She Never Gave Up!
Clara Brown was born into slavery in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, near
Fredericksburg, on January 1,1800. Accounts differ slightly on birth dates
and place. What we do know for certain is that at a very young age she
and her mother were sold to Ambrose Smith, a tobacco farmer, to work in
his tobacco fields. Smith was a kindly man, a devout Methodist, and took
Clara and her mother with his family to church services. Life with the Smith family was tolerable, for a salve.
When she was 18, she was a tall, strong woman with warm brown eyes. She married Richard, who was also a slave and worked as a carpenter and on the Smith plantation. Typically, when he and Clara found a spark and fell in love, they were encouraged to marry and produce children to work for the Smiths. They did marry and they had four children, Richard, Margaret, Paulina Ann and Eliza Jane. Paulina Ann drowned when she was 8 years old.
In 1835, their owner, Ambrose Smith, died and the estate was settled.
Part of the settlement was to bring the Brown family to auction. Clara
watched in abject horror as the family was broken apart when members were sold separately to different owners. They were each sent to different and distant locations with their new owners. A plantation owner from Logan County, Kentucky, George Brown, sensed that Clara was strong and intelligent so he placed high bids in order to buy her. Sold! She had a new master and she had no idea where the rest of her family may have gone. Clara vowed that day to search for the rest of her life for her family and especially her youngest, then 10-year old daughter, Eliza Jane. For twenty years she worked for George Brown, as a house maid, caring for, loving and raising his children, not her own. Her heart was breaking.
When she was 53 years old, she was freed. Although Kentucky slavery was a brutal enterprise, in some ways Kentucky was more lenient in their laws than several other slave states. For example, Kentucky never passed laws that outlawed teaching slaves to read and write, never prohibited owners from freeing their slaves, and never forced freed people to leave the state. Clara, her heart aching for the family she had lost did leave the state. She had vowed and knew that she would search until the end of her days to find her daughter.
She heard rumors that Eliza Jane had moved west a few years earlier. The rumor mill was always active. She immediately headed for St. Louis where she thought Missouri law protected free blacks. In Kentucky, she didn’t feel safe, as highwaymen were marauding and kidnapping free blacks and selling them back to unscrupulous plantation owners. Easy money!
After searching for three years beginning in Kentucky, then on to Missouri and Kansas, to no avail, she wondered if perhaps Eliza Jane had joined the masses that had gone to Pikes Peak hoping to find gold. The big mining boom began in July 1858 and lasted until February 1861. Maybe she should head to Colorado Territory.
Clara must have felt like she was chasing a ghost. In April of 1859, she
decided to make the 700 mile trip west into the Colorado Territory gold
fields. Clara had saved enough money for the trip, but blacks were not
allowed to ride stages. Fortunately, she met Colonel Benjamin Wadsworth,
whose wagon train was headed to Colorado and he offered her a job as a
cook in exchange for free transportation.
The journey was long, dusty, and arduous. Clara still had to walk most of the way. According to some accounts, she was the first Black woman to cross the plains during the gold rush. After a few months still with no sign of Eliza Jane, she headed further west toward Denver ending up in Auraria.
It wasn’t long before she found work in a bakery and as a laundress. She was used to hard work and was always very spiritual. Clara’s faith kept her going. She along with two Methodist missionary ministers were founding members of the non-denominational Union Sunday school.
There was a rush of miners heading into the mountains to pan for precious
metals and Clara saw a need. She set up the first laundry in Gilpin
County, in Gregory Gulch, later called Central City, Colorado, which was
made up of gold mines, stores, saloons, and shacks where miners lived with
their families. She also worked as a midwife, cook, and nursemaid.
This was a boom time and her work brought her a substantial income. She was actually able to expand her laundry business and hire an assistant. Clara
collected whatever gold dust came out of the miners’ pockets and made
extra money by cooking and cleaning for the miners. She worked long
hours and saved most of what she made, denying herself any luxuries, spending her money on only essentials. With these savings she funded the construction of St. James Methodist Church.
She assisted freed slaves to relocate to Colorado. She grubstaked miners who had no other means of support while they looked for gold in the mountains and was repaid handsomely for her kindness and generosity by those who did strike pay dirt. Brown gave generously whether to Euro-Americans or Native Americans, her heart knew no boundaries. Her home was a hospital, a general refuge for anyone who needed it. She was once quoted as saying “I always go where Jesus calls me.”
She was very wise and when she had saved up enough money again, invested in land and mine claims. Within several years she had saved $10,000 and owned 16 lots in Denver, 7 houses in Central City and mines and property in Boulder, Georgetown, and Idaho Springs.
She was now supporting herself very well. She might even have been
considered a hub, her business and her home were vital pieces of this community. Sick or injured miners, regardless of race or creed, would turn to her for help. She gave them a place to heal and recover, caring for them with great tenderness until they were well enough to return to work. She also helped the homeless who needed a place to stay. Pregnant women often asked Clara to care for them and help deliver their babies. She provided these services for free to those who could not afford them.
