Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The History of the John Brown Tract Association (1857)

The History of the John Brown Tract Association (1857)

John Brown, the famed abolitionist, was one of the most controversial figures in American history. His life was a paradox; he was a man of God who condoned murder, and his actions had significant ramifications for the history of America, as his raid on Harper's Ferry was a seminal event in the coming of the American Civil War.

What is almost unknown about Brown, however, is that during the height of his popularity--the late 1850s--numerous organizations (all of them in the North) were formed in his name. One of them is the John Brown Tract Association of Utica and the surrounding regions of northern New York. In order to finance their work, and likely to give the members some time in the wilderness to pursue their hobbies, the Association made two semi-annual pilgrimages into the forests of Northern New York.

You see, the John Brown Tract Association was made up exclusively of outdoorsman, and according to an 11 June 1857 article in The Circular, a popular magazine of the day, "it numbers at present forty-nine members, embracing the most scientific sportsmen of the state."

According to an 1857 article in The Utica Herald, they took painstaking work in their preparations. The article reported:

Happening in at the room of a member the other day, we took note of his outfit for the occasion. It consisted of a blanket, overcoat, three pairs of pants, four pairs of stockings, three pairs of drawers, two vests, Kossuth hat, straw hat, rubber cap, glazed cap, mosquito cap, three red shirts, knit shirt, hunting shirt, check shirt, two towels, needles, thread, nails, handkerchiefs, cravats, common fishing coat, black coat, boots, wading boots, slippers, fish pole, trolling lines, speckled trout line, castile soap, bait-box, worms, dozen hooks and snoods, cloth gloves, fly, medicine flask, cup, knife and fork, spoons, fish basket, buckskin gloves, cigars, pocket--vulgarly called 'pistol.'"

The well dressed angler...we've all seen pictures from the Victorian era of the gentleman angler, dressed in his fishing gear. But has anyone seen such an exhaustive list of items just for a fishing trip before? And lest we think this is unique to the individual the writer watched pack, he noted "Each member has a similar outfit for his individual comfort and use..."

This was strictly a fishing club, with stringent rules. The writer confided that the club was run with "strict police arrangement, and rigid subordination of piscatorial rules. Nothing but purely scientific sport is allowed, and if by chance a member should take a pickerel while trolling for trout, he would be liable to expulsion."

Little else is currently known about the John Brown Tract Association of upstate New York, other than it was very short lived and certainly gone by the end of the war in 1865. I'll do some digging and if I come up with anything, I'll post it in an update. Until then, we can marvel at the well-prepared and well-dressed Victorian angler.

-- Dr. Todd

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