53. Clara Brown was born enslaved around 1800 near Fredericksburg, Virginia. The “Aunt” part was a white title assigned to older black women as a modicum of respect, just as older black men were often called “Uncle” (Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, etc.). The Brown surname was derived from her third owner. Her birth year is uncertain. Her gravestone says that she was 82 in 1885, suggesting she was born 1802-03. The 1885 Colorado State Census lists her age as 80. In the 1870 Census for Central City, Colorado, she’s listed as a mulatto, age 60 (i.e., born c.1810). She’s also listed as illiterate, but she was also one of the few people on that particular page to have listed real estate and personal property.
At an early age, Clara and her mother were sold to Ambrose Smith, and taken to Logan Co., Kentucky. When she was about 18, she married an enslaved worker named Richard, and they had four children. In 1838, Smith died. Clara’s family was broken up and sold off. In the last decades of slavery, Kentucky was a net exporter of enslaved labor, and many were “sold down the river,” i.e, sold to the large plantations of the Deep South, and it’s possible that her husband and at least two of her surviving children met that fate.
Clara remained in Kentucky, perhaps because of the value of her domestic skills. She was sold to a merchant named George Brown. Clara seems to have been freed when Brown died in the late 1850s. She then set out to search for her family. She went to St. Louis and worked for some friends of the Brown family, and then went on to Kansas, following rumors that her youngest daughter, Eliza Jane, had headed west.
In April 1859, in Leavenworth, Kansas, she hired on as a cook for a wagon train of gold prospectors headed to Colorado as part of the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush. She may have cooked in exchange for having her laundry kettles transported on the wagons. The trip has been memorialized in this display at The Griot Museum of Black History and Culture, in St. Louis, featuring a wax figure of Brown:
The trip was about 700 miles, and it’s likely that Clara, who was in her fifties by that time, walked all the way. We know from other records that cooking on the Old West wagon trails was elementary. She probably served a lot of beans, with salt pork or bacon (until it rotted beyond use), biscuits or cornbread, and perhaps small game meats, such as jack rabbit. She likely cooked it over fires made with dried bison excrement, the “buffalo chips.” This 1849 drawing shows men on the Oregon Trail cooking over buffalo chips:
In any case, it appears that Clara was the first African American woman to arrive in Colorado, which was still part of the Kansas Territory. She stopped first in the Denver area. It is said that she worked at a bakery, and almost certainly did laundry as well.
Denver in 1859
Then in 1860, she followed the gold miners to Central City, making her living by doing laundry, cooking, and being a nurse to the miners. Meanwhile, she was also investing her savings in mining claims. Within a few years, she had accumulated at least $10,000 in savings, and owned a number of house lots and houses in Denver and Central City. Adjusted for inflation, the relative economic value of such a sum in current dollars would probably make her a multimillionaire.
Central City in gold rush days
“Aunt Clara” followed John Wesley’s dictum of “make all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” Clara had befriended Methodist missionaries in Denver, helped establish a Sunday School, and opened her home for worship services. Then In 1864, she helped fund the building of St. James Methodist Church, in Central City, perhaps the first Protestant church built in the Rockies.
The church is still active. A historic marker mentions Clara–
After the Civil War, Clara traveled back east to Kentucky and Tennessee in search of her family. She didn’t find her husband or children, but did find members of her extended family, and she paid to bring them to Colorado. In 1879, Gov. Pitkin appointed Clara to go to Kansas and encourage African Americans, the so-called “Exodusters,” to come settle in Colorado. Clara spent her own money to finance many of the new settlers.
Finally, in 1882, when she was about 80 years old, Clara got word that her daughter, Eliza Jane (Brewer), was in Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the river from Omaha. Clara took the train to Iowa, and the two were finally reunited. The story of their reunion was printed in newspapers across the west. The Council Bluffs newspaper noted that Brown was “still strong, vigorous, tall, her hair thickly streaked with gray, her face kind.”
Clara, Eliza Jane, and her granddaughter moved back to Denver. Clara died in her sleep in 1885. Her funeral was attended by the Governor, the Mayor of Denver, and was paid for by the Colorado Pioneer Association, which had made Clara their first black member and first woman. She was buried in Denver’s Riverside Cemetery–
Among her many honors, one of the more redemptive ones came in 2011 when “Negro Hill,” outside Central City, was officially renamed “Aunt Clara Brown Hill.”