A Chronicle and Reflection of the Thomas Brown Family:
The 19th-Century Stewards and Architects of the Historic Greek-Revival Thomas Brown House
Written by Mason Stempel
Georgetown University Student and INTERN at Old Town
The story of Old Town is one of Revolutionary War heroes, 19th-century class disparities, and, above all, American families. The very history of Williamson County, the geopolitical entity within which Old Town sits, is steeped in the concept of the family. Deep, strong family ties bond together the woven storylines of the Brown family, the original stewards of Old Town, and their rural home. When the Browns moved to Franklin, Tennessee in the 1820s, they were swept into a culture of prominent, wealthy families who formed 19th-century Franklin’s planter class. These families, namely the Perkins family, whose path continually intertwined with that of the Browns, have deep roots that stretch all the way back to the founding of Williamson County. In this environment, the Browns forged their own path and created a lasting legacy that stands out in the rich history of Franklin and Williamson County.
Setting the scene is vital to the understanding of the Brown family’s journey. Williamson County of Middle Tennessee was founded in 1799 by the Tennessee General Assembly and named after Hugh Williamson, one of the many revolutionary men that signed the Declaration of Independence. People had inhabited this area of Tennessee for centuries, from ancient Mississippian people to European fur traders, and more modern Indigenous tribes like the Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Shawnee. Around the turn of the century, American colonists began to settle in the area. After the Revolutionary War, North Carolina veterans were granted plots of land in more sections of the continent, like North Carolina and Tennessee (which at this time was part of North Carolina), as rewards for fighting. This coincided with, and perhaps caused to some degree, an influx of migrants to the Appalachian region. By 1801, only two years after Williamson County was founded, Thomas Harden Perkins, one of the first of the Perkins family to make Franklin his home and the great-uncle of the man who eventually sold Old Town to Thomas Brown, was settled and paying taxes in the county. Because he fought in the Sixty Virginia Regiment as First and Second Lieutenant, Thomas Harden Perkins was not eligible for North Carolina military land grants. It is believed that Perkins, instead, purchased land grants from other veterans, as one could for “forty shillings per hundred acres” (Tennessee State Library and Archives). Enslaved laborers then constructed his “federal style plantation home,” Meeting-of-the-Waters, on Del Rio Pike in Franklin, which still stands to this day. (To read more about some of the enslaved laborers and their lives before and after freedom, visit this page.)
Soon after Thomas Harden Perkins marked his place in Franklin, the other Perkins family members, namely his nephews Nicholas Tate Perkins, Nicholas “Bigbee” Perkins, and his father, arrived and began having enslaved laborers construct more Federal-style brick plantation houses in the same vicinity as Meeting-of-the-Waters. Tax records show that all of the Perkins patriarchs were taxed on hundreds to thousands of acres of land and varying numbers of enslaved people, both antebellum markers of wealth and prestige. By 1813, the Perkins family had amassed a large fortune and plots of land both in the Old Natchez Trace Corridor near the Big Harpeth River and in other parts of the county. With their land, enslaved laborers, and money, they were able to build an agricultural empire around cotton and tobacco, solidifying their place in the prestigious planter class. The Perkinses seemingly dominated this area with their large, stately brick homes and extensive acreages, making the stretch of land along the Big Harpeth almost like their own little familial kingdom. This was the economic, social, and agricultural environment that Thomas Brown sowed himself into when he and his family moved to this part of Franklin.
John “Thomas” Brown, the first, and titular, steward of the circa 1846 Greek Revival Thomas Brown house at Old Town, was born to Joseph and Catherine Brown (née Breakbill) of Prince William County, Virginia on April 7th, 1800. Though the Brown family largely hailed from Virginia, Thomas Brown’s paternal grandmother’s parents came from Cornwall, England, where she, Mary Middleton, was buried after her death in 1825. On his mother’s side, his ancestors moved from Germany to Pennsylvania in the mid-18th century, beginning a family legacy of migration to new places for new opportunities.
