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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Grave Matters--
Henry & Ruth Brown Thompson

Norman Marshall, portrayer of John Brown, is currently visiting the west coast, and will be performing his one-man play, "John Brown: Trumpet of Freedom" at the University of LaVerne, LaVerne, Calif., on March 26th (see information below).  Norman made a point of searching out the resting place of Henry and Ruth Brown Thompson in Pasadena, and has provided some pictures of the grave markers.  Rather than simply post the pictures, I have endeavored to provide a short historical sketch--although I regret that I do not have the time to provide a more extensive overview.  Thanks to Norman and his lovely wife, Gwen Gunn, for sharing these pictures with me and the readers of this blog.--LD

Norman Marshall points to the resting place of
Henry and Ruth Brown Thompson
(photo courtesy of Gwen Gunn)

Ruth Brown Thompson was the eldest daughter of John Brown, born Feb. 18, 1829 in Richmond, near Meadville, Pa.  When her father moved the family to North Elba, N.Y. in the spring of 1849, she was a young woman of twenty years, described by Richard Henry Dana in retrospect as a "bonny, buxom young woman of some twenty summers, with fair skin and red hair."1  Around this time Ruth had taken a bad fall on the ice, hurting her back.  According to another family letter, she never fully recovered, and suffered with back problems throughout her life.2  I do not know about the courtship of Ruth by Henry Thompson, however they were married on Sept. 26, 1850, during the Browns' first stay in North Elba.  Upon the urging of his wealthy partner, Simon Perkins, Jr., John Brown returned to Akron, Ohio, in March 1851, in order to continue their business endeavors.3  Naturally, Brown left Ruth with her husband in North Elba, although the father remained close to his daughter.  His correspondence--especially in religious matters--shows that she, unlike most of her siblings--shared her father's evangelical faith, and shared also his concerns for the heterodoxy of her brothers.4   

Like any family, the Browns had some relational rough spots.  As far as the spouses of his adult children, neither John Brown nor the rest of the family seem to have been very impressed by Ellen Sherbondy Brown, the wife of his son Jason.  For whatever reason, Ellen "was not well liked by the Browns," in the words of John Brown aficionado, Boyd Stutler.5 Quite to the contrary, perhaps Brown's favorite "child"-in-law was Henry Thompson, Ruth's husband.  Like Ruth, Henry came from a large family, being the third of eleven children born to Roswell and Jane Thompson of North Elba.  Henry was born on Jan. 21, 1822, and was both a farmer and carpenter--and built John Brown's farm house, which still stands near Lake Placid, N.Y. as a  state historic site.   By arrangement with his father-in-law, Henry undertook to build the house for his father-in-law's return to North Elba from Ohio, in the spring of 1855.  However, Brown's return to the Adirondacks in May 1855 was more about settling his family in the home, since he shortly went to the Kansas territory to rescue his other family members from proslavery thugs, and never personally resided in North Elba again, except for short visits.  Of course, the rest is history--Brown went to Virginia and died as a result of his liberation efforts.  However, Henry Thompson figures importantly in Brown's story, insofar as he went to Kansas with his father-in-law, and proved a devoted and faithful son and warrior to the old man.  Thompson was one of the Pottawatomie killers, and until the day of his death held that the bloody act was a matter of necessity and survival. When Brown turned his focus to Harper's Ferry, however, neither Ruth nor Henry himself wanted to follow the old man into Virginia.  This was just as well for the dler Thompsons: they sacrificed two sons to John Brown's cause--Henry's younger brothers William and Dauphin.  Their sister, Isabella Thompson, was also married to Watson Brown in 1856, and was left a grieving widow when Watson was slain at Harper's Ferry.  Thus, the Thompson family paid dearly for their association with John Brown.6

      In June 1860, a month before the Brown's hosted a July 4th commemorative meeting at the family farm in Lake Placid, Ruth Brown Thompson wrote to Mary Stearns, the wife of one of her father's "Secret Six" supporters, George Luther Stearns.  The letter clearly shows that she carried on the legacy of her father and fallen brothers:
The very idea of slavery is so galling to my feelings that I can hardly endure the thought. How many times I have heard my dear sainted Father, say he "hoped to live to see the day when the slaves would all be free." What an awful sin is slavery, yet how quietly the people of this country sleep over it. How many sleepless nights Father used to pass, thinking of the poor slaves, years before he made an attempt to rescue them. His great kind heart was ever "awake to their wrongs.7
Ruth & Henry Thompson portrayed in celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary in The San Francisco Call (5 Oct. 1900, p. 4).  The article says the couple resided "in a humble cottage, on the banks of the Arroyo Seco, in Pasadena."

