For the Record: Uncovering the Stories of Black Pioneers

by Curt Stager | February 2023, History

Walter Scott, an early Vermontville settler; photograph courtesy of the Saranac Lake Free Library


During the late 1980s I was visiting a friend in Onchiota, when my companion pointed to a nearby stream and said, “That’s N—r Brook.” The official name was changed to Negro Brook decades ago, but years later it still nagged at me. How did such an offensive label arise in this lily-white corner of northern New York? 

Later, a path of inquiry into the backstory of the brook arose naturally from my research at Paul Smith’s College, which focuses on reconstructing environmental history from layered archives of sediment beneath lakes. While comparing records from the Adirondacks with others in the Northeast, I had added the iconic Walden Pond to the list of study sites. Its association with Henry David Thoreau also created a homeward pull when Martha Swan, director of the human rights organization John Brown Lives!, approached me in May 2019. The group was planning to honor the birthday of abolitionist John Brown at his grave site near Lake Placid.

“I hear that you’ve been working at Walden Pond,” she said. “How would you like to read some excerpts from Thoreau’s essay ‘A Plea for Captain John Brown’ for us during our celebration at the farm?”

I accepted, in part, because I was embarrassed. I knew much more about the ecology of Walden Pond than about Thoreau’s connection to abolitionism, but that would soon change. Re-reading Thoreau led me to the story of John Brown, a tragically misunderstood Adirondacker who gave his life to liberate people of color from bondage. In time, I also began to realize that Brown moved here in the first place because of a larger narrative of African-American pioneers.

During the mid-1800s, human-rights activists including Frederick Douglass and Willis Hodges helped to promote a back-to-the-land movement that would empower Black residents of New York to gain financial independence and societal respect as members of multi-racial farming communities that could also serve as a model for the nation. Between 1846 and 1853 wealthy abolitionist Gerrit Smith donated 120,000 acres of his Adirondack properties to support the cause, and in 1849 John Brown moved his family to North Elba to offer expertise and encouragement to the settlers.

As historian Amy Godine, author of the forthcoming The Black Woods, explained to me, Smith’s primary aim was to thwart the state’s voter-suppression laws. “Back then,” she said, “free men of color in New York could vote only if they owned $250 worth of property, a financial hurdle designed to disenfranchise a potential Black electorate. The proslavery business lobby in New York City was not interested in growing an antislavery voting bloc. That would be very bad for business.” Smith’s grants could therefore empower Black New Yorkers to vote through land ownership. Aaron Mair, the first African-American president of the Sierra Club and Wilderness Campaign director for the Adirondack Council, calls those pioneers “suffrage settlers.”

There was a hitch. The parcels were too small to be worth the requisite amount until they were cleared and converted into farms, and many were unsuitable for crops. Without experience in pioneer lifestyles or sufficient resources to live on before their first harvest, most of the largely urban grantees never occupied their wilderness lots. Of those who accepted the challenge, many moved on after a few years. But a significant number stayed, raised families and become valued members of their communities. Some left descendants who still live in the region. Despite those success stories, some ill-informed sources have warped the saga of those hardy people.

The two-volume text A History of the Adirondacks is a favorite resource among local history buffs. It was written more than a century ago, and not by a qualified historian but by banker Alfred L. Donaldson. I, too, once considered it reputable, but when I recently read it more carefully it turned my stomach.

“The Adirondack wilderness, for obvious reasons, was the least attractive and least suited to the negro…. (and) the attempt to combine an escaped slave with a so-called Adirondack farm was about as promising of agricultural results as would be the placing of an Italian lizard on a Norwegian iceberg…. the natural gregariousness of the race tended to defeat the purpose of these individual holdings … (because) the darkies began to build their shanties in one place instead of on their separate grants.”

“Those who stayed permanently were roused to spasmodic activity by (John) Brown, who induced them to work … (but) unless directed by him, they did nothing for themselves or for their own land … As a negro colony it was a failure and soon dwindled away.”

And so on.

Eager for newer, better sources of information I turned to Sally Svenson’s Blacks in the Adirondacks, Mary MacKenzie’s The Plains of Abraham, and the expertise of scholars such as Hadley Kruczek-Aaron, Donald Papson, Sandra Weber and Amy Godine. From them I learned that Donaldson’s text was riddled with historical errors. Most of the settlers were free and they were not clumped into shantytowns. Many became successful farmers without John Brown’s assistance. With that firmer foundation I began to seek ways to grasp the story more fully, with visual aids like those I employ in my lake research.

