Recently the Washington Post reported on the ongoing excavation of a nineteenth-century African American settlement called Timbuctoo in New Jersey. This long-buried community, now evident only in the traces of found Mason jars, crumbling bricks, and the memories of the community’s living descendants, was founded in the 1820s “by freed blacks and escaped slaves” who bought the land from Quaker abolitionists.

The story of this Timbuctoo was news to me. But it immediately caught my eye because of my past study of the abolitionist John Brown, whose famous antislavery raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, had its sesquicentennial anniversary last year. Brown’s raid is widely known as one of the events that contributed to the coming of the Civil War. Less widely known is that ten years before Harper’s Ferry, in 1849, Brown moved his family to upstate New York to live near a small free black settlement in Essex County, near Lake Placid.

And coincidentally, this settlement in North Elba, New York, which is also apparently under excavation, was also sometimes referred to as Timbucto.

When reading the Post article I was first struck with the obvious question: how coincidental was the fact that these two free black communities in New Jersey and New York shared their unusual name? Is it possible that Brown knew of Timbuctoo, New Jersey, when he moved to New York in 1849? Or did abolitionists between the 1820s and the 1850s simply refer often enough to Timbuktu–the difficult-to-reach city located in the West African interior–to make that name a familiar and meaningful one to both Brown and the New Jersey settlers?

Those questions raise another big question: why the name Timbuctoo? As the Post article notes, the New Jersey settlement “was probably named after Timbuktu, the town in Mali near the Niger River, although researchers are still trying to find out how and why it got its name.” I can sympathize with these researchers’ difficulty, because while doing research for a scholarly article on John Brown, I briefly spent time trying to figure out “how and why” Brown’s “Timbucto” got its name. Answering those questions was not as easy as I thought it would be. In this post, I’ll talk about the question of how Brown’s Timbucto got its name, and in Part II, I’ll consider the question of why it bore that name.

Three years before John Brown moved his family to upstate New York, the wealthy white abolitionist Gerrit Smith divided 120,000 acres of his land there into small parcels and donated small deeds to free black New Yorkers. Much of the land was deep in the Adirondack Mountains and difficult to locate, much less to farm. Dishonest surveyors led some of the deed-holders to land that wasn’t theirs, while some settlers mistakenly squatted on land belonging to someone else.

In fact, upon his arrival in Essex County in 1849, one of the first things John Brown did, having worked as a surveyor before, was to write to Smith on behalf of three black settlers–James H. Henderson, and two brothers, Thomas and Samuel Jefferson–who had settled and built improvements on Lot 93 in Township 12. Henderson and the Jeffersons probably settled on Lot 93 because the lands they had been deeded by Smith were in a virtually inaccessible wilderness. But Lot 93 actually belonged to a man named Pliny Nash, who had a lease-to-buy contract with Smith. Nash allowed Henderson and the Jeffersons to live on the land, and Henderson significantly improved his acres, clearing land and building a house. But he and the Jeffersons were concerned about their claims. Apparently before Brown arrived, one Jefferson paid money to Nash, and on June 20, Brown wrote to Smith that he would help “some of our colored friends” buy out Nash’s claim. He forwarded a draft for $225 to transfer the deed to Henderson, Samuel Jefferson, himself, and his son Jason Brown, who would divide the lot “among themselves.”

Despite the difficulties facing settlers like Henderson, black abolitionists in New York (including Frederick Douglass, who at the time edited a newspaper in Rochester, and Willis A. Hodges, the co-editor of another black newspaper in New York City) praised the Smith donation. Between 1847 and 1849, New York’s African American press buzzed with advice to settlers and lists of emigrants. Many, including Hodges, believed settlers on the “Smith lands” could escape the immorality and danger of the city and become self-sufficient. Hodges moved to a Franklin County settlement in 1848; others, like Henderson and the Jeffersons, moved near the Essex County villages of North Elba and West Keene.

John Brown appears to have first called the Essex County settlement “Timbucto” in 1848, when he began corresponding with Hodges about the Smith lands. Six letters from Brown to Hodges, all written in 1848 and 1849 before Brown’s family arrived in Essex, were later published in the New York Evening-Post shortly after Brown’s execution. (Download a PDF image of these letters, taken from the Evening-Post.) Three of them refer to a settlement in Essex County as “Timbucto.”

Because of those references, many writers now use the name “Timbucto” to refer to the entire African American settlement around North Elba, where at least some members of Brown’s family remained more than a decade later and where Brown’s body was buried after his execution. In the earliest drafts of my article on Brown, I also used “Timbucto” and “North Elba” interchangeably, following this common usage.

