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James F. Brown - Master Gardener

By Kenneth Reginald Otero-Walker

Feb 13 2024

James F. Brown is regarded as one of America’s first master gardeners by the Beacon Historical Society and others. One can explore his life through botanical specimens of species he cultivated, those that figured into his recipes, and those plants he recorded in his diaries for their medicinal purposes. 

James F. Brown was previously known as Anthony Chase or Anthony Fisher, an enslaved man in Maryland. He was promised his freedom, yet after the slaveholder's passing, the enslaver's sister refused to manumit Brown. Eventually escaping, Brown would find work as a waiter in New York with Daniel Crommelin Verplanck. At a dinner party hosted by Verplanck, Brown was recognized by someone who insisted that he be returned to Maryland. Following negotiations and a payment of $300, Brown was finally manumitted. With his newly acquired freedom, Brown would take a break from working for Verplanck, and worked for a year as an assistant to civil rights lawyer Peter A. Jay. After traveling briefly to Maryland to be reunited with his wife Julia, Brown he would again return to New York to work for Verplanck, only this time as Head Gardener on their estate in the Hudson Valley, Mt. Gulian, in what is now known as Beacon, NY.

After escaping slavery in Maryland for work in New York, Brown would begin to keep a diary. Its pages reflect a wealth of information relevant to the history of horticulture and agriculture. It also records the history of the black experience in botany and environmental sciences. In the diary’s pages, Brown meticulously records nurseries he visited, plants he grew, weather and crop conditions, recipes, remedies, funds collected for the creation of an African American cemetery, and other events which transpired in his community.  Some of the places he visited are important sites of early American landscape history such as the nursery of prominent landscape designer A.J. Downing in Fishkill, NY, and the Wodenethe estate of Downing’s collaborator Henry Winthrop Sargent.

As head gardener at Mt. Gulian, Brown corresponded with these eminent horticulturalists Sargent and Downing, the latter whose nursery he visited to secure novel plant varieties for the Verplanck residence. He would also attend horticultural competitions on behalf of himself and Anna Verplanck, the daughter of Daniel Verplanck. As a freeman, Brown was eligible to participate, while Anna was forbidden because of gender.

"...Cauliflower, spinach, rhubarb, asparagus, isabella grape, catawba grape vine, peach, plumb, apricot, yellow harrison rose bush, macranthan geranium, and wild flowers gathered from the property…" Not only is the journal of James F. Brown a biocultural resource by way of its recipes, remedies, and horticulture knowledge, it also serves as a field book of a citizen scientist engaged in daily meteorological observations. Brown's diaries provide a log of when crops were sowed, when they flowered, and when they were harvested, information regarding historical phenology which is of major importance to science and conservation. His entries on the weather are qualitative documentation of past conditions. Such observations could be utilized by studies which seek to map the effects of climate change.

Decades after Brown’s death in 1868, attention to his life and work was brought by Joel Elias Spingarn, member of the New York Botanical Garden board of managers, founding member of the NAACP, and an authority on the genus Clematis. During a convention of the Dutchess County historical society on the grounds of Wodenethe, Spingarn delivered a speech on the legacy of Henry Winthrop Sargent. While expounding on the use of trees in open landscapes and the creation of picturesque vistas, Spingarn paused his speech to mention the diary of James F. Brown that he had recently had the privilege of reading. He remarked to the attendees that it should be known that the first professional gardener within the history of Dutchess County had been a person of color. Further, this formerly enslaved master gardener was connected to major figures in American landscape design and horticulture, Sargent and Downing.

Although the diary is referred to as early as 1895 by the newspaper the Fishkill Standard (Beacon Historical Society), Spingarn was made aware of the diary by a member of the Verplanck family who had been in possession of the tomes. Brown’s diaries now reside with the New York Historical Society where they have been digitized.

Springarn's speech was published in 1937, a copy of which can also be found in the archives of the LuEsther Mertz Library. Explore the life of James F. Brown through herbariums specimens of plants similar to the ones which he mentioned in his diaries and which he grew on the Verplanck residence in Mt. Gulian, NY. 

A Closer Look

More about: Black Botany


References:

Catalano, Robin (2023).  'What can a man do?' The legacy of James F. Brown at Mout Gulian. Times Union. Retrieved 12 Feb 2024, from https://www.timesunion.com/hudsonvalley/culture/article/james-brown-mount-gulian-historic-site-17779708.php

Levine, David (2012). James F. Brown, Freed Slave, Becomes Master Gardener for Verplanck Family at Mount Gulian Historic Site, Fishkill. Hudson Valley Magazine. Retrieved 12 Feb 2024, from https://hvmag.com/life-style/james-f-brown-freed-slave-becomes-master-gardener-for-verplanck-family-at-mount-gulian-historic-site-fishkill/?amp=1

Springarn, Joel Elias (1937). Early History of Landscape Garden and Ornamental Horticulture in Dutchess County, New York. Yearbook of the Dutchess County Historical Society, p. 29-35. Retrieved 12 Feb 2024, from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924002803793&seq=5

Explore further:

Beacon Historical Society. Inspiration. Bravery. Perseverance. Character. Democracy:  The Life of James F. Brown. Retrieved 12 Feb 2024, from https://www.beaconhistorical.org/james-f-brown

History of Early American Landscape Design, National Gallery of Art. Retrieved 12 Feb 2024, from https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php/James_Francis_Brown#Gala

James F. Brown Papers, 1827-1866. New York Historical Society. Retrieved 12 Feb 2024, from https://digitalcollections.nyhistory.org/islandora/object/islandora%3A152251