The eldest of five children, Thomas moved the Brown family to Middle Tennessee sometime after the death of his father in 1822. In 1823, he married his first wife, Nancy Ellison Brown (née Davis), in Davidson County. Thomas and Nancy had two children, Joseph and Hugh, before Nancy died in 1838, after which Thomas secured a marriage license in April of that same year. Marriage licenses in the 19th century were valid for up to six months after their administration, meaning Thomas Brown must have remarried no later than October 30, 1838. With his second wife, Margaret Bennett Brown (née Hunter), he had five children–John, Bethenia, Jane, Sallie, and Margaret. In 1840, with his new wife and now-larger family, Brown purchased the plot of land (land that historically was home to an ancient Mississippian village, with wall remnants and remains of ever-important temple mounds that can still be seen on the property today) on which his Old Town home would be constructed from William O’Neal Perkins, a member of the prominent Perkins family. However daunting it may have been for a new resident to build a home where one of Franklin’s most powerful families had effectively reigned for decades, Thomas Brown’s choice to purchase land in the Old Natchez Trace Corridor was an economically intelligent decision.
In the Antebellum South, wealth was made from dirt. Plantation owners were heavily dependent on enslaving others because of the agriculture-dominated economy with little to no other options. The Perkinses and the Browns, collectively, enslaved hundreds of people to work the fertile land of Williamson County, abusing human rights to life and liberty for their own financial gain. Nonetheless, the mere ability to own enslaved laborers and a fancy plantation home and hundreds of acres did not automatically ensure you would strike gold. There was one more factor that was vital to the equation: good dirt. The Old Natchez Trace was the perfect place for an up-and-coming farmer to begin sewing his career, as it was “one of the most productive agricultural areas in Williamson County,” probably attracting Brown to this section of the state (Holly Anne Rine). After the War of 1812, there was a higher demand for cotton until the market crashed in 1819. Shortly after, the market recovered, coinciding with technological advancements that made trading and selling more efficient and profitable. The 1820s saw cotton’s “greatest surge,” priming Brown for a successful foray into farming.
Though the Browns and the Perkinses share significant similarities–where they lived, their status as enslavers, and their later allegiance to the Confederacy during and after the Civil War–monumental differences separated them from being equals in 19th-century Franklin. The Perkinses were considered “true members of the planter class” due to their “agricultural and political pursuits” (80). Multiple Perkins men served in government positions, starting with Nicholas “Bigbee” Perkins, a lawyer, who was originally appointed as Registrar of Lands of the Mississippi Territory by President Thomas Jefferson (73). From that position, “Bigbee” went on to capture treasonous Aaron Burr at Fort Stoddard on the Natchez Trace and was rewarded by President Jefferson (74). “Bigbee” passed down his juridical occupation and political prowess to his sons, one of which served Tennessee as a member of the Whig party. Many other Perkinses had influence in some capacity, solidifying their wealth and status within the county. The Browns, however, did not exert that kind of influence or power, making Thomas’s rise to comparative wealth and prominence all the more impressive.
In an 1854 criminal case between Thomas Brown and Edward G. Ferrill, Brown was described as a “yeoman,” and accused of throwing corn out of Ferrill’s wagon. The denotation of “yeoman” signifies that Brown owned and cultivated a landed estate, yet the term does not hold the same nobility as that of “planter.” The planters were the landed aristocracy of the American South and represented a different way of life than that of Thomas Brown. The difference between the two, in terms of their status and their level of wealth, is most evidently seen in the construction and architecture of their plantation homes.
Around the time the Perkinses made their way to Franklin, the presiding architectural style was the Federal style, which evolved from eastern colonial Georgian homes. As wealthier migrants began a pattern west, styles followed suit, riddling Franklin and Middle Tennessee with regal, flat-faced brick homes that superseded the log cabin design favored by earlier frontiersmen and backwoodsmen that settled Tennessee for fur trapping and similar endeavors. “Landed individuals,” like the Perkinses, “attained wealth and social standing in Tennessee equivalent to that of their counterparts in Virginia and North Carolina” (96). Upon moving to a new location, the wealthy migrants modeled their new society after their homes in the eastern states, from political spheres to personal dwelling architecture. The Perkinses, who moved from the two aforementioned states, patterned their numerous plantation homes after “North Carolina and Virginia Tidewater gentry” a style that served as “a strong representation of wealth and power” (96). The opulence, formality, and privacy offered both by the decorative and architectural aspects of these Federal plantation homes were meant to impress upon the wider community and visitors of the grandeur of the planter. Much like a palace, this was more than a place to sleep–this was how you demonstrated your wealth.
