be returned to his owner, Susan Williams, in Maryland. After some documented letters and negotiations between Daniel Crommelin Verplanck and Mr. Brown’s owner, a price of $300 was paid and Mr. Brown was manumitted. He was a free man. Hired by the Verplancks as a coachman in Manhattan, he eventually moved to Mount Gulian, their home in Fishkill Landing, now Beacon NY.
Around 1829, James F. Brown began to keep a detailed journal of everyday life, one of the very few journals of daily life as experienced by a Black person anywhere in America. Apparently, Mr. Brown had learned to read and write while still a slave in Maryland, most likely taught by liberal churchmen there. In fact, while still in Maryland, Mr. Brown did not live on a "plantation" but rather was a skilled carpenter and workman who lived as a quasi-free slave in Maryland, earning wages for his master but living in his own rooms and having a degree of freedom unknown to farm slaves.
By 1829, James Brown was working full time at Mount Gulian as the estate’s gardener, coachman and general laborer. His detailed journal entries, from 1829-1866 do not reveal his inner thoughts, conflicts or psychology. Instead they read as an amazing record of everyday events and daily chores, local news, seasonal farming and weather entries, receipts for work done and even favorite recipes. The journals also reveal his deep feelings of patriotism for the new nation, his desire to earn money so that he could buy property, and to vote in elections like other men. They also reveal how hard he worked to earn money, doing assorted labor for the Verplancks and neighbors, ferrying people across the Hudson on sleds in icy winter and in rowboats in better weather, and managing the Verplanck estate. James F. Brown was a church-going, God-fearing man who spent many of his Sundays at sermons in local churches of many denominations. He was a volunteer worker in some local churches, was very concerned about the plight of fellow Blacks in the nation, contributed to Black orphan societies and help set up the first Black Burial Ground in Beacon.
One of his main interests was in horticulture, the art of growing garden plants. He was a friend of Andrew Jackson Downing, renowned horticulturalist considered the “Father of Landscape Architecture”, who lived across the Hudson River in Newburgh. Mr. Brown was also good friends with Mary Anna Verplanck, with whom he shared gardening information and attended Horticultural Fairs throughout the region, winning prizes for exceptional produce from his garden. Many of his journal entries reflect the life of a simple gardener, tending to the soil, planting seeds, harvesting crops, and working hard in all seasons.
Leading up to the Civil War years, his journal entries grow scarcer, as Mr. Brown was in his seventies. He passed away in 1868 at his home in Beacon and is buried alongside wife Julia in the Beacon St. Luke’s Churchyard. His seven journal books, kept in the narrow receipt books of that time, are an amazing tribute to a brave and steady man.
James F. Brown died on January 7, 1868, at the age of 74 in Matteawan, now Beacon. He led a long, self-documented life, which was in many ways both ordinary, yet quite extraordinary. The Fishkill Standard newspaper, now defunct, ran this obituary, which is somewhat factually inaccurate, on January 18, 1868, eleven days after his death:
Another Old Resident Deceased
"Mr. James Brown, a colored citizen, who has been a resident of this village for nearly forty years, died at his residence on the Verplanck estate, on Tuesday. Mr. Brown was well-known to nearly all our citizens. He was formerly a slave in Maryland, but his master giving him his freedom, he came North, and by industry accumulated funds enough to purchase the freedom of his wife. For about thirty-six years he has lived with the Verplanck family, first as coachman, but for the last twenty years as head gardener, showing a good deal of taste and ability in this line. He was, as near as we can learn, about 73 years of age. He assisted at the building of the Episcopal Church, Matteawan. Mr. Brown was an old landmark, a prominent man among the colored people, always courteous and deferential, with a good education, probably self-acquired, and his death will be regretted by many."
For further information about James F. Brown click HERE.
For J.F. Brown's journals at the New York Historical Society click HERE.