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(A copyrighted publication of West Virginia Archives and History)

John Brown and the Oberlin Lands

By Boyd B. Stutler

Volume 12, Number 3 (April 1951), pp. 183-99

In the spring of 1840, John Brown was at loose ends. The glowing promises of a profitable tannery business and quick money in land speculation in a new and growing town, that had lured him from his prosperous farm in Crawford County, Pennsylvania, had turned out badly. His speculation at Franklin Mills, now the city of Kent, Ohio, had brought him to the verge of bankruptcy (which he was later to undergo) by the failure of his several enterprises.

His ten years at Randolph (now New Richmond), Pennsylvania, where he had carved a prosperous farm out of the wilderness and set up a tannery business were of recent memory. When he heard of the thousands of acres owned by Oberlin College in undeveloped sections of Tyler County, Virginia (now West Virginia), which could be had almost for the asking, his interest was kindled. Here, if all went well, he could establish his home and provide a place for his large and growing family. But there were some formalities to be observed.

John Brown was born at Torrington, Connecticut, on May 9, 1800, but at the age of 5 years was taken by his parents, Owen and Ruth Brown, to Hudson, Ohio. There, in that new town in which the first cabin was built in the same year he was born, he grew to manhood. There his father, good old Owen Brown, was one of the pillars of the community - a thrifty, stuttering farmer and tanner whose speech was always a painful effort, except when he raised his voice in prayer. It was no doubt through Owen Brown that his son, John, first learned of the gift of Gerrit Smith of 20,000 acres of wild land to Oberlin, and it was probably the father who prodded him into negotiations with the College, which resulted in a journey down the Ohio and a full month of land-looking in Tyler County in April and May, 1840.1 Had his plans of that time been realized, John Brown probably would have settled down as a peaceful farmer on Big Battle Creek in Doddridge County - history would have known nothing of John Brown of Osawatomie and Harper's Ferry.

The story of John Brown's first visit to West Virginia had its roots in his home town, where his father was still a leading citizen. When Western Reserve College (now Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio) was established at Hudson, Ohio, in the early 1830's [editor's note: Western was actually established in 1826], Owen Brown was one of the founders and one of the first trustees. He was an anti-slavery Christian, one of the early Western Reserve abolitionists, and for the first few years the conduct of the college accorded with his own point of view. But faculty changes and some internal dissensions led to a decline of the anti-slavery zeal. In 1835 he tearfully severed his connection with the institution.

The recently established Oberlin Collegiate Institute (now Oberlin College) in a neighboring town seemed more nearly to meet his liberal views - liberal in opposition to human slavery and to the extension of educational opportunities to Negroes and to women. Too, it was designedly a center of piety and moral reform, a not inconsiderable influence in deciding the Hudson farmer and tanner. Accordingly he transferred his allegiance to Oberlin and served as a trustee of that institution as well as its local agent at Hudson from 1835 to 1844. His daughter, Florilla, was a graduate in the class of 1839 and at least one of his younger sons was a student there. Florilla married Rev. Samuel L. Adair, also an Oberlin graduate, who became an early missionary to Kansas, settling at Osawatomie. It was on his doorstep that Frederick Brown, son of John, was shot down by Border Ruffians in the Battle of Osawatomie on August 30, 1856.

In accepting appointment as trustee of Oberlin College, Owen Brown wrote President Shipherd, "I trust God will make you faithful. Inform me when my seat will be wanted for a better man." Defying all the rules of grammar in this curiously misspelled letter, he advised "planning and making handsom gardens and yards," requiring punctual payment from the students, and finally recommended several "female studants in these parts which wish to get admitted into the institution." He was a liberal contributor to the support of the school. There is still a record of a gift of a bull of "verry good" stock, and in addition to many smaller contributions, he gave $500 in cash in 1836.2

Now to flash back to the origin of the titles to the Oberlin lands in western Virginia.