Planters moved from wealthy regions that abounded with Federal architecture, could afford brick and the enslaved laborers to make it, and favored right angles and symmetry to symbolize their orderly and high standing in society. Their lawns were well-manicured and landscaped precisely. Everything was an active choice to announce something about the family inside. Thomas Brown’s home, upon deeper inspection and analysis, shows the disparities between this yeoman and his planter neighbors.
The Thomas Brown house at Old Town is an interesting specimen. Three bays wide, with wooden weatherboard siding, it presents a different silhouette, and ultimately, way of life, than the five-bay brick homes of the Perkinses’ on the Old Natchez Trace Corridor. Built decades after plantation houses like Meeting-of-the-Waters, Two Rivers, and Montpier, Old Town displays influences of the Greek Revival style popular from the 1830s to the 1860s. Its white exterior boasts the regality of simplicity whereas ruddy brown Federal brick suggests wealth and status. Federal style finds its roots in the aristocratic Georgian style that flourished along the colonial coast of America, originating in England, but ultimately modeled after Italian Renaissance designs. Its basis in the classicality of the Renaissance demonstrates more of an extravagant, baroque sensibility than does the Greek Revival; Greek Revival architecture was founded on symmetry and represented the ideals of democracy. While many Greek Revival homes from the mid-19th century are quite opulent, Old Town is rather modest, its only reference to ancient Greek temples are its simple set of Doric pilasters (rectangular columns) that frame the front portico (that almost reflects the portico in the middle of Montpier’s front facade, which was added in the 1850s to update the house for the Greek Revival trend) and its wash of white paint.
Old Town’s architecture and construction materials represent not only a new era in American society but also a new generation of citizens of Williamson County and Franklin. Nestled among the grand estates of the Perkinses, which “represent the dwellings of the wealthiest plantation owners in Williamson County” (90), white, wood-sided Old Town may be considered some sort of ugly duckling. Devoid of the typical architecture and the same precise and meticulous landscaping of the older landed elite family homes, Old Town was seemingly Thomas Brown’s effort to pave his own path to success in Franklin, Tennessee. Though some may see Old Town as simply a building, it represents the societal and class differences between the aristocratic planter class and the up-and-coming self-starter yeoman farmers like the Brown family. Thomas’s decision is interesting when contrasted with his brother, Alexander “Sandy” Brown’s life in Williamson County.
Alexander Brown arrived in Franklin at the same time as his brother, in 1822. He married Charlotte Brown (née Claud) in 1828, and the couple went on to have ten children together. Because of their large family size, they needed a large house (to which he would eventually construct additions). In 1845, Alexander bought at auction a home in Franklin. Alexander’s purchasing of an already-built house as opposed to his brother’s choice to purchase land and construct his own may suggest a difference in the Brown brothers’ mentalities. Alexander may not have desired to manually carve out his own individual path in Franklin, but use his wealth to ensure comfort for himself and his family.
Furthermore, the home Alexander purchased was closer to the homes of the Perkinses than of his brother’s Old Town house. The Hamilton-Brown house, thought to have been built between 1792 and 1800, almost certainly predates both the construction of the Perkinses’ many Federal estates as well as the very founding of Williamson as a county and perhaps even Tennessee as a state. The home’s construction dates, as well as its regal Federal/Georgian architecture, suggest planter class origins, and the fact that the Perkinses, for a period of time, owned and lived in this very home, adds to this air of aristocracy. When the Perkinses lived in this house, located on Old Charlotte Pike, about six miles away from Old Town on Old Natchez Trace, the home was called “Cottonwood.” Such a legacy of nobility attached to a building could only help Alexander Brown’s budding reputation, whereas his brother’s choice to build a new home among the stately Perkins mansions required him to construct a building deserving of similar respect and recognition.
