History, Research, and Current Themes

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

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Monday, July 02, 2018

Research: On Collections (and Collectors)

John Brown materials are scattered across the country in university libraries, historical societies, and other institutional collections.  Those in pursuit of John Brown's letters will find that they exist, one here, another there, in scores of archives from coast to coast in the United States.  Added to the long list of archives holding documents in Brown's hand are those holding related materials--from family letters to valuable primary and secondary collections.  The vigorous, untiring researcher would find it a task of years, if not decades, to pursue a fairly exhaustive course of research in regard to the broader category of John Brown-related materials.   

In the early-to-mid-20th century, when Boyd Stutler was collecting Brown's letters, he lamented that these primary documents found their way into institutional archives, out of reach to the private collector.   Nowadays, my lamentation runs quite opposite of Stutler's complaint, in that I would much prefer if Browniana found its way into university and historical society collections rather than private collections.  Since there is no way to track and record primary documents in private collections, we simply have no idea what or whether valuable information is simply out of reach because they are hoarded away by some privileged collector.   While I am grateful that Stutler and others in the early 20th century pursued collecting Brown's letters as a private endeavor, I am far more grateful that those private collections ended up in accessible state and institutional archives.  

Historical "Black Holes": Private Collectors

More than a decade ago, I wandered quite providentially into a New York City gallery on Manhattan's east side, only to discover that a rare letter from Brown to his half-sister Florella and her clergy husband, Samuel Adair (in Kansas) had recently been sold to a private collector.  I was able to retrieve a partial transcription from the dealer, but had to contact the wealthy doctor who had purchased it to request an image of the letter, or at least a complete transcription.  I received neither from him.  To my dismay, I found this collector to be miserly with the content of his John Brown letter.   Although I endeavored to explain to him that historians are mainly interested in the content of a historical document, he was unconcerned, unmoved by my appeal, and evidently quite selfish.

Of course, not all collectors are of this mindset.  The more generous (and honest) ones may acknowledge that their interest is in owning the original document, and that sharing an image or transcript of their property with scholars detracts nothing from the value of the original.   Not so with this accomplished collector who, it turned out, also held another rare John Brown letter in his collection.   In a desperate attempt to obtain transcriptions of both of his letters, I even called him on the phone, explaining my interest and making my request.  He remained disinterested although he was quick to boast about the many letters he held in his predominantly black history collection, which came off like rubbing salt into the wound. I learned afterwards from another scholar that this same collector was similarly greedy with other primary materials.   

While I can hardly blame a man of wealth for entertaining an enthusiasm for primary documents of historical interest, such collectors are no longer a benefit to the John Brown study as they were in the early 20th century, as the progenitors of some of today's most important collections.  Today, collectors holding John Brown materials are a problem, whether selfish or just oblivious to the pursuit of historical researchers.  Private collectors who amass John Brown letters today may be like historical "black holes" into which information is lost, sometimes for generations.  Only God knows how many important Brown letters and documents have disappeared into someone's library cabinet--held captive until either the collector dies and his family sells the collection, or until he decides to sell in pursuit of other desirable documents.   

Some years back, a rare letter inviting black leaders to Brown's 1858 Chatham convention surfaced on an auctioneer's website.  The letter, signed by Brown and a number of black leaders, had been owned and sold many times over the years, but a recent owner was the singer and actor, Harry Belafonte.  Fortunately, a digital image of this document was posted before it disappeared into another private collector's historical "black hole."   John Brown students and researchers may be comforted that after so many years that most of his materials have found their way into institutional collections and are not so restrained or withheld.  

Where the Letters Are

It may be noted that Brown researchers should be prepared to search across the country in small institutional collections (colleges, historical societies, and libraries) for singly-held letters in Brown's hand.  Some archives hold only one or two; others hold a handful of Brown's letters, like Oberlin College, which has correspondence relating to Brown's surveying assignment in 1840, or Cornell University, which has a few letters primary documents relating to Brown's legal affairs in the early 1850s.  Even the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library has a few of Brown's letters, showing that you almost never know where a Brown letter will turn up until you inquire.  

However, the good news for scholars and researchers is that overwhelmingly most of Brown's letters and related documents are accessible from a handful of major collections.  The bad news is that one will still have to travel coast-to-coast if one intends to visit these collections.  On the other hand, a good bit of research can be conducted by correspondence, and in some cases Brown's letters are even available for free from online digital collections. Still, the state and availability of John Brown resources is far better than it was in the 1930s and '40s, when private collectors still dominated the field.

The major repositories of John Brown's letters and related primary documents today are listed below.  To my knowledge, there is no significant archive or collection of Brown's letters outside of the United States; individual letters may be held abroad by collectors, although this is not so likely.  What follows are the major collections:

Boston Public Library Collection
Harvard University, Houghton Library
There are Brown letters in other collections in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, but these two Boston repositories are major.  Most notably, Boston Public Library holds two of Brown's memorandum books and letters written to "Secret Six" member, Thomas W. Higginson, by Brown and Brown's associates.  This venerable library holds other Brown materials as well.  Harvard University not only has Brown documents, but also an extensive transcription collection of Brown's letters that belonged to "Secret Six" member, Franklin B. Sanborn, who also was Brown's second biographer.

Yale University Library and Yale Beinecke Library
A truly great and unsung John Brown collection, Yale has Brown and Brown family letters as well as the draft (in his hand) of Brown's Provisional Constitution.