On September 26, 1783, Cleon Moore of Alexandria, Virginia, visited the State Land Office at Richmond and bought three Treasury Land Warrants, in all aggregating 27,766 acres. The warrants were for wild and otherwise unappropriated land on Middle Island Creek and its tributaries in what was then Ohio County, in a section of the Ohio Valley country then unsettled and entirely undeveloped. Moore apparently purchased the warrants as a speculation in wild land - as so many others were doing at that time - and so far as the record goes made no effort to establish the boundaries of his property. He sold the warrants to one James Robinson, who in turn passed them on to Isaac Bronson. Robinson and Bronson were probably speculators and have no part in the story; they are only mentioned to complete the chain of title. Indeed, I have not been able to identify either man or to get any information other than that the unused land warrants passed through their hands.

Bronson sold the warrants to Jabez Bacon of Woodbury, Connecticut, a land speculator who may have been connected with the Bacons of the Western Reserve, who immediately made arrangements to have the several parcels surveyed and his title to the lands established. The surveys of 18 tracts of 1,000 acres each, two for 922 acres, and one for 156 acres, aggregating an even 20,000 acres, were made on July 12, 13, 14, and October 26, 27, 28, 1786, by Jenn Williams, assistant to Robert Woods, then Surveyor of Ohio County. The 21 surveys were recorded in detail in the office of the County Clerk of Ohio County at Wheeling.3

The surveys were supposed to form one great continuous tract on Middle Island Creek and its smaller tributary streams—Mc- Eiroy, Big Battle, Israels Fork, Riggins Run, Brushy Run, Flint, etc. - but the surveyor turned the several surveys into something like a Chinese puzzle. Watercourses on adjoining surveys are made to run in opposite directions, and the corners for adjoining tracts do not coincide. There was plenty of land and the local surveyors were more than casual in surveying out parcels on which Treasury Land Warrants had been laid.

Jabez Bacon passed out of the picture at some tune prior to 1815, just how is not explained - probably by death. At any rate Nathaniel Bacon sold the tract to Philo Murray of Wood- bury, Connecticut, on May 3, 1815, for a consideration of $4,000. He claimed only 20,000 acres and the sale was made "subject to any settlement rights which may be upon any parts of the lands, if there be any."

However, on April 22, 1815, two weeks before he received a deed from Bacon, Murray transferred the 20,000 acres "together with 3 settlement rights, so-called," to Peter Smith of Smithfield, New York, for a consideration of $8,000. Peter Smith, the new owner, had immense land holdings in Northern New York and in other States, all of which he transferred to his son, Gerrit, and Daniel Cady, (father of Elizabeth Cady Stanton), on November 1, 1819. Later, on May 2, 1836, Cady deeded his part and share to Gerrit Smith, thus making him the sole owner of the tract.4

Gerrit Smith was not only the possessor of a landed empire, but his father also left him an immense fortune. He early established a reputation as a philanthropist, though with some eccentricities which brought the reform fringe to his door. He was a non-conformist in most things, a sort of social rebel, who believed in individual freedom of thought and action - he was an abolitionist, believed in education for women, could not bring himself into agreement with the churches, though a very devout man, and established a free church of his own. His last most noted public act was to sign the bail bond for Jefferson Davis, though he opposed everything Davis stood for. Horace White once, rather unfairly, said of Smith that he was indebted to his sire for a large fortune and weak intellect.

The young, struggling Oberlin Institute was in dire need of funds. It had borrowed beyond its limits and had milked its local patrons dry. Outside funds were necessary, if the school was to continue. An appeal was made to Gerrit Smith for aid, and non-conformist that he was, he rejoiced that he was in position to help an educational institution with courage enough to depart from traditional lines. The school not only admitted Negroes to its halls, but offered equal educational privileges to women.

His response to the appeal was characteristic. Fortunately his letter has been preserved and, as it has never been published, it is worthy of record:

Peterboro, (N. Y.) April 25, 1839

Charles G. Finney & Asa Mahan

My friends: My late father purchased April 22, 1815, for $8000 a Tract of Land in the new County of Tyler—a County lying on the Ohio River in Virginia. There are about 21,000 acres in the Tract. Nov. 1, 1819, he conveyed the Tract to myself. Although it is held under a very old title derived directly from the State of Virginia, it is probable that a still older title - older by about a year - covers some three or four thousand acres of the land. This is not certain however.