Though Alexander had a bit of a “head start” on a beautiful, regal homestead, he and his family made updates to the property in order to modernize it to contemporary Victorian standards. Specifically, Alexander’s wife, Charlotte, added extensively to the beautiful gardens already on the estate. Gardens in the Victorian era were highly esteemed and socially important, coinciding with phases of social turmoil and great scientific discovery. Especially in England, gardens were becoming more and more popular as economic shifts began to take place and citizens other than royalty and nobility could afford and had the free time to landscape their homes. Botany was a popular topic during this era as scientists discovered new, “exotic” plants from around the world and brought them back for study. Likely inspired by all of this, Charlotte Brown added her own touch to the grounds, as reported by her son for an article in the Franklin Weekly, July 18, 1883 (and reprinted in the Franklin Review-Appeal, May 14, 1936):
“Soon after moving to this place the first Mrs. Brown began adding shrubs, bulbs, and annuals to the already well-stocked flower garden. At the entrance gate she had erected a rustic summer house [not extant] over which she trained virgin bower, seven sisters roses and coral honeysuckles, which are today  in perfect state of growth, all from the original stock. The walks are bordered as they were then with perennials, single and double candlesticks, old-fashioned butter and eggs, daffodils and narcissi in several varieties. Beds containing ascensions, tiger, spider, blackberry and old-fashioned yellow lilies are still undisturbed.
“Hyacinths in various shades and colors, pinks, Jacob’s ladders, snowdrops, and peonies, with large beds of violets and lilies of the valley are all of original supply, a mute testimonial to the one who long ago loved nature and her children.
“Large clumps of bridal wreath, lilacs, spyringa, Rose of Sharon, cocora and sweet Betsy are among the beautiful shrubbery found in their original setting. Among the varieties of roses seen blooming are the hundred-leaf, George IV, maiden’s blush, michrophelia, briar and seven sisters. Ragged robins grow at random and beds of white and varicolored pinks filled with sweet perfume.” (National Register of Historic Places, 11)
It seems as though Alexander Brown, like his brother, did extremely well in his life. The previous owner of Cottonwood/Hamilton-Brown House, Thomas Moore, is described as a “moderately wealthy farmer,” with nine enslaved people and property worth $5,400. Alexander Brown, according to an 1860 census, had real estate worth $20,200 and other property worth $60,000 (equivalent to about $2.86 million in 2022 dollars). A slave schedule from an 1850 census shows that he enslaved at least 18 people, possibly more over the course of his life, making him, by archaic antebellum standards, wealthier than “moderately wealthy” Moore. A deed from May 18, 1855, shows Alexander Brown purchasing land from Nicholas T. Perkins, evidence that he continued to expand his estate and property. Tax records, censuses, and probates reveal that the Brown brothers though diverging on their methods, were both successful farmers in the county.
As the years progressed and the Brown children grew older, times were changing. The first women’s colleges, starting in the 18th and 19th centuries, were seminaries, aiming to educate women to empower them to become teachers, one of the only socially acceptable occupations for a woman to hold during this time period. The term “college” in these previous centuries did not equate to the higher education we are accustomed to today, but rather meant something more similar to high school. Coinciding with the strengthening of the United States Suffrage Movement, women’s colleges began to appear in the 19th century to offer women a chance at the education men were already afforded. However, despite this step toward equality, this education, as with most all education before the institution of public schools, was only accessible to the wealthy, high-status, and white. The South was an important region for women’s education, with the first women’s college, Wesleyan, opening in Georgia in 1836, a decade before the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention in the United States. Women’s colleges tended to keep the students very confined, afraid that too much freedom would cause them to stray from traditional tenets of femininity.
The Tennessee Female College, established in 1857, once stood in the heart of historic Downtown Franklin, but other colleges in Franklin and beyond in Nashville served young women of higher classes and more substantial wealth. Minerva College was founded in 1849 as an all-female companion school to Franklin College. Sometime in the late 1860s, Tolbert and Charlotte Fall Fanning, a Tennessee couple responsible for opening a series of schools across Tennessee, purchased Minerva College in Nashville and renamed it Hope Institute, which they ran until 1874. But what is significant about Minerva College is not the leaders of it, but rather the students, including Elizabeth “Lizzie” Brown, daughter of Alexander Brown, and Bethenia Brown, daughter of Thomas Brown, and Catherine “Cassie” Brown, daughter of Enoch Brown.
