Quakers Thomas and Phebe Brown with their three children, Samuel (1837-1911), William (1839-1922) and Mary Hannah (1842-1910), lived at Circleville Farm, a few miles outside Lincoln, Virginia. Their 19th century lives spanned the century. The portraits of Thomas and Phebe, above, show them to look picture perfect: upright, attractive, modest, and kind. The Browns ran a store and post office at Circleville, and even opened a school there. Here is a reference to their store, “Brown’s store” from the civil war diary of a Confederate, slave owning woman living in nearby Clarke County. Sigismunda S. Kimball, like most Southerners, had to search far afield for basic supplies during the war. In mid-winter, January 5, 1863, Kimball wrote in her diary:
Thomas and Phebe Brown’s son William married Lydia Neal Janney in 1866. The young couple lived in the Circleville home with Thomas and Phebe. After the deaths of the older couple, William and Lydia stayed in the home until it burned in 1879 in a chimney flue fire. They built a new home near where the original had stood; that house still stands.
Earlier generations of women left such faint traces of their lives that any artifacts from them become important. In 1824, Phebe Nichols, as an unmarried 18-year-old, stitched a sampler that is now in the possession of needlework scholar, collector and designer Barbara Hutson. From this one piece of handwork we can see that Phebe was meticulous and highly skilled, as well as disciplined. The stitches Phebe mastered at a young age no doubt turned up over and over in the Phebe Nichols Brown family’s clothes, quilts, and textiles.
Thomas and Phebe Brown’s daughter-in-law, Lydia, wrote a memoir and has a page on Nest of Abolitionists. A section of her memoir gives us some insight into her in-law’s and husband William’s early life:
“Cossie sent a nice little book to her father William Brown xmas 1916 asking him to write some of his many expressions in it. Finding he did not get it done I commenced gathering notes which he told me.
He said, “Before I was old enough to walk I would steal away from mother [Phebe] and crawl along the walk of large flat stone, to the store. Sometimes Henry S. Taylor, our Henry’s grandfather, would put me on the counter and count my ribs. It was customary then to dress little boys in plain red flannel, or red with black dots in it, then a white apron. Mother missed my brother Samuel one day. He was found over in Welsh’s meadow surrounded by cows. He was half a mile from home and had a red dress on.
I first went to school to Mary Ellen Holmes (who married Joshua Pusey.) I learned my letters from a handkerchief with letters printed on it. Afterwards we children went to school in the same house where father Asa M. Janney and Uncle Samuel M. Janney went to school. Uncle Samuel wrote a poem for which he received a prize called “The Country Schoolhouse.” We had a teacher who delighted in using the rule to make the children’s hands smart. My sister Mary H. was always a quiet gentle child and when he used it once on her hand it hurt me more than when he tried to blister mine.
When I was 16 or 17 my father [Thomas] was having the Circleville barn built. Brother Sam & myself dug the foundation. I carried shingles. Walker Welsh, (Will Welsh’s father) and Thornton Whitacre doing the work. Once brother Samuel (the teamster) was sick so father sent me and a little colored boy, Ed Grimes, (afterwards Ella Grimes’ husband) with the team to the river for lumber. There were several little colts following their mothers. Ed Grimes sat in the feed trough at the back of the wagon. We had to cross the river at Castleman’s Ferry to have the tire cut. The colts got tangled up in the harness. Ed cried, thinking they would be hurt or drowned, but we got back safely.
We started before day, did not reach home until late. I often had to wind in & out among the trees when the road went through the woods. We also had trouble with the colts wanting to follow other teams.
While Walker W. and Thornton Whitacre were building the barn one fifth day [Thursday] while father went to meeting, some of the men wanted a drink. Father kept some for medicine in a keg, with a spigot which he locked. He had the key with him. I made a false key, opened it then could not get it fastened until a lot ran out. I got rags out of the rag bag to soak it up.
When father came home some Friends came with him to do some shopping, which they often did on fifth days. Father commenced smelling and sniffing looking around to see what was the matter. Seeing I looked so embarrassed he let me off without a scolding, even after the Friends left.
The young people rode horse back. We had no buggies then. I had a horse named ‘Gazelle’, a fine traveller. He was taken during the war. Ladies kept riding horses too, and when a gentleman invited a lady to go to a party with him, she was expected to have her own horse ready to accompany him.
I was a venturesome young man, was often called upon during our Civil War to get my friends over the Potomac river. I helped Mary and Lizzie Hughes (Elias Hughes’ sisters) to run the blockade. I went with them to the Potomac river, also with Amos Hughes and Cosmelia Janney. When we reached there, we got into a boat, went to mid-stream where I witnessed their marriage.
I waited on William & Lizzie Gregg when they were married. Uncle Samuel Janney wanted to attend Baltimore Yearly Meeting, and asked me if I could take him across the Potomac river. I told him I thought I could. We passed through a regiment of Southern Troops unmolested. When we reached the river I signaled for a Federal Pickett. He came over in a boat. Uncle Samuel showed him his pass from Abraham Lincoln permitting him to pass through the lines, so Uncle Samuel was taken over and I came back home.
When Uncle Samuel returned from Baltimore, General Evans had him arrested for going into the enemy’s country. He was taken to Leesburg. General Evans asked uncle Samuel if he did not know his first duty was to his country. Uncle Samuel said, “No! my first duty is to my God.(Account of this is in his Memoirs.) When General Evans found out I had helped him run the blockade, he said, “If I could get hold of that fellow I would stop him from running Blockades.”
Some of my friends hurried to me, wanted me to leave the country, but I said no, if General Evans wanted me he would send and get me without saying anything about it.
Once during the war, Brother Samuel and Fenelon Taylor went over to Daniel Hrads [illegible] to get out of the way of conscription. When I thought things were quiet and it would be safe for them to come home, I went over to tell them. Fenelon came back with me, brother Samuel staid longer. As we were coming through the Blue Ridge Mountains we met Capt. Henderson’s regiment. They called a halt and wanted to know where we had been. Fenelon told them he had been to see his brother in law, in Johnson’s [Johnston’s] army (Southern) so they let us come home. That was July 21, 1861 day of first battle of Bull Run, afterwards called Manassas. I was Postmaster at Circleville, was often told I would be arrested (as I spoke out so freely) and imprisoned, but I was not frightened from my post.
Once I was sitting on the cellar door in the store yard. Henson Simpson was standing near fingering a large knife. I asked him what he was going to do with it. He said he got it to kill Union men. I asked him why he did not join the army. That made him mad. He stuck at me. I knocked the knife out of his hand & we got into a fist fight. His brother & others parted us then hisbrother Samuel told him to get on his horse & go home. He told someone the next day he settled a Quaker boy yesterday. They asked him, what was the matter with his nose.”
Thomas and Phebe Brown are laid to rest in Goose Creek Burial Ground, surrounded by kin. Both side-by-side gravestones are almost illegible, time and the elements ensuring a Quaker inclination for modesty. Only the fact that the location – NE Row 6 Lot 14, 15 – is kept in a burial record allows a visitor to count, retrace steps, and finally peer into the rough stone faces, feeling with fingers along chiseled letters. These two people take their extraordinary experiences to the grave, but perhaps we can feel along and find more about those, too.