My father never sold any of the land - nor have I sold any of it. There have been repeated applications for small parcels of it. There are a few families on it, who pay rent enough to cancel the demands for taxes and for the fees of my Agent, Judge Wm. Underwood of the said County of Tyler.

The land is so far from me, that I cannot make judicious and profitable sales of it. I have thought, very frequently within the last few weeks, as it is not more than some two hundred miles from the Oberlin Collegiate Institute - as this Institute makes good use of the property given to it - and as it is in great need of more property - that I could not do better with this tract of land than to give it to the Institute. I take additional pleasure in making this gift from the fact that the American Education Society has proscribed Oberlin Institute, as well as Oneida Institute - and that you are now under greater need than ever of the liberality of your friends.

Immediately after making the purchase, my father had, at an expense of 4 or 500$ the whole Tract surveyed into Farm Lots. Most of these Lots will be unsaleable for many years - a few of them could probably be sold soon for one or two dollars per acre.

I presume the Institute is incorporated. Let me know what must be the name or style of the party of the second part in the Deed. The Deed together with Maps & Survey bills and a large bundle of papers pertaining to the Tract, I will hand to any person whom you may authorize to receive them.

This gift may be, to a great extent, if not entirely unavailable for several years, I am aware, that you are in present need - and I therefore add to the gift two thousand dollars in money. Your draught on me for two thousand dollars payable 1st February next at the Bank of Utica (let it be written by Br. Mahan and signed by both of you) will be accepted by me.

Your friend and brother
Gerrit Smith5

Smith's reference in his letter of gift to the older title and the possibility of a dispute was a masterly understatement. The money gift of $2,000 which accompanied the land was really an easement of a king-size headache in prospect. Actual settlers had built their cabins on nearly every section of the 20,000 acre tract, and there were really few surveys that were not disputed in some way. Some were "squatters," others had a shadow of title derived from the so-called "corn right" and even from older land warrants. But all in all, aside from the difficulty with settlers, the cost of holding the property was not excessive. Originally surveyed as a part of Ohio County, it passed into Tyler when that County was formed in 1814. Its assessed valuation was $5,000, rated at 25 cents per acre for tax purposes, or a total annual tax of $6.25. Under the County's 1949 tax levy this valuation would have amounted to $40.36.

When transferred into Doddridge on the organization of that county in 1845, the land continued at the same rate of assessment of 25 cents per acre. But, at that Oberlin paid no less than other landowners in the county.

When Trustee Owen Brown heard of the gift of land, he was highly pleased. From his home at Hudson he wrote Levi Burnell, Secretary of Oberlin Institute: "I think much of the donation of Mr. G. Smiths land and think it would be best if it should be explored this fall and bring it into publick view as soon as possible that it may be soon in use." No doubt, reflecting on his son's financial difficulties he then had John in mind as agent and explorer - but of this there is no positive evidence. But it is highly probable that the later negotiations with the College came about through the suggestion of Owen Brown.

It is probable, too, that the gift of land brought the name of Gerrit Smith to John Brown's attention, but he was destined in later years to play a big part in the younger man's affairs. Brown became an intimate at his baronial home at Peterboro, New York; Smith furnished money for both the Kansas and Harper's Ferry interludes, and it was from Smith that John Brown obtained the North Elba, New York, homestead, by purchase and by gift of Boston friends. It is there that John Brown is buried.

On April 2, 1840, - nearly a full year after the letter of gift - John Brown was at Oberlin in conference with the Prudential Committee of the College. After some discussion he made a proposal in writing:

Oberlin 2d April 1840
Gentlemen of the Prudential Committee

In negotiating in regard to the Virginia lands or any investigation to be made in regard to the title or boundary of those lands I wish to be perfectly frank. I wish to see those lands with a particular view to settle my family on them if I can find encouragement sufficient to justify me in so doing, and in offering my service as a surveyor, am not induced to do it for the sake of getting employment or wages. If you are disposed to send me I will charge you but one dollar pr day with the addition of a moderate allowance for such expense as shall of necessity be incurred . . . If I should settle my family on those lands I believe I could be the means of rendering them a source of allmost immediate income to your institution, and believe the institution can well afford to be quite liberal towards a family like my own who should go to commence a settlement uppon them. The three eldest of my children are sons, all resolute, energetic, intelligent boys & as I trust of verry decided religious character, such as I think will if they are continued will prove to be valuable members of any community, or faithful and competent agents should they be kneeded. The business we now follow is mainly wool growing in which branch I have been hitherto prosperous.