Gilder-Lehrman Collection at the New York Historical Society
John Brown-Oswald G. Villard Papers, Columbia University Library
Two of the most important collections for Brown students is found in my home town, NYC.  An unsung Brown resource is the Gilder-Lehrman Collection, permanently housed at the New-York Historical Society (which, incidentally, also holds a handful of Brown's letters in its own right).  The Gilder Lehrman collection is a relatively young collection (est. 1994), but it is huge, with nearly 100,000 original documents of U.S. historical interest, including a rich collection of Browniana and related materials.   Perhaps the Villard Papers needs no introduction to Brown students.  Oswald Garrison Villard was Brown's prosperous biographer and the grandson of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.  A newspaperman, Villard hired a staff journalist, Katherine Mayo, to scour the country in 1908-09, interviewing survivors of the Brown era and collecting materials.  Mayo was a better researcher than Villard was a writer, and the sum of his papers far exceeds the weightiness of his landmark 1910 biography.  Villard's collection was sold to Columbia University in the 1940s and has happily remained in the rare book and manuscript collection of this prestigious university.   There are not many original Brown letters, but Mayo's transcriptions--exact and comprehensive in most cases--makes this collection one of the most important letter holdings among the Brown collections.

Historical Society of Pennsylvania
I have included this archive although its John Brown holdings are not as extensive as others in this description.  However, those interested in Brown would be interested in this archive's holdings of the collector Ferdinand J. Dreer, particularly the materials pertaining to the Harper's Ferry raid--including letters to and from Brown and his men prior to the raid, and primary documents relating to Brown's trial.  The Dreer Collection is expansive in many respects, including Civil War and Pennsylvania history, but Brown researchers know this collection is of great importance to our study.

University of Atlanta, Robert Woodruff Library
Another Brown collection to be included despite its limited nature is found in--of all places--the heart of the South.  Atlanta University holds the letters of John Brown to his distant cousin and business partner, Seth Thompson, during his Pennsylvania years (1826-1835) and even afterward.  There are other Brown related materials, including materials from his biographer Franklin Sanborn.  A small collection compared to others on this list, nevertheless of great value to the biographer and scholar.

Clarence S. Gee Collection, Hudson Library and Historical Society
Clarence Gee (d. 1975) was a Congregational minister who became interested in the Brown theme when he pastored the Brown family's church in Hudson, Ohio, in the early 20th century.  Gee became an expert on Brown family genealogy and originally nurtured an interest in Owen Brown, father of the abolitionist, before focusing energetically on John Brown.  Gee's John Brown papers are indispensable for anyone who wants to understand Brown's family background and history.  The Gee Collection not only has notable John Brown letters, but important family correspondence and a substantial Brown collection in general thanks to Gee's efficient research and his rich correspondence with Boyd Stutler.

Ohio Historical Society
Once you've explored the wonders of the Gee Papers at Hudson, drive down to the state capital and spend some time at the Ohio Historical Society (OHS).  This is an extremely valuable resource for John Brown scholars.  Among its treasures, OHS holds the John Brown Junior papers, which has a good many letters from his father over decades.  OHS also has other John Brown Senior letters in its general archives, along with related materials.  Clearly, Ohio is the heartbeat for any study of Brown.  There are also archives in Cleveland and historical sites in this state--the tramping ground of the Old Man for many years.

Boyd Stutler-John Brown Collection, West Virginia Division of Culture and History
Boyd B. Stutler (d. 1970) is the seminal collector and student of John Brown of the 20th century, and I still believe him to be the "godfather" of John Brown scholars.  Mayor, soldier, journalist, and editor, Stutler was collecting John Brown materials in the first quarter of the 20th century when it was yet affordable as a past time.  He amassed many of Brown's letters and documents, family materials, and loads and loads of primary and secondary material.  At the peak of his collecting days, Stutler housed his private collection in three parts of the country, and in retirement (1950s-1970) consolidated his materials in his home in Charleston, West Va.  Advisor and correspondent, he aided biographers, writers, journalists, and artists of all stripes. Stutler was the quintessential researcher and there is rarely a sub-topic in Brown's life where he has not left his footprints.   Much of this collection is digitized on the West Virginia Memory project and is the most accessible and ready source for Brown students (a link for this archive is provided on this blog).

Chicago Historical Society
In the midwest, this archive is penultimate but extremely important, holding a good many letters of Brown and family, as well as related materials.  Chicago Historical Society obtained much of its Brown materials through an early collector, Frank Logan, including John Brown's jail Bible and the famous "prophecy" that the abolitionist wrote on the morning of his hanging in 1859.  Of interest in this collection also is a narrative by Anne Brown Adams of her father's activities in Virginia leading up to the Harper's Ferry raid.  

Kansas State Historical Society
John Brown is no more appreciated in any place than he is in Kansas, and happily one of the most important Brown collections is found here, not only Brown's letters and other Brown family materials donated to this historical society, but also materials from other Kansas figures and scholars relating to Brown and his activities in territorial Kansas.  The Brown letters, however, are a family treasure trove and cannot be overlooked by Brown students and would-be biographers.  This Kansas archive is large and extensive and is partly accessible online; the Brown papers are also available on microfilm, as are related papers, such as the Adair papers (Brown's half-sister and brother-in-law).

Henry Huntington Library Collection
The Browns were pioneers and perhaps it is no surprise that Mary Brown and some of the children of the abolitionist ended their days on the west coast.  This west coast collection is also important for its holding of Brown's letters and family correspondence.   

L. DeCaro, Jr.

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