Friday, July 29, 2011

Mary's life didn't end when John was hanged

Mary Brown with daughters Annie (left) and Sarah (right)
in 1853, Vernon, New York (Library of Congress)

John Brown's son, Salmon
I was surprised, some years ago, to learn that Mary Brownthe 2nd wife of John Brown of Bloody Kansas and Harpers Ferry fame, and his wife at the time of his executionwas buried in my "back yard," in the South [San Francisco] Bay town of Saratoga, in the hills southwest of San Jose. Surprised, too, to learn that she taught English to Japanese migrant workers in the Santa Clara Valley (today more often referred to as Silicon Valley, where remnants of the once-endless orchards still survive as isolated fruit trees in fenced-off back yards).

I wasn't surprised that she had made her way to the western end of the continent in the years after her husband was hanged in Charles Town, West Virginia. According to a direct descendant, Mary Brown and her childrenand a stepson, Salmon, from John's first wifemoved to California to let their families experience a life "out of the shadow of John Brown."

I was surprised because I'd never heard about it beforesurprised that in an area so enamored of its history, not many people beyond the local historical society know that the widow and other family members of the man author Tony Horwitz describes as "the most successful terrorist in American history" is resting peacefully in this beautiful and affluent Northern California suburb.

It wasn't always thus, of course. As is the way with history, things are forgotten over time. Her presence in Californiafirst in Red Bluff, then up amongst the giant coastal redwoods in Rohnerville with daughters Annie, Sarah, and Ellen, and next door to Salmon Brown and his familywas well known and widely reported in her day. Daughter Annie reportedly served as her father's secretary during at least part of his anti-slavery campaigns. During the centennial of the Harpers Ferry raid, on October 18, 1959, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that Annie "had, when but 16, assisted Martha Brown, wife of John Brown's son, Oliver, with the cooking at the Kennedy farm, where the daring maneuver was prepared" (this from Jessie Faulkner at the Humboldt County Historical Society).

In 1881, about three years before her death, Mary Brown relocated to Saratoga, in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains, and is buried in Madronia Cemetery along with her daughters Sarah and Ellen.

To the end of her days, it seems, she was both harassed by enemies of her late husband (even having to outrun southern vigilantes on the Oregon Trail, by one account) and warmly embraced by his supporters (supported financially to some degree by well-heeled abolitionist literary figures like Thoreau and Emerson), wherever she went. The latter outnumbered the former in this Far West Union state. Check out this blog entry about John Brown's great-great-great-granddaughter, Alice Keesey Mecoy, speaking about her famous ancestor. "'I didn't know I was related to him until I was 16,' Alice Keesey Mecoy said Sunday to a packed room at the Saratoga History Museum. 'I said, What? I'm related to this crazy man?'"

In 2009, dirt from Mary's grave in California and John's in North Elba, New York, were commingled. 

I enjoyed a number of hours reading material at this excellent John Brown blog, which includes considerable information on Mary Brown.

This Allies for Freedom website has lots of interesting information on Mary Brown and her family in California.


Mike Musick said...


Thanks for drawing attention to the significance of Brown and his raid on the U.S. arsenal in this and previous posts. Thanks, too, for making me aware of Horwitz's forthcoming treatment. We in Harpers Ferry have always viewed the events of 1859 as the true commencement of the war that followed.

dw said...


Thanks for taking the time to comment. It is odd how people wish to compartmentalize the years 1861-1865 as if they stood apart from the years that immediately preceded or followed. I'm inclined to agree with you about Harpers Ferry.

Have you retired the country, back where it all began?