January 1, 1800 – October 23, 1885
Notable: Entrepreneur & Philanthropist
Clara was born into slavery in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Some sources cite her year of birth as 1800 while others refer to 1803. During her childhood, Clara and her mother were auctioned off to a Kentucky farmer. The memory of this event would remain with Clara as it marked her and her mother’s separation from Clara’s father. It would be the first of many such heartbreaking separations.
Once settled at the home of Ambrose Smith, Clara was able to spend the rest of her childhood with her mother. (Though I do want to note here that several sources refer to Smith as a “kindly master”. He might not have been as bad as others but you can’t be “kindly” and a master. You can’t be involved with the buying, selling, and/or owning of human beings and still be considered a good person.)
Smith purchased an enslaved young man, Richard, when Clara was about 18 years old. Brown and Richard eventually fell in love and married. This was done with Smith’s blessing as he would own any children the couple had. The marriage lasted for 17 years and produced 4 children, three girls and one boy.
Unfortunately, one of the daughters from a set of twin girls drowned. Later, the remainder of the family was separated and auctioned off after Smith’s death. Clara was purchased by George Brown and thus became “Clara Brown”. Brown now found herself without any family but would be forced to spend the next 20 years taking care of Brown’s children.
In her 50s, Brown was emancipated after George Brown’s death. As in some other states, Kentucky did not allow free Black people to reside within the state. Thus once freed, Brown had a limit on the time she could remain in the state. She set out in search of her family and found work along the way in St. Louis, Missouri, and Leavenworth, Kansas.
In time she learned that her husband and one daughter had died while her son had been sold multiple times making him impossible to locate. Her daughter Eliza Jane had been 10 years old when they were separated and was believed to still be alive. Brown spent three years traveling through Kansas, Kentucky, and Missouri in search of her daughter.
Many prospectors had moved West in search of gold. Brown thought that Eliza Jane might have gotten caught up in the Western rush. With years of experience as a cook and laundress, Brown was able to join a wagon train for the 700-mile journey in exchange for providing these domestic services.
Upon arriving in Denver, Colorado, Brown is believed to have become the first Black woman to cross America during the Gold Rush. She is Denver’s first recorded Black woman. While miners sought their fortunes in gold, Brown became one of the entrepreneurs who achieved financial success selling services and supplies to miners. Brown spent six months operating a laundry business in Denver before relocating to what would become Central City.
She used her savings to invest in real estate and mines which made her quite wealthy. Despite the hardships she’d experienced, Brown helped to provide food, shelter, and other forms of care for those in need. Brown became an integral part of the local community.
In the years after the Civil War, Brown journeyed back east in search of her daughter. She offered her entire fortune of $10,000 as a reward for anyone who helped locate Eliza Jane. Brown received support from Frederick Pitkin, the then governor of Colorado who was helping the newly freed settle in Colorado. Eliza Jane still could not be located, but Brown did manage to bring several formerly enslaved people to Colorado when she returned. She helped other extended relatives and acquaintances from Kentucky relocate to Colorado.
A great deal of Brown’s fortune was spent helping the newly freed move and settle in the West but also on the search for her daughter. Brown continued the search for her daughter through letter writing. Finally in 1882, Brown received word that a Black woman resided in Council Bluffs, Iowa who fit the criteria to potentially be her daughter. Now about 80 years old, Brown once again journeyed east to find this woman.
After decades of hardship, Brown finally found her daughter who was now in her 50s with a daughter of her own. They spent the next three years in each other’s company until Clara Brown died peacefully in her sleep on October 26, 1885, in Denver. Crowds which included the governor and mayor turned out for her funeral where she was buried with honors.
- Boyd, Herb. 2021. “Philanthropist and Colorado Pioneer, Clara Brown.” New York Amsterdam News. October 20, 2021. https://amsterdamnews.com/news/2017/01/19/philanthropist-and-colorado-pioneer-clara-brown/.
- “BROWN, ‘AUNT’ CLARA (1803-1885).” n.d. Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. Accessed August 22, 2023. http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.afam.011.
- “Clara Brown.” 2019. Colorado Encyclopedia. August 20, 2019. https://coloradoencyclopedia.org/article/clara-brown.
- “Clara Brown.” 2020. History of American Women. May 30, 2020. https://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2015/03/clara-brown.html.
- “Clara Brown.” 2023. Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. July 5, 2023. https://www.cogreatwomen.org/project/clara-brown/.
- “Clara Brown.” n.d. COLORADO BUSINESS HALL OF FAME. Accessed August 22, 2023. https://www.coloradobusinesshalloffame.org/clarabrown.html.
- Maturi, Richard. 2016. “Clara Brown Struck It Rich after Rising from Slavery.” Investor’s Business Daily. February 20, 2016. https://www.investors.com/news/management/leaders-and-success/clara-brown-from-emancipated-slave-to-wealthy-businesswoman/.
- Paranick, Amber. 2022. “Entrepreneur, Pioneer, and Philanthropist Clara Brown.” The Library of Congress. October 27, 2022. https://blogs.loc.gov/inside_adams/2022/10/clara-brown/.
- Wagner, Tricia Martineau. 2020. “Clara Brown (1803-1885).” Blackpast.Org. February 28, 2020. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/brown-clara-1803-1885/.
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