THE REFUGEE: Hit and Run History on WGBH

Andrew Buckley Hit and Run History

This webisode of Hit and Run History shows the tenacity it takes for historians to bring the past to light, as the crew tirelessly hunts for details about the elusive Samuel Brown, a merchant from Newport, Rhode Island, and one of the many men involved in the Columbia Expedition—the first American voyage around the world.

The Hit and Run History crew come to many dead ends as they set out to uncover more clues about the life of Samuel Brown. But following a hunch about Brown's involvement in the slave trade, their dogged determination leads to the Massachusetts Archives at Columbia Point in Dorchester, Mass., and later, down to Newport, Rhode Island, where they enlist the help of John B. Hattendorf, "one of the most widely known and well-respected naval historians in the world."

Hattendorf explains the effects the British occupation had on Samuel Brown and his place in time during the Revolution—which forced him to live as a refugee in Boston, and ultimately rendered him a man without a past or a future.

Brass howitzer at the U.S. Naval War College

Watch THE REFUGEE here on WGBH.

Andy's Note:  We had searched and searched and search for this guy and kept coming up with a whole lot of nothing.  Well, not nothing.  Just that anything that referenced Samuel Brown was actually a letter from him to William Vernon, his lifelong business partner.

During our first day of production, we hit the Boston Public Library's Special Collections Room.  Looking for anything on anyone, we were pretty happy to find some entries in the card catalog for Samuel Brown.  But it didn't amount to much.  Instead, I discovered a clue leading us down to Connecticut, and that became the start of our first biography in this series -- "THE HERALD" -- featuring John Ledyard.

Jay Sheehan of Hit and Run History at the Massachusetts Archives

On a second day, we tried headed into the depths of the State House Library.  Again, we came up with nothing for Brown.  Now, we knew him to have been a high-level federal official in Boston around 1800.  But there was nothing there, either.  What the hell was going on with this guy?

At least we were able to find the original newspaper for the date John Kendrick took Columbia and Washington out of Boston Harbor in 1787.  And then upstairs we bumped into the bronze plaque of Charles Bulfinch.  That was enough for us to make an opening for our profile of him, "THE ARCHITECT."

Now, to be completely clear, we filmed our prologue to this series on WGBH, "THE MEDALLION", after we completed "THE HERALD."  Although we were happy with our first biography, we felt we needed something to tell viewers why we were doing this.

The answer came in the form of the World's Fair of Money, happening in Boston in August, and the related exhibit of the Columbia and Washington Medal at the Massachusetts Historical Society.  There was our touchstone for the series.  But as we headed up to the coin show, we wanted to make the best use of our time up in Boston -- so we stopped at the Massachusetts Archives (appropriately out on Columbia Point).  Hopefully we'd find some clues to some of our more elusive subjects, Crowell Hatch and Samuel Brown.

Redwood Library Newport

As shown in "THE REFUGEE", this was just another series of dead ends.  Later in August we just took a leap of faith and headed to Newport, Rhode Island.  Maybe there would be something at the Newport Historical Society.  Maybe not.

As it turned out, Bert Lippincott, was of tremendous help in the library at NHS.  Fifteen minutes into our research there, he found the death of Brown in Boston, and his return to Newport for burial.  Our first real evidence that Brown actually came from here, and not Boston or anywhere else.  Bert also suggested talking to John B. Hattendorf at the Naval War College, located in Newport.

That led to our back-and-forth around Newport, from the Common Ground cemetery, over to the Redwood Library (which Brown bequeathed money to) for burial records, back to the cemetery, and another dead end.  So close, we were.

Andrew Buckley and John Hattendorf

Only by taking the information from Newport back to Mass. Archives could we finally nail down exactly which Samuel Brown we needed to look for.  And then it was back to Newport for an interview with the man who wrote the book on maritime history.

Lastly, we wrapped up with actually finding Brown's grave in the cemetery.  But checking his will against online genealogies and the cemetery map could we determine we had the right guy in the right location.

Exhausting, but worth it.  We felt it was time we showed what it takes to do something like this.  And what circumstances have led to a lack of information on Samuel Brown.

Grave of Samuel Brown Common Ground Cemetery NewportHit and Run History:  The Columbia Expedition is the centerpiece of the history page for PBS-powerhouse WGBH. Watch THE REFUGEE online at wghh.org/history. Soundtrack generously provided by Mark Cutler.  For more information on Hit and Run History following the story of John Kendrick and the Columbia Expedition visit hitandrunhistory.com.

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