Abolitionists at Rest

Finding traces of John Brown in California.

john brown and owen brown's cabin
Wikimedia Commons

It would be very hard to be one of John Brown’s 20 children. The fearsome antislavery warrior, instigator of the 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry that made the Civil War inevitable, Brown waged a bloody campaign against enslavers that could not but catch his children up in his furious crusade.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

Little wonder that after their father’s execution, after the apocalyptic war, some of the abolitionist’s children sought peace in the far West.

Pasadena, where I live with my family, had a particular hold on the Browns. Ruth Brown Thompson, eldest daughter, came in the mid-1880s. Here, she tended to her husband, Henry Thompson, one of Brown’s lieutenants in the Bleeding Kansas violence of the 1850s that, in hindsight, looks exactly like a miniature dress rehearsal to the Civil War soon to come. Henry got shot in the Battle of Black Jack in 1856, the first violent encounter between proslavery and antislavery forces in U.S. history. His wounds, which incapacitated him for nearly 60 years, prevented him from accompanying his father-in-law on the ill-fated Harpers Ferry raid. His two brothers, William and Dauphin, went. Both were killed.

Ruth and Henry settled in a small home near the Arroyo Seco, not far from where I live. Two of her brothers, Owen and Jason, followed from Ohio. Odd and hermit-like (and likely suffering from PTSD after seeing and participating in so much violence alongside their father), the brothers had long, flowing beards and scratched a living out of hardscrabble farmland in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains north of town. There, they built a tiny cabin—it looks to have been the size of Thoreau’s famed Walden Pond shack—and passed the time. They tended roses and a single cedar tree that they’d brought with them from Ohio. From time to time, they came down from their perch to visit Ruth and Henry. On at least one occasion, the brothers got lost heading back up to their cabin, wandering around for several days until they either found their way or were rescued.

Ruth lived out her days, and she’s buried in Mountain View Cemetery, not far from a trailhead that leads hikers up to John Brown Peak. Mountain View was created by members of an Ohio abolitionist family whose descendants still run it.

Family members and other children and grandchildren of John Brown visited, many staying long enough to have their pictures taken by the best portrait photographer in town. Word got out that Owen and Jason, antislavery warriors in their own right, lived above Pasadena. By the later 1880s, people climbed the steep trail to visit them in the shadow of the mountain the brothers named for their father. It was a pilgrimage for Black and white admirers to pay respects to the father and to the sons.

Jason would eventually leave to go back to Ohio (his wife had not joined him in Pasadena). He died in Akron in 1912. Owen died of pneumonia at his sister’s home in early 1889. His funeral procession drew thousands to downtown Pasadena and had to have been the largest mixed-race gathering in the city’s history at the time.

Owen was laid to rest near the cabin beneath a gravestone that celebrated him as a son of John Brown. Pilgrimages continued, each a poignant act of commemoration and racial reconciliation.

Vandals attacked the grave and gravestone from time to time, and as the decades went by, people seemed to forget the story of the Browns. Even John Brown Peak lost some of its name: we know it now as Brown Mountain, and few would connect it to the man whose antislavery zealotry got him hanged in Charles Town, Virginia. On the gallows, just before the noose went round his neck, John handed off a prophetic note. “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

Over time, Owen’s grave site deteriorated. The cabin was torn down in 1903. The stone disappeared more than once. Another marker went up, but it misidentified the location of the grave. All the while, a group of preservationists, historians, and community activists kept a candle burning to protect the site and honor the pilgrimage tradition.

About a decade ago, the gravestone was discovered. It had been flung into the brush below the cabin and grave site knoll. Activism in the service of memorialization continued. A brokered deal with a property owner got cut, one that laid conservancy protection across the grave site, including where the cabin once stood. The gravestone returned to its rightful and correct place.

At this writing, the push to commemorate, and thus protect, the Owen Brown Gravesite is moving forward toward what we all hope will be an appropriate and successful conclusion. As someone who is at least somewhat involved in things, this feels to me like an early instance of what has come to be called the Black Lives Matter movement. Those African Americans who, along with others, climbed up toward John Brown Peak—as well as those who continue to do so today—saw hope in that steep hike.

If you’re thinking about making the pilgrimage, meditate for a moment on the connections between the West and the Civil War and watch your step as you undertake the slow climb toward higher ground.•

William Deverell is the director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West and a professor of history at USC.
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