But along the way, several discoveries made me reconsider that naming decision, and I started wondering how “Timbucto” got its name in the first place. First, the name “Timbucto” was used disproportionately by Brown himself and by members of his family. The Evening Post article that published the letters to Hodges even claimed explicitly that Brown himself named the settlement, though it did not reveal the source of this information beyond the letters themselves. There is very limited evidence that black settlers also used or played a role in choosing the name. One letter by James H. Henderson, which was published in the North Star, Frederick Douglass’s newspaper, on February 16, 1849, was addressed from “West Keene Timbucto, Essex Co.” But this is the only hit returned from a search for “Timbucto” in a digitized edition of the North Star made by Accessible Archives. And since Henderson reported in the letter, dated January 29, that Brown had recently visited Essex and met Henderson, it is still possible that Brown, who had used the name “Timbucto” in an earlier 1848 letter to Hodges, was the one who dubbed the settlement. Aside from references to “Timbucto” in the correspondence of Brown and his family, of which there were several more, Henderson’s is the only clear example I know of in which an African American settler used the name.

Second, even among the Browns, references to “Timbucto” appear to have been confined to the first year or two after they moved to Essex County. The late Edwin Cotter, the long-time curator of the Brown farmstead and state historic site at North Elba, noticed this while conducting his researches on the area. Cotter’s papers (PDF) are now available to researchers at the library of SUNY-Plattsburgh, and when I visited this archive, I found a typed note by Cotter in which he compiled a list of what he believed to be the only references to “Timbucto or Timbuctoo.” These included the three letters to Hodges, Henderson’s letter in the North Star, and a letter from Brown’s oldest son John Brown Jr. to his mother Mary Brown in October 1849. I know of at least one other reference to “Timbucto” in the Brown family correspondence, but it–like the others–occurred before 1850. This supports Cotter’s hypothesis that after 1849 or 1850 “the name is never used again.”

Because of the limited usage of the name “Timbucto” in contemporary sources, Cotter also wondered whether “Timbucto” might have been meant to refer not to the whole Essex County settlement of which Brown was a part, but instead to one small part of it. “If the whole town was called Timbuctoo,” asked Cotter in his notes, “why was the name only used up to the fall of 1849?” His notes continue:

Why did the Browns not use it later to describe the town or the whole area? There were blacks here later but nobody we know of ever used the word Timbuctoo. Why? The only answer must be is that there was a small place or area the Browns and the blacks called Timbucto. The blacks in the place called Timbuctoo must have left here early, maybe as early as late 1849 or 1850 because the name is never used again.

The evidence I’ve seen supports this hypothesis, too, because on the occasions when the Brown family referred to Timbucto, they implied that it was a separate place from the location where they initially resided–a rented farm in West Keene. Most of the letters that the Browns wrote from or to their new home in 1849 and 1850 were addressed “Essex” or “Keene,” and never “Timbucto,” unlike Henderson’s letter in the North Star.

Not until March 1850 does “North Elba” even appear in the datelines of the Browns’ letters that I have examined, which may be because North Elba was officially considered part of Keene until 1850. But what seems clear is that when the Browns referred to “Timbucto,” they were not referring to where they themselves lived–the rented farm in West Keene. Instead, when John Brown Jr. visited his siblings at the farmstead in the fall of 1849, while both his parents were absent, he wrote to Mary Brown that after reaching “Keene” and visiting the family he had also visited “Timbuctoo,” suggesting it was a separate place. An earlier letter from Ruth, Brown’s daughter, to her absent mother also reported that “the folks are all very well to [or tow?] Timbucto, I believe,” before mentioning several African American settlers specifically. This suggests that there were several families living between the place Ruth called Timbucto and the Browns’ own farm.

If “Timbucto” was not a name used by the Browns for the entire settlement of Smith grantees or the area that included their rented farm, then where was “Timbucto”? One plausible answer is that “Timbucto” referred narrowly to the farms of Henderson and the Jefferson brothers clustered together on Lot 93. The Cotter collection at SUNY-Plattsburgh also includes some typed notes from 1994 by local historian Mary MacKenzie, who gives some compelling reasons for this theory. And though she doesn’t mention it in her notes, the idea that “Timbucto” was a name for the Henderson-Jefferson conclave would help explain why Henderson addressed his letter to the North Star from “Timbucto” while no other black settler that I know of used the name.