In 1884, the Thompsons moved west, settling in Pasadena, California.  They were joined by brother Jason Brown. Brother Owen also settled in the following year--the two Brown brothers settling in the Las Cacitas mountains, northeast of Pasadena.  In the later decades of the 19th century, the Browns were a noted presence and enjoyed the friendship and support of many black friends, especially clergymen.  According to a 1940 article in The California Eagle, the writer looked back to the time when the Thompsons and Browns hosted a number of black ministers, carrying on the tradition of John and Mary Brown, who enjoyed close relationships with many black leaders and lay people.  The author, the Reverend William Prince, even recalled a fund-raising picnic that African American friends sponsored in order to raise money to assist Grace Thompson, Ruth and Henry's daughter, with her college tuition.8

In the 1960s, Mary Mackenzie, a grassroots researcher on the Browns in North Elba, wrote to a direct descendant of Henry and Ruth Thompson, Adeline Bryant.  Drawing from memories of her own youth, Bryant provided a brief but poignant description of her grandparents in their last years:
. . . [Y]ou ask me to tell you something about Grandpa Henry Thompson.  He and grandma were always very devoted to each other.  I lived in their home for two years while I attended Pasadena High School and I never heard them say a cross word to each other.  Grandma had trouble with her back, so used to stay in bed until around ten o’clock at which time, before she dressed, grandpa would bring her a cup of coffee, always saying, “Here’s your coffee, mama.”  After that she would dress, have a little breakfast and then go to sit in her willow rocker in the living room where she could look out upon their orange trees, when she would raise her eyes from whatever book she happened to be reading.9  
Ruth Brown, the beloved daughter of the abolitionist leader, went to her rest in 1904.  Her faithful husband Henry lingered on the John Brown trail a little longer, finally departing in 1911.--LD

Photo courtesy of Norman Marshall


1 Richard Henry Dana, "How We Met John Brown," Atlantic Monthly (Jul. 1871), p. 5.
2 Transcription, Ruth Brown Thompson to Henry Thompson, 14 May 1856, in Edwin N. Cotter Jr. Papers, Letters, No. 2/68/10, Feinberg Library Collection, Plattsburgh State University, Plattsburgh, N.Y.
Photo courtesy of Norman Marshall
3 Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., "Fire from the Midst of You": A Religious Life of John Brown (NY: NYU Press, 2002), p. 206.
4 Ibid., p. 208.
5 Boyd B. Stutler to Clarence S. Gee, 25 July 1949, p. 1, in Hudson Library and Historical Society Collection, Hudson, Oh.
6 DeCaro, p. 214.
7 Ruth Brown Thompson to Mary Stearns, 13 Jun. 1860, MS05-0061 A-E, Boyd B. Stutler Collection, West Virginia Division of Culture and History.

         8 Dorothy Hassler, "Trail's End on Little Round Top," Westways Magazine (Sept. 1952), p. 25; Rev. William Prince, "Turning Back the Pages of Pasadena's Past," California Eagle (2 May 1940), in Pasadena Historical Society Collection.
9 Adeline Towne Bryant to Mary Mackenzie, 28 April 1966, in Box 2, file 68 (no. 22), Cotter Papers.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

From the Field:
“Sweet is the Memory of the Just”
Images of the Old Hudson Township Burying Ground, Amongst Other Recollections

by H. Scott Wolfe*

       Back…back…in the days of yore, I would customarily devote my vacation time to the active pursuit of John Brown and his men. For more years than I wish to admit, I would load the camper shell on the trusty Chevy pickup and hit the old lonesome highway in search of something excitingly new that was decidedly old. Stirring times, I must say they were.


Sometimes I would traverse the State of Iowa, following the long-forgotten track of the “Jim Lane Trail,” an overland route to Kansas once utilized by antislavery folk (including John Brown) in order to evade the proslaver’s blockade of the Missouri River. I would cross the prairies they crossed; encounter the streams they encountered; and camp in the villages in which they camped.

