A brook by a new name

Local Black pioneer John Thomas honored in creek’s renaming

Curt Stager feels the waters of John Thomas Brook on April 22, soon after he learned his application to change the waterway’s name to honor a local Black settler was approved by the federal government. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Marbone)

BLOOMINGDALE — Curt Stager dipped his hand into the cool waters of a small stream in Bloomingdale, splashed a bit and smiled. He was one of the first to enjoy the freshly renamed John Thomas Brook.

Up until recently, the waterway was officially named “N***o Brook.” For years it has been a beautiful brook with an ugly name and a complicated history.

Many maps leave it unlabeled rather than printing the offensive word. The brook used to be known by an even more offensive name — “N***** Brook.” It was changed from this slur to “N***o Brook” in 1963. Now, it has changed again.

It took a while, but Stager was able to successfully get the brook renamed recently to respect John Thomas, one of the “Black pioneers” who lived in this area in the 1800s and a man Stager really admires.

It was a poignant moment for Stager, as he spoke of the past while seeing history in the making.

John Thomas Brook is a 15.3-mile long stream that flows from Onchiota to Bloomingdale, runs under the Bloomingdale Bog Trail at times and connects with Twobridge Brook, Sumner Brook and Ricketson’s Brook.

The water’s former name came about because numerous Black families lived in the area on land granted by the white abolitionist Gerrit Smith pledged to Black men, giving them the right to vote and a place to settle in the buildup to the Civil War.

Stager said around a dozen families and individuals lived on these lands in Vermontville between the 1850s and 1870s.

While many of the roads and geological features around the area are named after people or families — bearing last names and such — this brook was named after the color of the skin of the people living and farming on it, and not in a kind way. The Black people living along the water were not treated equally as people by many local white residents, and its slur of a name represented that.

“The name always bothered me,” Stager said. “These people had names, and they were Adirondack heroes.”

And it bothered a lot of people at Paul Smith’s College where he works, too. PSC has a property along the brook in Onchiota and when faculty would take students out there, they’d have to explain the name.

He said natural science professor Corey Laxson told him it was embarrassing taking trips to the brook and there’s been a desire for decades to call the brook by a better name.

What’s in a name?

As anyone who has changed their name for marriage or any other reason knows, it is an arduous process that involves a lot of paperwork. Even more so for a geological feature. Stager spent months collecting everything he needed for the application to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.

Though he said some people thought it was impossible, he treated it like a grant proposal, which he used to filling out. He just had to do his due diligence and document the facts and reasons for requesting the change. The USBGN does not make “fly by night” changes, Stager said.

He collected signatures of support from the community — the people who interact with the brook. He got support from elected officials like town of Franklin Supervisor Dot Brown and Franklin County Legislator Lindy Ellis; Paul Smith’s College students and faculty wrote letters; Historic Saranac Lake gave its support; and numerous other locals documented their support for the change.

Then, after a couple months of waiting, Stager learned that the board approved the name change at its April 13 meeting.

Stager said he’s ordered a historic marker about the brook and its name change which he plans to place at the college’s site on the brook. And the renaming work is not done yet. He says next he’d like to set his sights on the nearby “N***o Hill.” But he said lot more research needs to be done before he can apply for a name change there.

Stager said USBGN officials told him changing the name of place named after a person name is much harder. Since the brook was named after a slur and not a person, it was easier to change. Now, John Thomas Brook is likely to stay named that as long as the U.S. government is around.

Freedom and a farm

John Thomas was born into slavery in 1810 at Ezekiel Merrick’s plantation in Barclay, Maryland and was considered someone’s property until the age of 29. Merrick sold his wife and children to a slaver in Georgia, leaving Thomas with what he called “a lonely heart (and) a terrible feeling of despair and desolation” in a letter he wrote to Gerrit Smith.

He had had enough.

“I became dissatisfied with my lot of being marketable property, and a subject of involuntary Servitude; for no crime, but that of the color, which God gave me,” Thomas wrote.

He gave his enslavers what he sardonically referred to as “a long farewell” in the spring of 1840 and fled on foot with two other Black men to Pennsylvania, where they met Quakers who got them hooked up with the Underground Railroad up to Troy, New York. Thomas lived there for seven years when Smith granted him 40 acres of land in Mountain View near Plumadore Pond.

The land was “unbroken wilderness and far from neighbors” so he eventually sold it and returned to Troy, but at some point returned to Vermontville, now with a family, to purchase land himself on Muzzy Road.

Stager said he was a successful farmer for the time. The annual Franklin agricultural census in 1870 shows that Thomas grew corn, oats, potatoes and hay, as well as keeping horses, cows, sheep and pigs on around 150 acres of land.

Denise Griffin still farms that land. Her garden beds at Sanctuary Farm are a stone’s throw away from the cellar hole of Thomas’ old house.

Thomas was hunted for obtaining his freedom. His former enslaver sent bounty hunters — slave catchers — to Vermontville to capture him. While slavery wasn’t legal in the north, bounty hunting of Black people had been codified in federal law and allowed anyone to legally kidnap any Black person and turn them over to slavers.