If “Timbucto” never did refer to the entire settlement of African Americans in Essex County, as Cotter and MacKenzie both suspected, then that raises the question of how the name lived on. As MacKenzie points out in her notes at SUNY-Plattsburgh, the name got a new lease on life from the chapter on Brown and North Elba in Alfred L. Donaldson’s two-volume History of the Adirondacks, published in 1921. According to MacKenzie, Donaldson relied on the memories of white “old-timers” still living in the area, and his resulting depiction of the black settlement as a laughable shantytown amounted to a flagrantly racist caricature. Donaldson mocked Gerrit Smith’s plan to found a “negro colony in the mountains” as a “pure chimera,” suggesting that the likelihood of “an escaped slave” creating a “so-called Adirondack farm” was about the same as the likelihood that “an Italian lizard” would survive on a “Norwegian iceberg.” And he didn’t stop there:

The farms allotted to the negroes consisted of forty acres each, but the natural gregariousness of the race tended to defeat the purpose of these individual holdings. The darkies began to build their shanties in one place, instead of on their separate grants. Before long about ten families had huddled their houses together down by the brook, not far from where the White Church now stands. The shanties were square, crudely built of logs, with flat roofs, out of which little stove-pipes protruded at varying angles. The last touch of pure negroism was a large but dilapidated red flag that floated above the settlement, bearing the half-humorous, half-pathetic legend ‘Timbuctoo’–a name that was applied to the whole vicinity for several years.

The reliability of Donaldson’s reportage here is undercut by his clear contempt for “the darkies.” He provides no source for his claim that the name Timbuctoo “was applied to the whole vicinity for several years,” and the passive construction of that sentence is a telling indication of the mystery surrounding who actually began calling it that. Donaldson also added the odd detail of a red flag reading “Timbuctoo” raised above the settlement. That detail has been picked up by some later writers and makes an appearance in Russell Banks’s fictionalized historical novel about John Brown. But until Donaldson mentioned it, the flag does not appear in any earlier source that I know of.

MacKenzie apparently believed that Donaldson simply invented the flag in order to underline the bathos and “negroism” of the whole experiment. It is possible, though, that there was at some point a flag remembered by local residents with whom Donaldson spoke. If there was a flag, however, it doesn’t shed much light on how the name came to be attached to the area. Was it a “half-humorous, half-pathetic” name jokingly used by hostile white neighbors, and then repurposed by defiant black settlers who made the name their own? Or was it used by Brown and/or Henderson to refer to the Lot 93 farms, only to then be picked up in the neighborhood and immortalized by a flag put up to mark the spot by unknown parties–perhaps even long after the settlers had left? The Donaldson account does not permit us to say, so that the questions of how “Timbucto” got its name–or who named it–remain somewhat mysterious.

One thing the Donaldson paragraph may unintentionally do, however, is strengthen MacKenzie’s idea that “Timbucto” referred to the small cluster of Henderson and Jefferson farms on Pliny Nash’s land. That may be why Donaldson’s sources gave him information suggesting that some black settlers “began to build their shanties in one place, instead of on their separate grants.” “After all,” as MacKenzie puts it in her notes at SUNY-Plattsburgh, at one point there was “a total of 16 black people living on the land—8 Hendersons and 8 Jeffersons. All three houses were possibly close to Pine Brook, a handy source of water,” which may explain Donaldson’s location of “Timbuctoo” near a brook.

Of course, the circumstantial evidence that “Timbucto” was actually a name for the cluster of Henderson-Jefferson households does not help answer the question of “how” that name was assigned. But it might help solve the riddle Cotter identified–which is the question of why the name “Timbucto” disappears from the primary sources almost as soon as it appears. If the name was not used by Brown or other settlers after around 1850, as I suspect, then it may be because both Henderson and the Jeffersons did not stay in the area very long.

Remember that shortly after arriving in North Elba, Brown wrote to Smith attempting to purchase the deed for the Timbucto farms on Lot 93 for $225 so as to divide it between himself, his son, Henderson, and the Jeffersons. But not long after that, Brown wrote to Smith again asking him instead to credit the $225 to his own purchase of Lot 95. Henderson apparently continued paying Nash for his claim on Lot 93, but both Jefferson brothers soon left the area for several years, not returning until 1854.

Henderson remained but, on October 15, 1850, he wrote a frustrated letter to Smith. Smith’s agent had told Henderson that he could not purchase acreage in Lot 93, though Brown had apparently suggested otherwise. Now, evidently having heard rumors that the Jeffersons were trying to sell their lots and fearing his would be sold from under him, Henderson appealed to Smith: “i wood [sic] not like to loos [sic] my house and improvements.”

Tragically, however, Henderson had not secured his title before he froze to death in the woods in 1852. Shortly thereafter, Henderson’s wife left “Timbucto” and placed his children in the Colored Orphan Aslyum in New York City. Other African American settlers remained on the Smith lands around North Elba, but with both the Hendersons and the Jeffersons now gone from Lot 93, perhaps “Timbucto” was no more.

