James Brown, Runaway Slave & Journal Keeper
Of all the many personalities connected with Mount Gulian and the Verplanck family, few have led a life as unique and as fully documented as James Brown. Born into slavery as Anthony Fisher, Fredericktown, Maryland in 1793, James Brown escaped from bondage by going north to New York City via the Underground Railroad. It is believed that he left Maryland around 1818, temporarily leaving his wife Julia after the death of their five year old son.
In New York, according to the story handed down in the family, sometime in the early 1820’s James Brown found work as a waiter at a Verplanck dinner party. A dinner guest recognized him as an escaped slave, and demanded that he be returned to his owner in Maryland. Either with assistance of the Verplancks or by other means, James Brown was rescued from returning to slavery and master was paid off. He was a free man. Hired by the Verplancks as a coachman in Manhattan, he learned to read and write, most likely taught by Mary Anna Verplanck. Around 1826 James Brown began to keep a detailed journal of everyday life, one of the very few journals of daily life as experienced by a black person anywhere in the North. An early entry, he writes that on September 21, 1826, on a dangerous return visit to Maryland, he purchased his wife’s freedom for one hundred dollars that he had saved while working up north.
By 1829, James Brown was working full time at Mount Gulian as the estate’s gardener, coachman and general laborer. His detailed journal entries, from 1829-1866 do not reveal his inner thoughts, conflicts or psychology. Instead they read as an amazing record of everyday events and daily chores, local news, farming and weather entries, receipts for work done and favorite recipes. James Brown was a church-going God-fearing man, and many of his Sunday entries are about the sermons he heard in the local churches, of many denominations. He also writes of his trips to northern cities, the local personalities and his voting in local elections. Most of the journal reflects the life of a simple gardener, tending to the soil, planting seeds, harvesting crops, working hard.
Throughout the Civil War years, journal entries grow scarcer, as James Brown was in his seventies. He passed away in 1868 at his home in Beacon and is buried alongside wife Julia in the Beacon Saint Luke's Church. His seven-volume journal, kept in narrow receipt books, resides in the New York Historical Society in Manhattan, the extensive record of a free black man living in Dutchess County, NY.