Respectfully yours,
John Brown.6

On the following day, after further negotiations, the proposal was accepted and John Brown, as agent, was authorized by a formal power of attorney "to enter upon, explore and occupy, a certain tract of land in the County of Tyler in the state of Virginia . . . to lease or rent the said lands or any part thereof . . . to demand and receive and if necessary sue for and collect any and all moneys due for rent or damage due from tenants or former occupants . . . and to do all other acts and things . . . which the Board of Trustees may themselves lawfully do." This document is dated April 3, 1840, and bears the signatures of President Asa Mahan, Secretary Levi Burnell and the seal of the Institute.

On the day this document was signed Secretary Burnell hastened to advise Trustee Owen Brown of the action taken. There was wishful thinking in the final paragraph of the letter: "Should he succeed in clearing up titles without difficulty or lawsuits, it would be easy, as it appears to me, to make provision for religious and school privileges, and by proper efforts, with the blessing of God, soon see that wilderness bud and blossom as the rose."

The newly appointed agent drew a $50 advance from the Institute, which he was careful to set down in his pocket memorandum book. From the day he set out from Franklin Mills on April 14, every item of expense was noted in this little book, down to the one-half cents. In all, from April 14 when he left home until May 16 when he returned, he noted about $33 in expenses, including charges for guides and other help.

Making his headquarters at the home of 'Squire William Underwood at Ripley Mills, (now Alma, Tyler County), Brown ranged over the country, inspected the several tracts of land, and made some few notes in his pocket book. He was pleased with the prospect, especially with a home site on Big Battle, but was rather disgusted with the careless living and lack of enterprise of the Virginians. From the home of Squire Underwood, he wrote his wife an encouraging letter - as this letter has never been printed in its entirety, it seems rather worth while to reproduce it:

Tyler Co Va 27th April 1840

My Dear Wife & Children

I arrived on the 17th at this place. Have been well ever since I left you & everywhere kindly used. Have made some progress in my business, but do not now expect to get through before the 8 or 9 of May. I like the country as well as I expected, & its inhabitants rather better. I think we can find a place in it that will answer all the purposes for which we kneed (in) this world, & have seen the spot where if it be the will of Providence, I hope one day to live with my family. I do not find the season so far forward as I expected compared with our Ohio country but to enable you to compare a little I would say that some have planted their corn more than a week since. Onion tops are pretty well grown, & I saw Potatoes out of the ground more than a week ago on the river. Apples are about the size of large Peas, & other things about in the same proportion. Were the inhabitants as resolute and industrious as the Northern people, & did they understand how to manage as well, they would become rich, but they are not generally so. They seem to have no idea of improvement in their Cattle, Sheep or Hogs nor to know the use of enclosed pasture fields for their stock, but spend a large portion of their time in hunting for their Cattle, Sheep & Horses, & the same habit continues from Father to son. They have so little idea of moveing off anything they have to sell, or of going away for anything they kneed to buy, that their Merchants extort uppon them prodigiously. By comparing them with the people of other parts of the country, & world, I can see new and abundant proof that Knowledge is power. I think we might be verry useful to them on many accounts, were we so disposed. May God in mercy keep us all, & enable us to get wisdom and with all our getting or loosing to get understanding.

Affectionately yours
John Brown7

The pocket memorandum book containing Brown's brief field notes fortunately has been preserved in the treasures of Boston Public Library. From that source we get a scant view of the scope of his activities and the names of a few of the settlers who disputed the right of Oberlin to take their lands. However, Brown had reversed his position from that taken in 1825 when he went among the settlers in Crawford and Erie Counties, Pennsylvania, living on similarly disputed lands. He urged them to hold fast, that their actual settlement would overbalance any claim that could be brought forward by the claimants under a Pennsylvania State warrant.8 Curiously enough, years later the West Virginia courts affirmed his 1825 position.

