Strad­dling the line be­tween fame and in­famy

El Dorado News-Times - - Viewpoint -

What is the line be­tween fame and in­famy? Many fig­ures in Amer­i­can his­tory have blurred the borders be­tween those ideas, lead­ing to end­less spec­u­la­tion about their char­ac­ter and their im­pact.

Ja­cob Brown was one such fig­ure.

He was a veteran of two wars, a lead­ing fi­nan­cial fig­ure in early Arkansas, a de­fender of early Texas and one of the chief of­fi­cials di­rect­ing the Trail of Tears. Brown’s life took him through some of the dark­est chap­ters in Amer­i­can his­tory.

Ja­cob Brown was born in Mas­sachusetts, prob­a­bly around 1789. His fa­ther had fought in the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion. Lit­tle is known about his early life, but as a young man, he en­listed in the army early dur­ing the War of 1812.

Brown’s war ser­vice was oth­er­wise re­spectable. He stayed in the mil­i­tary af­ter the war and slowly moved up the ranks as peace­time pro­mo­tions in the greatly-re­duced army of that time were rare. From about 1818 to 1825, his in­fantry unit was as­signed to the area along the borders of Mis­souri and the Arkansas Ter­ri­tory to keep the peace be­tween the set­tlers and the Na­tive Amer­i­can tribes of the area.

In 1831, at the in­sis­tence of Pres­i­dent An­drew Jack­son, Congress passed the In­dian Re­moval Act, stat­ing that the south­east­ern tribes would be moved from their an­ces­tral lands. Re­moval of the tribes was to be the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the army. Tens of thou­sands of peo­ple were re­moved from their homes and marched at gun­point to the In­dian Ter­ri­tory (present-day Ok­la­homa) where the fed­eral gov­ern­ment had set aside land for tribal reser­va­tions. Count­less in­di­vid­u­als died on the way.

To fa­cil­i­tate these re­movals, a branch of the Of­fice of Re­moval and Sub­sis­tence was es­tab­lished in Lit­tle Rock, and Brown even­tu­ally came to lead it. His role in this of­fice was to co­or­di­nate re­moval of tribes through the area and their move­ments from Arkansas into the In­dian Ter­ri­tory and also to make sure they were fed. Once the tribes were at their reser­va­tions, Brown’s of­fice would con­tinue to send food. By 1835, all tribal claims in the Arkansas Ter­ri­tory were ex­tin­guished, but re­moval of other tribes fur­ther east was still tak­ing place.

In 1837, a year af­ter Arkansas state­hood, Brown was named pres­i­dent of the Real Estate Bank, a bank es­tab­lished by Arkansas leg­is­la­tors spe­cial­iz­ing in real estate loans and in­vest­ments and one of the first in the state. Though pop­u­lar among many in Arkansas, he soon be­came the fo­cus of in­tense crit­i­cism by his suc­ces­sor at the Re­moval and Sub­sis­tence Of­fice. Capt. Richard Collins ac­cused Brown of feed­ing the Na­tive Amer­i­cans rot­ten food. Oth­ers be­gan to crit­i­cize Brown for hold­ing two po­si­tions at once, through the army and through the bank. Stung by the crit­i­cisms, Brown stepped away from both po­si­tions. He con­tin­ued with other army po­si­tions, ris­ing to the rank of ma­jor by 1843.

The army re­as­signed Brown. With the ad­mis­sion of Texas into the Union and Mex­ico’s ac­com­pa­ny­ing threat of war against the United States if Texas were so ad­mit­ted forced Amer­i­can plan­ners to re­in­force the Amer­i­can claim. The sit­u­a­tion was com­pli­cated by con­flict­ing claims as the U. S. claimed the Rio Grande as the south­ern bor­der for Texas while Mex­ico claimed it was fur­ther north at the Nue­ces River. Gen. Zachary Tay­lor ar­rived on the scene to en­force the Amer­i­can claim and es­tab­lished Fort Texas on the Rio Grande in March 1846 just across from Mata­moros. Brown was given com­mand of the fort while Tay­lor rushed up and down the Lower Rio Grande Val­ley pre­par­ing to de­fend Amer­i­can po­si­tions.

Af­ter Mex­i­can forces at­tacked an army pa­trol on the north side of the

Rio Grande on April

25, Brown read­ied Fort Texas for at­tack. On May 3, Mex­i­can ar­tillery in Mata­moros opened fire on the fort. Brown di­rected his own ar­tillery as he was slowly sur­rounded. On May 6, one shell struck in­side the fort and ex­ploded. Shrap­nel wounded Brown, but the wounds were too se­vere to treat. Tay­lor charged to re­lieve the fort, tem­porar­ily blocked by the Mex­i­can Army at the Bat­tle of Palo Alto on May 8. Af­ter sweep­ing aside Mex­i­can forces, Tay­lor was able to reach the fort and break the siege later that day. Re­in­force­ments poured in.

Brown died just hours later on May 9, one of only two fa­tal­i­ties at the fort. The United States de­clared war on Mex­ico on May 13.

Af­ter Brown’s death, Tay­lor or­dered Fort Texas re­named Fort Brown. The city of Brownsville, founded in 1848 next to the fort, was named in his honor. To­day, it is a city of 183,000 on the south­ern­most tip of Texas. Fort Brown it­self is a Na­tional His­toric Land­mark with tours of the site avail­able. The Ja­cob Brown Au­di­to­rium in on the cam­pus of Texas South­most Col­lege near the site of the old fort.

Dr. Ken Bridges is a pro­fes­sor of his­tory and ge­og­ra­phy at South Arkansas Com­mu­nity Col­lege in El Do­rado and a res­i­dent his­to­rian for the South Arkansas His­tor­i­cal Preser­va­tion So­ci­ety. Bridges can be reached by email at kbridges@southark.edu.

KEN BRIDGES

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