Beginning in Springdale, at the lonely spot where the Old Man’s recruits trained for the Harpers Ferry incursion…I would meander all the way to Tabor, in the southwest corner of the state. There I would be compelled to jackknife myself, to view the mud-walled cellar of the home of the Reverend John Todd…the very place where those Sharps rifles that made it to the Ferry were once stored. And, of course, there were many other sights to see on my journey…ranging from weed-clogged Mormon cemeteries, to the covered “Bridges of Madison County,” to elaborate country weddings…the field-tanned participants resplendent in pastel leisure suits.

Once Across the Wide Missouri, I would gorge on pancakes at the “John Brown Family Restaurant” in Nebraska City, Nebraska (Birthplace of Arbor Day!!). Close by was “John Brown’s Cave,” and the cabin of Allen and Barbara Ann Mayhew…the latter being the sister of the Old Man’s Secretary of War, John Henri Kagi. And then into northern Kansas, where I explored the Nemaha country and strolled the banks of Pony Creek, where William Leeman…that tragic victim in the Potomac…tried to make a go of it as a pioneer farmer.

And, finally, Free State Topeka, where I would spend a week at the old Kansas State Historical Society, sifting through the Richard Hinton and John Brown manuscript collections…overworking both their copy machines and their staff members, who sacrificed a considerable amount of shoe leather to my esoteric requests.


"Days of driving. . . ."
And sometimes I would point that trusty Chevy toward the eastern regions…to places such as Charleston, West Virginia. It was there that I would set up housekeeping in a convenient Red Roof Inn on the banks of the Kanawha. Each morning, my lungs filled with the fragrant emissions of a multitude of oil refineries and chemical plants, I would “commute” to the West Virginia Department of Archives and History…to view the “Holy Grail,” the Boyd Stutler Collection.

Day after day…the beard growing to John Brown proportions…my overworked eyeballs bulging like the Old Man’s in the Curry painting…I would peruse more fascinating stuff than H.J. Heinz has pickles. Today, it all seems so quaint and old-fashioned. Days of driving…motel and food bills…damaged lungs…terminal eyestrain. Now one can simply bring up the Stutler Collection website in the comfort of one’s own home…pretzels and spinach avocado dip optional…and achieve the same exciting, illuminating results.

And yet another regular eastern destination was the steeped-in-John-Brown village of Hudson, Ohio. Despite its gentrification…its “bedroom community” aura…one can still loaf in the village green and imagine oneself back in Old Connecticut. (Believe it or not, the same feeling can be generated in the center of faraway Tabor, Fremont County, Iowa.)

Headquarters here was a Victorian bed and breakfast in the nearby, picturesque community of Peninsula. And my “commute,” less hectic and damaging to the respiratory system than in Charleston, was to the Hudson Library and Historical Society…to view the “secondary” Holy Grail, the Clarence Gee Collection. During that long ago, mist-shrouded era, the proprietors were Tom Vince and the late Jim Caccamo…and, like all archivists I seemed to encounter, these guys were good. I would spend the day scribbling illegible notes…organize them in the evening amidst Queen Anne splendor…and then regurgitate them at breakfast to my kind, unsuspecting hosts.
Hudson Library and Historical Society,
Hudson, Ohio
Peninsula is plopped within the confines of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, a beautifully scenic area between Cleveland and Akron, and those beleaguered hosts (despite the names of a regiment of radical abolitionists still ringing in their ears) introduced me to sundry other historic sights nearby. I was transported to Akron to view the Simon Perkins Mansion…and the adjacent John Brown House. I was allowed to hike the towpath of the old Ohio & Eric Canal. And I was directed to the cemetery in Richfield, where the Old Man’s fever-ravaged children share a common grave. And then there was another graveyard…in Hudson itself…awash in memories of the family of John Brown.


Our grim correspondent, his hands freshly painted, 
poses betwixt the parents of John Brown, 
Owen and Ruth Mills Brown
(H. S. Wolfe photo)
I paused in Hudson this past April, and found it much the same…though increasingly yuppie-ized and more traffic-clogged than in the olden days. And, as during earlier sojourns, it seemed as if I were magnetically drawn to a spot on the south side of Chapel Street, hard upon the campus of the Western Reserve Academy. This particular parcel of real estate, as announced boldly upon the metal archway at its entrance, is the OLD HUDSON TOWNSHIP BURYING GROUND.