The first field note entry in the memorandum book is dated April 17, 1840: "Esq. Underwood says the bounds of the Leatherman claim have not yet been found nor does he believe they ever can be."9 Other notes follow at intervals of days:

"April 23d 1840 Found on McElroy Big Beach bottom good Mill seat undisputed Tract . . . Found on right branch of Big Battle valueable spring good stone coal & excelent bottom, good timber & sugar orchard good hill land & beautiful situation for dwelling all right. Course of this branch at the forks is South 21" West from a beautiful White Oak on which I marked my initials 23d April 1840 (JB)

"28th April found on Big Battle below the forks good bottom land good stone & on the left hand fork a fine bottom with one of the best sugar Orchards I ever met with.

"Found on Brushy Run some good bottom, durable water, good timber & Stone Coal, also first rate stone quarry. Sugar orchard also.

May 11th Found on Israels Fork good bottom, good timber. Sugar orchards, and the appearance of good durable water, with good bottoms above, & below it, no appearance of stone, nor of coal, fit for working.

"May 12th Found on Riggins Run some good bottom land, some good timber, & some indications of Stone Coal also some appearance of durable water.

"Adam Ash would (give) fifty cents per acre for about 200 acres or take fifty dollars for his betterments. Jackson Hughs offers 1.00 per acre for 100 acres asks 100 (dollars) for his betterments.

"John Williams offers 25.00 for 100 acres would take 60.00 for his betterments. Homer Williams offers 250.00 for 1000 acres (said not to be responsible) asks 50. for his betterments. Gideon Roberts offers 25. per hundred acres for 200 acres asks 100. for his betterments."

In his field notes, John Brown dwells on the location on Big Battle where, reverting to the pioneer custom, of "blazing" a tree with a tomahawk to indicate ownership, he carved his name on a great white oak. Years later Virgil A. Lewis, distinguished West Virginia educator and historian, made an effort to find the tree. His interest was aroused by Wendell Phillips Garrison, (son of William Lloyd Garrison) who then owned the memorandum book containing the notation.

Mr. Lewis replied to the inquiry under date of March 4, 1896: "The exact point on McElroy Creek at which Brown cut his initials on the oak tree can be readily determined. It is in Doddridge County. I go to West Union - its seat of justice - in a few weeks, when I shall make inquiry and cause a search to be made for the historic tree. Then I shall write you the result thereof."10 No further correspondence can be found and to this day we do not know whether or not Mr. Lewis was successful in his quest.

Though Brown returned to his Ohio home on May 17th, it was not until July 14th that he got around to making a formal report of his findings to the Prudential Committee of Oberlin. On that day the minutes of the Committee say briefly that "the report of John Brown, respecting his agency in Virginia and examination of the Smith donation of land, was read by the Secretary and deferred." It is probable that Brown made a long report to the Committee based on the notes in the memorandum book and on more ample notes which have not been preserved. Unfortunately the formal report has been lost. But Brown's request for remuneration for his services presented to the Committee on the same day has been preserved:

Oberlin 14th July 1840

Are the Prudential Committee, or the Trustees of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute disposed to allow John Brown of Hudson and his family (twelve persons in all) one thousand acres of their Virginia lands for an actual settlement uppon those lands by said family, and a commission of five pr cent for attending regularly to the payment of such taxes as may be levied uppon them after being provided with the means, and for the further consideration of twenty-nine days service heretofore rendered.

John Brown

The Prudential Committee was disposed to grant the request for 1,000 acres and to name John Brown as agent on the property, but they took some time to deliberate. It was not until late in August that the Trustees authorized the Prudential Committee to "convey by deed to Bro. John Brown, of Hudson, One Thousand Acres of Virginia land." It was then Brown's turn to procrastinate. He was dickering with Heman Oviatt about a partnership in a sheep farm and tannery at Richfield, not far from Hudson. It was not until the first of the new year that he found time to reply.

