North Elba



The home and grave site of John Brown is located in the Adirondack Mountains just south of the village of Lake Placid, N.Y. Whether he is considered to be a patriot or rebel, there is no doubt that his raid on the U.S. Arsenal at Harper's Ferry in 1859 was the spark that a year and a half later would become the inferno that engulfed the nation in civil war. For his crime of treason, Brown was sentenced to death by hanging by the Commonwealth of Virginia on Dec. 2, 1859. Six days later, according to his wishes, he was buried in the North Elba farm which had been purchased by him from Gerrit Smith of Peterboro, N.Y.


John Brown (1800 - 1859) approached the Gerrit Smith home in Peterboro with a proposition.  The year was 1848 and he was 48 years old.  Smith had recently donated some 120,000 acres of land in the Adirondacks to black families who wished to farm and, by virtue of their land ownership, become voting citizens.  Brown convinced Gerrit Smith that with his farming background he could help the new landowners adjust to the harsh conditions of northern New York State.  Hundreds of blacks eager to escape the poverty of urban cities migrated to the area just east of Lake Placid which became know to them as Timbuctoo.  The land, however, proved to be far too rocky for farming and the "experiment" failed. By 1855, most of the black families had left the area and Brown was turning his attention to Kansas. 

Brown with his second wife, Mary Day Brown, moved their  family to North Elba in1849.   At first they rented a small farm (the Flander's Farm) to house the ten family members until Brown could develop the acreage he had bought from Gerrit Smith for $1 an acre. He shortly discovered that many of the black landowners had been cheated by a land surveyor who located them on poor quality land rather than on the land that Smith deeded them.  The house which finally became their homestead was sold a local farmer after Mary moved to California in 1863.  In 1899, the farm became the property of the State of New York.

Altogether, Brown fathered 20 children; seven with his first wife Dianthe (Lusk), and thirteen with his second wife Mary Ann (Day).  Of these children only eleven eleven survived to maturity.  Although Brown himself spent little time there, the North Elba homestead remained in the Brown family for fourteen years.  Today, the restored house and barn contain some original as well as many period pieces from the 1859 era.  Near the house is the fenced-in grave site of John Brown and several family members.  To the left of the house is a larger-than-life statue of John Brown with his arm around a black youngster.

On the evening of October 16, 1859, Brown and his followers attacked the United States Federal Armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia).  His intent was to lead a slave insurrection by arming freed slaves with pikes (spears) and guns.  Charged with treason against the state of Virginia, Brown was convicted and hanged on Dec. 2, 1859. Parts of the scaffold upon which he was hung became relics of veneration to those who considered Brown to be a martyr in the cause for abolition.  The shaving cup pictured to the left is thought to be a portion of the John Brown scaffold.
 The body of John Brown was returned to the North Elba farm accompanied by his wife and friends.  His name is inscribed on a headstone originally carved for his grandfather, Capt. John Brown who served in the Revolutionary war.   In addition to Brown and his grandfather, the names of three of his sons are inscribed: Frederick(age 26) who was killed in Kansas, and Oliver (age21) and Watson (age24), both killed at Harpers Ferry. Forty years later, the remains of several of Brown's followers who were killed during the raid were relocated to the North Elba site.  A commemorative plaque acknowledges their presence.
Villain or martyr, depending on ones viewpoint, there is no doubt that John Brown was destined for immortality.  During the opening days of the Civil War, lyrics were put to an old marching song called "Say Brothers, Will You Meet Us".  Several versions of what became known as John Brown's Song became popular with Union troops.  While attending a public parade in 1861, Julia Ward Howe decided to put new lyrics to the song and it became "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."  Still for many, the lyrics will always be: John Brown's body lies a-moldering in the grave; His soul's marching on!