"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

In the News:
John Brown and Optical Character Recognition

The New York Times (March 28) features a story in the science section about John Brown’s speech before the Virginia court that sentenced him to death on November 2, 1859. The article, written by Ray Gugliotta, points out how the Times hired a Pittsburgh-based technology firm to put the newspaper archive into a searchable data base, a seven-year project that finally will be completed at the end of 2011.

As an example of this technological development, Gugliotta points out how Brown’s speech to the court was originally published in its entirety in the Times on the following day, November 3, 1859. Of course, the original print text shows “print unevenness,” smudges, and variations in how the same letter appeared—none of which prevented the human eye from reading with ease. The same is not true for optical character recognition (OCR), which could not read the text without making considerable confusion and error.

Gugliotta follows convention in stating that Brown’s “defiant yet humble words transformed” him from a man notorious “for the grisly murders of pro-slavery settlers in Kansas, into a martyr for the anti-slavery cause.” This is only partially true. First, Brown’s leadership in the Pottawatomie killings of 1856 were not known widely and therefore he was not “notorious” in the eyes of the North, but rather something of a heroic figure to the free state cause. Second, although Brown’s speech to the court made a great impact in winning the sympathy of the North at the time, his speech was actually the beginning of his impact in print, since his correspondence was published throughout the months of November and well into December. Brown’s letters to friends, family, and strangers propelled him to the zenith of his popularity as a martyr figure following the dynamic “life off” provided by his speech. Nor did the sum of Brown’s words mark his own transformation as much as they did the transformation of the North itself. It is a hackneyed assumption that Brown changed, or that he somehow manufactured his own transformation—or “reinvented himself.” This is to read him wrongly. The man who gave the speech in court and the man who wrote many letters expressing his convictions about slavery and willingness to die for the cause of freedom, was the same man who had herded sheep in Ohio, cleared vast acres in Pennsylvania, opposed the abuses of wool manufacturers in New England, and armed blacks in opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law. It was not Brown who changed, but rather the nation that caught only a glimpse of his brilliant vision.

As the great Frederick Douglass later wrote: “John Brown, Saw Slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed."

This was no self-made martyr or contrived reinvention. It was the final and fullest stage of Brown’s sojourn to be sure. Yet he was not transformed; it was his words that transformed the North, and helped to drive the Slave South to the brink of Pharaoh’s desperate lust to keep his slaves and even expand the territory of slavery.

Some day, if they are well educated, school children will prefer memorizing Brown’s speech to the court before they learn Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. And if they download it from the digitized New York Times, a paper that was neither a friend to Brown nor to the slave, it will be all the better.

Monday, March 28, 2011

How the Massas Miseducated the Masses:
The Sentimentalizing of Slavery in Film

One of the reasons that "mainstream culture" in the U.S. seems indifferent to our nation's ruthless history of chattel slavery is that people have been miseducated for generations, especially in the age of cinema and television. For years, Hollywood either ignored or sentimentalized black chattel slavery. Anyone with even a basic knowledge of the history of cinema knows that the majority of Civil War films have either portrayed slaveholding society as essentially noble, or made the pro-slavery South appear as victims of Northern villains. In fact, most films in this genre portray the Southern slave master as heroic, and when enslaved blacks are portrayed, they are either made to appear benign or loyal to the master. Those of us who saw the "Roots" series on television when it was first aired know how dramatic it was, in part, because we had never seen a film portrayal of slavery from the black perspective. Yet "Roots" stands in stark contrast to a vast amount of propagandistic films that tell the story of slavery and the Civil War from a stylized, sentimentalized viewpoint that is either pro-Confederate or reductionist, making the Civil War into a white-on-white conflict with no political implications regarding racism and white supremacy.

"The Undefeated" is a 1969 western featuring John Wayne as Union officer Col. John Henry Thomas, and Rock Hudson as Col. James Langdon, a Confederate officer and slave holder who would rather burn down his plantation mansion than to sell his land to northern carpetbaggers. Within the first half hour of the movie, however, it is quite clear what version of the history of slavery and the Civil War is assumed by the writer and, consequently, what propaganda is being fed to the viewer.

