Rothera on Denham and Huneycutt, 'The Letters of George Long Brown: A Yankee Merchant on Florida's Antebellum Frontier'

James M. Denham, Keith L. Huneycutt, eds.
Evan C. Rothera

James M. Denham, Keith L. Huneycutt, eds. The Letters of George Long Brown: A Yankee Merchant on Florida's Antebellum Frontier. Contested Boundaries Series. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2019. 262 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-5638-8.

Reviewed by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith) Published on H-Florida (December, 2019) Commissioned by Jeanine A. Clark Bremer (Northern Illinois University)

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James L. Denham, currently professor of history and director of the Lawton M. Chiles Center for Florida History at Florida Southern College, and Keith L. Huneycutt, currently professor of English at Florida Southern College, have spent years studying the Brown family and the world in which they lived. Both men have a deep knowledge of the contours of life in antebellum Florida. In addition, together they coedited Echoes from a Distant Frontier: The Brown Sisters’ Correspondence from Antebellum Florida (2004), a collection of letters written by Corinna and Ellen Brown, as well as several article-length collections of letters written by Corinna Brown and James W. Anderson. In the current volume, they compile roughly seventy transcribed and annotated letters of another member of the Brown family, George Long Brown. George’s letters—written to his brother Mannevillette, his sisters Corinna and Ellen, and other family members and associates—shed a great deal of light on the attitudes of a Yankee transplant in antebellum Florida. They also provide useful information about social mores as well as business practices and commercial life in an isolated region before the arrival of railroads.

Hailing from New Hampshire, George worked as a clerk in his late teens and early twenties in locations as varied as Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Charleston. These jobs, the authors contend, reinforced his earlier education and strengthened his writing skills. George arrived in Florida in 1840, in a region many considered a frontier and a place still convulsed by the Second Seminole War. He made the North Florida town of Newmansville his base of operations and opened a store. This store, like so many stores throughout the region, “operated not only as a place to buy, sell, and trade but also as an important social center, especially during courthouse days or when the town’s Federal Land Office was auctioning off land” (p. 18). Because of Newmansville’s location, George’s business was “dependent upon credit and establishing commercial contacts in Charleston, which he visited often, developing important business and social relationships” (p. 41). George’s frequent trips to Charleston and Savannah illustrate a world that did not stop at Florida’s borders. The letters also show a man embedded in regional networks of capital and commerce and one who easily moved between rural and urban settings. Sadly, George’s ledgers and account books have been lost. Nevertheless, court records and surviving letters provide an idea of the goods he supplied. For example, an inventory of items in the store at the time of his death reveals that George sold products as diverse as shovels, cowbells, screwdrivers, grindstones, compasses, axes, candies, bottles of sarsaparilla, medicines, clothing, salt, combs, fishhooks, waffle irons, frying pans, goblets, stationery, beds, mirrors, chairs, and bureaus. Like many of his fellow storeowners, George supplied goods in exchange for cotton, corn, hides, or credit and rarely had any cash transactions.

Newmansville, the authors assert, would probably have struck George as another world, at least initially, given its relative isolation. He could not have known, when he first arrived, that he would “prosper, marry, have three children, and become a leading member of the community” (p. 32). George was certainly not the only northern transplant in the South, or even in Florida, during this period. Although slavery disgusted some northern residents of the southern states, George seemingly had no difficulty adjusting to southern social and labor customs and did not seem to have a problem with slavery. Florida, like many other states during this period, was a violent place, and this point comes across in the volume. For example, George’s brothers-in-law, George and Charles Stewart, became involved in an altercation with their overseer, a man named Stephens. Stephens killed George Stewart, possibly near George Brown’s store, was arrested, tried, convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to six months in jail and a fine of five hundred dollars. George’s letters also contain news about conflicts between white Floridians and Native Americans and remind readers of the violence of life in antebellum Florida.

In the seventeen years George lived in Newmansville, 1840-57, his letters discuss “business, politics (local, state, and national), Seminole affairs, agricultural issues, and, of course, the latest gossip” (p. 27). Some of his correspondence, as one would expect, deals with purely business matters, but other letters range into broader topics. Although this is never a major theme of his writing, George appeared sympathetic to the Whig Party and did not support the US war with Mexico. He argued that the war was provoked by “mean, contemptible, and unworthy” reasons and that it was a “shameful affair” (pp. 86, 88). Moments like these, when George’s personality shines through, make the letters so interesting. He also manifested some ambivalence about Florida. Although he made a life for himself in Newmansville, George missed his brother Mannevillette and constantly asked him to visit. That said, he cautioned his brother “you will derive but little pleasure in a trip to Florida” because “it is a dreary land to one accustomed to different and better residences” (p. 58). George’s letters also engage important themes, such as gender roles, manhood, and religion. He continually referred to his unmarried status and cautioned his sisters about believing rumors that he had married, but his marriage to Matilda Stewart occurred rather unexpectedly. George’s death occurred very suddenly in Charleston on October 8, 1857. A letter to George’s sister Ellen, written in 1858, contained disturbing information from George’s friend William Porcher Miles. Miles noted that George had been drinking heavily in the three years preceding his death and that alcohol caused his death. This does not come through in George’s letters and injects a note of mystery about the end of the life of this transplanted Yankee.

The Letters of George Long Brown is a solid collection of letters that illuminates how a northerner carved out for himself a home and a life in antebellum North Florida. Anyone interested in commercial and social life in the antebellum US, and Florida in particular, would do well to read this volume.

Citation: Evan C. Rothera. Review of Denham, James M.; Huneycutt, Keith L., eds., The Letters of George Long Brown: A Yankee Merchant on Florida's Antebellum Frontier. H-Florida, H-Net Reviews. December, 2019. URL:

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