As explained above, being certain about who named the New York “Timbucto” (which is most famous for its association with the famous abolitionist John Brown, who once lived there or near there) is not easy and may be impossible. The extant evidence suggests that Brown and his family members first used the name “Timbucto” in the late 1840s to refer to a small cluster of farms near North Elba that was settled by the families of three free black men. But even if we could settle the question of who named “Timbucto” (or Timbuctoo, N. J., for that matter) it would not settle the related question of why that name was chosen.

That’s the question for this section: Why would the name “Timbuctoo” be attached to these early nineteenth-century African American communities, one founded in the 1820s and the other at the end of the 1840s?

Surely in both cases the name referred to the African city of Timbuctoo or Timbuktu. But that means that to answer the question of “why Timbuctoo” we need to know what Americans between 1820 and 1850 would have known or thought they knew about the African city. What associations would the African Timbuktu have had in the minds of those who named these towns, whoever they were? To answer that question, we would need to paint a picture of the place of the African Timbuktu in the broader landscape of antebellum American culture. We’ll need to explore the print culture, newspapers and books from which people in New Jersey or people like John Brown would have learned about the African city.

A full picture of how Timbuktu was represented in American culture would require a larger research project than I can undertake for this post, though it seems like a do-able project that would be of great interest. It is possible, though, to sketch a preliminary portrait of Americans’ likely impressions of Timbuktu in the decades bounded by the founding of Timbuctoo, New Jersey, and John Brown’s move to the Adirondack mountains. It’s a portrait that includes not just John Brown, but an early Pan-Africanist named John Brown Russwurm, a French explorer named René Caillié, and a famous African Muslim prince who was enslaved, brought to America, and then freed in 1828 after he had been recognized by a white man who had met his father in Africa.

But unfortunately (or interestingly, depending on how you look at it) this fascinating portrait still does not decisively settle the question of why these two Timbuctoo communities got their name.

One thing is clear: the African Timbuktu had attracted great interest from Europeans in the decades just before the period we’re interested in. Late eighteenth-century European explorers and geographers were greatly interested, first for scientific reasons but soon for imperial and political ones, in discovering its precise location. There was no record of a European visiting the city before the nineteenth century, but based on reports it was thought to lie near the Niger River and at the intersection of trade routes between the west and east coasts of the continent, making it of geographical and commercial interest. The mystery was enhanced by legends and rumors that described the city as one of great wealth and beauty, further whetting the appetite of eighteenth-century explorers.

In a recent celebrated book on Romanticism and eighteenth-century science, Richard Holmes discusses the mystique that thus surrounded Timbuktu in Europe by 1800:

The great prize was to reach the semi-legendary city of Timbuctoo, somewhere south of the Sahara. Here, it was said, lay a great West African metropolis, packed with treasures and glittering with towers and palaces roofed with gold. It was strategically situated aside the fabled river Niger, at the confluence of the Arabic and African trade routes. Beyond Timbuctoo, it was thought that the mysterious Niger might flow due eastwards, providing a trade route across the entire African continent, and eventually meeting up with the Nile in Egypt. But to the Europeans nothing was known for certain, though many speculative maps had been drawn by military cartographers, such as Major John Rennell’s ‘Sketch of the Northern Parts of Africa,’ presented to the [African] Association in 1790.

This “mythical” Timbuktu of golden palaces and untold wealth contributed to public interest in several late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century attempts by Europeans to reach the legendary city, including the most famous attempts by Scottish explorer Mungo Park. But Park famously failed to reach the city, and he was never heard from again after his party was reportedly attacked on his second attempt, in 1805 and 1806, to explore the extent of the Niger River.

An African American sailor, Robert Adams, claimed to have been to the city about five years after Park disappeared. But his narrative was widely discredited, and meanwhile, the published stories that swirled around Park’s disappearance also meant that the legends of Timbuktu’s wealth were increasingly combined with stories about the dangers for non-Africans (and particularly non-Muslims) trying to reaching the city. This was especially true after the publication of reports that A. G. Laing, another Scotsman, had reached the city in 1826, only to be murdered before he could return to announce his success. Alfred Tennyson’s prize-winning 1829 poem “Timbuctoo” played on both ideas (the brilliant beauty and allure of the city, as well as the danger and difficulty of reaching it) by comparing it to other mythical or “mystick” cities like Atlantis and El Dorado.

But in 1828, a Frenchman named René Caillié finally reached the fabled city and lived to tell the tale, publishing a two-volume book, Travels through Central Africa to Timbuctoo, about his journey. Though some also cast doubt on Caillié’s account, it won him a fair amount of fame on both sides of the Atlantic. And the account of how he did it certainly satisfied readers who probably already assumed, thanks to stories about Mungo Park, that the trek would be perilous.

