Colorado pioneer, humanitarian, and African-American entrepreneur, Clara Brown created a refuge for poverty-stricken men and women of all races during the Civil War. Like African-American businesswoman MARY ELLEN PLEASANT, there are many conflicting stories and legends about Brown’s life that historians have not been able to authenticate.
Born a slave in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, Clara was sold at age three to Ambrose Smith in Kentucky. She married at age 18 and had four children, one son and three daughters; one of her daughters drowned in childhood. When Smith died in 1835, Clara, her husband, and their children were sold and separated from one another. The ultimate destinations of her husband and son are unknown, although it is known that they had been bound for cotton plantations in the Deep South. Clara’s two daughters were sold to separate Kentucky slaveholders. Clara was purchased by George Brown of Russellville, Kentucky, a friend of Smith’s. It is from this owner that Clara received the surname of Brown.
During the approximately 20 years that Clara labored for George Brown, she tried repeatedly to ascertain the whereabouts of her husband and children, often with the cooperation and help of George Brown. The mission to find her family would continue for nearly her entire life. She located her two surviving daughters, Margaret and Eliza Jane although the latter disappeared again when she was sold in 1852.
After George Brown died in 1856, his daughters freed Clara. As much as she wanted to remain in Kentucky to search for her family, a state law prohibited free African Americans from living there. If she neglected to leave, her slave status would be reinstated after one year. In the spring of 1857, she traveled by flatboat to St. Louis, Missouri, to seek employment as a domestic servant. While working as a cook for the Jacob Brunner family, she was intrigued by the idea of migrating to the West. When the Brunners moved to Leavenworth, Kansas, Brown accompanied them. In the pioneer environment, she became even more entranced by