Martha Swan and Amy Godine gave me a copy of Gerrit Smith’s list of 3,000 land grants, and I spent weeks positioning those lots atop 19th-century survey charts of the region. As each tiny square joined the mosaic, a stunning picture emerged. Roughly half of a 400-square-mile swath extending from the High Peaks northward through Lake Placid, Vermontville and Loon Lake was once Black-owned, along with a smaller sector of Hamilton County. Many of the lots were later taken over by the state through sales or in lieu of unpaid taxes, so charts of the grants resemble today’s maps of popular wild areas including Mount Baker near my home in Saranac Lake, which was once owned by Black residents of Auburn, Rhinebeck and Poughkeepsie.

Herein lay a clue to the Negro Brook puzzle: I could now see that most of it ran through granted parcels, but how many of them were actually settled by people who might have inspired the label?

I then studied census records that listed the names, occupations and races of local residents. That showed how wrong Donaldson was. Black settlers were scattered across the landscape and often stayed here longer than many Euro-American settlers.

Diffuse groups of African Americans around North Elba (“Timbuctoo”) and Loon Lake (“Blacksville”) became widely known through their associations with Brown and Hodges, but the records also revealed many such settlers around Vermontville. More than a dozen arrived with or without families during the mid-1800s, some as Smith grantees, others on their own, and many with inspiring stories of courage, resilience and persistence.

Among them was John Thomas, who had escaped from bondage in Maryland around 1840. After spending several years in Troy, he accepted a Smith lot near Plumadore Pond that proved to be too remote from roads and other necessities. He later settled on better land and on his own terms, buying a property on Muzzy Road where he ran a prosperous farm and raised a family with his wife, Mary. In 1872, John Thomas sent a letter to Gerrit Smith to thank him and tell of his success. “I have breasted the storm of prejudice and opposition,” he wrote, “until I begin to be regarded as an American citizen.”

As the quote implies, Black settlers faced more than the physical challenges of wilderness life. They also faced a blend of hostility and acceptance among their white neighbors. In the diary of Rainbow Lake hotelier James Wardner, for example, the writer told pathetically racist anecdotes about a “Negro Thomas” who lived nearby. In contrast, local lore has it that when Thomas’s former “owner” sent bounty hunters to recapture him, Adirondack residents helped him drive the thugs away. And when he died in 1894, the Malone Palladium printed this: “Mr. Thomas was an honest, upright and fair dealing man, a good citizen and much respected in the community where he lived so long.”

Louisa and James Brady, also from Maryland, were well established in Vermontville when the Civil War broke out. In 1863 their 20-year-old son Samuel enlisted in the mostly-white Adirondack Regiment that his father had joined the year before. In doing so he left his mother alone and probably frightened to see her son go to war as well. At least he would be in his father’s regiment, or so they thought. The next day Samuel was reassigned to the 20th U.S. Colored Troops. Within a few months he was shipped to New Orleans where there was little fighting, surely a relief to Louisa.

James would survive the war but by September of 1864 Samuel had perished. A military report stated “this colored boy is said to have died in the service, particulars unknown,” but only one member of that regiment was killed in action there; 263 died of disease in the hot, filthy delta around the city. Samuel now lies in Chalmette National Cemetery, in New Orleans, far from his home and his mother.

Louisa’s marriage crumbled soon after James returned to Vermontville, perhaps as another casualty of the war and their tragic loss. James later remarried and moved to Malone. Louisa remained in Vermontville until her death in 1894.

The stories of these people helped solve the mystery of the brook. Wardner’s diary mentioned a housekeeper named “Mrs. Brady” who was part of a community of Black farmers in Vermontville, some of whom tended onion gardens along the banks of a stream that thereby became known as “N—r Brook.” Local residents also told me that a knoll overlooking the stream was called “N—r Hill.”

Of all the settlers, Stephen “Warren” Morehouse interested me the most. The 1850 census listed him as a teenager living with his parents and sister as Smith grantees on the road leading uphill to Loon Lake, where a vintage county map places a Morehouse residence. The 1860 census shows that, for unspecified reasons, Warren and his mother Helen were left on their own and working as servants at a hotel on Lower St. Regis Lake that was recently established by their former Loon Lake neighbors Paul and Lydia Smith. As some of the first employees of that hotel, Warren and Helen contributed to the success of the resort that later became a college and now employs me.

By 1863 Warren was in Boston, probably working as a waiter. The Emancipation Proclamation had been issued, the battle of Gettysburg had turned the tide of the war in favor of the Union, and the Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry Regiment had just made their epic assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, that is now memorialized in the film Glory. In doing so they proved to skeptics on both sides of the war that African-American soldiers could be as brave and capable as any others. On September 7, Warren joined the famed 54th.