Indeed, Caillié explained that to reach the city without being enslaved or killed, he had to disguise himself as a Muslim, confine himself in a house for much of his brief stay in the city, and take his notes furtively. But Caillié also punctured any Romantic expectations about Timbuktu that still floated in the European or American imagination, dismissing the “exaggerated notions” that had long prevailed about “this mysterious city, which has been an object of curiosity for so many ages.” In fact, Caillié sheepishly confessed that upon reaching the city, he was sorely disappointed.

How many grateful thanksgivings did I pour forth for the protection which God had vouchsafed to me, amidst obstacles and dangers which appeared insurmountable. This duty being ended, I looked around and found that the sight before me, did not answer my expectations. I had formed a totally different idea of the grandeur and wealth of Timbuctoo. The city presented, at first view, nothing but a mass of ill-looking houses, built of earth. Nothing was to be seen in all directions but immense plains of quicksand of a yellowish white colour.

The only golden nuggets here, in other words, were grains of yellow sand.

So … where does all of this get us in our search for an answer to why the New Jersey and New York settlements, founded respectively in the 1820s and the 1840s, took their name from Timbuktu? Well, the various reports of journeys to Timbuktu from Park to Caillié certainly mean that around the time of these settlements’ founding, there was a discourse surrounding the African city and, as a quick Google Books search reveals, there was a fair number of published mentions of the place on both sides of the Atlantic between 1800 and 1850.

But what “Timbuctoo” signified to readers in these years is more ambiguous. To sum up what we’ve seen so far, there were several things that the name “Timbuctoo” might have conjured up for someone in early nineteenth-century America, especially by 1830:

  • the site of a great, riverine African civilization of surpassing wealth and beauty
  • an extraordinarily remote, dangerous and difficult-to-reach place
  • a disappointingly “ill-looking” and decidedly non-wealthy place surrounded by desert
  • a Muslim city, hostile to outsiders, where all the “native inhabitants” were, as Caillié wrote, “zealous Mahometans”

The question, then, is this: Which of these ideas was intended by the people who named the “Timbuctoo” settlements in New Jersey and New York?

Of course, what this quick survey reveals is that it would be hard to answer this question decisively without knowing for sure how these places got their names and who did the naming. What if, for example, these African American settlements were actually named by white neighbors who were hostile to the settlements?

That possibility is not ruled out by anything in the Post article about New Jersey and is still conceivable in the case of the North Elba community. But in that case, the name could have been intended as an epithet used by whites to belittle a community of black outsiders. Worse, the name could have been a joke intended to suggest the incongruity between what must have been the great hopes of the free black inhabitants and their actual living conditions. As I reported in Part I, twentieth-century Adirondack historian Alfred L. Donaldson viewed the “Timbuctoo” name for John Brown’s North Elba community as a “half-humorous, half-pathetic legend,” and the brief history I’ve sketched in this post makes it plausible to imagine hostile whites using the name in the same way a century before Donaldson wrote. A contemporary magazine article provides at least one such example of a racist, parodic essay from the period that pokes fun at Timbuctoo.

Abolitionists and Timbuktu

On the other hand, what if, as seems most likely in the case of John Brown’s Timbucto, these settlements got their names from African Americans themselves or from white abolitionist sympathizers? In that case, the question of “why Timbuctoo” yields a quite different set of likely answers.

To antislavery groups, the name would have been most attractive because of the original legends surrounding Timbuktu as a city of great wealth and civilization. In fact, in the few years before Caillié reached the African city, abolitionist and antislavery writers still took for granted the largely positive legends surrounding Timbuktu and used them to advance different kinds of antislavery arguments.

For example, in an 1824 article in the North American Review, a writer sympathetic to the aims of The American Colonization Society, which advocated the removal of free black men and women from the United States to western Africa, mentioned “Timbuctoo” in order to support the colonizationists’ argument. This writer described Timbuctoo as a civilized place where African youths were sent from great distances “to be instructed in Arabic learning” and to study the Koran. The tendentious conclusion this colonizationist drew was both that Africa needed the Christian missionaries that free black Americans could supply, and also that “the natives of Africa are in some degree sensible of their ignorance, and willing to be made wiser.”

Despite the backhanded compliment in such lines, here was a vision of Timbuctoo starkly different from those of racist parodists. And even farther from parody was an article that appeared in the Baltimore-based antislavery newspaper the Genius of Universal Emancipation in 1826. The Genius used reports about the wealth of interior African cities to argue that the degradation of Africans often cited by proslavery apologists had only occurred in those places where European slave trading had ravaged the continent. Citing Timbuctoo in particular, the Genius contended that “in those parts [of Africa] never prophaned by the unhallowed foot of a slave dealer–civilization advances and the arts of social life [flourish]–the natives cultivate the cotton and indigo.”

