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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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Saturday, July 15, 2017

From the Field: In Decorah, Iowa

by H. Scott Wolfe

Your correspondent recently returned from a nostalgic sojourn in the glorious State of Montana — to which place, a half-century ago (yikes!), a seemingly uneducable citizen of Wisconsin first traveled to be educated. Today, opinions still vary as to the success of that endeavor.

Our initial leg-stretch occurred in the attractive city of Decorah, Iowa, where I halted the Hyundai beside the famous Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. Immediately, the mental wheels began spinning — for I seemed to recollect that the building adjacent to the museum, a two-story frame with a facade in the Italianate style, possessed John Brown connections. Presently the site of a business called the “ArtHaus Studio,” the structure was undergoing a cosmetic facelift — with workmen clambering up ladders and busily scraping blistered paint.

Calling upon my much oxidized memory, I seemed to recall that, in 1863, the widowed Mary Brown, her daughter Ellen, and son Salmon (with his family) had commenced their westward journey from North Elba to California — and had tarried for a time in the community of Decorah. I had once been told that they actually resided on the second floor of this building.

The location of Mary Brown's residence in Decorah, Iowa, 1863-1864
(Photo by H. Scott Wolfe)

Still possessing a troubling concern for what are today sometimes known as FACTS, I decided to seek confirmation of my recollections.  My first stop was a nearby visitors’ information center. A very kind and accommodating lady listened to my John Brown story…and was soon beset with that vacant look so often encountered when I speak of that obscure individual who may well have caused the American Civil War. Their eyes become fixed, and seem to say: “Did I purchase enough green peppers for those Western omelets I plan on preparing for tomorrow’s breakfast?” But the helpful lady sent me on to a nearby gift shop.

So another clerk was regaled with my John Brown story — and that same look returned. I may as well have been relating the dramatic story of Charles Henry Winkenwerder. At least honesty prevailed, for she politely asked: “Who is John Brown?” As I mumbled words such as “slavery,” “abolitionism” and “Harpers Ferry,” her supervisor appeared and, to his credit, knew who John Brown was. But he too was surprised to hear of the Old Man’s connection to the adjacent building. 
Finally, the clerks alerted a passing gentleman to my question — and he, amazingly, said that he had heard rumors to that effect. That yes, there were stories connecting John Brown’s family to the structure right next door. 

Another view of Mary Brown's residence in Decorah, Iowa, 1863-1864
(Photo by H. Scott Wolfe)

But there it stood. I was soon on to Sauk Centre, Minnesota, to commune with the spirit of Sinclair Lewis. But I paused long enough to take a couple of images of the Decorah building in question. Perhaps those readers of this blog who are familiar with Mary Brown’s sojourn in Decorah can fill in the story…and ease my troubled mind.

Note: By the way, Charles Henry Winkenwerder was not an important personage. He was simply my Great-grand Uncle.--HSW

My colleague's interesting submission is complemented by further material worth noting here, including the insights provided by our colleagues, Jean Libby1 and Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz2, both of which have made important contributions to the story of Mary Brown's later life.  Additional information is culled from some of Mary Brown's own correspondence.

The Decision to Leave North Elba

      Laughlin-Schultz provides interesting background to the story, first pointing out that Mary and her family had grown weary of the frequent flow of uninvited guests at North Elba--as Mary put it, the "curious stares and unwelcome gaze of the populus."3  In 1909, Annie Brown Adams recalled in a letter to Katherine Mayo: "If you could only realize what members of John Brown's family have to endure on account of people's brutal curiousity. . . .  Often I used to run away and hide when I would see strangers coming, while we lived in North Elba."4  However, it is also true that despite her late husband's preference for Adirondack life, Mary Brown never really seems to have taken to it.  A decade before the Harper's Ferry raid, during the Browns' first stay in North Elba (1849-51), Mary was sick and took the first opportunity to take refuge in a "Water Cure" establishment in Massachusetts while her husband was away in Europe on business.5  Before his death, Brown encouraged his wife to remain in North Elba, apparently hoping to gather all the children together to live there as well.6

      But quite the opposite resulted, since none of the Browns ultimately remained in North Elba, and those in Ohio, especially John Junior and Jason (the sons of Brown's first wife), never wanted to take up residence in the cold elevations of Essex County.   However, the decisive factor that led Mary to leave North Elba seems to have been that both her son Salmon wanted to leave, and that her late husband's eldest daughter and son-in-law, Ruth and Henry Thompson, had already made the plunge. "Salmon and Henry Thompson have sold out and are a going to move to Iowa," Mary confided in abolitionist J. Miller McKim in September 1863.  "I think of going with them."7  Interestingly, when Mary began to seriously consider leaving, she evidently hoped that some arrangements could be made to take her husband's remains with her.  In the end, however, even her attachments to the remains of her beloved husband did not prevent her from making the move.  As one of her relatives summed it up, Mary Brown "could not resist the temptation" to leave North Elba.8  

