THE LIFE OF
JOHN BROWN - MOUNTAIN MAN
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
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
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
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.