Clara Brown was an enslaved woman. No property, no expectations of life. But she happened to find a kind master who freed her when he died, and she started on two long journeys: one to find a place to live free, and the other to find her daughter. This is the inspiring story of a determined woman who was down, then up, then down again.
Clara’s Journey to Freedom
Clara (took the last name of Brown because that was the name of her master) was born into slavery about 1800. She lived with her mother on a plantation in Kentucky. When she was 18 she married Richard, another slave. They had four children, Richard, Margaret, Paulina Ann, and Eliza Jane. When the twins were 8 years old, Paulina Ann was drowned; Eliza Jane was devastated.
In 1836 she was sold to a different owner. This family, the Browns, were kind and loving to her. She was called “Auntie” by the children, and she spent 20 years with them.
When Clara’s owner, George Brown, died, he left her $300 in his will, and he gave her freedom. The catch was that she had to get out of Kentucky quickly so the slavers wouldn’t grab her and sell her back into slavery. She traveled to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where people were eagerly trying to get to Colorado, specifically Pike’s Peak. Gold had been discovered there, and a wagon train was being assembled.
They agreed to take Clara in exchange for her doing the cooking and washing. She wasn’t allowed to ride in a wagon so she walked the whole way, through a blizzard and a buffalo stampede, and she slept under a wagon.
Clara’s Life in Colorado
When she arrived in Colorado, for a while she lived in Denver (called Cherry Creek at that time), then in 1859 she settled in Central City, northwest of Denver.
She bought a small cabin and started doing laundry. She saved every penny possible to buy shares in mining stocks and real estate. At one point she had 7 houses in Central City, 16 lots in Denver, and property in Georgetown and Boulder.
Her goodness and benevolence were evident during this time. Much of her money went to helping people. She helped found several churches in the area, Methodist and Catholic. A local newspaper commented on her home, which she had turned into a “hospital, a hotel and a general refuge for those who were sick or in poverty.”
In 1865, after the Civil War, she went back to Kentucky to look for her daughter. She didn’t find her but she did bring a group of freed slaves to Colorado. She paid for their train fare, found them places to live and jobs.
With all of her generosity and the trickery of some unscrupulous real estate speculators, by the time she was in her 80s her money was gone. She scraped together $1000 as a reward to anyone who could tell her about Eliza Jane. Her health went downhill.
Then in 1882 a friend from Denver wrote to say she had found Eliza Jane who was a widow living in Council Bluffs, Iowa. When asked about a sister who drowned, the woman said, Eliza Jane’s eyes filled with tears.
Clara’s health improved immediately! She quickly found money and took a train to Council Bluffs, where she recognized her long-lost daughter, saying her smile reminded her of Richard’s brown eyes. Accounts of their meeting said it was pouring rain and they slipped in the mud as they hugged. What a picture!
Eliza Jane came back with Clara to Denver and the last 3 1/2 years of her life were spent with her daughter.
When Clara died, the city of Denver and the state of Colorado were full of praise for this remarkable woman. She was named to the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame and there’s a permanent memorial chair in her honor at the Central City Opera House.
Clara’s story is one of determination and selflessness. She found her freedom but she never stopped thinking about her daughter and looking for her. It’s wonderful that her dream came true in time.
I used several sources for the information in this article, including Frontier Grit: The Unlikely True Stories of Daring Pioneer Women by Marianne Monson-Burton. Another interesting woman in this book is Charley Pankhurst, who lived her life as a man, drove a stage coach, but had secrets that weren’t discovered until after her death.
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