At the beginning of the film, Wayne's character defeats some rebel soldiers only to learn after the fact that Lee had surrendered to Grant three days before. When he speaks to the leading Confederate officer (played by film great Royal Dano), he is told that the Confederates--noble southern patriots that they are--already knew about the surrender but were still intent on fighting. After all, they were fighting for their land. The story thus puts the viewer in a position to admire such nobility and courage, when in reality the Confederacy extravagantly wasted the lives of many men in satisfaction of the powerful elite slave holders and their politicians designs to expand slave territory westward.


Worse, "The Undefeated" has Langdon (Hudson) leaving with his family and other rebels as their former slaves stand loyally assembled to see them off. In a gesture of magnanimity, Langdon turns to a gray-headed old man in the group and gives him a gold pocket watch of great sentimental value. As this scene unfolds, the music is tender and moving, and thus we are assured that in the long run, the slave master was kind and thoughtful after all. How nice that, after stealing the man's labor over many years, he was kind enough to give him a gold watch!  


(I apologize for the poor quality of this clip, but it was made hurriedly with no opportunity to reshoot)



Of course, the James Langdons of history, whether or not they were "kind" masters, were men whose wealth was premised upon the stolen labor of African people forcefully enslaved and suppressed by the omnipresent threat of terrorism. Slave masters were the original authors of the benign, loyal black slave mythology. It was completely inconvenient to their interests to acknowledge that enslaved black people actually despised their condition and would typically take any opportunity to run away that presented itself.  Indeed, the fact that Southern militia were born out of slave patrols, further suggests that Southern slave holding society lived in constant fear of insurrections, uprisings, and other violent resistance from oppressed blacks--and these took place far more than is typically represented in standard history books.  John Brown was not speculating when he entered the South; he knew that it would not be difficult to tap into a deep source of resistance in the black enslaved communities Southwide.  This is why it was also essential for the myth of John Brown's failure to attract "the slaves" to be standardized as history.

One should keep this in mind, particularly in the manner in which the story of the Harper's Ferry raid has often been told, whether in television documentaries and films or by scholarly lectures and publications. The myth that enslaved blacks were indifferent to John Brown's efforts in Virginia was itself a masterpiece of southern propaganda, from both the slave masters of Jefferson County as well as the pro-slavery, pro-Union journalistic artist, David Strother Hunter (Porte Crayon), who used his position to present Brown's efforts as a quixotic adventure.  Beware of any historian or documentary maker who continues to advance the notion of black indifference to Brown's efforts.  Those who put forth this myth are either too accepting of the status quo "scholarly" view, or they are invested in diminishing Brown's impact and importance.

The Frankenstein of the South:
Raymond Massey as John Brown in Santa Fe Trail
Regardless, were slavery in the U.S. presented as it really was, both in its greed, violence, and racism, as well as the condition and attitude of the enslaved who despised their oppression, our movies about the Civil War would have a decidedly different impact on our society. Perhaps it is no surprise that the screenplay for "The Undefeated" was written by James Lee Barrett, a native North Carolinian. This is not to say that the only lies about slavery have been spawned by Southerners. There are plenty of Northerners who have romanticized slavery and the Civil War sufficient to mislead the public. Still, it is no wonder that complement to the fiction of the benign slave master and the loyal slave is the portrayal of John Brown as a fanatical madman and ruthless extremist--especially with iconic, influential 1940 film, Santa Fe Trail, the screenplay of which was written by a native Virginian.

I've heard a few (white) people recently complain about how "history has been changed," because they are accustomed to the kind of propaganda and fluff upon which they were nurtured, especially in regard to the experience of non-whites in this nation. The reality is, much of what the nation as a whole has been taught for generations about slavery and the anti-slavery movement was biased, skewed, and misrepresentative of the realities of white supremacy in general and chattel slavery as the "peculiar institution."  Perhaps things are changing.  But even though there is a greater willingness to acknowledge that John Brown "was on the right side of history," we should still watch the extent to which he is treated with measured cynicism and likewise to what extent and in what manner chattel slavery and white supremacy are portrayed, especially in popular film.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Contagious Example

"Captain John Brown, the 'marching-on Brown,' once said to Emerson that 'for a settler in a new country, one good believing man is worth a hundred, nay, worth a thousand men without character.' His example is so contagious, that all other men are directly and beneficially influenced by him, and he insensibly elevates and lifts them up to his own standard of energetic activity."
Excerpt from anonymous author, “Companionship and Example” (1884), transcribed on the website, Old and Sold: Over 35,000 Scholarly Articles.


