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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freedom's gardener bookThe cover of Armstead’s book

Papa’s got a brand new bag

Mount Gulian, the Colonial-style fieldstone house built around 1730 at Fishkill Landing, was first used as a summer retreat and working plantation by the Verplancks, who lived in Albany and Verplanck Point in Westchester County. During the War for Independence, the family turned the estate over to the Continental Army because of its strategic riverside location across from Washington’s Headquarters at Newburgh. From late 1782 through the summer of 1783, Mount Gulian was the headquarters of General Friedrich Von Steuben, who — along with other American officers — created the Society of the Cincinnati, America’s first veterans’ fraternal organization, at Mount Gulian on May 13, 1783.

In the early 1800s, members of the Verplanck family took up full-time residence at Mount Gulian; by 1829, James Brown was working there as the estate’s gardener, coachman, general laborer — and chief diarist. His journal entries record daily chores, local news, business receipts, favorite recipes, church sermons, and, predominantly, his work tending the landscape.

Brown also became very active in the burgeoning 19th-century horticulture movement. He attended meetings, corresponded with important white horticulturists like Andrew Jackson Downing and Henry Winthrop Sargent, and gained influence in what was then considered as much an art as an occupation. As such he was more than just a rich family’s gardener; he was a middle-class, upwardly mobile, socially — as well as racially — integrated citizen. As a free and well-paid man, he was able to buy his own house and land, and that gave him the right to vote. On November 8, 1837, he wrote in his diary, “James F. Brown voted for the first time.”

Living in America

As he aged through the Civil War years, Brown’s work and journaling fell off, and he died in 1868 at his home in Beacon. His wife kept his diaries until her death (they are buried together in Beacon’s Saint Luke’s Church cemetery), when they passed to a Verplanck family member with whom she had kept in contact. Eventually, they were donated to the New-York Historical Society, where they have been more or less undisturbed for a century or so, until Armstead and Hayes began their recent collaboration.

What makes this dry, dusty diary important? Hayes, for one, has wanted to look into it since she joined the museum 20 years ago. “We have no idea what he looked like. He left no heirs. Yet his story and the story of Mount Gulian are pretty much a microcosm of all of American history,” she says.

For Armstead, Brown’s journal offers an entry into “the development of national citizenship.” “This guy lived from 1793 to 1868, the first generation of Americans after the Revolution, the generation that forged the American identity,” she says. “The idea of freedom was up for grabs; we were trying to figure out the meaning of it.” Brown, she says, “wasn’t a flamboyant character,” but he exemplifies three important markers in the struggle to define freedom. “First, there was personal freedom versus slavery, which of course he lived. Second, with the economic changes of industrialization in the 19th century, there were wage slaves versus independent labor, and as a master gardener he escaped wage slavery. Third, there was the burgeoning freedom of political expression. De Tocqueville wrote that Americans were all joiners: joining societies to improve health, politics, temperance. This idea that ordinary people can join groups and shape society was unknown in Europe. Brown exhibits this as well: He writes about temperance societies, antislavery talks, horticultural societies, volunteer firefighters, fraternal societies, orphan asylums. He is one of the ordinary citizens affecting larger policies. Through that, he is helping define what freedom is.”

For more information:
The New-York Historical Society has posted James F. Brown’s journals online. You can read them at www.nyhistory.org/slaverycollections.
You can also learn more at the Mount Gulian Historic Site, 145 Sterling St., Beacon. 845-831-8172, www.mountgulian.org

 

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