By Mark Gutglueck
In American history, there has been more than one John Brown of note. The John Brown of local significance in San Bernardino County history was born in Worcester, Massachusetts on December 22, 1817. In his mid-to-late teens, he made his way to St. Louis, where he found work as a keel boat and raft pilot on the Mississippi River to New Orleans. He was working as a hand on a sailboat that plied the Gulf Coast when it was shipwrecked near Galveston. In 1836 he fought alongside Sam Houston in the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836. He resided for nearly two years thereafter at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. He went west, living for 14 years in the Rocky Mountains as a trapper, covering territory from Colorado to Yellowsone.
During that time he interacted with Kit Carson, James Bridger, James Waters, Dick Owens Tim Goodale, Calvin Briggs, John Burroughs, the Bents, the Sublettes and Old Bill Williams.
For a time, he took up with a young Mexican woman of the name Nicolasa, who was something of the Helen of Troy of her day and location. When a Frenchman attempted to interlope with Nicolasa, Brown killed him in a duel on a ranch owned by Jose Weis. While his relationship with Nicolasa was passionate and intense, it did not last long. On July 4, 1843 at Fort Lupton, Rube Herring killed Henry Beer in a fight over Nicolasa. Herring took Nicolasa to Fort Pueblo and cohabited with her there for a time, at which point James Waters stole off with her. When Edward Tharp then tried to take Nicolasa away from Waters in the same way that Waters had taken her from Herring, Waters killed Tharp in a fight.
In 1842 John Brown was among the work crew that built Fort Pueblo.
While in Fort Pueblo, he met a woman named Louisa, the Mexican wife of Jim Beckwourth. Beckwourth was a former slave from Virginia who had gone west, spent several years as a member of the Crow Indian tribe, and survived as a trapper, mountain man, fur trader, explorer, store owner, hotel keeper, and later as an author. Beckwourth had met Louisa Sandoval in Taos, New Mexico and married her. He had brought her and their infant daughter, Matilda, to Fort Pueblo in October 1842, where he attempted unsuccessfully to sell pelts. Beckwourth, who married at least four women, was accustomed to spending most of his time on the move, exploring and trapping beaver and bear. In the Spring of 1843 he left Louisa and Matilda at Fort Pueblo and went to California. It was at that point that John Brown encountered Louisa and Matilda. Brown adopted Matilda and lived thereafter with Louisa as if she were his wife, and the couple had several children.
Brown remained in Fort Pueblo from 1843 to 1845. He moved to the Greenhorn Valley in Colorado in 1845 and set up a store. Louisa worked with him in operating that enterprise and they kept fastidious records of their sales. They initially had a relatively limited inventory consisting of little more than tobacco and whiskey. Soon they expanded that to include coffee, molasses, and flour. To meet his customers’ demands, Brown eventually sold sugar, coffee, pants, shoes, produce, meat, livestock and the like. Louisa made candles and soap and sold those items as well. He rented yokes and harnesses.
Brown was averse to trading with Indians, possibly because he did not feel that bartering with them would be profitable. The tender he accepted consisted of doubloons, sovereigns, gelders, and Mexican pesos and gold pieces as well as American dollars. No Indian names appear on the store’s books recording sales with the exception of the Indian wives of whites. It is commonly acknowledged, however, that Brown sold whiskey to the Indians under the counter. There are no recordations of those sales in the store’s books, which yet exist at the Huntington Library in San Marino, most likely because it was illegal to sell alcohol to Indians. It is said that much of the whiskey Brown sold to Native Americans was watered down, and in some cases laced with sedatives that would merely put them to sleep.
Brown built irrigation ditches and grew corn, watermelons and wheat on a ranch he had near the store, employing Mexicans to herd cattle and horses. He hired three Mexican laborers in 1845, another 24 in 1846, eight mote in 1847 and two more in 1848. Working with these Mexicans he assisted them in building adobe houses and completed a grist mill between December 1846 and February 1847, milling his own flour and milling 1.6 bushels of flour for others for one dollar. His price on flour at his store was five cents per pound.