Image: John Brown in Hudson, Ohio.  Daguerreotype made in late 1856 by an unknown photographer.  According to documentarian Jean Libby, it is a sixth plate daguerreotype (mirror view).  It is held in the Boston Atheneum (UTB-6, 5.4 broj (no. 1).  See Jean Libby, John Brown Photo Chronology: Catalogue of the Exhibition at Harpers Ferry 2009 (Palo Alto, Calif.: Allies for Freedom, 2009), pages 32-33. 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Kansas News:
Osawatomie Notebook: Edward Payson Bridgeman, Kansas Associate of John Brown

Edward Payson Bridgeman Sr. was an Osawatomie pioneer who established land claims near what is now Osawatomie State Hospital in 1856. He witnessed parts of the Battle of Osawatomie and recounted his experiences in With John Brown in Kansas: the Battle Of Osawatomie (1915).
“In the spring of 1856, I went from my house in western Massachusetts to Kansas to give my influence and vote in behalf of the free-state cause,” Bridgeman wrote.

He reported that Brown and his men were a tough lot, but did not attack peaceful proslavery men. “The Border Ruffians were determined in their efforts,” he wrote. “A price was on John Brown’s head, dead or alive. He had a few men staunch and true. It was better for a man not to cross their path unless he was peaceably inclined.”

On the morning of Aug. 29, 1856, Bridgeman said, Brown’s men camped on his claim northeast of Osawatomie on the modern-day site of Osawatomie State Hospital. Brown “came with his faithful band and camped in the dooryard around our house,” he wrote. “They comprised some 20 to 25 men. They were a tired set of men, and at the edge of the evening, without any supper, they threw themselves on the ground and slept.”
Brown and his men were a tough lot, but did not attack peaceful proslavery men.
Bridgeman went on to describe Brown’s actions on Aug. 30, 1856, the day before the Battle of Osawatomie:
He was a stern visage man but kindly spoken and approachable, of strong will and determination, of indomitable purpose and withal, a deeply religious man. To illustrate: When we all turned in for the night, he, as was his custom, read a chapter in the Bible. He laid the book on the stairs. A candle was left burning, and I had the curiosity, after he had gone to bed, to look into the Bible. I noticed that the margins were written over with his comments, and lines were emphasized by interlineations, particularly in the gospels and the Psalms.
As the guerilla force ate breakfast on the morning of Aug. 30, Brown and his men were warned about the proslavery forces attack on Osawatomie. “I saw John Brown strap his knapsack on his back as he commanded his little band to ‘fall in,’ and hurriedly marched forward,” Bridgeman reported.

Bridgeman and his friend, Win Anthony, the brother of Susan B. Anthony, quickly joined them in the defense of Osawatomie. “Anthony and I waited only long enough to take the dishes off the fire when we each took a gun and followed on after,” Bridgeman wrote.

Edward Payson Bridgeman’s first time under fire was under the command of Brown, and he took his military experiences at the Battle of Osawatomie into the Civil War, during which he fought for the Union from 1862 to 1865. Brown’s abolitionist crusade played a part in preparing him for his service in the war, which Brown’s actions sparked.

— Grady Atwater is administrator of the John Brown State Historic Site

Source: Grady Atwater. "Pioneer Gives Insight On John Brown." Osawatomie Graphic [Osawatomie, Kan.]

Decoding John Brown Junior's Love Letter

PITTSBURG, KANSAS —A Pittsburg State University graduate student has found the key to several coded letters written by the son of abolitionist John Brown.

