Thomas and Mary (usually known as Molly or Polly) Brown were one of the three enslaved couples forced from the Jesuits’ White Marsh Plantation in Maryland to Florissant, Missouri, when the Jesuits decided to establish a new mission in Missouri in 1823. Molly had been born into slavery to the Jesuits; it appears that Thomas was purchased by the Jesuits later in his life.
Little is yet known about the Browns’ early lives, until, in their forties, they endured their forced journey in May 1823. Though they were childless, their involuntary migration uprooted the family from their extended kin network in Maryland. They walked on foot from White Marsh to Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia) at the rear of a hierarchically-arranged band of Jesuit priests, novices, brothers, and enslaved people. From Wheeling, they traveled by flatboat down the Ohio River, forced to share their space with the horses and cargo, while the Jesuits had another boat to themselves. The trip was terrifying as they journeyed through unfamiliar land, not knowing how to swim or navigate the river as they tried to avoid currents, tree branches, and passing steamboats. Freedom beckoned on the northern banks of the Ohio River, and when they completed the rest of their journey on foot from Shawneetown, Illinois, to the shores of the Mississippi, they crossed what had been a free state for about five years.
After fording the river by foot, the Jesuits were treated to a feast in St. Louis, one in which Thomas and Molly Brown and their companions, Moses and Nancy Queen and Isaac and Susan Hawkins, were likely not permitted to partake. The band soon settled at a vacated farm in Florissant, Missouri, which the Jesuits named Saint Stanislaus. The Jesuits took the main cabin, while the Browns, Queens, and Hawkinses occupied the enslaved quarters, a one-room log cabin with no loft, that also doubled as the kitchen and laundry.
From there, the enslaved families were forced to commence the difficult work of farming, building, cooking, sewing, and cleaning to establish the Jesuits’ presence in the west. Enslaved people at Saint Stanislaus, including the Browns, lived and labored in abysmal conditions. They resided in cramped, ramshackle structures and were forced to take on more work than could be reasonably expected of six people. Among other duties, Molly helped with the washing and sewing. Due to their intensive labor, one Jesuit recorded that “Tom and Polly (Negroes) are often infirm here for the most part, and she was indeed very ill.” On several occasions a doctor was sent for to attend to Molly. Due to her illness, the Jesuits hired the labor of another enslaved woman to wash the linens in the river, complaining that they “had to pay & still we paid 25 cents per day besides sustenance” to the woman’s owner for her labor.
In 1829, Thomas and Molly Brown were again forced from their kin and relocated to downtown Saint Louis when the Jesuits accepted the administration of Saint Louis College (now Saint Louis University) from the diocese. At the college, Molly assisted Ned, the son of Proteus and Anny Hawkins, who went with them to be the college’s cook, or assisted Ned’s two sisters with the laundry and cleaning. Molly continued to suffer from illness. Because Jesuits deemed him “intelligent and trustworthy,” Thomas was given the role of supervising the other enslaved people the college rented, and making purchases for the college, “provided that he will observe the rules of the procurator [the Jesuit treasurer].” Though his owners deemed him reliable, Thomas may have taken advantage of his role to resist his enslavement. Just as enslaved people disrupted their labor regime or the profits of their owners by slowing work and breaking tools, Brown may have used his purchasing power to frustrate his owners by spending more of their money than they desired, or to buy goods for himself and his kin while feigning ignorance. One of the Jesuits, John Anthony Elet, later complained that Brown, “purchases things at a moderate price rarely, and moreover, very rarely at the lowest price. A purchaser among Ours [the Jesuits] is greatly desired.” In the meantime, Elet attempted whenever possible to make purchases himself, only relying on Brown or another enslaved person when something was needed without delay. Despite Elet’s efforts, enslaved people like Brown persisted in disrupting their work. They succeeded at exasperating their owners, sometimes convincing them to put tasks into the hands of other Jesuits, as when rector Peter Verhaegen complained that “Greater economy would have been afforded if the duties of brothers were not being undertaken by slaves in whom we can scarcely trust.”
While it is difficult to determine through the words of Jesuits whether Thomas Brown was purposefully sabotaging his expected dutieswork duties, his own voice makes it clear that he used his knowledge of Jesuit hierarchy and leveraged his perceived devotion to resist his enslavement.
In 1833, he wrote to Jesuit leadership in Maryland, complaining of the housing conditions to which his owner, Saint Louis University President Peter Verhaegen, SJ, subjected him:
“The humble address of Thomas Brown a man of colour, Most Submissively sheweth that he and his wife are very poorly treated by Revd Father Verheagan President of the University of St. Louis who is my present Master. I have been a faithful servant in the Society going on 38 years; & my wife Molly has been born & raised in the Society, She is Now about 52 years of Age Now we have not a place to lay our heads in our old age after all our Service. We live at present in rotten logg house so old & decayed that at every blast of wind we are afraid of our lives and such as it is it belongs to one of the neighbors. – – -
all the rest of the Slaves are pretty well fixed and Father Verheagen wants me and my wife to live in the loft of one of the outhouses where there is no fire place Nor any way to warm us during the winter - and your Reverence Knows it is Cold enough here. I have not a doubt but cold will Kill both me and my wife here. To prevent the Evil, I am willing to Buy myself & wife free if you Accept of 100 dollars 50 dollars I can pay down in Cash, the rest as soon as I possibly can
Rev. Father, Consider this is as much as I can raise, & as much as our old Bones are worth; have pity on Us, let us go free for one hundred dollars or else we will Surely perish with the Cold. Oh! Revd Father hear my petition be pleased to take my case into Consideration – and I will pray for you while I live. - – I Impatiently remain Yr Reverences Most Humble And Obedient Servant,
A Coloured Man
To view an image of the original letter, visit the Georgetown Slavery Archive.
Thomas Brown left a note at the bottom of the letter, stating that the response should be directed to Patrick Walsh, Justice of the Peace in St. Louis, who would forward the letter to him at the college. Brown may have been wary of the consequences of a reply falling into his owners’ hands; he also may have been working with Walsh to pursue his freedom. No evidence has been found of a reply from Maryland Jesuits.
A new brick building for the enslaved people at Saint Louis University had been constructed at the time of Brown’s letter, ready for the installation of floors in August 1833. It may have remained uninhabitable at the time Brown wrote, or perhaps this was the place Brown referenced where the other bondspeople lived. In January 1834, Verhaegen reported to his superior in Rome, “We have built three buildings out of brick, namely a new wing, an infirmary and houses for the Negroes….” It is not clear whether Thomas Brown was ever able to secure better housing, or his freedom.
No records have yet been found to determine what became of Thomas Brown and his petition for freedom, but it is probable that he died while still enslaved to the Jesuits. Molly Brown, his wife, remained enslaved to the Jesuits until her death on December 17, 1852, around the age of 71. She labored at Saint Francis Xavier College Church, until her owners sent her back to Florissant, to serve Father Judocus Van Assche at Saint Ferdinand Church, on April 27, 1846. Over the course of her life, Molly had labored for the Jesuits at their plantation in White Marsh, Maryland; at Saint Stanislaus Seminary in Florissant, Missouri; at Saint Louis University; at Saint Francis Xavier College Church on the campus; and at Saint Ferdinand Church in Florissant. On the day she died, the Saint Stanislaus house diary read, “Pious Mary, a slave, died. Rest in peace.”
This research was compiled by Kelly L. Schmidt. Recommended citation: Kelly L. Schmidt, “Thomas and Molly Brown,” Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project, 2020.
Updated: June 2020