A Visit to North Elba

One of the greatest thrills for a historical novelist is being able to walk in his or her characters’ footsteps by visiting the places where they once lived. I first got this privilege while writing The Traitor’s Wife, when I visited the De Clare/Despenser stronghold of Caerphilly Castle, and most recently when researching my novel in progress about the women associated with the abolitionist John Brown.

Brown was a restless man, who at various times as an adult lived in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Massachusetts, Kansas, New York, and Maryland. Some residences associated with him have long since vanished, but others remain, such as the John Brown house in Akron, Ohio, the Kennedy Farm in Washington County, Maryland, and the John Brown Farm in North Elba, New York. It was at the North Elba farm, the last house owned by John Brown, that his wife Mary and his younger children were living at the time of the Harpers Ferry raid in 1859. There, Mary and her children received the terrible news that the raid had failed, that two of John and Mary’s sons, Oliver and Watson, had been killed there, and that John had been taken prisoner. It was there that John–who had spent little time at the farm himself, having followed his sons to Kansas and then pursued the militant abolitionism that would lead to his fatal raid–was laid to rest. Although he had urged Mary to remain at the farm after his death, this was not a wish that Mary would heed. Tired of the harsh winters in North Elba and seeking better opportunities for her daughters, she sold the farm and made the hazardous journey by wagon train to California in 1864. In 1882, during a cross-country trip, she returned to North Elba to witness the burial of her son Watson, whose remains had been appropriated by a medical college after the Harpers Ferry raid and had fallen into the hands of an Indiana physician during the Civil War. Mary died in California in 1884.

The Brown farmhouse was altered somewhat after Mary sold it, but as maintained today by New York State, it still gives a vivid sense of the Browns’ sojourn there. Going there was a moving experience for me.

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