References to “Timbuctoo” in antislavery literature also spiked slightly in 1828 thanks to the publicity that year surrounding Abd al-Rahman (or Abduhl Rahahman, in contemporary sources), who became widely known to Americans in that year because of his improbable, but apparently likely, story. Born the son of a Fulbe chief in Africa, Abd al-Rahman spent 40 years as an American slave before he was recognized in Natchez, Mississippi, by a white man whose life had been saved in Africa by Abd al-Rahman’s father. When Henry Clay, an ardent colonizationist, discovered his story, he and the Society campaigned for the emancipation of the “Prince of Timbo” so he could return to Africa, and the Colonization Society sponsored a celebrated lecturing tour in the North. In Washington, the Prince met with President John Quincy Adams, who recorded the encounter in his diary on May 15, 1828 (click for a page image of the diary). As he toured Northern cities, Abd al-Rahman also attracted crowds who were fascinated by his ability to write Arabic script. (He often wrote out souvenir cards with what curiosity-seekers thought was the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic; it turns out that, unbeknownst to his admirers, he was writing bits of the Koran.)

Though Abd al-Rahman was from “Timbo,” several sources I’ve seen changed this to “Timbuctoo,” perhaps conflating the two places in ignorance. It is difficult to reconstruct Abd Al-Rahman’s own reports about his life because his broken English was usually transcribed by people like his colonizationist sponsors who had either a loose or tendentious understanding of African geography. (Some writers also claimed he was from Morocco.) But Abd al-Rahman appears to have reported that he had been educated in Timbuctoo, which some might have confused with his homeplace. (President Adams’s diary entry said that Abd al-Rahman named “Tombuctoo” as his “home.”) At any rate, for abolitionists and colonizationists already inclined to imagine Timbuctoo as the seat of a great interior Africa kingdom and a site of Arabic and Islamic learning, Abd al-Rahman was a perfect illustration.

But Abd al-Rahman captured the interest of African American abolitionists in particular, especially the early pan-Africanist and black emigrationist John Brown Russwurm. Russwurm had mentioned the “far-famed city of Timbuctoo” in an 1827 essay published in the New York City Freedom’s Journal, the first African American newspaper in the United States. And in Russwurm’s pioneering article, “The Mutability of Human Affairs,” Timbuctoo appears as part of a larger, mournful argument about how the great ancient civilizations of Africa have been forgotten. (You can download a full, PDF issue of Freedom’s Journal in which Russwurm’s essay appeared here, thanks to the Wisconsin Historical Society’s archive of the paper.) In 1828 the Journal reported with great interest on Abd al-Rahman’s Northern tour; in one issue (PDF) Russwurm reprinted an article from the New York Journal of Commerce reporting on the presence of the “native Prince of Timbuctoo,” continuing that “Abduhl Rahahman” had been confirming the glowing reports of the African city’s commercial wealth and opportunities. Russwurm also met Abd al-Rahman himself in Washington, and he mentioned the encounter in a Freedom’s Journal article on August 29, 1828 (PDF). Russwurm reported that Timbuctoo was one of several cities of great size in the African interior and praised Abd Al-Rahman’s extensive learning:

It must be evident to every one that the Prince is a man superior to the generality of Africans whom we behold in this country. His education is also superior; and when we take into consideration his Alma Mater, our astonishment becomes greater. He is a fine Arabic scholar, and even now, at his advanced life, 66, writes an elegant hand. He appears to be well versed with the Geography of the interior of Africa, and states many facts concerning the different tribes, and the source and discharge of the Niger, of which we were ignorant. It has ever been the current belief that Timbuctoo was the only city of size in the interior; but the Prince assures us that there are two others nearly as large near the banks of the Niger.

Such articles are clear examples of the ways that antislavery writers by the 1820s could fold limited information about Timbuktu into their arguments against slavery. Though I don’t currently plan to undertake the additional research, I have a hunch that additional digging would reveal other instances like these of abolitionists using the positive stories surrounding Timbuktu. (It would also be interesting to find out if there was abolitionist discourse surrounding the claims of the African American sailor who earlier said he had been there.) This brief tradition of discourse about the city explains why African American abolitionists and writers also appear to have been quite interested by the journeys of Laing and Caillié to the city. The Freedom’s Journal, for example, noticed the reports about Laing and Caillié in several issues in late 1828 and 1829 (especially on December 26, 1828; as well as on March 28, 1829; and August 10, 1829).

Inconclusive Conclusions

These context clues combine to make it clearer why “Timbuctoo” might have occurred to African Americans as a name for their community in New Jersey (founded, apparently, in the decade of Caillié and Abd al-Rahman), and also why John Brown might have applied the name to the cluster of farms settled by James H. Henderson and the Jefferson brothers in New York.

