NORTH ELBA — At the end of a winding forest road through mountain farmland, the mystery of Timbucto is hidden in Adirondack dirt.
The overgrown trail transects a row of 40-acre parcels surveyed into squares and given to freed black men in 1846 by Gerrit Smith.
Hoping to instill agrarian land reform, Smith granted lots to 3,000 families recruited by "scouts" sent out to find temperate men through church pulpits and the early black press.
Many grantees came from urban centers around Albany.
The effort is historically seen as a movement toward improving civil rights; men of color could vote in New York once they owned $250 worth of property.
But, by many accounts, Timbucto failed.
Smith had inherited 120,000 acres from his father's exploits and hoped to establish a community of freed men in the wilderness of Essex and Franklin counties.
The name Timbucto — sometimes spelled Timbuctoo or Timbuctu — was conferred on a section of North Elba grants in letters written by abolitionist John Brown, who came here in 1849 to help survey boundaries and provide farming assistance.
His farm still stands intact as a national landmark a few miles east.
Though all Smith's lots were parceled out, only 200 people made the journey north.
Many grantees left after spending a few years in the largely unsettled wilderness.
Driving toward Lot 84 on a recent morning, Dr. Hadley Kruczek-Aaron, who lives in Saranac Lake and teaches at SUNY Potsdam, relished the sense of calm emanating from the land.
"It feels so serene coming here," she said, steering around ruts in the road.
Kruczek-Aaron worked with 18 students this summer, digging and sifting layers of soil with screens and brushes, searching for clues to 19th-century life.
The archaeological premise was to sort details and search for clues about what worked or didn't at Timbucto.