Richfield 2d Jany 1841

Levi Burnell Esqr

Dr Sr - A few days since I saw your letter to my Father dated 20th October 1840 in which you alude to our negociations about the Virginia land. I should have written you before but my time has been completely taken up, and owing to a variety of circumstances I have sometimes allmost given up the idea of going to the south at all; but after long reflection and consultation about it I feel prepared to say definitely that I expect Providence willing to accept the proposal of your Board, and that I shall want everything understood and arranged as nearly as may be, for my removal in the next Spring. I would here say that I shall expect to receive a thousand acres of land in a body that will includ a living spring of water dischargeing itself at a heighth sufficient to accomodate a tanery as I shall expect to pursue that business on a small scale if I go. It is my regular occupation. I mentioned several such springs in my report, but found them verry scarce. Please write me anything about the matter as you see cause, directing to Hudson.

Yours in sincerity
John Brown.

Brown's proposal seems fair enough. The burden of compliance shifted to Oberlin, where the spectre of debt had again reared its ugly head. Times were bad and money tight - liberal sponsors of the struggling young college had been caught in the pinch. There was not only retrenchment in their giving, but at least one called for repayment of what was then a very considerable amount of money for a loan advanced in better times.

Arthur Tappan, New York financier, philanthropist, and abolitionist, had lent $10,000 to Oberlin in 1835 to tide the school over a tight spot. Later, Tappan himself fell upon evil days and had a difficult time to maintain his own credit and to save himself from bankruptcy. As eastern financial agent for Oberlin, collections made in England were cleared through his institution. Something more than $2,000 of the debt had been paid by subscription, when in 1839 - grabbing at straws to save himself - Tappan seized a draft for $4,752, sent from England, to apply on the debt. This precipitated a crisis in Oberlin's affairs. In 1841, in something akin to desperation, it seemed an excellent bargain to exchange 10,000 acres of wild Virginia land of dubious title for the balance due Tappan.

Tappan received a deed for the 10,000 acres dated February 1, 1841, when the land was located in Tyler County, but for some reason he did not have his deed recorded until Doddridge had been cut off and the lands passed to the new county.11 The deal freed Oberlin from immediate financial pressure.

Just before this transfer was affected, on January 20, 1841, Secretary Levi Bumell wrote John Brown that the offer of 1,000 acres had been withdrawn. Burnell's letter has not been preserved, therefore we do not know the reasons given by him, but can only infer from the extant correspondence relating to the lands. The decision of the College committee struck Brown as a great disappointment and he replied in a rather sharp manner. He received no answer. He followed up with another letter asking for settlement, both of which are still held in the Oberlin archives. In his first letter of protest, dated Hudson, February 5, 1841, Brown said:

"I have just returned from a journey to Pa. and have read yours of 20th Jany & must say I am somewhat disappointed in the information which it brings; & considering all that has passed, that on the part of the Institution I had not been called upon to decide positively nor even advised of any hurry for a more definite answer; & that on my part I had never intimated any other than an intention to accept the offer made; nor called for my pay. I should think your Committee would have done nearer the thing that is right had they at least signified their wish to know my determination, before putting it out of their power to perform what they had engaged. Probably I was not so prompt in makeing up my mind fully, & in communicateing my determination as I had ought to be, & if Providence intends to defeat my plans there is no doubt the best of reasons for it, & we will rejoice that he who directs the steps of men knows perfectly well how to direct them; & will most assuredly make his counsel to stand. A failure of the consideration I do not so much regard as the derangement of my plans of future opperation. If the Virginia lands are, or are not disposed of, I wish you would give me the earliest information, & in the event of their still remaining on hand I suppose it not unreasonable for me still to expect a fulfillment of the offer on the part of the Institution. Should the land be conveyed away perhaps your Committee or some of the friends might still be instrumental in getting me an employment at the south. Please write me as soon as you have any information to give."

To this letter Brown apparently received no reply. He followed it up on March 26th, with the following, addressed to Secretary Burnell:

"Some weeks ago I wrote you requesting information if the Virginia lands belonging to your Institution were, or were not disposed of. As I have received nothing from you since, I suppose there must have been some failure of my letter. Please write me on receipt of this & say whether the lands are, or are not disposed of. If the lands are not sold, & your committee do not on the whole wish me to go on, they have only to signify it frankly, & draw in my favour on my Father for say thirty dollars (as I have waited nearly one year) and I shall when that order is accepted by him, consider the institution discharged from all further obligation to me."

