James F. Brown, Freed Slave, Becomes Master Gardener for Verplanck Family at Mount Gulian Historic Site, Fishkill

The Godfather of Soil: Meet James F. Brown: former slave, master gardener, Hudson Valley diarist, and American icon



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Myra B. Young Armstead, a history professor at Bard College, took one look at the diary sitting on a table and knew she had found a treasure. This was around 2005. Armstead had been hired as a consultant to help create educational programs for Mount Gulian, the 18th-century Dutch Colonial home of the Verplanck family in Fishkill that is now a National Historic Landmark and museum. Elaine Hayes, the executive director, was giving a tour. “I asked what this book was,” Armstead says. “She said it was the diary kept by the gardener in the 1800s named James F. Brown. And then she said, ‘By the way, he was African American.’ I immediately knew I had to look at it.”

A diary is compelling for any historian, Armstead says. This one covered 40 years, from 1826-1866. “A diary that long made it doubly intriguing,” she says. “And most diaries were kept by the elites, so to learn that this was by a gardener, and an African American — when most at the time were illiterate — made it triply or quadruply intriguing.”

The book at Mount Gulian is actually a photocopy, so Armstead went to the New-York Historical Society, which holds the original. And what she found was... well, pretty boring, actually. “The diary is very flat and uninspiring to read,” she says. “Most readers would put it down after five minutes.”

Brown writes almost nothing of his inner thoughts and feelings, or about his remarkable life story as a former slave who became a successful, middle-class free man in the Hudson Valley. Instead his entries mostly record mundane daily events “and an awful lot about planting,” Armstead says. “I had a friend read it, and he said it’s a fantastic weather report.”

Nevertheless, Armstead had a hunch there was something more to be learned and a bigger story to be told. She was looking for a new research project, and here it was. That serendipitous stumbling onto a forgotten journal resulted in her recently published book, Freedom’s Gardener: James F. Brown, Horticulture, and the Hudson Valley in Antebellum America (New York University Press, $35). A March article in the New York Times Book Review called the book “beautifully researched” and “bursting with detail.” Though the diary itself may be a snooze, James Brown’s life was anything but.

Say it loud

The biography of a slave is hard to pin down, and James F. Brown’s early story is no different. As best as can be determined, he was born on October 1, 1793 in Maryland, probably in the town of Fredricktown, now called Frederick. He was sometimes known by other names — Anthony Fisher, or Anthony Chase. By 1818, he was in Baltimore, still owned by the Williams family but living as a “quasi-free” slave, as Armstead writes, being hired out to others, living on his own, paying taxes, and saving money.

In 1826, his master, Henry Lee Williams, fell gravely ill and wrote a note stating his desire to free Anthony Chase upon his death. Based on this promise, James/Anthony married another slave named Julia. But when Henry Williams died, his sister Susan Williams, Brown’s legal owner, failed to honor her brother’s dying wish. James pleaded his case and even offered to buy his freedom from her. When she still refused, he penned a letter (as Anthony Chase) to a man he had been hired out to and explained that he had decided to run away. He promised that he would reimburse his owner, Susan Williams, to prove “that I dont mean to be dishonest but wish to pay her every cent that I think my Servaces is worth.” And then he fled to New York City, leaving Julia behind.

He found work with the Verplanck family in 1827. He was waiting on the family at a dinner party around this time when one of the dinner guests recognized him as an escaped slave, and demanded that he be returned to his owner in Maryland. The Verplancks helped arrange for his manumission from Susan Williams, and Brown was finally free. He also began journaling around this time. He probably didn’t know it, but his was one of only a very few journals kept by a black person anywhere in the north. And it got off to a rollicking start; an early entry tells of his secretive return to Maryland, where he purchased Julia’s freedom for $100, which he had saved while working up north.

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