A modern stone, immediately within, reveals it as “the oldest existing cemetery in Hudson and Summit County,” established by David Hudson and Benjamin Whedon in the year 1808. Also engraved upon this marker is the fact that: “Ruth Mills Brown (1772-1808), wife of Owen Brown and mother of abolitionist leader John Brown (1800-1859) was the first burial here.” Yes, within lie the parents of ol’ Osawatomie. Thus the attraction. For here one may pay respects to the Old Man of the Old Man, et.al.

The cemetery is quite attractive in the springtime, with green grass and blooming fruit trees. Yours truly, intent upon such seasonal beauty…and eagerly anticipating yet another visit to the Brown family plot…seized the entrance gate with both paws…only to discover that it had been freshly anointed with a most persistent and malodorous type of black paint. My search for an effective solvent continued that entire day…success only coming with dinner, in the form of a mixture of vodka and sweet vermouth.

A short walk brings you to the stones of the Brown family, standing in a straight row as if for military inspection. From right to left, they include (accompanied by images from my humble camera):
Ruth Mills Brown
(H. S. Wolfe photo)

RUTH MILLS BROWN…Owen Brown’s first wife, her stone is definitely showing its age. The elements have obliterated the inscription, but a transcription of what once appeared is as follows:

Sacred to the Memory of Ruth, Wife of Owen Brown who died Dec. 10, 1808 in the 37th year of her age 
She was a dutiful child, a Sprightly youth, a loving wife, a Tender parent, a kind neighbor, and an Exemplary Christian. 
Owen Brown
(H. S. Wolfe photo)
Sweet is the memory of the Just.

OWEN BROWN…The father of the abolitionist John Brown, his stone retains a clearly legible:
Owen Brown   Died May 8, 1856  Aged 85 Years
SALLY ROOT BROWN…Owen Brown’s second wife, her inscription reads:

Sally   Wife of Owen Brown  Died Aug. 11, 1840  Aged 51 Years

Sally Root Brown
(H. S. Wolfe photo)
WATSON HUGH BROWN…Son of Owen and Sally Root Brown, his inscription remains bold despite the passage of the years:
Watson Brown
(H. S. Wolfe photo)

Beneath this stone lie buried the mortal remains of Watson, 7th son of Owen Brown & 1st son of Owen and Sally Brown, who was born at Hudson on the 22nd day of July 1813, and died on the 29th day of Jan. 1832  AE 18 Years
Additional lines praise him as "a kind hearted, generous, and manly youth, who by his mild and amiable character was endeared to his numerous friends."

and  LUCIEN BROWN…Son of Owen and Sally Root Brown, his stone reading:
Lucien Brown
(H. S. Wolfe photo)
Lucien Brown   Died Dec. 1, 1847   Aged 20 years
Amos Lusk
(H. S. Wolfe photo)
Nearby the Brown plot, and facing them in familial perpetuity, is the stone of AMOS LUSK, father of Dianthe, and first father-in-law of John Brown. A small, simple stone, it reads:

Capt Amos Lusk   1773-1813   War of 1812


The Brown family plot, Old Hudson Township Burying Ground,
Hudson, Ohio (H. S. Wolfe photo)

Hopefully, all of the John Brown researchers and enthusiasts who might pause to read this posting (assuming that they survive the ordeal), will be able to visit some of the historic sites mentioned in the foregoing. I have always been a strong proponent of WALKING THE GROUND where the dramatic events of the past have transpired. Yes, there may today be a Burger King astride a spot where heroes attempted to liberate a people…but in the mind’s eye, one can still visualize and appreciate such noble deeds.
So whether it be Springdale or Tabor…Nebraska City or Topeka…Charleston or Hudson…and utilizing a favorite word of a certain Dr. DeCaro: Leave the ACADEMY, and HIT THE ROAD!

* H. Scott Wolfe is the Historical Librarian of the Galena, Illinois, Public Library District and now a regular correspondent and contributor to this blog. He has devoted many years of grassroots research on John Brown, the Harper's Ferry raiders, and related themes.