History Detective:
Bill Hoyt
(Pittsburg Morning Sun)
Bill Hoyt, an employee in Pitt State’s Advancement Services Office and a Pitt State alumnus, said he came across the coded letters, written by John Brown, Jr., the oldest son of the famous abolitionist, while doing research for his master’s thesis in history. The contents of the letters, which Brown, Jr., had sent to his wife, surprised him, he said.

The messages helped reveal details about the wartime life of the man who rode with the Kansas 7th Cavalry. They also surprised officials at the Kansas State Historical Society, who have decided to restrict access to the contents of the letters to adults only.

Hoyt said he came across the letters by chance while he was researching one of Brown, Jr.’s lieutenants, George Hoyt (no relation). The letters had recently been acquired by the KHS.

“I was going through the personal correspondence of a few members of the Kansas Seventh Cavalry, like Brown and Daniel Anthony (brother of Susan B. Anthony) when I hit on the Brown coded letters,” Hoyt said.

The letters, from John Brown, Jr., to his wife, Wealthy, are written in a numerical code and appear as columns of numbers. Hoyt said the coded letters had all been written around the time period in which he was interested — about 1861-62 — which motivated him to try to crack the code.

Finding the key to the 150-year-old mystery wasn’t as difficult as he expected, Hoyt said.

“It took the better part of a night,” he said.

Hoyt said the code is a simple letter/number replacement system based on descending even and ascending odd numbers. For example, start with A=24, B=22, C=20, and continue to L=2. Then go upwards with odd numbers. M=1, N=3, O=5, among others. 00 is a space filler to hide the existence of one-letter words. Each page begins in the bottom right-hand corner, goes up to the top of the page and then begins again at the bottom of the next column to the left.

“It had to be simple enough that his wife would be able to decode it, and that he could write it and produce letters any time, no matter where was,” Hoyt said.

The letters, he continued, have been authenticated, and they match the context and progression of a series of letters Brown, Jr. had written.

“As he was writing to her, he say ‘I’m going to tell you something secret,’ and then put it into code,” Hoyt said. The letters were decoded by a volunteer at the KHS who was given the key.

What the key revealed, Hoyt said, surprised him.

“What I was hoping to find was information about George Hoyt,” Hoyt said. “Wealthy Brown and George Hoyt knew each other and corresponded on occasion, so it would not have been out of place for John Brown, Jr., to mention Hoyt to his wife.”

Instead, Hoyt said he found missives between Brown, Jr., and his wife, as well as evidence of money problems and a strong desire to return home from the war. Brown, Jr. also showed the same intensity his father possessed.

“Basically, he really, really missed his wife,” Hoyt grinned. “I think the letters are better described as fiercely intimate, maybe even the 19th-century version of sexting. But he was also very interested in getting the war over. He had an intense love of home and wanted to get back.”

The letters are graphic enough, however, that the KHS decided against posting Hoyt’s key on its website in order to keep it out of the hands of school-age youngsters. Patrons 18 and older may access the key and the letters at the Historical Society’s reading room, however.

Hoyt said the letters didn’t provide much help with his thesis research, but he’s not disappointed.

“It’s exciting to solve a mystery this old and it does add to what we know about some significant historical characters,” Hoyt said. “One of things it does show us is that throughout history we see people doing great things, and we forget that they’re real people, just like us. They share the same concerns we do. Seeing the intimate details of John Brown’s life helps us to see the real person.”

Mike Kelley, chairman of the Department of History, Philosophy and Social Sciences, said research often takes people in directions they didn’t expect.

“Original research gets the blood pumping,” Kelley said.

