One hundred and fifty years after they hanged John Brown, the abolitionist's great-great-great-granddaughter paid a visit to Saratoga to explain that history got his story mostly wrong — and to tell Saratogans how so many Browns ended up in the town's old cemetery, a long, long way from Harpers Ferry.

"I didn't know I was related to him until I was 16,'' Alice Keesey Mecoy said Sunday to a packed room at the Saratoga History Museum. "I said, 'What? I'm related to this crazy man?' ''

That's pretty much how Brown was portrayed in textbooks when Keesey Mecoy, now 49, was attending school up the road in Palo Alto. For generations — four by her family's count — textbook writers have taken their cue from President Abraham Lincoln, who called Brown a "misguided fanatic'' for leading armed, anti-slavery rebellions at Bleeding, Kan., in 1856 and three years later at Harpers Ferry, Va.

But now, as Keesey Mecoy said cheerfully to her audience, a more balanced revision of that one-sided view is afoot.

David S. Reynolds, a prizewinning historian and expert on the poet Walt Whitman and the Civil War, credits Brown in a recent biography as one of the men who "killed slavery, sparked the Civil War, and seeded civil rights."

After hearing about her ancestor for the first time, Keesey Mecoy didn't pay it much mind one way or the other.

"At 16, you really don't care as much that somebody really interesting was in your family,'' she said. Many years later — after marriage, children who left home for college, and numerous questions from historians — Keesey Mecoy has more than taken an interest. On the sesquicentennial anniversary of Brown's execution, she's embarked on a cross-country speaking tour and is writing a book about Annie Brown, her great-great-grandmother.

Keesey Mecoy now lives in Allen, Texas, and speaks with a slight twang.

"Y'all,'' she said, "My husband likes to say, 'When the kids went away to college, John Brown moved into our house!' ''

What the average American doesn't know about Brown, Keesey Mecoy said, is that he also advocated for equality and voting rights for women, American Indians and other minorities.

"This was very radical thinking in those days,'' she said.

She devoted much of her talk to the Brown family's migration to California after the execution and Civil War. While the family was supported financially by Brown's allies and befriended by literary giants, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Victor Hugo, family members were also regarded as terrorist-sympathizers or as unwanted nuisances by neighbors in upstate New York.

Keesey Mecoy said that Brown's widow, Mary, and a son from a previous marriage, decided to move west to give their children a chance of a normal life, "out of the shadow of John Brown."

After outrunning Southern vigilantes on the Oregon Trail, the Browns reached California safely and moved into a house in Red Bluff, where it was too hot. They then moved to Humboldt, which was too cold. Looking for nicer weather, Mary Brown settled in Saratoga in 1870 with her daughters Annie and Sarah.

According to Keesey Mecoy, Sarah taught English to Japanese migrant workers in what is now Silicon Valley and lobbied against the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

"There again, following her father, she was fighting the good fight," Keesey Mecoy said.

After her talk, she rode in a car to the town's Madronia Cemetery, where she laid a small bouquet of yellow flowers at the gravestones of Mary Brown and 16 other descendants.


  • Exhibit: "150th Anniversary of Harper"s Ferry and Saratoga Resident Mary Brown— features family photographs, newspaper reports, essays, magazines and other historical artifacts on abolitionist John Brown"s failed attempt to seize the arsenal in 1859, his execution for treason and his family"s search for refuge, which they finally found in Saratoga. The exhibit runs through March.
  • Where: Saratoga History Museum, 20450 Saratoga-Los Gatos Road, Saratoga. Hours are 1 p.m to 4 p.m Friday through Sunday
  • Special event: "John Brown, Bearded Patriarch," a chronology and interpretation of photo images by local historian Jean Libby, 1 p.m. Sunday, March 22.
  • For more information, go to
  • Source: Joe Rodriguez, Mercury News [San Jose, Calif.], March 8, 2009