As part of my research into my novel-in-progress, John Brown’s Women, I came across this delightful letter from Jason Brown, John Brown’s second son, to his sister Ruth Brown, in the Edwin Cotter Collection held by the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. (The SUNY letter is a photocopy of an original; where the original is I have no idea.)
In 1847, John Brown had yet to gain fame as an abolitionist; if he was known for anything at the time, it was for raising sheep. For several years, he had been in a business partnership with Simon Perkins, an Akron, Ohio, grandee who was one of the founders of that city. Believing that wool-growers were being fleeced by manufacturers, John Brown persuaded Perkins that the partners should open a wool commission house in Springfield, Massachusetts. By the time Jason wrote his letter in August 1847, most of the large Brown family had moved to Springfield. Jason and his unmarried brother Owen stayed behind to manage the Perkins-Brown flock in Akron, while Ruth remained at the Grand River Institute in Austinburg, Ohio, where she attended school.
Both Jason and his older brother, John Brown, Jr., married in July 1847. John Jr. wed Wealthy Hotchkiss, whom he had met while attending Grand River Institute, and promptly moved with his bride to Springfield to work as a clerk for his father. Jason Brown married an Akron girl, Ellen Sherbondy (referred to in the letter as “Eleanor”–the only time I have seen her named as such). For reasons that are not clear, at least some of the Browns seem to have disapproved of Jason’s marriage: John Jr., for one, openly advised against it, as Jason noted in a letter dated September 9, 1847: “You recollect you sent me a letter from Austinburg awhile ago which predicted an unhappy and miserable life for me if I married Ellen; that letter I put into the fire, but remember, I did not burn my affection for you with it.”
Ruth, however, seems to have been more welcoming of Jason’s bride. Accordingly, Jason wrote to her as follows:
Akron Aug 28 1847
I received your excellent letter of the 5th in good season and would have replied sooner, but being without the material to make a good letter (i.e., the reddy [?]) till now, I delayed. I own that I have been rather slack about my promise to write you, but it is not because I have forgotten you. No I hope I have more of a heart to forget you in two months time, but I have sometimes thought that you would be willing to forget me if I married Miss Eleanor, but your precious letter convinced me to the contrary. You wanted me to own up and tell you all about my matters. I will with a promptitude that becomes a boy of my cloth with so good a wife as I have. Ruth you never dreamed that I could get one so wholehearted and worthy as she is. I should be proud of having you see her with me at that Antislavery Fair out yonder if it was in my power to do so, but I cannot. Owen is going to leave me in a few days and then you had been believe I shall have enough to do. You must excuse me if I write some nonsense for I can’t help it I do feel so greeable here. You said in your letter that you “was very much surprised [to] hear that I was going to be married so soon, but supposed it was all for the best”. So I supposed a good while ago, but now I know it is for the very best. If I sinned in so doing, I sinned willfully, and my blood (not cold blood) is upon my own head. Eleanor sends her love. Says she thought you would be lonesome there, after John and Wealthy left you, but says she suspects by the long and pleasant rides that you tell of, that you have found a friend that sticks closer than a Brother. Hopes you will bring Mr. Warren out here in some of your rides, says she thinks it would be “perfectly right.” I received a letter from John a few days since, dated Aug. 12th he says all are well, &c. and that Wealthy can appreciate the beauty of Springfield (I suppose he means John) and that they had but just go through the Honey Moon. Now this is not the case with me, I have but just got the Wool off my eyes so that I can see the Honey Moon in its true light and glory. Fulfill your promise to Eleanor and write her that letter and write me a word in due season. I enclose $3.00 and am sorry that I cannot send you more; I would willingly if I had it. I believe from John’s account of Mr. Warren that he is a wholesouled young man. Go ahead Brethering and Sisters.
While Jason mentions Ruth’s rides with a “Mr. Warren” (perhaps Jones K. Warren, a fellow student of Ruth’s), Ruth ended up marrying Henry Thompson, whom she met when the Browns moved to Essex County, New York, in 1849.
In 1855, Jason and Ellen traveled to Kansas; tragically, their son Austin fell ill with cholera while aboard a steamer and had to be hastily buried in Missouri. Though the couple continued on their journey, their son’s death was only the start of their troubles in “Bleeding Kansas,” where anti-slavery and pro-slavery settlers vied with increasing violence for control of the territory. Following the “Pottawatomie massacre” of five pro-slavery settlers by John Brown Sr. and a few others in 1856, Jason, who had not been involved in the murders, was arrested and his cabin was burned to the ground. He and Ellen, along with their remaining son, returned to Ohio that same year. Nonetheless, Jason’s taste for life out west had not been quenched; later, he moved to California. Ellen, however, stayed put in Akron, where she kept house for her widowed son, Charles. As Jason wrote to Franklin Sanborn on August 18, 1886, “She was always opposed to my coming here and said she could never leave Akron again, to live in the west after trying ‘that Kansas move’. I cannot blame her as I have always believed that a wife has the same right to decide where her home shall be; as a husband.”
By August 1894, when he gave a presentation to the Summit County Horticultural Society about his experiences with growing California grapes, Jason had returned to Akron, probably because of Ellen’s failing health. She died there on August 15, 1895, of heart disease. After her death, Jason returned to California, but spent his declining years in Ohio, where he died on December 24, 1912.
Photo of Ellen Brown from Walter Arnold Jackson Collection, Ohio Genealogical Society; photo of Jason Brown from Library of Congress.