Source: William Klusener, “PSU grad student breaks letters’ code.” Pittsburg Morning Sun [Pittsburg, Kan.], 24 March 2011.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Biographically Speaking:
Redpath's John Brown Books


James Redpath
(Wikimedia Commons)
James Redpath (1833-95) was the Scottish born reformer, abolitionist, and journalist who became a confidant of John Brown and the author of his first and authorized biography in 1860.  Redpath is referred to by his biographer John McKivigan as "the forgotten firebrand" of the 19th century.  Undoubtedly, Redpath is a fascinating figure whose contributions and influence upon the U.S. have largely gone overlooked.  According to McKivigan's bio description, Redpath
befriended John Brown, Samuel Clemens, and Henry George and, toward the end of his life, was a ghostwriter for Jefferson Davis. He advocated for abolition, civil rights, Irish nationalism, women's suffrage, and labor unions. . . . Redpath's newspaper writing is credited with popularizing the stenographic interview in the American press, and he can be studied as a prototype for later generations of newspaper writers who blended reportage with participation in reform movements. His influential biography of John Brown justified the use of violent actions in the service of abolitionism. Redpath was an important figure in the emerging professional entertainment industry in this country. Along with his friend P. T. Barnum, Redpath popularized the figure of the "impresario" in American culture. Redpath's unique combination of interests and talents—for politics, for journalism, for public relations—brought an entrepreneurial spirit to reform that blurred traditional lines between business and social activism and helped forge modern concepts of celebrity. 
Young Redpath in Kansas
(Random  Thoughts on History)
Redpath met Brown during his Kansas foray and actually dedicated his 1859 publication, The Roving Editor; or Talks with Slaves in the Southern States to the Old Man (It begins, "To you, Old Hero, I dedicate this record of my Talks with the Slaves in the Southern States. . . .")  This is especially interesting because he is referring to the John Brown he has encountered in Kansas prior to the Harper's Ferry raid.  This suggests that some historians have been too extreme in concluding that Brown would not have been remembered had he died during the Harper's Ferry raid instead of becoming a martyr on a Virginia gallows.  Clearly, Brown had a tremendous political and cultural impact upon the anti-slavery set at the time, and if he had died in the battle of Harper's Ferry, it is very likely we would still be talking about him to a significant degree. (By the way, see my friend Tim Talbott's excellent blog, Random Thoughts on History, in which he features this very dedication in his March 2 entry, including a transcript of the entire text.)


The following year, after the Harper's Ferry raid and Brown's execution, Redpath emerged as the official biographer with his highly influential work, The Public Life of Capt. John Brown (1860), which featured Brown's own 1857 autobiographical sketch for the first time, and provided sufficient royalties to Brown's widow for her to make additions and finishing touches to their North Elba farmhouse.  The same year, Redpath also published the important complement to his biography, Echoes of Harper's Ferry, in which he published a good many edited letters written to John Brown with the practical intention of raising money for the black raiders who had "recently went to Heaven via Harper's Ferry, or who were murdered, with legal forms, at Charlestown, Virginia."


The following year, 1861, Redpath published A Guide to Hayti, reflecting his work and close ties between blacks in the U.S. and the Haitian government, particularly in supporting black emigration to the black island state ("She offers you a home, a nationality, a future," Redpath thus wrote to U.S. blacks on behalf of Haiti).  Incidentally, Haiti paid great tribute to John Brown after his death, and John Brown Junior was a colleague of Redpath's in his Haitian endeavors.  Interestingly, at the publication of this Haitian volume, Redpath published an extensive pamphlet under the imprimatur of his Boston-based Haytian Bureau of Emigration that also featured his previous two John Brown books.  The pamphlet provides a solid ten pages of material pertaining to his bio of Brown and one page description of Echoes of Harper's Ferry.  As to the former, Redpath publishes a letter from John Brown Junior, followed by a Brown family letter (including the Old Man's younger brother Frederick as a signatory), authorizing and affirming Redpath as the official biographer of their late father.  Then there is an extensive listing of book reviews which makes for fascinating reading, especially since Redpath had the good humor to include negative reviews.  Here are two of my favorites: "Full of the fanaticism that led its subject to the scaffold," N.Y. Express; and "The well-known James Redpath is an Abolitionist of the darkest hue, and upholds every action of Brown. The book can do no harm," Montgomery Democrat.  Or so he thought.