The fact that three Brown girls have been recorded to attend this women’s college in Nashville attests to the family’s garnering of wealth and status throughout the decades they had lived in Williamson County. Letters found at the Williamson County Archives range from 1854 to 1878 tell the history of Lizzie and her cousins at Minerva College, as well as give glimpses of the lives of other family members throughout this period. Lizzie wrote to her “Pa” frequently, demonstrating a close family bond. Additionally, she had many correspondences, illustrating her friendships with other Nashville women and her various family members in other states. One notable 1867 letter from Lizzie’s cousin P. W. Ezell includes him asking Lizzie to reach out to some relatives of freed enslaved people currently residing at Ezell’s home. The confidence with which Ezell believes Lizzie will follow through with this request and contact the relatives, delivering the message that the former slaves are “alive and well,” and writing back with information about said relatives, indicates that perhaps Lizzie had a more open-minded or compassionate mentality when it came to the political and social issues of slavery, race relations, and the Civil War, which had just ended two years prior, than her family.
The Brown family lived through the Civil War at Old Town, with the deadly Battle of Franklin waging nearby. During the war, the Browns’ enslaved laborers found chances for freedom and took them, often escaping one or two at a time from the farm. The family was extremely loyal to the Confederacy, likely because giving up their enslaved laborers would mean a financial decline for the family of farmers dependent on this kind of cruel forced labor. Apparently, the family at Old Town offered food to the troops throughout the war, demonstrating both their loyalty and their benevolent spirit. After the Union won the war, Thomas Brown refused to swear the oath of loyalty to the Union, ever still the Confederate patriot, and so he was thrown in jail in Nashville for a short time.
The period after the war was a time of transition and change for the Brown family. Exploration and investigation into Tennessee’s ancient and pre-colonial history began in the late 19th century. Sometime between 1867 and 1869, Joseph Jones, the first City Health Officer for Nashville and a scientist with a love for ancient civilizations, visited Old Town to research the Mississippian mounds on the property. Though Old Town had been a known heritage site for decades, hence its denotation “Old Town,” this spurred the scientific interest in what the property had to offer on the subject of the Mississippian culture. Artifacts that have been recovered from the property have been of esteemed importance and value in the knowledge and understanding of the ancient Mississippian culture, often ending up in internationally-renowned museums, such as those of the Smithsonian Institution.
In 1870, patriarch Thomas Brown died at age 69, leaving his family the Old Town estate and his property divided up into different tracts of land. John Thomas Brown, Thomas and Margaret’s eldest son, received the tract of land that included Old Town and the Greek Revival plantation house but ended up switching tracts with his sister Bethenia, who lived there until her death in 1911. Her obituary described her as a “noble Christian woman” and praised how dedicated she was to the church and the community, indicating the great impact the Brown family had on the people and atmosphere of Franklin and Williamson County.
The rise and success of Thomas Brown and Old Town illustrated a shift in Williamson County’s societal spheres. Brown and the Perkinses, and their respective homesteads, both represent different phases, different periods in Franklin’s historical evolution; Holly Anne Rine, from whose thesis much of this information has been learned, describes Old Town as “representative of later market economy development of the area” while the Perkinses’ multiple Federal houses represent the “pre-1819 transition from a backcountry economy to a larger market economy”(93). Thomas would never be able to achieve the same level of wealth as the Perkins family. At the height of his wealth, Thomas Brown owned 546 acres and an 1860 census reports his enslaving of 34 laborers, while Bigbee Perkins, at his peak, owned 6128 acres and 128 enslaved people. Though the Browns never became the Perkinses’ peers in status and wealth, the Perkinses’ dominance over the area began to wane even before the Civil War, with the properties being divided by children and grandchildren. With the Union’s victory and the abolition of the inhumane institution of slavery, the planter class altogether eventually faded out of existence, while smaller farmers like Thomas Brown were able to continue to make a respectable living, as shown in the inventory of his estate after his death in 1870.
When Thomas Brown moved his entire family to Franklin, Tennessee from Prince William County, Virginia, he had no idea of the lasting impact they, and their home would make on the area. Thomas Brown was a complicated man, with outdated ideals and ignorant stances, but he also illustrated an important shift in American South society. By tracking and analyzing Thomas Brown’s life, we can see the ebbs and flows of the South before, during, and after the Civil War: how different events shaped the economy, and how the economy shaped society and vice versa. In Thomas Brown’s life, we see the popularity of Greek Revival architecture coinciding with an increase in equality and democratic ideologies as slavery was abolished, women began to go to school and fight for rights, and the aristocratic classes fell away to a more balanced political environment.
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