J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, October 25, 2019

“Count Brown” of King William County, Virginia

In 1767, William Burnet Brown moved out of Massachusetts.

He sold his father’s country house on Folly Hill, “Browne Hall,” to his cousin William Browne, by then one of Salem’s representatives on the Massachusetts General Court. [That meant this property went from William Browne to his son William Burnet Brown to his cousin William Browne, causing immense headaches for future chroniclers.]

It looks like Brown sold his mansion in Salem to his aunt Elizabeth, mother of William Browne, who had remarried Epes Sargent and then been widowed again. She eventually sold that property to her son Paul Dudley Sargent, later a colonel in the Continental Army.

William Burnet Brown, his wife Judith, and their infant children moved to her home colony of Virginia. He bought the King William County estate called Elsing Green from Carter Braxton, a politician who would become one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Braxton might have needed cash in 1767 because he was caught up in treasurer John Robinson’s embezzlement of colonial funds.

The mansion house of Elsing Green is shown above. It was built beside the Pamunkey River in the late 1710s. Around it were dependencies, one of those buildings dating to the 1690s; gardens; and fields of tobacco. The estate rested, of course, on the backs of the black workers enslaved there. In the early 1780s the state tax assessors counted seventy-five people working a thousand acres.

Soon Brown brought his sister Mary, his only surviving sibling, to live at Elsing Green. Their voyage in late 1767 was delayed by a storm that blew their ship aground near Stonington, Connecticut. The 24 Dec 1767 Boston News-Letter reported that all the passengers and “the Baggage and Horses of Mr. Brown” were safe.

Living in colonial Virginia was quite different from living in colonial Massachusetts, but the shift was probably not so drastic for William Burnet Brown as it would have been for others. He was an Anglican, not a Congregationalist, so the church worship was the same. He had grown up immensely rich and being served by enslaved black domestic servants. He now had to run a large agricultural plantation, but his wife and her Carter relatives no doubt helped him adjust to the Virginia way of doing things. He became a justice of the peace, and eventually his neighbors called him “Count Brown” for his wealth.

Brown still owned real estate up north. An attorney advertised in the 27 Jan 1769 Connecticut Journal of New Haven about a large amount of property for sale in that colony.

Brown was probably visiting Boston on business of that sort in September 1769 when he happened to witness the fight between James Otis, Jr., and John Robinson (no relation to the late Virginia treasurer). Why he got involved, swinging his cane and striking John Gridley, is unclear. But it caused some legal difficulties in the following weeks, as I’ll soon discuss.

Brown returned to Virginia, and I’ve seen no evidence that he ever visited Massachusetts again. He was never politically active. The only time his name appeared in the newspapers during the Revolutionary War was in 1779 when he advertised “a fine black horse” called Othello for either stud (“will cover mares for 20 dollars the leap”) or sale (for three payments spread out over up to ten years).

William Burnet Brown died in the spring of 1784, aged only forty-five. He was buried at Elsing Green. His daughter Judith married Robert Lewis, a nephew of George Washington. Without surviving sons, Brown willed the plantation to a grandson on condition that the child take his name. The name of William Burnet(t) Brown(e) has therefore been passed on to this day.

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