All you JB fiends will love this.  I have provided the pages pertaining to his John Brown books and you can download them via dropbox.com by clicking here.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Ephemera:
Dust and Ashes: John Brown's Wagon

Source: The Los Angeles Herald (14 March 1908), p. 11

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Biography:
The Stutler-Boyer Disconnection

The preeminent John Brown documentary scholar and collector is Boyd B. Stutler, who died in 1970, and whose papers are now held in the archives of the State of West Virginia. Although Stutler intended to write a biography of Brown from the 1950s, the work was never completed. There are probably a number of reasons for what Stutler referred to as his “dalliance,” that proved to undermine his biographical effort. But it is also probably true that the rise of other John Brown writers in late 1950s and 1960s further discouraged him from completing his work. Most notable in this regard were Truman Nelson, Richard O. Boyer, and Stephen B. Oates, all of which brought notable works about John Brown to publication. Of these three, however, Richard O. Boyer’s correspondence with Stutler is the slightest in the Stutler Collection. Furthermore, of these three successful authors, Stutler—who was typically generous in his support of researchers—offered little or no assistance to Boyer.

[The complete entry is available only in the forthcoming book, John Brown: Emancipator]

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Mary Brown's Birthday Celebrated

It's Mary Brown's birthday April 15 at the Saratoga Community Library in California, 2 -4 p.m.

This is the inaugural event of "Mary and Her Daughters, a legacy of equality and cooperation" video and archives documentary project.

The direction is to situate the family of John Brown who settled in Santa Clara County in 1879--and where descendants still live today--in local communities of their interaction.

#1 African Americans who established the first secondary school for blacks in the West in San Jose and their relationship with John Brown's liberation movement

#2 Women's suffragists, successful in California in 1911, associated with Mary's daughters and Mary Brown in her journeys (also direct supporters of John Brown)

#3 Japanese farmworkers who were taught English by Sarah Brown, who protested racial discrimination toward Asians in California and learned the Japanese language and culture for her work.

Project Director Jean Libby will make a presentation about Mary Brown's life of activism for equality and cooperation.

Free and open to the public. Sponsored by the Saratoga Historical Foundation and Museum and the Saratoga Community Library.

With great appreciation for the support of the African American Heritage House at History Park in San Jose, especially Outreach Coordinator Robert Walker, and to the sponsors of Mary Brown's 195th birthday commemoration and planned future activities.

Jean Libby, editor
Allies for Freedom
www.alliesforfreedom.org

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Favorites:
“A Shepherd Without Doubt”: John Brown’s Letter Home, 1845

One of my favorite John Brown letters has nothing to do with abolitionism, the Underground Railroad, or the Harper’s Ferry raid. But it provides a kind of “snapshot” of the man as he was in 1845, and one that adds color and feeling to our sense of John Brown in his forty-sixth year. This letter was written ten years before he went to Kansas to defend his family from pro-slavery terrorists, and fourteen years before the Harper’s Ferry raid. In fact, it was written a year before Brown and Simon Perkins Jr. set up a wool commission operation in Springfield, Mass., in an effort to curb the abuses of wool manufacturers and empower wool growers (which included some black farmers) in the “west.” 

By the time this letter was written, he had already partnered with Perkins in Akron, Ohio, and was busily tending to the magnate's flock, which Brown had groomed and cultivated to the point of national notoriety (Perkins' flock was praised in farmers’ journals, etc.). In fact, it was during much of the 1840s that Brown traveled widely in the country, examining and purchasing livestock, and fairly well establishing his expertise as among the leading specialists in fine sheep and wool in the U.S. in the antebellum era. Of course, he was mixing anti-slavery talk and networking with Underground Railroad folks amidst all this wool business, and of course Underground Railroad work as the occasion arose.

Erie Canal Boat in Western New York
This letter, written on November 25, 1845, provides little or no context, but we can surmise that he had made a business trip to the east, probably including his Connecticut home state, apparently to purchase sheep for the Perkins flock. There is a gap in his extant letters between May and November 1845, so we don’t know the exact nature or extent of this trip, but it must have taken him away from home for a few weeks if not longer.

