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As February turned to March, I noticed downtown Frankfort shops changing window displays from red to green, chalkboard signs outside the bars offering Guinness pint specials, and sounds of Céilidh music playing on St. Clair Street. March has many holidays, but perhaps the most visible is that of St. Patrick’s Day. Without a doubt, it is America’s most pronounced ethnic celebration. 
Over here at Liberty Hall we are aware of the Irish roots of the family, but knowledge as to its origins and extent is another matter. Through modern genealogical resources and the labor of many employees/volunteers, the Brown family history is well documented on this side of the Atlantic. For a family so stately and important to the region it would be easy to think tracing those familial lines further would be easy. Unfortunately, it is not. Especially on Senator John Brown’s line. 




When preserving the history of a family, it’s important to not just ask what we know now, but what they knew then. A recent question we have had over here at the Hall is: were the Browns themselves aware of their Irish roots? The answer is not as easy to come by and perhaps changed generation to generation. There was certainly speculation in the late 19th century. But it would have been hard to piece that together almost 200 years after they arrived. As a curator and archivist, I look to material culture and the written record to tell the story. And what is not there (more than I would like) must be deduced through the experiences of their community. If I were to take guests on an extended tour through our collections, they could easily walk away thinking there wasn’t an inkling of Irish culture in the family. Much of our material history points to English, Scottish, and French origins. This is very much in line with Margaretta’s family. But even the library is absent of any such narrative. The Browns weren’t even interested in Ireland based on our current research. The only text that alludes to Ireland is a later acquisition on the history of the Preston family (John’s mother, Margaret Preston), a famous branch of Donegal/Derry Presbyterians. Further complicating matters is the surname Brown itself. It’s easy to think the name easily identifiable with English or Scottish Plantation settlers. That erases what we now know about anglicizing of Irish names under colonialism, the growth of native Irish Presbyterianism, and the experience of living in the Anglican Ascendency. Simply put, many families with English names from Ireland today are very possibly Irish who changed their names to fit within the political/cultural reality they faced. It’s these possibilities that make tracing ancestry much harder. To understand this cultural amnesia, we look to John Brown’s father, John Brown Sr., who we refer historically to as Rev. John Brown to avoid confusion. (It should be noted that researching either of the John Browns, father or son, is a frustrating endeavor given the existing research on the famous abolitionist…John Brown.)  

There are a couple of accounts of how Rev. John Brown came to America, both originating him in Ireland. Many of the popular articles say he originated in Derry, Ulster, but those accounts lack primary sources and seem to be copy and pasted repeatedly. The Princeton Biography (Class of 1749) of Rev. John Brown tells a very different story. According to his alma mater, Brown was born in County Limerick in 1728. His sister Janet was married to a radical religious dissenter, Archibald Stuart, who fled to Pennsylvania to evade royal authorities. When it was safe, he sent for her and the children. The Browns also sent their four-year-old son John to go with her. By 1738 they were settled in Augusta County, VA., along the famous ‘Irish Track.’ The issue here is that Stuart was from Northern Ireland, like many Scottish Presbyterians. And so we really can’t say for certain what part of Ireland Brown left from, how long his family had been there, and why he made the crossing. Liberty Hall is currently working with researchers in Ireland to help answer these questions. 

irish track

1755 Fry-Jefferson map showing Irish Track in Colonial Virginia 

What is not relayed in this narrative is the nuance of how the Scots-Irish experience as we perceive it today does not necessarily line up with how we perceive Irish identity in the 21st century, and definitely not how the modern Irish state wanted itself perceived after Independence. The Browns left an Ireland that was struggling with deep cultural oppression. Anyone who was not a member of the Church of Ireland was not allowed in the governing systems; Catholic, Presbyterian, and other sects could not legally marry, be buried in a churchyard, or practice any civil office. Tithes to pay for the State Church were taken no matter your denomination. And dissenters like Rev. Brown’s supposed brother-in-law treaded dangerous legal grounds. The idea of a united political and cultural Ireland would not come into the conversation until well into the latter 18th century, just as Liberty Hall was having its interior finished. The Browns would be in their third American generation, with Margareta and baby Mason on their way to Kentucky from Philadelphia. Two years later, in 1801, Ireland would be completely politically assimilated into the British Empire. Did the browns see Ireland as an extension of Britain and disdain it in their Revolutionary fervor? Or did they have any opinions as to the nature of the Irish experience throughout the famine and poor laws? This we don’t know. What we see is a dramatic divergence from the experiences early 18th century Irish-Americans from their far-away cousins, leaving a faded cultural memory in the record. 

We need to consider many pre-Revolutionary Irish came to the colonies a full generation (if not two) before the war started. It was their children who took primary roles in the conflict; they considered themselves Americans and even fought Irish regiments in the British Army. Even by then, only threads of oral and musical traditions would survive, their origins not uncovered again until the late 19th century. But their experiences should not deter us from digging deeper. Underneath the surface of Liberty Hall is a story of settlement and state-building grounded in 16th century Ireland as much as 18th century Kentucky. In researching and trying to fill in the blanks not left by the material record, we all gain from understanding how the many generations of this family navigated their worlds and, hopefully, help us navigate our own. The search continues.  

Sources and Further Reading 

-Ulster to America: The Scots-Irish Migration Experience 1680-1830: Edited by Warren R Hofstra 

-Princetonians, 1748-1768: A Biographical Dictionary: McLachlan, James. 

-Frontiers, States and Identity in Early Modern Ireland and Beyond: Christopher  Maginn, Et al. 

-Atlantic Crossroads: Historical Connections Between Scotland, Ulster and North    America: Edited by Patrick Fitzgerald and Steve Ickringill 

-Kentucky’s First Senator: The Life and Times of John Brown: Walker, Steven