What Happened to Timbuctoo?

In 1846, the New York state legislature reinstated an old voting law designed to deny Black men the right to vote. The law stated that in order to be eligible to vote, they had to own an estate worth at least $250.

Gerrit Smith, a New York politician, social activist, and abolitionist, responded to the unjust law in an unexpected way: he decided to donate 120,000 acres of land near the tiny town of North Elba, New York, to 3000 Black families willing to move there and become farmers. The land was not worth $250 in an uncultivated state, but Smith believed that clearing the land, planting a farm, and building a house would provide the farmers not only with a living but, eventually, the right to vote.

Smith’s plan garnered a great deal of attention, even warranting an official resolution of thanks from the 1847 Colored Convention that took place in Troy, New York. Frederick Douglass’s newspaper, the North Star, published numerous articles praising Smith’s generosity and promoting the settlement project, which came to be known as Timbuctoo.


The John Brown Homestead at North Elba

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. "The John Brown Homestead at North Elba." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1885. Link

John Brown, who would later lead the raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, was so enamored by Smith’s plan that he bought land adjoining the Timbuctoo settlement, moved his family there, and proposed to act as a “father” to the settlers by teaching them how to farm. 


John Brown and Fred'k Douglas [i.e. Douglass]

"John Brown and Fred'k Douglas [i.e. Douglass]." Littleton, N.H., ca. 1891. Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Issues arose in Timbuctoo settlement. Chief among them were: 

The Land. The first set of problems came with the land itself. As the map in below indicates, North Elba was indeed north—of almost everything. Located in the Adirondack Mountains, the land was isolated and difficult to reach. It was also covered in large trees that had to be felled and removed before anything could be planted. The ground itself was rocky and infertile, growing seasons were short.


Niagara River and Vicinity; Vicinity of New York; New York; Map of the Hudson River from New York to Saratoga Springs

North Elba (circled) is located in the mountainous region of New York. The land needed to be cleared to be suitable for any kind of farming. Even then, the land was not fertile enough. 

Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. "Niagara River and Vicinity; Vicinity of New York; New York; Map of the Hudson River from New York to Saratoga Springs" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1876. Link

Money. The settlers themselves worked under a number of disadvantages. The first was money. Though the land was free, many grantees could not afford to pay for the trip to get to it, much less for the equipment needed to clear the land or build a house. Another problem was that most of the grantees were city folk with little to no farming experience. Finally, one of the conditions Gerrit Smith imposed on the gift was complete abstinence from alcohol consumption, a dictate that was not particularly popular. In the end, of the intended 3,000 families, less than 200 actually took up residence in Timbuctoo.

The Opposition. Gerrit Smith envisioned an utopian community in which all races and classes cooperated and lived sober, fruitful lives. Many white residents in the area resisted Smith's ideas. Black settlers also confronted white antagonism and had to navigate attempts to swindle them out of their land and money.

Ultimately, Timbuctoo was an unqualified failure. The census of 1850 showed that only thirteen Black families remained in the North Elba area. By 1871, there were only two families.[1]

“Smith hoped that the settlement’s success would demonstrate to pro-slavery activists that African Americans could prosper through their own hard work and that a compensated emancipation plan could work in post-slavery America.”[2] Unfortunately, Timbuctoo had the opposite effect he intended. By the turn of the twentieth century, its failure was attributed to the inherently racial shortcomings of the settlers.[3] Only in recent years have scholars returned to Timbuctoo with greater perspective on the challenges and adversity the settlers faced.

Read about Gerrit Smith's political actions on the next page.

References

[1] “Adirondack Journal – Timbucto: African American History in the Adirondacks.” Adirondack Museum, Adirondack Museum, Link

[2] Kruczek-Aaron, Hadley. “Making Change Materialize: An Archaeology of Social Reform in the Age of Obama.” International Journal of Historical Archaeology 18 (2014): 299-315. 303-304.

[3] See Kruczek-Aaron, 304.

Credits

Written by Christy Hutcheson. Taught by Benjamin Fagan, Auburn University, Fall, 2016.

Edited by Sarah Patterson.