We have disputed, from time to time, the value of that branch of genealogy called "Notable Kin." On the one hand, it seems like bragging to say John Brown farm buildings "I'm related to X;" on the other hand, X's life may be an interesting one to study. Today we went in search of a sixth cousin five times removed, certainly more from an interest in history than family. And probably most of all from the prospect of an interesting drive in the country.
Our drive took us across the St. Lawrence, through the Mohawk Indian Reservation, where walls were hung with large signs reviling Governor Pataki, into the fabled Adirondacks, that "dome range" pushed up to form mile-high peaks about 5 million years ago. We returned through French Quebec and spent more time driving on this day excursion than we generally do when packing up and moving on to the next motel-camp.
North Elba, New York was our definition, and our first surprise was to learn that North Elba, near Lake Placid, is 300 miles away from Elba, New York, near Buffalo. Perhaps this separation justified the ancient Napoleonic palindrome, "Able was I ere I saw Elba." Area of graves and memorials
In any event, we were somewhat shocked to learn that our distant cousin had two wives (sequentially) and twenty children, eleven of whom lived to maturity. He was often away from home, so much of the child-rearing must have fallen on his wives. But he was a man of ideals and a revolutionary, and paid for his beliefs with his own life and those of three of his sons.
In between his radical Abolitionist ventures, he moved around a lot -- he lived in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Massachusetts, New York, and Kansas. An "inflammation of the eyes" prevented him from studying for the ministry, so he supported his family as a tanner, farmer, stockman, surveyor, and (for a short time) wool merchant.
His son Frederick died at Osawatomie, Kansas, in 1856, in the bloody wars to determine if Kansas would be a free or slave state. Oliver and Watson died at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, while John himself was executed at Charleston, Virginia on 2 December 1859. At the time many historians Creek on the farm accused the northern Abolitionists of starting the Civil War, and certainly that was the intention of the most radical of them. But the Civil War was a long time brewing and a long time getting over, and the forces that set it in motion were economic and political as well as ideological.
Thomas Nast executed a drawing in the New York Illustrated News showing Brown's burial at his North Elba farm, with dozens of sympathetic Abolitionists in attendance. Mary Ann Brown, his widow, moved to California in 1863 and sold the property to a local farmer. But in 1870 the John Brown Farm was purchased by a group of Abolitionists who installed a caretaker to keep the property as a memorial, and in 1895 the property was given to the State of New York, which still operates it as a historic site.
Perhaps Brown would have sunk to relative obscurity among the thousands of hot northern abolitionists, but for the fact that the song about Olympic ski jump building him became famous: "John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave." New words were set to the tune and it became the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," which music warred with "Dixie" for generations. As for ourselves, we've lived in the North and the South, and loved the people wherever we were. So, if you will, the Civil War does not live in our hearts, but only our minds.
The trouble with famous people, especially famous revolutionaries, is that there is generally far more fancy than fact in their history. And their myths are perpetrated by those who are more interested in glory than truth. Today we contented ourselves with our normal genealogical routine: photographing the gravesite and recording the monumental inscriptions for our family database. We also photographed the back of the Olympic ski jump platforms, just a couple hundred yards from the farmhouse. It was an interesting juxtaposition of the old and the new.