On June 6, 1848 John Brown sold all his goods and closed his store. He departed with Louisa and their son John, Jr., to California, traveling with Archibald Metcalf and James Waters, leading 60 horses and mules packed with deerskins which they had traded from the Utes. They were joined by Lucien Maxwell, his servant Indian George, and Charles Town. Some Apaches attacked them and they raced to escape. Some urged Louisa to abandon young John, Jr. in order to save herself. She clutched him tightly around the neck and escaped by horse over some very forbidding terrain. Thereafter and for the remainder of his life, John, Jr. had difficulty with his neck, and it would sometime be painful for him to hold his head upright. The Browns then returned to Greenhorn Valley where they attempted to survive by farming and lived in some old houses that had been abandoned.
In June 1849 a large procession left the Arkansas for California and upon reaching Greenhorn Valley they were joined by John Brown and his family, now including three children. In the party were John Burroughs and Calvin Briggs and their Shoshoni wives, Lancaster Lupton with his Cheyenne wife and four children, Rube Herring without Nicolasa, Charles White, Alexis Godey, and James Waters with his woman, Candelaria. They reached Salt Lake City on July 4 and arrived at Sutter’s Fort on September 1, 1849. Nearly all in the party went south, traveling from San Francisco Bay by schooner to San Pedro, arriving in April 1852.
John Brown decided to settle in San Bernardino and hired Sheldon Stoddard to take his goods to San Bernardino where he arrived on May 1.
Brown bought a cabin on the west side of the Mormon stockade from Marshall Hunt. Upon the creation of San Bernardino County on April 26, 1853. John Brown, Colonel Isaac Williams, David Seeley and H. G. Sherwood were named county commissioners to supervise the first election. In 1854 Brown leased Yucaipa Valley, a portion of the San Bernardino Rancho that the Mormons had acquired. Brown and his family lived in a substantial two-story house built of adobe by Diego Sepulveda in 1842 . He raised cattle and grain. In 1857 James Waters bought the Yucaipa Ranch lands and also Brown’s cattle. Brown moved to town in San Bernardino and built a two-story house at Sixth and D Streets. He became the justice of peace at around the same time Rube Herring became the first county assessor and school superintendent.
In the winter of 1857/1858, Brigham Young recalled all the settlers from San Bernardino to Utah to prepare for an expected war with the United States. This gave Brown the opportunity to join with the faction of Mormons who elected to not return to Salt Lake City and instead become the masters of San Bernardino.
Brown’s sympathies were with the Union when the Civil War broke out. In In 1861, when the Union Army established a string of five outposts along the Mojave Desert trails, Brown prospered when he, along with Henry M. Willis and George L. Tucker, were provided with a 20-year charter from the California legislature to build and operate a toll road through the Cajon Pass. Brown eventually bought out both Willis’s and Tucker’s interest in the road and became wealthy by his control of this monopoly.
Brown was less successful in his venture to build a ferry across the Colorado River at Fort Navajo, where he left Chief Sicahoot in charge of it. Sicahoot was unable to run it at a profit and the ferry was eventually abandoned.
Brown had a contract for delivering mail to the mining camps at Holcomb and Bear Valley during 1873-74. Throughout his life, Brown claimed he was a mystic and had been fortuitously guided by his spiritual vision. In the 1880s Brown devoted some of his time to writing a treatise about his psychic powers and experiences therefrom. His book on this subject, “The Mediumistic Experiences of John Brown, the Medium of the Rockies,” was published in San Francisco during his lifetime. It is no longer in print, but is considered a prized collector’s item.
Brown was one of the founders of the San Bernardino Society of California Pioneers. He and James Waters were among the first vice presidents of the organization and John Brown, Jr. was the first secretary. Brown died on April 20, 1899. His funeral was put on by the Spiritualist Society.
By Mark Gutglueck