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by Jacob Combs & Peter Hatch
There is a certain element of ‘us’ and ‘them’ that comes with the territory in archaeology. ‘Us’ refers to the archaeologists. ‘Them’ is a loose term that applies to whoever came into contact with the materials that ‘we’ are excavating. These terms are misleading, but they are an almost inevitable consequence of the archaeological process. Even with only 220 years of history separating us (again a dangerous term) from the earliest inhabitants of the John Brown House, it is easy to make a distinction between ourselves and the Brown family and create a sort of constructed mental space which we use to place the Browns, dehumanized, in a context specific to their time-period. The personal documents of the Brown family demolish this modern-day creation and instead reveal a close-knit family with a dynamic that is easily relatable to our own lives. The Brown family’s letters portray a family of diverse personalities and wide reach. In this project, we will explore a few specific documents from the John Brown House’s collection to illustrate the relationships that existed between the Browns and to highlight the complex interactions that members of the family had with each other.
The John Brown House has an incredible collection of Brown family documents, comprised mostly of personal letters but also including journals, letters to newspaper editors and even a hand-written page from the Brown family bible. We began our research by skimming through the documents, doing our best to cover a wide time span while still looking for specific details. When reading the Brown family’s letters, it immediately becomes exceedingly clear just how wide-spread the family’s influence was. Not only are their letters dated and sent from all over the East Coast, including Providence, Boston, New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia, but they also cover a wide variety of topics, ranging from national politics and a moral discussion of slavery to the simple family banter of parties or gossip. In a casual manner, the Brown's letters narrate dinners with the president's family or John's input on the building of a road through Rhode Island. From the offhand way in which such (at least to us) momentous occasions are mentioned in the Browns' documents, it is clear the family was used to high society and moving among the elite. Because our assignment was to focus on personal accounts and narratives rather than official ones, we decided pretty quickly that we wanted to focus on something that private documents could reveal in a way that public ones couldn’t. We were both struck as we read by how genuinely humorous the Brown family was, and our focus quickly grew out of that observation. We have tried to present these documents in their original form, changing spelling or punctuation only when the originals are unclear. In this project, we will try to shine a light on the Brown family dynamic, a family similar to any modern one in its relationships, cohesion and, of course, conflict.
It is also worth mentioning here who does not appear in the Brown family's personal documents. We chose to focus our research project on the Brown family itself, which means that from the very beginning our perspective was skewed towards this white, upper-class family. The black members of the Brown household, however, make few appearances in the family's correspondence. The Browns would certainly have come into contact with African-Americans--the Browns servants lived on site, and it is known that John Brown held slaves, although it is not known whether or not these slaves were at the John Brown House. Nevertheless, the racial homogeneity of the letters is striking. Among the numerous letters we read, blacks were hardly mentioned, aside from one remark about a servant who had just passed his 103rd birthday, and occasional references to orders given. Other than that, African-Americans are conspicuously absent. Having said that, women are very well-represented in the family's correspondence. In the Browns' time, New England women had a surprising degree of independence--they were well-educated well and an integral part of the family. Many of the documents in the John Brown House's collection were written by John Brown's daughters, and both his correspondence and that of his son James frequently mention the women of the family.