A local account reported in books and newspapers says these slave catchers made it as far as Franklin Falls when they were warned by locals there that “Thomas was armed and would never be taken alive, and that the local whites would stand by him.”

Fearing they would be killed, the bounty hunters turned back.

While some in the community were friendly, Stager said it seems that was certainly not the case universally.

In his letter to Smith, Thomas wrote, “I have breasted the storm of prejudice and opposition, until I begin to be regarded as an American Citizen.” He did not feel fully welcome as white residents did.

As far as Stager knows, this 1872 letter to Smith is the only direct record of Thomas talking about this part of his life story. He wrote this letter to Smith believing he did not have much longer to live, but he lived for around 20 more years and died at the age of 83 in 1894.

Thomas’ obituary in the Malone Palladium newspaper ends by saying “Mr. Thomas was an honest, upright and fair dealing man, a good citizen and much respected in the community where he lived so long.”

Stager wonders if the person who wrote this obituary knew of Thomas’ thoughts on American citizenship and granted him the title posthumously. He also pointed out that Thomas’s gravestone at Union Cemetery in Vermontville lists the Maryland county he was born in, which is uncommon for a gravestone. He believes this was Thomas publicly telling the world of the slavery and pain he escaped.

Thomas descendants still in North Country

Thomas and his wife Mary had three daughters together.

Susan Hendrie Morrow is John Thomas’ great-great-great-granddaughter on her mother’s side. Thomas’ daughter Charlotte married Stephen “Warren” Morehouse, another local Black resident, and a veteran of the Civil War who was part of a regiment which saved the lives of many Union soldiers at the Battle of Olustee.

Morrow runs a daycare in the Plattsburgh area, and has grandchildren and a brother who live up here.

John Thomas lived many generations ago, and she said she did not know family history that far back until Stager visited her last year.

Morrow said she “thrilled” by Stager’s work and was glad he pushed so hard to rename the brook. The derogatory name upset her and she said it is wonderful that her ancestor is finally being recognized.

“A lot of people of color are not,” she said.

Morrow said she can’t imagine the hurt her family went through with slavery. And though slavery is now long gone, she added that prejudice still sticks around.

Even today, she said she hears people still say ignorant and demeaning things about Black people, even friends and family. Growing up around Plattsburgh, she dealt with it in school.

Morrow’s mother was Black and her father was white. She said she was known in school as “n*****,” which drove her “crazy.”

“I don’t know if it’s so much the word, as just the ignorance behind it,” Morrow said. “Because I’m proud of who I am.”

Home of history

Stager said he has loved learning about these amazing names and stories he had never heard of, but trying to learn more about Black settlers in the area is hard.

Stager said there were likely many more Black people here than were counted in the census. With the Fugitive Slave Act legalizing bounty hunting of Black people, who had no right to go to court, many did not want to be found and lived in relative obscurity.

This danger to being known and fear of being found made documentation of their history here scarce, and Stager said much of that history has been lost to time.

On Saturday, Stager walked to the brook on Bigelow Road with Les Parker, who has lived nearby since 1987. Along the way, they visited cellar holes from long-gone log houses, filled with metal and glass from household items left behind. Stager said it is hard to know who lived in these houses, but there’s a potential some of the Black families did.

Bigelow Road was the main route to get from Gabriels to Bloomingdale before county Route 55 was paved. It is around a 1.25-mile walk to the brook, about halfway down the road. The road is not maintained much anymore. Parker maintains his end, but the bridge over John Thomas Brook is out and the road can’t be driven end-to-end.

Parker said the road is now used for recreation — hiking, snowshoeing, dog walking, skiing, biking, snowmobiling, four-wheeling, fishing, hunting, bird-watching and partying. On his end, he tries to keep it clean of trash.

There are a couple cutouts through the brush heading down to the brook.

“That’s 35 years of my dogs running down to get in,” Parker said with a laugh.

The land on the sides of the road was overgrown with brush and trees, but back in the day was likely cleared farming land for crops of spinach, apples, grains and onions.

A number of years ago, Stager read a diary written by James Wardner, who ran the Rainbow Inn in Rainbow Lake in the 1800s. Wardner wrote of a “Mrs. Brady,” a Black woman who worked at the inn, raised onions on the brook and lived in a small community of Black families.

Onions need a lot of water, Stager said, and were grown on raised beds on the streamline.

Brattleboro, Vermont was recently pitted against Saranac Lake in a “Strongest Town” contest about urban planning and had a similar nearby name changing. A brook in Townshend, a town near Brattleboro, was also renamed from N***o Brook in 2022, according to the Brattleboro Reformer.

The Reformer reported that petitioners changed the name to Huzzy Brook in honor of Susanna and James Huzzy, a Black couple who lived in the area in the early 1800s. The couple had six children. James served as a soldier during the American Revolutionary War, as a substitute for his owner’s son’s service. He died in 1822. Susannah died at 104 in 1854, according to the Reformer.

On Saturday, there were a couple of people fishing in John Thomas Brook. The spring peepers frogs were chirping and the water was burbling over beaver dams, now flowing under a new name.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today