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Filmmaker recalls search for history of 19th century Black settlement

Mike Jaquays
Staff writer
Posted 2/11/23

"History is all around us and we just don't know it," filmmaker Paul Miller told a full audience Saturday at the Oneida County History Center in Utica.

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Filmmaker recalls search for history of 19th century Black settlement


UTICA — "History is all around us and we just don't know it," filmmaker Paul Miller told a full audience Saturday at the Oneida County History Center.

Miller answered their questions following a special Black History Month presentation of his film "Searching for Timbuctoo," a biographical account of the quest to locate the remnants of an almost-forgotten Black settlement from the mid-1800s in upstate New York.

Utica-born abolitionist and Peterboro-based land office owner Gerrit Smith financed that settlement back in 1846, giving away 120,000 acres of wild land. Owning a plot in "Timbuctoo" enabled some 3,000 Black men to have the then-$250 worth of land ownership required to give them the right to vote in New York State.

Smith saw that as part of his quest for racial justice, Miller said.

"Searching for Timbuctoo" intermixes footage of a recent archeological excavation in North Elba up in the Adirondacks near Lake Placid with historical photos from the past and modern-day interviews with historians, including noted Gerrit Smith biographer Norman Dann of Peterboro. Famed abolitionist Frederick Douglas plays a big part in the history, as does John Brown - who some say was enabled by Smith to mount his failed slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry that helped catapult the country into the Civil War.

Miller, the film's writer, director and producer, said he was at the University at Albany working on his master's degree when he heard from an advisor about the Timbuctoo settlement. More information came to him from the John Brown Lives group, and from there "once you pull one string another opens up," he said.

He lamented that Brown has become more more famous than Smith, who was born in Utica in 1797 and graduated from Hamilton College in 1818 as the class valedictorian. Telling Smith's story was one of his main objectives in making "Searching for Timbuctoo," he said.

The film is currently being shown on Public Broadcasting Service station in Albany and anyone who would like to see it can contact their own local PBS channel, as it is available for them to broadcast for free, Miller said.

The center's Director of Public Programs Patrick Reynolds said he had seen "Searching for Timbuctoo" on PBS and was inspired to seek Miller out for a personal film screening appearance.

"I am constantly looking for speakers and programs that would be of interest to the people of the area," Reynolds said. "This had a good local connection."

"This is one of those hidden stories we like to reveal," added the center's Executive Director Rebecca McLain. "We are excited to have Paul with us today."

Miller said he had attended screenings of the film a few dozen times, but this one was special because not only was Utica the birthplace of Smith but nearby New Hartford was the birthplace of Miller's late father-in-law Earl Cunningham. His father-in-law was the first person to see the film, Miller recalled, and had taken Miller out to visit some of the historic places in Smith's life.

Cunningham passed away in 2020 shortly after the film was completed, Miller added. Saturday was the wedding anniversary of Miller and his wife Maureen, making that Utica event even more heartfelt.

"Of all the screenings I have done, this screening means the most to me," he said.

The Oneida County History Center is at 1608 Genesee St. and is a private 501(c)(3) not-for-profit educational institution dedicated to preserving the history, heritage and culture of the Greater Mohawk Valley for present and future generations.

For more information, call 315-735-3642 or visit


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