The Timbucto Agricultural Colony
In the fall of 1846, Upstate New York abolitionist Gerrit Smith announced a settlement plan to give away forty-acre plots of land to three thousand free African American men living in the state of New York. Scattered across several counties in the Adirondack Mountains, the land Smith was giving away had been acquired by his father in the early nineteenth century and numbered approximately one hundred and twenty thousand acres. Smith hoped that the self-sustaining communities created by the grantees would protect them from racial discrimination, offer the larger society a model of emancipation, and, of upmost importance, give free African Americans the right to vote. The state of New York ratified a new constitution in 1846, and in it they reinstated a law that denied African American men the right to vote unless they owned $250 in land or a home. Forty-acres of untouched land in the Adirondacks was worth less than $250, however, the land could achieve that value if the grantees cultivated it. An overwhelming majority of the grantees were literate, city dwelling individuals and all abided by Smith’s strict requirements, including being from the lower to working class, landless, and abstaining from alcohol. By 1853, all three thousand parcels of land were claimed.
Smith’s wish for the grantees to create self-sustaining communities materialized in very few locations. A community that is historically referred to as “Timbucto” (also spelled Timbuctoo) in North Elba, Essex County, New York offers the most comprehensive case study of surviving material culture and recorded legacy of these short-lived communities. According to census records, from 1850 to 1870 thirteen African American families resided in North Elba and only two families remained by 1871. The men that were granted land in Timbucto had previously worked as cooks, coachmen, activists, barbers, and shoemakers but none were farmers by trade. Of the thirteen African American families recorded in North Elba, Lyman Epps, Sr., James H. Henderson, and brothers Samuel and Thomas Jefferson are represented the most in surviving historical records. In fact, the community name of “Timbucto” may have initially only been used in reference to the cluster of farms owned by Henderson and the Jefferson brothers where sixteen individuals lived on one township lot. The attribution of Timbucto to the entire African American community of North Elba might have occurred in the twentieth century with the increased interest in the most well-known person to purchase “Smith Land” in North Elba, abolitionist John Brown.
Even though three thousand plots of land were given away for free by Gerrit Smith, there is evidence that fewer than two hundred settlers physically inhabited their granted property. Low settlement numbers were in large part due to the limited resources available to the grantees for moving and cultivating the land. Although the grantees received free land, very few had the start-up capital to move their families, purchase equipment to cultivate the land, and buy materials to build a home. For those few families that did make their way to the Adirondacks, they were met by an unforgiving land. Frigid winters were long, and cutting down evergreens and clearing rocky mountain sides proved to be nearly impossible. Many Adirondack grantees left after only a short amount of time, while few established long-term permanent residences on “Smith Land.” Timbucto and other African American communities established on land given away by Gerrit Smith were, however, far from failures. For those grantees who endured the grueling labor of establishing a permeant residence on “Smith Land,” they received their right to vote. The full number of grantees that voted on the anti-slavery ticket after receiving their land will never be known, but it is a guarantee that their voices were heard and recorded. Even those grantees who never ventured to their lands were still able to levy their granted forty-acres as personal property—something they owned. One can only image what owning land might have meant to free African Americas living in pre-Civil War New York. Equally important in remembering the success of Gerrit Smith’s settlement plan is not overlooking the group of well-known New York abolitionists that were brought together to campaign for this venture and further disseminate their common anti-slavery beliefs. Aside from Gerrit Smith and John Brown, those involved included Frederick Douglass, Willis A. Hodges, Rev. Jermain Loguen of Syracuse, Rev. Henry Highland Garnet of Troy, and James McCune Smith.