Although not as popular of a response to “Where are we going?” these days as when we were kids, most people have heard the reply “To Timbuctoo!

Big Cat - Country with Attitude logo
Get our free mobile app

However, most people don't realize that Timbuctoo wasn't just a faraway place in Mali (spelled Timbuktu there) that our parents liked to tease they were taking us to. It was a real community and it was located in Upstate New York.

Timbuctoo, New York, a mid-19th century farming community, holds a unique place in the history of African-American homesteaders in Upstate New York.

In the mid-1800s, New York State law mandated that African Americans must own at least $250 in real estate or a house to obtain the right to vote. To help would-be voters secure this right, Gerrit Smith, an abolitionist and real estate baron, devised a scheme that he hoped would provide refuge to black families.

Smith divided 120,000 acres of untouched land in the Adirondacks into 40-acre plots and began granting them to 3,000 free African-Americans living in New York State. The settlement was located in North Elba near present-day Lake Placid and was referred to as Timbuctoo or Timbucto by abolitionist John Brown.

Brown himself purchased land near the settlement and made it his mission to help settlers adjust to a new way of life and learn the skills they would need to survive on the land.

The project drew black families from urban areas where they had previously held jobs as cooks, barbers, and domestic workers. However, for most, farming untouched land proved to be a massive challenge that they were not prepared for. Cutting down evergreens, clearing rocks, and securing money to pay taxes on the land were just some of the obstacles settlers faced.

Many settlers found the situation to be more than they could handle and moved away shortly after arriving. By 1855, the well-intentioned experiment was over for the most part. However, one family that managed to stay permanently was that of Lyman Epps, who was buried in a small rural cemetery in North Elba.

Not only did Epps build a home in the settlement, but Epps helped found a Sabbath school, a church, and a town library. His family stayed in the area for 100 years until the last member, Lyman Epps Jr, passed in 1942.

Today, Timbuctoo is mostly a lost part of Adirondack history. There are no remnants of settlers' cabins, no historic markers, and no signage. Some historians believe the experiment was so fleeting that it isn't worth much attention, while others see the settlement as a massive failure. Some, though, see Timbuctoo as an important part of African-American history in New York State that deserves to be remembered.

10 "Must See" Unknown Museums in the Adirondacks

The Adirondack region of Upstate New York is dotted with small, little-known, but totally fascinating museums. In this gallery we stretch the ADK region out to include the North Country and we put the spotlight on ten interesting museums worthy of a visit.

Gallery Credit: Chuck D'Imperio

14 Top Diners in the Adirondack Mountain Region!

The Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York are the perfect landscape for great, small town diners. Here are 14 from the Adirondacks, North Country, and St. Lawrence Region that are delicious. Notice that ALL of the restaurants on this list actually have the word "DINER" in their name (the only criteria to make this list!).

Gallery Credit: Chuck D'Imperio