The Family of John Brown, Abolitionist

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Mary Ann Brown and two of her daughters.

Mary Ann Brown with Annie (left) and Sarah (right) about 1851. Library of Congress

Amid such sentiments, the possibility of a better life elsewhere seemed worth a try. Traveling almost the width of the continent, from upper New York state to California, Brown's widow Mary, her three daughters, and Salmon and his family came by wagon to Red Bluff in 1864. Six years later, John Brown's family arrived in Rohnerville.

Mary purchased a lot on Church Street, where she had a house built for herself and her two daughters, Sarah, 24, and Ellen, 16. Her oldest daughter Anne had married Samuel Adams, a blacksmith from Ohio, while the family lived at Red Bluff. They had also come to Rohnerville, purchasing land on Campton's Lane not far from Mary's house. Salmon Brown and his family lived adjacent to Mary on the west.

Although John Brown's letters have been preserved and published, as have reminiscences written by his son John Brown, Jr. and daughter Ruth Thompson, along with two published articles by Salmon Brown, there are apparently no published letters of Mary Brown. That her life was filled with pain and sorrow is certain. At sixteen she married a man twice her age, and assumed responsibility for his five children, the oldest of whom was only four years her junior. There were thirteen children born of this marriage, but only six grew to adulthood. She lost two sons and her husband at Harper's Ferry.

Mary Brown is described by Stephen Oates in his biography of John Brown:

"A large-boned girl with wide jaws and black hair, Mary seemed in complete control of her emotions, and she had tremendous physical stamina which enabled her to endure the most rigorous hardships. Moreover, she had been taught since childhood that a woman's task was to bear children, tend her house, and obey her husband. Thus she subordinated herself completely to Brown's will (quite as he expected her to do), enduring his intractable ways with what Robert Penn Warren has called a kind of primitive stoicism. If she was uneducated and slow, she was nevertheless a loyal, self-sacrificing wife whose whole existence was contained in the small confines of her home. And she never complained."


Surrounded by her children and grandchildren, perhaps Mary found a more pleasant life in the little northern California community of Rohnerville. Ellen and her schoolteacher husband James Fablinger and their children lived with Mary and Sarah in the big house at the intersection of Church and Brown Streets; Salmon and Annie lived with their families nearby. The Browns began taking part in their new community - Salmon introduced blooded stock into the county just as his father had fifty years before in Pennsylvania. Sarah (Sadie) participated in the local Sons of Temperance Lodge. Mary made friends and may have served as midwife on occasion. But distance had not screened them from public scrutiny as they had hoped. In the May 27, 1871 Humboldt Times, the following letter to the editor appeared:

"Mr. Editor:
Having been startled and deeply chagrined by a report circulated without our knowledge, that John Brown's family were in a suffering and destitute condition, and believing that a public denied of such a report is due us, we take this method of saying to all whom it may concern that John Brown's family, or those of them in California, are all well and are doing well, and wish to maintain decent self respect and merit the reputation of having ordinary sagacity if possible. The people of Massachusetts have been misinformed, and have raised and sent to our mother one hundred and fifty dollars; but we have taken measure some two weeks ago to have such unnecessary collection stopped.
Salmon Brown
Sarah Brown
Rohnerville, May 21, 1871


Salmon Brown in his old age.
Library of Congress

Salmon Brown seemed better able to provide for his mother and family than his father had been. In time, his sheep business was expanded to a 3,000-acre ranch at Bridgeville where he ran about 2,000 head. Perhaps his move from Rohnerville prompted Mary to pull up stakes again - this time to settle in Santa Clara County.

Mrs. John Brown and Mrs. James Fablinger and family left today to settle in Santa Clara near San Jose where Miss Sadie Brown has already located. We regret losing our much esteemed and respected neighbors. All Rohnerville wish them happiness and success in their new home and hope their thoughts will occasionally revert to their many friends and relatives in Humboldt County.

"It is rather amazing that the family of nationally-known John Brown, whose life and activities were so distant from California's Northcoast, found their way to Rohnerville. And even today, Mary Brown's descendants - a son and grandchildren of Annie Brown Adams -- still reside in Humboldt county, not far from the little community which welcomed John Brown's family so many years ago."  Humboldt Times, Jan. 26, 1881.


Another article about Mary Brown and her family, written by Jessie Faulkner of the Humboldt County Historical Society, appeared in the Humboldt Beacon of November 8, 2001.

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-- Rohnerville Herald, March 5, 1884 --
"From the San Francisco Call, March 1: "Death of Mrs. John Brown - Yesterday morning at the house of Mrs. Dr. Moore on Hayes Street, Mrs. Brown, the widow of old John Brown of Ossawattomie, died of liver disease. She came to the city from her home in Santa Clara some three months ago for medical treatment, and until recently it was supposed that she was improving. She suffered a relapse and not long afterwards, in the presence of her daughter crossed over the dark river to join the 'soul that ever goes marching on.' Deceased was well advanced in years. After the untimely death of her husband, to whom she was the second wife, she removed with her younger children to this state, and settled on a ranch in the foothills back of San Jose. Several years ago public attention was called to the fact that the homestead was heavily mortgaged and the family threatened with eviction. The people of this State promptly subscribed funds to pay off the indebtedness, and there was a surplus left for the purchase of such stock, implements, etc., as were necessary to make the farm productive. In addition the daughter was given a good position in the Mint. One of the sons resides in the northern part of the State. Two other sons, it will be remembered, were, with their father, wounded in the famous raid upon Harper's Ferry. Deceased was a woman of simple and gentle character, and was a member of the Congregational Church in the locality where she resided with her children. She was esteemed by all her acquaintances and her demise will recall to the memory of a great portion of the world some of the exciting scenes of over a quarter of a century ago. The body of Mrs. Brown was taken to San Jose for burial." Mrs. S. S. Adams of this place is a daughter and Mr. Salmon Brown of Bridgeville, a son of the late Mrs. John Brown who three years ago was a resident of Rohnerville, living with her son-in-law, James Fablinger."