LOCAL LORE: Two Stories About Colonel Brooks - True or False?

jehielbrooks

As I’ve researched Brookland and vicinity over the years, I’ve come across a number of interesting little stories that don’t quite rise to the level of a full post. Here are a couple of nuggets about Colonel Jehiel Brooks (left), for whom Brookland was named. I think it’s safe to say the colonel was a man with a prickly temperament. Cantankerous, litigious, a lover of horticulture and a hater of most everything else, Brooks liked to be perceived as a wealthy gentleman, though the wealth in his family resided with his wife, Ann Queen, who inherited the property from her father. Jehiel himself was constantly worried about finances.

I discovered an interesting little story when I was researching the post on the Burnes family graves, which were on the Brooks property. Those graves were first mentioned in an article in the Evening Star in 1887, attributed to a writer named “Eastus.” In addition to alluding to the gravesite, he describes an interesting event told him by Colonel Brooks:  

The founder of this place was Col. Jehiel Brooks…. Often have I listened to him with pleasure,  for he was a page from the past, abounding in reminiscences of [Henry] Clay, [John] Calhoun, [Daniel] Webster, John Randolph, Davy Crockett, and others whose names have become historical…. President Tyler was a frequent visitor and made himself thoroughly at home, throwing off the cares of office and becoming the ordinary citizen; and indeed, did this President’s simplicity carry him to such an extent that on one occasion it came near getting him into a ludicrous position. It was a fine day, and Mr. Tyler, visiting at the Brooks’ mansion, was abandoning himself to the delights of outdoor country life, entering fully into the spirit of its freedom. While he was thus forgetting political cares a party of Congressmen called. After receiving his visitors Col. Brooks went in search of the President and found him sitting in a wheelbarrow, with a pretty girl, a relative of the family, pushing him about the grounds.

‘Mr. President,’ said the colonel, ‘a party of gentlemen are at the house who wish to see you.’

Jumping from the rude vehicle, Mr. Tyler exclaimed:

‘Did they see me?'

Upon first reading this story, I wondered whether it was true, or a tall tale invented by the Colonel. It’s difficult to imagine the thin, austere John Tyler (right, Library of Congress) gallivanting around in a wheelbarrow. It turns out that “Eastus” was the pen name of James Eastus Price, whose sister married a son of Col. Brooks, so he was part of the extended Brooks family. And looking through some of the Brooks papers held at the Catholic University Archives, it does appear that Brooks and Tyler were friendly, if not necessarily close friends. 

President John Tyler is considered by most historians to be one of the country’s least effective chief executives. With the sudden death of President William Henry Harrison in 1841, only a month into his term, Tyler became the first vice president to succeed to the presidency without being elected. Once in office, even though a Whig, Tyler found many of his party’s bills clashed with his strict constructionist ideals and so he vetoed them. Infuriated, the Whigs expelled him from the party, making Tyler a chief executive with no political base. 

That didn’t stop Col. Brooks from supplicating Tyler for a government position, any position, to shore up his financial condition, which he considered dire. Here is an excerpt from a letter Brooks sent to President Tyler in 1844.

...From our first acquaintance I have entertained for you a sincere regard, and though at an early period of it we have differed politically in some particulars, still as my friendship was entirely free from all sinister motive or design, so has it remained through every trial which has checkered our variant paths in life — yours on a plain of constant elevation of the highest grandeur allied to fame, whilst mine, opposed by the storms of adversity, has taken a downward course till I find myself struggling at every step in the very 'slough of despond,' with but a slight partition between hope and despair! 

Perhaps his pleading paid off. The only government position Brooks was ever able to obtain was a short-term appointment as a Washington County supervisor in 1845, the year President Tyler left office. Maybe it was a parting gift.

pin oak small

Another Colonel Brooks story was published in October 1891 in the Evening Star, as part of a longer feature on Brookland and Fort Totten. This particular paragraph about one of the Colonel’s trees caught my attention (the picture above is a generic pin oak, not Col. Brooks’s tree) : 

On Bunker Hill Road, a little east of the railway station, stands a magnificent old pin oak tree with an interesting history. It was planted by Col. Brooks nearly sixty years ago, by whom it was always watched with a fostering eye. When Fort Bunker [Hill] was being built, in the early days of the late war, the soldiers undertook to cut it down, but the old man strenuously objected. He stood guard over it three nights in succession, and finally appealed to the Secretary of War for protection. Mr. Stanton, although not much given to sentiment, yielded to his importunities, and gave orders to 'spare that tree.' Of course, the colonel was jubilant over his success. The tree is a very large one and even now has hosts of admiring friends, whose zeal is evidenced in the care that is being taken to preserve it.

Brooksmansion-Hodasevich 1863

Again, I wondered about the accuracy of the story. On the true side of the argument we have the fact that Col. Brooks was deeply involved in horticulture and took great pains with the plantings around the mansion (see 1863 map, right. Click to enlarge). He may very well have been protective of a particularly old and beautiful tree. On the false side of the story is the fact that Fort Bunker Hill was built in the fall of 1861, when Simon Cameron was Secretary of War. Edwin Stanton didn’t become secretary until March of 1862, well after the fort was completed. In addition, a diligent search of the Brooks/Queen papers at Catholic University turned up no correspondence to or from Stanton, Cameron, or any official concerning a tree on the Brooks property. 

You can decide the veracity of these stories for yourself. Whether they are true or not, they do add a certain humanity to the person for whom our neighborhood is named.

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Before You Go:

A little while ago I got an email from Christopher Russell, who has written a book called The Battle of Turkey Thicket. It’s a true story and much of it takes place in Brookland. For Russell, the idea of the book began while he was visiting a church in Rehoboth, Delaware, and spotted an inconspicuous plaque that read:

1932 - 1950

IN MEMORIAM

PHILIP THOMAS HUGHES

PRIVATE UNITED STATES ARMY

KILLED IN KOREA 9-12-50

battleoftt

Russell found himself wondering about the 18-year-old soldier and why he was honored there. He began to research Hughes’s life and discovered he grew up in Brookland. The more he dug, the more compelling he found the story of the life and death of Patrick Hughes and decided to turn it into a book. He calls The Battle of Turkey Thicket “the journey of an orphan, altar boy, runaway and teenage soldier from Washington, D.C." It’s available on Amazon and is a worthwhile read. Click on the image to check it out: 

© Robert Malesky 2017