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With his relationship with James discussed, another aspect of looking at John Brown as a parent is looking at how he was a father to his daughters. It says a lot about the differences between gender expectations in this era to look at what is different when he writes to his daughters, but also what is the same. Sarah Brown (called Sally by her family) was born in 1773. At a young age she began her education at Mrs. Wilkinson’s School, a girl’s school in Newport. Sally and her father corresponded often, as in a letter from John to Sally dated September 30th 1781.

John is praiseful, affectionate, and brief in his letter to his daughter. As she is only eight at this point, he praises the quality of her writing and penmanship, saying “Fue Persons Writes better.” John follows up with “I am thankfull for the Many Blessing you Possess and Hope you are not unmindfull Therof.” For reasons of her age, her gender, or both, John’s tone is much lighter, and (literally) more patronizing. Just as Brown is clear and explicit in his goal to mold James into an upstanding and important man, he is equally explicit in his intentions for Sally, for he says to her “I wish you may be Possessed of Every Virtue that human Nature can be adorned with.” He elaborates on this thought with reference to the specific virtues he wishes her to recall: “Permit me to caution you…Against Pride” and “Treet all with Decency and Good Manners, Dispise no person for their Poverty, but be Shure to Respect all Virtuous Persons.” Although it would be a mistake to make too much of this fact, since Sally is so young, it is notable that John does not describe any of the news from his businesses in the letter, or of his dealings with notable and well-connected people. Judging by his affectionate but instructive manner it is clear that his expectations for Sally are no lower, but they are of a different character. He seems most interested in fostering goodness in her. His parental relationship with James and getting him to build on his legacy might be more on par with those of a young adult of either gender today, but his expectations for Sally are not so far removed from a modern parent’s hopes for a young daughter.

The Storm at Newport and Material Culture Beyond Reach

Another in the series of letters to James at Philadelphia, this time regarding Sally at school in Newport, brings back into focus the differences between our time and theirs. The letter (Letter From John to James dated November 17th, 1782) recounts a trip to return Sally and Hope Brown to school in Newport by sail. On the second day, after departing Bristol in high seas and stiff wind, “a sudden unexpected gust of wind & Rain took up” almost capsizing them. He remarks “for a few minutes I thought we was gone.” They manage to reef the sail and reach shore, but this frightening account brings to bear some of the stark realities of even an upper class 18th century life, where many daily activities lacked the safeguards, in things as simple as lifejackets, that we now enjoy.

This account also brings up other interesting questions about what we can and can’t do with an archaeological approach. There is a huge maritime tradition in Rhode Island, but what of the parts of that tradition that are small? If small-boat sailing was an important form of transportation in a maritime state like Rhode Island at this time, how could you tell? Land transport presents fewer problems. Old roads are traceable from maps or patterns in soil. Underwater archaeology would be far more likely to uncover the wrecks of large ships than tiny ones. An excavation in the area of a wharf of a shipyard would also likely lean toward large ships. There is a complex material culture around small-boat sailing, but it seems like this entire tradition could easily be archaeologically invisible. This is part of the value of the personal documentary record, to shed light on aspects of past material culture that could very easily become archaeologically absent.

Project Links
My Big Fat Brown Wedding: Marriage & Courtship
The Brown Brothers
Son and Heir: John and James Brown
Dear Child: John and Sally Brown

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