Friday, September 05, 2014

Timbuctoo, New York (Est. 1846)

(about that 40 acres and a mule proposal)

While reading the historical fiction novel "Cloudsplitter" by Russell Banks, I came across a piece of history unknown to me.  I pride myself on gathering up such bits of lost and/or forgotten history and sharing it with others. 

The book is narrated by Owen Brown, son of the abolitionist, anti-slavery martyr John Brown.  What the son shares about his father and their family relations sheds much light on the man who'd die fighting for the abolition of slavery in America.

The history that caught my attention was of a black colony in North Elba, New York named "Timbuctoo."  
It was established in 1846 by an abolitionist named Gerrit Smith, who offered 120,000 acres of free land to impoverished urban black families in hopes of getting them out of the poverty of cities and through land ownership acquiring a means to vote. 
(see Founding and History of Lake Placid, NY)

Timbuctoo was a philanthropic experiment that failed in part due to bad farm land, harsh climate, poor guidance and Fugitive Slave Law bounty hunters. Within 20 years there was little if anything left of the colony. 

Sure would like to read a novel about the colony narrated by one of its citizens. It would have to be a fictionalized account of course.

North Elba Journal; Recalling Timbuctoo, A Slice of Black History

Published: February 19, 2002
In a small rural cemetery here, a white marble gravestone is the only evidence of a moment in New York State's history that few people have heard of.
Buried there are the remains of Lyman Epps, a sheep farmer and the most prominent settler of Timbuctoo, a black pre-Civil-War hamlet in the Adirondacks that offered thousands of black men from Brooklyn to Buffalo 40 acres of free land, a gift from a white abolitionist real estate baron.
The abolitionist, Gerrit Smith, gave away 120,000 acres of his land, beginning in 1846, hoping the Adirondack wilderness would offer refuge to black families eager to leave the poverty of urban cities and to acquire the means to vote. (At the time, state law required African-Americans to own at least $250 in real estate to vote.)
Today, Timbuctoo is largely a place that history forgot. Here, where it once existed, just east of the town of Lake Placid, there are no markers or historic street signs. The log cabins Mr. Epps and other families built as homes have long since been lost. Local maps show no record of Timbuctoo, and hardly anyone even knows how it got the name. Those regional histories that mention the area do so only fleetingly; one dismissed it as an experiment with about as much promise ''of agricultural results as would be the placing of an Italian lizard on a Norwegian iceberg.'' read full article

History Center 2012

Displays featuring Gerritt Smith, John Brown and Frederick Douglass connected New York to the national debate and sectional crisis. Most interesting was the discussion of Smith’s economic, social and political experiment, Timbuctoo (1846-53), in which he offered 120,000 acres of his own land far upstate, in Franklin and Essex counties, to 3,000 men of African descent, divided into 40-acre parcels. Smith hoped that turning these individuals into land-owning farmers would increase the African American vote in New York; the state constitution of the time required that black men own at least $250 worth of property, although there was no such requirement for white voters. Smith’s experiment brought the fervent abolitionist John Brown to North Elba, where he purchased a 200-acre farm from Smith with the goal of assisting the black families – and is the reason why Brown was later buried at North Elba. The exhibit also pictured less-noted New York abolitionists, among them Abigail Mott, a Quaker businesswoman from Albany, active in the underground railroad.

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