His decision to enlist tells us much about the character of this young man from the Adirondacks. The regiment was accepting new recruits because so many had died in battle already. The Confederacy had announced that Black Union soldiers captured in uniform would be enslaved or executed. Members of the 54th knew that their behavior was under constant scrutiny; mistakes would be taken as evidence that soldiers of color were unfit for service, and until the government agreed to pay them as much as white troops they would refuse any pay at all. But unlike most white recruits who enlisted mainly to preserve the old Union, the 54th would also put their lives at exceptional risk to help create a more perfect Union by demonstrating the worth of Black Americans and liberating people from bondage.

By signing up under those circumstances, Warren was already a hero. But the official record of the regiment also shows that his service would rise beyond expectations. During the next two years Warren saw frequent combat in South Carolina, including the siege of Charleston under conditions so harsh that many soldiers fainted from sunstroke in the midst of battle. He was mentioned twice for his exploits as a sharpshooter and scout, a formidable warrior despite his relatively short stature at five feet two inches. And while in Florida, he and his comrades performed an astonishing feat of stamina and selfless courage.

After numerous skirmishes during an ill-fated offensive against Tallahassee, the 54th paused to rest among the pines near Lake City, when an urgent call for help came. Union troops were being routed in the Battle of Olustee, and they needed someone to cover their retreat. The regiment leaped up and ran toward the thunder of cannon fire, discarding much of their gear to increase their speed as they raced past fleeing men who yelled to them, “You’ll all get killed!” Standing alone against vastly superior forces, they held the enemy in check until nightfall. Without aid or instructions on when to retreat, they finally gave a loud cheer to imply that reinforcements had arrived and withdrew in the darkness. All wounded Black soldiers who of necessity were left behind were slaughtered by the Confederates.

There’s more. Soon after reaching Camp Shaw near Jacksonville, the 54th was ordered to march back toward Olustee because a train laden with wounded had broken down during the retreat and was vulnerable to attack. Upon reaching it, the exhausted, hungry men tied heavy ropes to the stalled locomotive. Then, with half of them shoeless from lack of pay and their recent dash into battle, they slowly pushed and hauled the train—engine, cars, wounded—three miles back to Camp Shaw.

An eyewitness wrote of that day: “They knew their fate if captured; their humanity triumphed. Does history record a nobler deed?”

After the war, the 54th marched past cheering crowds in Boston while a band played “John Brown’s Body.” Warren then moved to Vermontville, where he married John Thomas’s daughter Charlotte, settled on Swinyer Road, raised four kids, and worked as a “servingman” at a nearby inn. I can only imagine his feelings while taking orders from unappreciative white customers who knew or cared nothing about the remarkable man serving them. Like many of his former brothers in arms who bore the physical and psychological scars of battle, Warren died young, in 1882, at the age of 45.

Fast forward to July 4, 2022. I stand in Vermontville’s Union Cemetery, where John Thomas, Louisa Brady and Warren Morehouse are buried. A small American flag flutters next to Warren’s grave, a humble acknowledgment of his military service to the nation. How ironic that the pseudo-historian who wrote that these people were too lazy and incompetent to live here still receives local accolades. There’s a peak—Mount Donaldson—named after him. The Black pioneers of Vermontville got a pejorative N—r Brook and N—r Hill to remind us of them. But such oversights are beginning to change as more scholars enrich our knowledge of Adirondack history.

Recently, my wife, Kary, and I completed a 5,000-mile journey of remembrance through the South. We visited sites of importance to these settlers, whom we’ve come to admire after learning about them. Now, on Independence Day, two dozen friends and neighbors join us at Vermontville’s Union Cemetery.

As morning sunlight warms the headstones, I kneel beside each grave to leave a personal offering: a pinch of soil from John Thomas’s former place of enslavement in Maryland to commemorate his long road to freedom and respect. For Louisa, soil from Samuel’s lonesome grave in New Orleans, where Kary and I left him comforting earth from his mother’s resting place. And a handful of Florida sand from the Olustee battlefield to celebrate Warren’s courage.

One by one we move close to pay our respects. Soon the graves are decked with flowers, Lincoln pennies to symbolize the victory over enslavement that these unsung heroes contributed to, and quiet tears to honor the memories of our fellow Adirondackers.

We see you now, John Thomas, Louisa Brady and Warren Morehouse. We see you.    

Curt Stager is a professor of Natural Sciences at Paul Smith’s College. He wrote “Hidden Heritage,” about the Indigenous history of the Adirondacks, in the June 2017 issue of this magazine. 

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