Mary Brown as she looked
in the mid-1850s

     It seems that initially, Mary's only destination was Iowa, following her son Salmon, who seems to have been drawn there because it was a prosperous market for sheep.  Jean Libby suggests there were relatives in Iowa, but I am unable to verify this.9   After about two months living in Decorah, Mary wrote to her half-son, Owen, describing the area quite optimistically, as there were many people in Iowa from all over the country, "and a great many wealthy people" there too.   As to livestock, there were "a great ma[n]y sheep in this part of the country and people are intending to get more."10  The winter of 1863-64 in Decorah has been described as having been harsh, but according to Mary the weather "was very fine."  More likely, it was health conditions that were harsh, with many people being sick, especially children suffering from Scarlet Fever.11  It has likewise been stated that Mary bought a farm in Decorah,12 but I find this doubtful.  Perhaps Mary rented a farm the way they had rented the Flanders farm in North Elba during the family's first residence.  More likely, Mary took up residence on the second floor of the building pictured above in Scott Wolfe's article.

      One thing is clear, once Mary had tasted an improved lifestyle in Iowa, she regretted having upgraded the North Elba farm.   Visitors to the John Brown Farm today are not aware that it has since been restored to its original form as it was built by Henry Thompson for the Browns in 1855.  However, in the early 1860s, evidently with monies provided through James Redpath's authorized biography of her husband, Mary had invested in some expansion and improvement of the house, including a porch.   "I very much regret that I ever spent a cent on that farm in North Elba," Mary wrote to Owen, "but I did not know what I do now."  She hoped that with the sale of the North Elba farm she could at least recoup some of the money she had invested.13

Toward California

     Ultimately, the fact that Mary and her family did not remain in Iowa probably amounts to greener pastures, literally and otherwise, for a family that specialized in sheep farming.  Mary might have returned to her native northeastern Pennsylvania, and there was some interest expressed through the family's connection to their old friend, George Delamater, in Crawford County.  There was also Ohio, where John Junior and Jason resided.   But California was an attraction to the Browns and had been.  Salmon Brown would later speak of the desire to find a "new country," although this was nothing new to the Brown boys.14  Even prior to the Harper's Ferry raid, the gold rush and the promise of prosperity on the west coast had drawn the interest of the Brown boys, and one of John Brown's brothers had actually relocated there (to no success) for a time.  According to Jean Libby, however, Salmon's wife, Abbie (Hinckley) had perhaps caught the California fever from an uncle, and had persisted in promoting going farther west.  It is possible that other relatives in the Brown family likewise encouraged her to consider the westward move,15 however there is no well explained rationale for Mary's almost sudden move to California. Whatever the case, Mary Brown and family joined a westward wagon train in April 1864--only about three months after arriving in Decorah--and headed for Red Bluff, California.

Concern for Her Daughters

Fort Edward Institute, where Annie and Sarah Brown studied
     If Mary had great concern during the Decorah period, however, it was not over weather or farms or sheep, but about her daughters, twenty-year-old Annie, and seventeen-year-old Sarah, both of which had been sent east to study with the financial support of John Brown's abolitionist friends.   The young ladies had studied for a while in the private school of Franklin Sanborn in Concord, Massachusetts, but had somehow been transferred to a fairly new institution located at Fort Edward, New York.   The Fort Edward Collegiate Institute has been described as a "seminary,"16 but it was not a theological training institution as the term is used in the contemporary sense.  Rather, this was a seminary in the original use of the term as a kind of "seed bed" of learning, or preparatory institution.  According to a description at the time, Fort Edward Institute was only about ten years old when the Brown women were there, a "mammoth brick" edifice "unequaled by any other Seminary edifice in the country."  It is further described as a structure with furnished rooms, board, prepared fuel, and washing," and students resided for 14-week terms to study either commercial, classical, or "ornamental" (whatever that meant!) curricula.17  It is more likely that Annie and Sarah received the most practical or commercial training.

