Most anyone with a passing knowledge of American history will have heard of John Brown - and Harper's Ferry. Brown, who elevated his passionate opposition to slavery to armed resistance, was arrested and tried after he and a small group of followers attempted and failed to raid a federal arsenal in Virginia.
His subsequent execution by hanging further showed the split between North and South in the pre-Civil War years of the 1860s. While church bells rang throughout the North marking loss of a patriot, Southerners rejoiced.
What many may not know is that John Brown's widow and second wife, Mary Brown, and her surviving children migrated west and eventually settled in Rohnerville, where they lived for many years.
A transcript of a PBS special on the well-known abolitionist, as well as local newspaper accounts, is the source of much of the following information.
John Brown, born May 9, 1800, in Torrington, Conn., developed an early interest in abolition - an interest likely sparked by his father's own passion for the cause. When he was 5, his family moved west to Ohio, where Brown married Dianthe Lusk at the age of 20. They had seven children before Dianthe contracted a fever that subsequently killed her. A year later, Brown married again. Mary Day cared for Brown's five surviving children and went on to bear 13 of her own.
Though long committed to the struggle against slavery, Brown committed his life to the effort publicly following the mob murder of Illinois clergyman Elijah Lovejoy on Nov. 7, 1837. Lovejoy published an antislavery newspaper. A memorial service was held for Lovejoy in Brown's home community of Hudson, Ohio.
In the back of the church, an angular 37-year-old man rose from his seat, and raised his right hand as if taking a vow. He spoke a single sentence: "Here before God, in the presence of these witnesses, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery."
Brown's financial struggles constantly posed a challenge to his commitment to the cause of abolition. In the span of his life, he owned a tannery, ran sheep, and made numerous investments that went bad. At some point among this frustration, Brown began to view himself as a messenger of God - his mission was eliminating slavery.
"The tannery business, farming, wool buying and the raising of blooded stock were my father's life occupations," Brown's son, Salmon said in the Jan. 2, 1917, issue of The Ferndale Enterprise, "though all of them were subordinated to his one consuming passion - freeing the slaves."
Fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass underlined Brown's determination to right what he saw as a most grievous wrong.
"Brown denounced slavery in language fierce and bitter," former slave and abolitionist Douglass wrote, "and (he believed) that slave-holders had forfeited the right to live - that the slaves had the right to gain their liberty in any way they could. Brown thought that he had no better use for his life than to lay it down in the cause of the slave."
The proof of his dedication to that cause developed in Kansas and Nebraska in 1855, when residents of those territories were given the option of deciding whether slavery would be allowed. Five of Brown's sons moved to Kansas to fight the proslavery forces. Brown followed the fall of that year.
The next spring, in what became known as the "Pottawatomie Massacre," Brown's forces, led by the patriarch, attacked a proslavery settlement and killed five men. The proslavery forces responded in kind and burned the abolitionists' camp.
By 1859, Brown was planning an attack on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Va. (now West Virginia) to acquire arms. Instead, on Oct. 18, 1859 - two days after Brown's army of 21 men took over the arsenal - a company of U.S.Marines stormed the facility and took Brown and his surviving soldiers into custody. Two of the abolitionists' sons died in the attack.
Within a week, Brown was tried and found guilty of murder, treason and inciting a slave insurrection. He was sentenced to death by hanging - a sentence that was carried out on Dec. 2, 1859.
Mary Brown, who last saw her husband the day before his execution, remained on the family's farm in North Elba, N.Y. for a few years before opting to head west.
"Mary decided to come west with her younger daughters in 1864 when her son Salmon Brown planned to take his family and join a train of 40 wagons," local historian Evelyn McCormick wrote in 1992.
John Brown's name would ease the way for the group when they reached Redding. "When entering a toll road near Redding, the gate keeper is reported to have asked their names and discovered they were the John Browns," McCormick wrote. "At this disclosure, he refused their money and introduced them to others, all of whom were kind to them and looked after their needs."
The Browns settled in Red Bluff until 1870, when they moved to Humboldt County. John Brown's widow, Mary, is said to have bought a house in Rohnerville on Church Street, and her stepson, Salmon, and his family moved in next door. Mary's daughters, Annie, Sarah and Ellen, also settled in Rohnerville. Salmon went on to become a pioneer sheep rancher in the Bridgeville area and owned more than 3,000 acres.
Annie Brown married Samuel Adams in Red Bluff in November of 1869, moved to Rohnerville and on to the Mattole Valley in 1888 or1889, according to notes compiled by the late historian, Martha Roscoe. She was said to be her father's secretary during his campaign to eliminate slavery.
An Oct. 18, 1959, San Francisco Chronicle article noting the centennial of the Harper's Ferry raid mentions Annie's involvement in her father's efforts: "She 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."
Annie's daughter-in-law, Maggie Adams - married to Annie's son, Gus, of Port Kenyon - recalls tales her mother-in-law shared in her later years.
In one incident, Annie's ability to flirt saved the day.
"One story in particular she stated she had sat on a chest which contained arms and ammunition which were hidden there," Roscoe wrote. "Annie's father, John Brown was a highly religious man who consequently expected his daughter to be very circumspect in her conduct. In this case, however, her father asked her to sit on the chest and flirt with soldiers who came to investigate just what the John Brown crowd were doing at the Kennedy farm. She did just that, and the soldiers left without searching the chest."
Mary Brown left Rohnerville in the winter of 1881 and took up residence in the Santa Clara community of Saratoga. She contracted cancer within a few years and passed away in that city on Feb. 20, 1884.
After a number of setbacks at his sheep ranch, Salmon Brown moved his family to Portland, Ore. Apparently despondent over illness, Salmon Brown killed himself in May of 1919. He was 82 years old and the last surviving son of John Brown. Sarah Brown, who came west with her mother and lived in Rohnerville for a number of years, died June 30, 1916, at her daughter's home in Campbell. She was one of the younger of John Brown's 20 children.
It's very likely that other descendants of the famed abolitionist John Brown remain in the Eel River Valley and Humboldt County today.
-- West Coast Signal, September 4,1872 --
"Mr. Salmon Brown, of Rohnerville, is turning his attention to the introduction of fine blooded sheep into Humboldt County. We saw in Major Long's corral yesterday a fine full blood Spanish Merino buck which he had sold to H. S. Daniels, Esq., of Arcata. Mr. Brown has sold eight sucking lambs of this breed the present summer for $75 each. By the next steamer he expects to receive some full-blooded Cotswolds lately purchased from Rawson, the noted sheep raiser of Tehama County. We are glad to know that Mr. Brown will exhibit some of his blooded sheep at the approaching Fair of the Humboldt County Agricultural Society."
-- 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."