But this brief sketch of “Timbuctoo” in antebellum American culture still does not allow us to say definitively why these settlements got that name, because the name was still clearly multivalent. We cannot be certain about the meanings it conveyed to the people who lived in the New Jersey and New York communities. It certainly seems plausible that it had a positive connotation to free black Americans like those who inhabited the New Jersey town. But other, more subversive or ambivalent meanings may have been intended.

For example, it’s noteworthy that one of the antislavery groups most interested in Timbuktu was the Colonization Society, which ultimately won legal emancipation for Abd Al-Rahman. Believing that Al-Rahman could help introduce Christianity to Arabic-speaking Africans in his homeland, the Society also helped pay for his journey back to Africa, where Al-Rahman died in 1829 before reaching his long-lost homeland. By 1829, most Northern free black communities back in the United States (with the exception of a few black abolitionists like Russwurm) were mobilizing against colonizationism and the Society, insisting that the United States was their homeland and that they intended to stay put. It may be telling that after 1830, references to the name Timbuctoo, while relatively common in Freedom’s Journal did not appear other than once or twice in other African American titles from the period included in the Accessible Archives database of antebellum free black newspapers. So perhaps the selection of the name “Timbuctoo” for a New Jersey town was meant to convey, in the colonizationist atmosphere of the 1820s, a subtle but biting political message: home was here.

Ambiguity also clouds the apparently straightforward use of Timbuctoo by abolitionists when we turn to John Brown’s New York settlement. This is especially true when we recall that by 1849, thanks to Caille’s book, more realistic reports about Timbuktu had begun to appear. If Brown was the one who named Timbucto in New York, it seems most probable that he meant in some way to reference the African civilization. But it is also possible that for him, his family, or the settlers themselves, the name connoted (as it sometimes does in vernacular slang today) a place that was remote and difficult to reach. It might even have conveyed some of the disjuncture that settlers experienced between their expectations about the Adirondacks and the harsh farming and living conditions they discovered there, especially in the winter.

John Brown himself always promoted the agricultural potential of the Adirondacks, though he too commented on North Elba’s remoteness and isolation and celebrated the construction of new bridges and roads to make the area more accessible. But some of his sons were less optimistic about the climate and fertility of the soil and questioned the grandiose hopes that might have been implied in their father’s use of the name “Timbucto.” For example, when John Brown Jr., Brown’s eldest son, first visited the family farm near North Elba in 1849, he sent an ambiguous report to his mother (who was then away):

We reached Keene a week ago last Tuesday evening. Found all well. Although it rained most of the time while we were there, we visited most of the important places. Such as Timbuctoo &c.

There are really without joking, many things to recommend that country. Among them may be reckoned the pure air and water, almost insuring good health and a total exemption from trouble by neighbors geese.

In addition to indicating, as I suggested in Part I, that the Browns themselves did not live in the place they called “Timbuctoo,” Brown Jr.’s letter leaves unclear whether he was “joking” about Timbuctoo’s being an “important” place. Or maybe he was poking fun at the contrast between the paradise implied by the name and the dismal weather while he was there.

At any rate, after this first visit Brown Jr. seemed impressed by the “country” his father had settled in. In subsequent years, however, Brown’s other sons soured on the climate and geography and tried to dissuade Brown Jr. when he and his wife briefly considered moving to North Elba, around the time that James H. Henderson froze to death in the woods. Jason Brown referred to the place sarcastically in 1853 as “Father’s New Palestine,” lending further support to the idea that John Brown had used the name “Timbucto” for its positive connotations, and told his eldest brother that “North Elba would do tolerably well, for a colony of Norwegians if they had none of them ever heard of a temperate climate.” Owen Brown, another brother, was more direct in giving his reasons why John Brown Jr. should not settle in the area:

Dear Brother & Sister, Men are blessed with reason, for their guide, Then is it not the duty of every man, to exercise his reason to the full extent, & allow its requirements to be the guide of all his actions? Are we governed, as much by reason, as we are by fancy, by Suden [sic] impulse, & our present inclinations? I noticed in a Letter from Ruth, that you have agreed to move to North Elba, in 2 Years. Well, This has a cold chilly wet look about it. Two years of experience in that latitude, have induced me to think so. When I first arrived in that romantic region, which was on the 30th of May I think, Hiram Brown said we have hard frosts here, every month in the year, I thought he was joking, but it was all true while I lived there. All the mountains were then spoted [sic] with mighty snow banks, & on the 6th of June we could not clear away the manure from the Barn because it was half Ice yet, & the gras had not started, or if it had it did not look as if it had,

Here was a picture of the area once called “Timbucto” that was more like the disappointing discoveries that Caille had made when he reached Timbuktu and found it a land of “no vegetation but stunted trees and shrubs,” with soil “totally unfit for cultivation.” Owen’s reference to the area as a “romantic region” again suggests that when his father used the term Timbucto, he had the fabled, “mystick” city of Tennyson, Abd al-Rahman, and Mungo Park in mind more than the dangerous, distant, arid desert of Caille. But the fact that both connotations were available to antebellum Americans who spoke of Timbuktu underlines the difficulty of knowing why two early nineteenth-century African American communities got the name “Timbuctoo” without being able to answer, first, who named them and what their views about the communities were.

