John Brown’s Family in Northern California

Portrait of John Brown by Augustus Washington

Did you know that there is a connection between John Brown, the abolitionist, and the North State? John Brown, of Harper’s Ferry fame, never came to California. He was hanged by the State of Virginia in 1859. But members of his family came, and their story is told in a new book from the Association for Northern California Historical Research.

When John Brown was executed in 1859, he left behind a widow, Mary Ann Day Brown. She was living with their three youngest daughters, Annie, Sarah, and Ellen, on a small farm in upstate New York, together with their grown son Salmon and his wife Abbie. Life there was hard. The soil was poor and the weather was nearly always cold. They raised their own food and made their own clothing from wool that they sheared from their own sheep. The girls picked blackberries to pay postage for their mother’s letters.

One day Abbie’s uncle came to visit them. He had returned from California and he painted a glowing picture of its healthy climate and fertile soil. In 1863 the family decided to emigrate to California.

They set out on their journey in September 1863 and got as far as Iowa. They thought they might settle there, and rented a farm, but the hard winter that followed convinced them to continue on. They started from Council Bluffs in three wagons: one for Mary Brown and her three girls, one for Salmon and Abbie Brown and their two small children, and one for six Merino sheep.

They traveled the California Trail until they reached Lassen’s Meadow in Nevada Territory. From there they took the new Red Bluff Wagon Road that brought them into the town of Red Bluff in Tehama County. The Brown family would live in Red Bluff from 1864 to 1870.

ANCHR’s new book, John Brown’s Family in Red Bluff , has just been printed and will soon be available at various outlets and online at anchr.org. Today (March 5, 2022) two of us, Ron Womack and myself, gave a presentation at the Chico History Museum about the book. It was the first outing for the new book, but we hope to do many more presentations.

The book consists of a thesis on the John Brown house in Red Bluff written by Wilbert L. Phay and published by ANCHR in 1986, plus many more chapters.

More than half the book is new material: background on John Brown, the story of the Brown family’s overland journey, danger on the trail, political rivalries in Red Bluff, and the subsequent history of the family. The ANCHR authors put in hours of research and writing to bring all the threads of the story together in one volume.

I hope you will be reading it soon.

Next time: More on the Brown family in California.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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