BLACK HISTORY MONTH
Aunt Clara Brown: A Story of Determination and Courage
Everywhere she went she opened a laundry shop, and Denver was no exception.
Clara Brown (c. 1800–1885) was a former slave from Virginia who became a community leader, philanthropist and aided settlement of former slaves during the time of Colorado’s Gold Rush. She was known as the ‘Angel of the Rockies,’ making her mark as Colorado’s first black settler and an “Official Pioneer.” She prospered as an entrepreneur and became an example of how much people can accomplish when they are determined.
I learned about her this past month through a children’s book by Linda Lowery titled Aunt Clara Brown: Official Pioneer. I think back on my elementary school years in Maple Heights, Ohio, and how much I loved the library. I especially enjoyed reading biographies. Children’s books are wonderful means of introducing minds to memorable people and their stories.
Clara Brown’s life in many respects says much about the awfulness of slave system and the damage it did to families. She herself was born into slavery, married a slave at 18 and had children. But the children were property and her dearest Eliza Jane was sold to someone else when she was 10.
Clara was also sold numerous times and lived in various states. Through Lowery’s book I learned that slaves occasionally had good masters and when hers died in the 1850s she was given the opportunity to buy her freedom, which she was most eager to do.
There have been a number of instances of Gold Fever in our history. The California Gold Rush in 1849, the Black Hills craze in the 1870s and the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s are a few I was familiar with. The Pike’s Peak Gold Rush in 1859 morphed into the Colorado Gold Rush and the development of Colorado Territory.
Clara Brown was eager to go West when this prospecting craze hit. At first the caravan of pioneers were reluctant to have a black woman come along when she sought them out in St. Louis, perhaps for fear that they were giving aid to a runaway slave. But she was determined and when she showed them her papers she was permitted to join the wagon train.
She wasn’t allowed to ride in the wagons, however, so she walked alongside the oxen on that 680 mile route as the wagon train headed West across the prairie. Her only possessions to begin with were a washtub and boiler. At this time she was in her late 50s.
From the start she made herself useful, making meals, washing clothes, taking care of the sick, nursing them to health with herbal teas and other remedies. When they arrived in the Rockies, gold fever was everywhere. Men were too excited about prospecting to think about much else, including washing their clothes. So, for Clara Brown it was an entrepreneurial opportunity she took advantage of.
In the Denver area, Brown settled in nearby Auraria where she worked at the City Bakery. Following the tide of miners heading into the mountains, Brown set up the first laundry in Colorado at Gilpin County in Gregory Gulch, now called Central City, Colorado. She also worked as a midwife, cook and nursemaid. After a while she was able to put aside $10,000, which was real money in those days. She then began buying up real estate.
At an age in which most of us start thinking about retirement, Clara Brown was busy amassing a small fortune.
She had a spiritual side as well and became one of the founding members of the nondenominational Union Sunday School through her affiliation with two Methodist missionary ministers. According to Wikipedia, “Brown gave generously of herself to those in the community. She hosted the first Methodist church services at her house and helped those in need any way she could, whether newly settled Euro-Americans or Native Americans. Lovingly called ‘Aunt Clara,’ her home was, ‘a hospital, a home, a general refuge for those who were sick or in poverty.’ She was quoted as saying, ‘I always go where Jesus calls me.’ The Catholic Church and the first Protestant church in the Rocky Mountains were built partly through Brown’s donations toward their construction.”
Her saga doesn’t end here.
After the Civil War she had this strong compulsion to find her daughter so she returned East to Kentucky looking for her family. She learned that her husband and daughter Margaret were dead and that a son was lost. Still she pressed on in her quest to find Eliza Jane.
Though she failed in this effort, she helped between 16 and 26 relatives and former slaves to get a new start in life by bringing them back to Colorado. She gave each family a home or piece of land and taught them how to go into business for themselves. In return she asked them to spread the word that she was still longing to find Eliza Jane.
The years rolled on. By age 80 her funds were depleted from helping others and from being cheated by real estate agents. (Even then old folks got taken advantage of.)
Colorado made an edict to call anyone who moved to that territory before 1865 an “official pioneer” and eligible for a pension. When she went to collect, however, she learned that you had to be white and you had to be a man.
Once again she leaned on her friends. She’d helped so many people that she was nicknamed “Aunt Clara Brown.” Friends wrote letters, gave speeches, and ultimately succeeded in helping her get the official approval as a Pioneer, making her eligible for the pension she’d been denied.
When she was 83 she received a letter from a woman in Council Bluffs, Iowa saying that there was a woman who worked at the post office who had been a slave, and sold away from her mother when she was 10 or 11. Her name was Eliza Jane.
Clara Brown got on a train and headed East again. Her friends raised the money to pay for the trip. When she arrived, she caught a trolley to Second Street where a woman came running out to greet her. Could it be?
Sure enough, the eyes said it all.
Eliza Jane moved to Colorado and was standing at her mother’s side when her mother received the Pioneer award in her wheelchair.
Today her great-great grandchildren are Denver Bronco fans. (I just had to throw that in here. That’s strictly a guess.)
One of the big takeaways for me in this story was seeing how her commitment to helping others came back in turn when she needed it later. Her values and life example are lessons for all of us.
Originally published at https://pioneerproductions.blogspot.com.