Which is to say, in sum, that I can only end this search for John Brown’s “Timbucto” with more questions that need to be asked, more directions to be explored, a few scraps of contemporary discourse about Africa that might be used as maps, and a word of empathy for the researchers who, according to the Post article that inspired these posts, are still trying to figure out how and why Timbuctoo, New Jersey, got its name.


You can read more about the “Smith lands” in any biography of John Brown and in recent books like John Stauffer’s The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (2009) and Leslie M. Harris’s In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863 (2003). Also see Willard B. Gatewood, Jr., ed., Free Man of Color: The Autobiography of Willis Augustus Hodges (1982). § For Edwin Cotter’s notes about the name Timbucto, see “Timbucto or Timbuctoo,” in Box 28, Folder 307, of the Cotter Collection at SUNY-Plattsburgh. § The information in this post about James H. Henderson, the Jefferson brothers, and Lot 93 relies on James H. Henderson’s letter (January 29, 1849) to Henry Highland Garnet, published in “Communications,” North Star (Rochester), February 16, 1849; and the following items in the Cotter Collection at SUNY-Plattsburgh: James H. Henderson to Gerrit Smith, 15 October 1850 (typed copy made by Mary MacKenzie), Box 20, Folder 239; John Brown to Gerrit Smith, 20 June 1849 (typed copy), Box 12, Folder 143; John Brown to Gerrit Smith, 8 November 1849 (typed copy), Box 12, Folder 140; “Samuel Jefferson-Thomas Jefferson,” and “James H. Henderson” (typed notes compiled by Mary MacKenzie and dated 1994), Box 11, Folder 136. On the placement of Henderson’s children in a New York orphanage after his death, see Harris, In the Shadow of Slavery, p. 278. § For the two cited references to Timbucto in letters by Brown’s children, see John Brown Jr. to Mary Brown, 13 October 1849, John Brown Jr. Papers, Ohio Historical Society, MSS 47; Ruth Brown to Mother, 7 September 1849, John Brown Papers, Kansas Historical Society, Folder 1.12 (viewed on microfilm). § Since Mary MacKenzie’s death in 2003, her many writings on Adirondack history have been compiled and published, many of them in this online book, The Plains of Abraham. The book reproduces some of her notes on Henderson and North Elba from the Cotter collection (see pages 135-138) and also includes a chapter laying out MacKenzie’s argument that the “Timbuctoo” name was an invention of Donaldson’s (see pages 158-159). MacKenzie incorrectly states that Timbuctoo was never used by any African American settler or by anyone other than John Brown himself, but the gist of her argument here deserves notice.

There is a decent summary of European attempts to reach Timbuktu on Wikipedia, but I also relied on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Mungo Park, as well as Galbraith Welch’s The Unveiling of Timbuctoo: the Astounding Adventures of Caillié (1938); and Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (2008). The quote from Holmes comes on p. 212. § For the supporter of colonizationism who mentioned Timbuctoo, see “The Sixth Annual Report of the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States …,” North American Review (January 1824), available in the American Periodical Series Online database from ProQuest. § For the article in the Genius of Universal Emancipation, see p. 260 in the 15 April 1826 issue, also available in the APS Online database. § There is a fascinating biographical sketch of Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima in Jill Lepore’s A is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States (2002), pp. 111-136. You can also see a portrait of him at the New York Public Library website. § You can read more about Russwurm in a new biography by Winston James, The Struggles of John Brown Russwurm: The Life and Writings of a Pan-Africanist Pioneer, 1799-1851 (2010). The issues of Freedom’s Journal cited or used in this post were published in 1827 (April 6, April 13); 1828 (August 29, October 31, December 26); and 1829 (February 28, March 28). § The quoted letters by John Brown’s sons can be found in the John Brown Jr. papers at the Ohio Historical Society, MSS 47: see John Brown Jr. to Mary A. Brown, 13 October 1849; Owen’s letter contained in Jason Brown to John Brown Jr., 15 February 1853; Jason Brown to John Brown Jr. and Wealthy Brown, 13 March 1853.