This plain demand for an understanding or a settlement brought the desired result - the Oberlin treasurer's records disclose that under date of April 9, 1841, Brown was paid $29 "to balance account."

Thus ended John Brown's plan to become a resident of the Ohio Valley section of West Virginia. In later years he was a frequent visitor to the sheepraising section in the Northern Panhandle, but he never again visited the Ohio Valley. His better known visit to the Eastern Panhandle nineteen years later was wholly unrelated to his contacts with the western side. In the Ohio Valley section he was a peaceful farmer and wool buyer - at Harper's Ferry, in his famous raid, he touched off the great American Civil War.

Failure of John Brown's plans to establish a home on Big Battle is but one incident in the troubled story of the Oberlin lands. Transfer of the 10,000 acres to Tappan did not end the difficulties - it only started real trouble. Like Agent Brown's Harper's Ferry raid, pressure for possession touched off a series of law suits and counter suits that dragged their weary way through the courts for two full generations. West Virginia courts inherited the cases from Virginia, and as Oberlin was then not too popular with West Virginia judges and juries the squatter's claims were upheld in case after case. However, Oberlin did manage to hold on to the mineral rights in one small tract in this rich area, and down to within recent years the College had a small income from this holding.

The Oberlin land case is a West Virginia legal classic. Law students were for years required to study the issue involved and the "ruling decisions." Bar examiners frequently used the case to test fledgling lawyers.


1 Originally surveyed in 1786, the Oberlin lands were then in Ohio County; passing into Tyler when that county was organized in 1814, and to Doddridge when that county was formed in 1845.

2 Robert S. Fletcher in "John Brown and Oberlin," Oberlin Alumni Magazine, February, 1932.

3 Records in office of the Clerk of the Ohio County Court, Wheeling. Photostats of the surveys furnished by courtesy of Raymond J. Falland, County Clerk.

4 Records in the office of the Tyler County Court, Middlebourne. Letter of Delf Norona, Moundsville, W. Va., December 30, 1948, and letter of Ray Henderson, Clerk County Court, Middlebourne, January 8, 1949.

5 From Gerrit Smith Papers, Syracuse (New York) University Library. Printed by permission of R. Craig Fabian, Supervisor of Special Collections. The "maps, survey bills and large bundle of papers pertaining to the tract" mentioned in the letter can not be located in Syracuse University Library, where the Gerrit Smith Papers are deposited, nor in the archives of Oberlin College.

6 In Treasurer's Office, Oberlin College. Printed in Robert S. Fletcher's "John Brown and Oberlin," Oberlin Alumni Magazine, February, 1932. Other correspondence quoted in this article between John Brown and Oberlin officials, same source.

7 Original letter owned by Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, California, and reprinted by special permission of the Director. An extract from this letter is printed in Frank B. Sandborn's Life and Letters of John Brown, (all editions) p. 134; also same extract in Boyd B. Stutler's "John Brown An Unique Character in American History," West Virginia Review, March, 1926, and in Robert S. Fletcher's "John Brown and Oberlin," Oberlin Alumni Magazine, February, 1932.

8 Letter of Judah Colt, Erie, Pennsylvania, to Thomas Astley, Philadelphia, February 1, 1826; Colt, land agent, reporting to the absentee landowner: "I sometimes despair of living to see the time when the title legally deriven from the State shall no longer be disturbed by evil and unprincipled men - we have recently had a man by the name of John Brown traveling about in this county encouraging the former actual settlers that they will ultimately receive back all their claims and that the company's title is of no value," Original letter owned by Boyd B. Stutler.

9 Memorandum book containing expense account and field notes is owned by Boston Public Library. Permission to quote from it granted by Richard G. Hensley, Chief Librarian of the Reference Division.

10 In Oswald Garrison Villard Papers, Columbia University Library, New York.

11 Letter Hall Maxwell, Clerk County Court, Doddridge County, West Union, March 3, 1949. Deed to Tappan is recorded in Deed Book No. 1, p. 507. Another deed for the balance of the land, Board of Trustees for Oberlin College to Uriah Thompson, date September 5, 1854, for 10,827 1/2 acres, is recorded in the same office in Deed Book No. 2, p. 445.

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