Staff Writer

Bill Cunningham

   Smoke Signals

                   Nov./Dec. '10


By Bill Cunningham
It is interesting to keep in mind that the fur trade period was relatively short, a mere seventeen years, thirty five if you ascribe importance to the last rendezvous written about as being in the year 1858 and held at Fort Davy Crocket over in Brown’s Hole a short way from Vernal, Utah. The Green River runs through it and later on the Bassett sisters lived there. In any event, after beaver hats became passe’ and silk took its place, many of the trappers found other ways to make a living. Some of the men whose names are legendary moved to present day Washington, Oregon, California, New Mexico, or Texas. Their histories make for fascinating reading. But there are many other trappers who are little known today, but whose lives are also very interesting. John Brown is one.
John Brown was born in New England in 1817. While in his teens he ventured forth into the new country opened up by the Louisiana Purchase. He had some exciting times working on rafts bound down the river to New Orleans. Later he survived a shipwreck near Galveston, and then headed up north by way of the Red River. A history work says he joined Sam Houston and was at the battle of San Jacinto which took place on April 21, 1836 at 3:30 in the afternoon. The battle lasted about 20 minutes. Later he was supposed to have spent two years at Fort Leavenworth.
Like many trappers, Brown set out for the mountains from Independence, Missouri and followed the Santa Fe Trail to the Arkansas River. Up the river he went to the old Fort Pueblo (mentioned in Jacob Fowler’s journal). He helped rebuild the post and as the season was advanced he and the other members of the 16 person party went into winter quarters. To build the fort they dug a trench about three feet deep and made a stockade of cottonwood logs set on end . Their cabins they built on the inside and covered with a mud based plaster.
During this time Brown’s party was increased by the arrival of John Swanock and six other Delaware Indians.
The livestock was fed during the winter on cottonwood bark. Brown commented that on that diet they got fat. That was probably a good thing because after the snow melted they made a foray into Blackfoot country and almost didn’t make it out. Among his companions Brown named James Waters, Tim Goodale, Dick Owens, Calvin Briggs, John Burrows, and others. Many of these would remain life-long friends.
John Brown became interested in spiritualism and remained a member of that influence for the rest of his life. Some of his experiences he related to others as fact and were quite incredible - but there were those who believed them.
For a period of fourteen years Brown trapped from the headwaters of the Columbia and Yellowstone rivers clear down into the Comanche country of Texas. During those years he worked with mountain men that included James W. Waters, V.J. Herring, Kit Carson, Alexander Godey, Jim Bridger, Bill Williams, the Bents, the Subletts, and others. He was a free-trapper, a sometimes employee of the Hudson Bay and other fur companies. His work took him among the Arapahoes, Chyennes, Sioux, Cherokees, Apaches, Navajos, Utes, and Comanches, to name a few of the tribes he associated with.
It was in Taos that Brown met Louisa Sandoval, a wife of Jim Beckwourth and her daughter. Beckwourth being off on what seemed to be an extended trip to the mountains, Louisa went to the local court and convinced them that she had been deserted. She married Brown on May 1, 1845. He took Louisa and Beckwourth’s daughter, Matilda, to Colorado and settled them on Greenhorn Creek. It was here where Brown was farming along Greenhorn Creek that John Brown Junior was born in 1847.
Brown was a cautious man. He often dug rifle pits out in the fields where he worked and he was never without his rifle. Although there are differing accounts of the tale, the most likely to be closest to the truth is that in 1848, in company with Charles Towne, Lucien Maxwell, and someone named Metecalf, on the way along the Huerfano River to Taos, they were attacked by Apaches. Mrs. Brown was riding a horse and carrying young John Jr. in her arms. The men yelled at her to put her horse to jump an arroyo and head for the Greenhorn settlement. If she couldn’t they would have to kill her to keep her from being captured by the Indians. She wrapped her arm around the baby’s neck and did as she was told. The horse had to be forced to it, but it made the leap and she made it to Greenhorn. In the process she held the baby so tightly that she had injured his neck to the point that ever after he held his head bent forward.
Whether Louisa was John Brown’s first choice for a wife is a matter of conjecture. It is reported by Tom Autobeees that in the early 1840s Brown killed a French gentleman named Seesome in a duel over a Mexican girl. Nicolasa.. Supposedly this took place on the Greenhorn ranch owned by Jose Meis.
The gold rush in 1849 did not excite just the people in the east. When Brown got news of it, Brown and several others headed for California. In the group were Alexis Godey, Valentine Herring, James Waters, Lancaster Lupton and Mr. White. The party reached Sutter’s Fort in September 1849. Brown must have had some success because in the spring he, Brown, Waters and Godey Opened a hotel and livery in San Juan Bautista. It was there he was elected to the office of Justice of the Peace. That didn’t hold him. In April of 1852 he took ship from San Francisco to San Pedro: he wanted to live in a place that was warmer.
On May first John arrived in San Bernardino and bought a cabin on the west side of the Mormon stockade, known as Fort San Bernardino during the pioneer era. When the area was made into a county, Brown was named one of the commissioners to oversee the first election there. In 1854, Brown rented the Yucaipa Valley from LDS Apostles Amasa Lyman and Charles Rich. He moved into a large two-story house built by Diego Sepulveda, one of the ranch’s former owners. John built the place into a large cattle and grain operation, but three years later his friend James Waters bought him out and Brown moved to San Bernardino and built a large home at Sixth and D streets. He lived there for the rest of his life.
Brown did not rest on his laurels. He became justice of the peace (which also entailed a seat on the Court of Sessions, the central governing body). He took part in what nearly came to a shooting war between the “independent” group and the Mormons. When Brigham Young called the LDS membership back to Utah (Deseret) to assist in repelling Johnson’s army, Brown became a leader among his old trapper companions. He brought the San Diego newspaper, which was in financial difficulty, to San Bernardino. It became the San Bernardino Herald. The paper was later taken over by Brown’s adopted daughter Matilda’s husband, J.S. Waite.
With the coming of the Civil War, Brown also became a leader in the community. The Union League that he organized was a counterpoint to a large faction of secessionists. The leader of the pro Confederate forces, D.W.Showalter, got together a “Confederate Cavalry” in Visalia and headed out for Texas. At Cajon Pass he made camp and sent emissaries to Belleville in Holcomb Valley. The miners there kicked in some money but no one was willing to sign on with him. He determined to raid San Bernardino for supplies. The groups that Brown had helped organize improvised a fort from an in-process-of-being-built Catholic Church. Showalter declined to attack it. He took his troops up Reche Canyon where he was captured by California volunteers. When California Major Carleton came in with troops and established five outposts along trails in the Mohave Desert, pressure on the Union League eased.
In 1861, Indian raids multiplied. Brown, along with two others got a charter from the government to build and operate a toll road through Cajon Pass. A year later Brown built a ferry across the Colorado River at Fort Mojave and left it in charge of a Mojave Indian. Brown dropped the business when he discovered the Indian couldn’t handle money at all. In 1873, Brown and partners sold the toll road but Brown kept a contract for delivering mail to the mining towns or camps in Holcomb and Bear valleys. In the late 1880s John wrote a spiritualist paper that was published several times. On April 20, 1899 John Brown died, Leaving as survivors, six daughters and four sons. His daughters wed into influential families Many of his descendants still live in the San Bernardino Valley.


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