What makes this letter particularly interesting is that he wrote it one week into his westward trip aboard an Erie Canal boat. Brown thus describes himself as being “wrap[p]ed up nice in a Buffalo skin,” in the “mid Ship” section, along with his sheep. In his famous 1857 letter to the son of “Secret Six” supporter, George L. Stearns, Brown would refer to himself as having been a “Practical Shepherd” in youth. Here he somewhat humorously refers to himself as a “Shepherd without doubt”; but his humor reminds us of his deep love for the labors and matters of sheep farming, and livestock in general. Brown studied sheep intensively and extensively, experimented in and improved upon medical cures for their ailments, and claimed to have known his sheep by face as we know people. However uncomfortable this setting may have been, then, it is difficult to imagine that Brown was unhappy--encamped among his flock in a mid-ship section of a 19th century canal boat, slowing moving across New York State in the chill of early winter.

Diagram of canal boat prior to 1850
(Ship Wreck World)
According to the website Ship Wreck World, canal boats in this period (pre-1850’s) were limited to 78-ft. in length due to the size of the original 90-ft. locks of the Erie and Oswego Canals. Canal vessels like the one Brown boarded were “line boats,” designed to carry freight, “but they also carried passengers as well as livestock.” Fare on line boats cost less than the fare for “packet boats,” which only carried passengers with hand-held luggage. Since travelers on line boats could set up tents and cook on deck,” we can imagine Brown naturally did so during this week-long trip. Ship Wreck World says line boats like Brown’s were slower than packet boats, covering about sixty-miles-per-day. 

This map excerpt shows the Erie Canal as it stretched
across New York state in Brown's era
Since they only ran during daylight hours, this explains further why it took Brown a week to get (most likely) from the eastern point of the Erie Canal near Troy, New York, to Union Mills, New York, which Brown himself sets at four miles from Buffalo.  Finally, according to John Percy, a historian of the Erie Canal, this historic waterway was only opened from late February through early December.* So Brown was cutting it close on this homeward trip. No wonder that he informs Mary that if he cannot get a “water passage” from Buffalo to Cleveland—that is, a steamship, he would herd the sheep on land until he could find a place to store them for the winter and then take a stage coach into Akron. However, he understandably did not want to herd the sheep along Lake Erie facing harsh winter elements, walking up to his knees in mud. Obviously, he had “been there and done that” in previous years, and preferred not to revisit such travail.

Brown assures Mary that he is well, and directs “the boys” to care for matters “at home,” which undoubtedly means both domestic chores as well as matters of the Perkins farm and flock. The “boys” here are 22-year-old Jason, 21-year-old Owen, and 15-year-old Frederick (the latter would be shot dead in Kansas in 1856). In the home were also 16-year-old Ruth, 10-year-old Watson, nine-year-old Salmon, and baby Amelia born in June that same year (she would die in a tragic household accident in October the following year, 1846)

The letter is found in the valuable Brown Family Collection held by the Henry Huntington LibraryManuscript Collections, in San Marino, California. The original spelling and format is preserved in my transcription below, including Brown's beloved ampersand in place of "and."


Canal Boat, Un[i]on Mills, 4 miles from Buffalo
Evening of 23d Nov 1845


Dear Mary


I have progressed thus far on my way
homeward verry well, but am at present weather bound
for a few hours at least. If things appears favour-
able when I get into Buffalo, I intend to take a
water passage to Cleaveland; but if otherwise I
think I shall drive the sheep I have untill I can
find some good place to leave them till the mud
freezes up, & take the Stage myself for home.
I cannot think of a much longer abscence at this
time nor of driving up the Lake through mud up
to my knees facing the rain, & snow together.
I am just going to try my Seventh night in the mid
Ship of a Canal boat, among the sheep (a Shepherd
without doubt) wraped up nice in a Buffalo skin
I trust the boys will take good care of all at home; &
hope to see you all well again shortly. My own
health is good, & hope you will not be over anx-
-ious on my account. If I get detained unexpect-
edly you may hear from me again


                                                 Affectionately Yours
                                                         John Brown


--------
      *John W. Percy, The Erie Canal: From Lockport to Buffalo (Partner’s Press, 1979; reprinted, Western New York Heritage Institute of Canisius Copyright 1993. ISBN 1-878097-09-1)