Clara was a Presbyterian, but she never discriminated against any faith.
She generously gave money and time to four different churches in
town. As she had done before, she helped start the first Sunday School class
often using her home as the classroom. In addition, she provided financial
assistance to young women who were educated at Oberlin College. Her
faith and her position in the community were strong and her finances
very secure. She was called by many, “The Angel of the Rockies” and
“Aunt Clara.” However, Clara was still missing something, her family.
She offered her entire fortune as a reward for any word leading to reuniting
her with Eliza Jane.
Sadly she received word that her other daughter, Margaret, had died. Two
of her four children were dead, she had no idea where Eliza Jane was and
long ago she had lost track of both her surviving son, Richard, and her
husband. Since the Civil War had ended and travel was once again safe,
she liquidated most of her remaining assets and holdings and returned to
Kentucky to search again for her daughter.
After an exhausting search, she still had not found Eliza Jane, but she paid
for 16 freed women and men to travel with her back to Colorado, some of
whom were relatives, where she helped them get settled.
In 1879, she made a return trip to Kansas. Her goal was to assist
other former slaves as they relocated to Colorado to “build a community
and farm the land.” There were jobs available in Colorado due to
mining strikes and labor shortages. She was an official representative
of then Colorado Governor Pitkin, who sent her to persuade some of the
freed blacks to come to Colorado and homestead. History has termed
this the “Black Exodus.” She delivered the governor’s invitation to come
to Colorado and donated some of her own money to help support the
new communities. She was now 79 years old, and despite her continuous search, still had not found her daughter, Eliza Jane. Her heart was sore, her spirit exhausted but she still had hope.
The new communities seemed to be flourishing but disaster was just
around the corner. On May 19th, 1864 a great flood swept mercilessly through the land and destroyed much of Denver with many losing property, including Clara’s. It was, in fact, the first deadly flood in Denver history. A spring rain storm caused flash flooding along the Cherry and Plum creeks. An estimated 15-20 people died. In 1873, Clara’s home and several of her remaining properties went up in flames during a huge fire in Central City. Although the city council passed a referendum that no new wood frame buildings could be built in the business district, it came too late for some. This particular fire began in the Dostal Alley that ran behind Main Street. It destroyed about 150 buildings in the downtown area.
Clara was now left with absolutely nothing to show for all of her years of hard work. She had been one of the most hard working and prosperous people in the area. She was a wealthy woman. Now, she had nothing. She must have been devastated. People in the community came to her rescue though. She was well loved and respected. Some of her good deeds came back to her. They set her up in a little cottage where she was comfortable. In her own time of crisis, favors and kindness were lovingly returned to her.
In 1882, after 47 years of searching seemingly everywhere and a huge letter
writing campaign to officials in various locations, Clara received news that a
black woman named Eliza Jane was living in Council Bluffs, Iowa. This woman was about the right age to be Clara’s daughter and she even looked
a little like her. With the help and support of friends she immediately made
travel arrangements and went to meet this woman to see if she was, in fact, her daughter. She was! Finally!!
Not only was she reunited with her long lost daughter, but she met her granddaughter, Eliza Jane’s daughter, Cindy. It was a momentous occasion. The discovery of her daughter turned her lifelong dream into reality, her time of searching was over. The newspaper in Council Bluffs published an account of this miraculous and heartwarming reunion on March 4, 1882. The reporter
said that Clara was “still strong, vigorous, tall, her hair thickly streaked
with gray, her face kind.” The two women returned to Denver where
they lived together until Clara’s death.
“Aunt Clara,” was loved and honored by the City of Denver. In 1885 she
was elected the first African-American and the first female member of the
Society of Colorado Pioneers. The Society was established to recognize
and honor pioneers who came to Colorado before 1861. “The early pioneer
came to a silent wilderness. He took hold of the territory ‘in the raw.’ He
had nothing but his hands, his energy and his courage to start a new
civilization in the wilderness.”
Both the Governor, James B. Grant, and Denver Mayor, John L. Routt,
had great praise for Clara Brown as: “…the kind old friend whose heart
always responded to the cry of distress, and who, rising from the humble
position of slave to the angelic type of noble woman, won our sympathy
and commanded our respect.” A noble woman indeed.
A plaque commemorating the life of Clara Brown hangs at St. James
Methodist Church in Central City, stating that her home had served as
the first church in Central City.
In 1930, a chair in the Central City Opera House was installed in her
Clara’s life and achievements were commemorated with a stained glass
portrait of her in the Old Supreme Court Chambers of the state Capitol
Clara Brown is considered “one of the 100 most influential women in the
history of Colorado.” She was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall
of Fame in 1989.
In 2003, an opera was written about her life, called “Gabriel’s Daughter.”
It debuted in Central City, Colorado.