Annie Brown ca. 1860s
      But when Mary reached Iowa, she was deeply concerned about her daughters, whom she had left behind in the east.  Sarah had continued to study at Fort Edward and had done well, having received a tuition discount as John Brown's daughter.18  In the immediate sense, Mary was far more concerned about Annie, who had apparently decided to involve herself in the cause of the Union, following in her father's footsteps by working as a teacher of liberated blacks in the South.  As Laughlin-Schultz observes, there is little direct information about her tenure as a freedmen's teacher in Norfolk, Virginia, but there is no doubt that she undertook this difficult role for a season.  When Mary first learned of her daughter's decision to teach freedmen in Virginia, she was bowled over and could not respond to her daughter's letter.  When she finally did write to Annie from Decorah in early December 1863, she expressed both concern and support.  "If you feel it to be your duty we will all submit to it," she wrote, "but I was not prepared for it just now."19

    But even as Mary was coming to terms with Annie's bold decision to venture into Virginia a second time (she had accompanied her father prior to the Harper's Ferry raid, quite against her mother's wishes), she was beginning to fear for Sarah, who would be left alone.  Sarah was finishing her studies in 1864 and planned on joining her mother, but Mary was apprehensive about her daughter being kept from traveling by cold weather, forcing her to incur greater expense and worry.   Apparently, Mary's concern had some basis, because Sarah ended up being stuck in some way and had to be assisted by her elder brother Owen.  The latter incurred some expense in retrieving his teenage sister and bringing her through the cold weather into Ohio, whence she evidently proceeded on to Decorah to join her mother.20   When Mary left Decorah for California in April 1864, she was guided by her son, Salmon and his family, and accompanied by both Annie, Sarah, and nine-year-old Ellen, the youngest daughter of John Brown the abolitionist.  Annie and Sarah would serve as teachers shortly after arriving in California.21--LD*

* The post-1859 story of the Browns is not a particular strength of mine, and while input and corrections are always welcome, they would be especially appreciated here--LD


     1 Jean Libby, "John Brown's Family and Their California Refuge," The Californians 7:1 (Palo Alto, 2006), 14-22. 
     2  Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz, The Tie That Bound Us: The Women of John Brown's Family and the Legacy of Radical Abolition (Cornell University Press, 2013). 
     3  Ibid., 96.
     4 Anne Brown Adams to Katherine Mayo, 26 Oct. 1909, Annie Brown Adams folder, Box 1, John Brown - Oswald G. Villard Papers, Columbia University Library.
     5 Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., "Fire from the Midst of You": A Religious Life of John Brown (New York: NYU Press, 2002), 182-85.
     6 Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 296.  
     7  Mary Brown to J. Miller McKim, 2 Sept. 1863, Cornell University Library.  Transcript in Edwin N. Cotter Collection, 2/56/32, SUNY Plattsburgh. 
     8 "I Should like to know what My Dear husband[']s friends intend to do about removeing [sic] his remains or what they would advise to be done in case we all leave this Country." Mary Brown to Mary Stearns, 20 Aug. 1864, MS04-0079, John Brown - Boyd B. Stutler Collection, West Virginia Archives and History; Laughlin-Shultz, The Tie That Bound Us, 97.
     9 Libby, "Chronology of Mary Ann Day Brown, 1816-1884," The Californians 7:1 (Palo Alto, 2006), 18.
    10 Mary Brown to Owen Brown, 31 Jan. 1864.  Copy in Edwin N. Cotter Collection, 2/59/53, SUNY Plattsburgh.
    11 Ibid.  Also see Laughlin-Schultz, The Tie That Bound Us: The Women of John Brown's Family and the Legacy of Radical Abolition, 98
    12 Libby, "John Brown's Family and Their California Refuge," 14.
    13 Mary Brown to Owen Brown, 31 Jan. 1864.
    14 Laughlin-Schultz, The Tie That Bound Us, 97.
    15 Libby, "John Brown's Family and Their California Refuge," 16; Libby, "Sarah Brown, Artist and Abolitionist," The Californians 7:1 (Palo Alto, 2006), 35.
    16 Laughlin-Schultz refers to it as a "boarding seminary," The Tie That Bound Us, 93.
    17  "Fort Edward Institute," Northern Christian Advocate, 15 Feb. 1855.  Transcribed in the burial information for founder Joseph E. King, at Find-A-Grave.  Retrieved from https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=43423726
    18 Mary Brown to Mary Stearns, 7 Jan. 1863, MS04-0077, Brown-Stutler Collection.
    19 Mary Brown to Annie Brown, 3 Dec. 1863, Horatio Rust Papers, Henry Huntington Collection, San Marino, Calif.
    20 Mary Brown to Annie Brown, 3 Dec. 1863; Mary Brown to Owen Brown, 31 Jan. 1864.
    21 Laughlin-Schultz, The Tie That Bound Us, 105.

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