Louis A. DeCaro Jr.: John Brown biographer sets the record straight

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Thank you for the interesting article about the painting of Josiah Hasbrook in Amherst (“Around Amherst,” Feb. 7). However, as a biographer of John Brown the abolitionist, I’d like to provide some corrections and clarifications about Hasbrook in relation to John Brown.

First, it seems the author was misinformed that Hasbrook was an eyewitness to Brown’s execution in Virginia. This is impossible. Perhaps what Baer Tierkel meant to say was that Hasbrook was an eyewitness of John Brown’s burial on Dec. 8, 1859, near his family home in North Elba. This much is true.

The Hasbrook family were among a number of black settlers in Essex County, New York, who held land grants made possible by the wealthy abolitionist, Gerrit Smith. Josiah Hasbrook Sr. and his wife, Susan, moved their family (six children including Josiah C.) to the Adirondacks in the 1840s.

They were born free in Ulster and Duchess counties, respectively, and came to know John Brown and his family, who relocated to Essex County in 1849 to support the black settlement there. Josiah Sr. was saved in a bad snowstorm by John Brown in the 1850s.

There is some evidence that one Josiah Hasbrook was employed by Brown in the closing days of his wool enterprise in 1854, and this may have been the younger Josiah, although this is not certain.

So while young Josiah C. Hasbrook did not properly grow “up in the family” of John Brown, as your article states, he seems to have been employed by the Browns in his youth and was close to the abolitionist’s family as a result.

When Brown was executed following the Harper’s Ferry raid, Josiah C. Hasbrook was about 19 and was still at home with his parents in the Adirondacks. It is impossible that he had any means of/or ability to see Brown’s execution. The execution of Brown itself was closed to all but politicians, militia and proslavery journalists.

However, Josiah C. Hasbrook played an important role afterward, helping to escort Brown’s widow, Mary, and her younger children on part of their journey westward in 1864 (she finally resettled in California). Afterward, Josiah C. enlisted in the Union army, serving as a private in the 26th Regiment Colored Troop Company A, from August 1864 until September 1865.

One obituary source says he spent a little time working among free blacks in the South after the war, but then returned to Essex County, New York. In 1894, he moved to Amherst and became a postal employee and, later in life, had a business selling wood and kindling.

He was married to Jane Hazzard in the late 1860s, his wife having been from one of the other black settlement families in the Adirondacks. He died in his home on Baker Street in Amherst in 1915, leaving his widow and three sons.

I hope this information will be informative and helpful to your readers.

Louis A. DeCaro Jr. is a student of John Brown the abolitionist. http://bit.ly/johnbrownblog.