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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Saturday, January 08, 2011

Osawatomie Notebook--
Mary Brown in California

Mary Day Brown settled in Red Bluff, Calif., in 1864 following a harrowing journey from North Elba, N.Y., during which her family was threatened with death by Confederate sympathizers. She settled in Red Bluff hoping to find peace and quiet. John Brown’s supporters in Red Bluff discovered that his widow was living in poverty in their community, and they organized an effort to provide for her.

During the winter of 1864-65, John Brown’s supporters in California rallied to help Mary Day Brown and her family by donating clothing and furniture to alleviate their poverty. A formal organization, The John Brown Cottage Fund, was formed to help her by building a new home in Red Bluff. John Brown’s supporters from all over California rallied to build it.

Mary Day Brown moved into the new home at the end of 1866 and worked as a nurse and a midwife. She was an advocate for the temperance movement in Red Bluff and was a caring nurse who helped many families. However dynamic her contributions to those in need in Red Bluff, she was always primarily known for being John Brown’s widow.

The immutable controversy that surrounds John Brown invaded her peaceful life in Red Bluff, though, and Abe Townsend of the Red Bluff Sentinel began attacking the Brown family in editorials in 1870. Mary Day Brown and her family were once again under attack. The Brown’s left Red Bluff for Rohnerville, Calif., in 1870, and she resumed her career as a nurse and midwife.

After living in Rhonerville for eleven years, she moved to Saratoga, Calif., in 1881 for health reasons. In Saratoga, Confederate sympathizers began attacking the Brown family. John Brown’s supporters then came to her defense and helped to pay for her land and home in Saratoga. Confederate sympathizers soon found that they were in the minority in Saratoga and John Brown’s supporters from all points of the compass began visiting Mary Day Brown as a pilgrimage.

She lived in Saratoga until her death of cancer on Feb. 29, 1884. She was, and is, forever identified as “John Brown’s widow.” However, Mary Day Brown was a dedicated abolitionist and a strong woman in her own right. The contribution of women to their husband’s endeavors is often underestimated, and Mary Day Brown’s role in John Brown’s abolitionist crusade is no exception.

Her faith and support for his abolitionist crusade helped to give him the strength to work to abolish slavery. In addition, she was a strong mother and cared for John Brown’s family while he was away from home, freeing him to engage in his crusade. Mary Day Brown deserves respect and admiration for her role in the abolition of slavery in the United States.

  Grady Atwater is the John Brown State Historic Site Administrator

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