Clara Brown

Clara Brown Biography

Philanthropist (c. 1800–1885)
Clara Brown, a freed slave, established a successful laundry business during the Colorado gold rush and helped former slaves get on their feet.


Born a slave in Virginia in 1800, Clara Brown married another slave named Richard and had four children, but they were separated at auction. When Brown was later freed, she went in search of her family and was eventually reunited with her daughter Eliza Jane.

Early Life Amid Hardship

Clara Brown was born a slave in Virginia in 1800. Brown and her mother were bought by tobacco farmer Ambrose Smith. From the time she was very young, she worked in the fields with some of Smith's other slaves. Brown and her mother eventually moved with the Smith family from Virginia to Kentucky.

While in her teens, Brown married another slave named Richard in 1818. Together they had four children: Richard, Margaret, Paulina Ann, and Eliza Jane. Tragedy struck Brown's family when daughter Paulina Ann died. The death of their owner, Ambrose Smith, also brought more sadness to Brown and her family in 1835. After Smith's death, Brown, her husband, and her surviving children were sold at an auction, breaking the family apart. She would spend much of her life searching for her loved ones.


In her 50s, Brown's life changed for the better after the death of her latest owner, George Brown. His daughters gave Brown her freedom, and she went to work for a St. Louis merchant. That family moved to Leavenworth, Kansas, and her boss helped her set a laundry business there. But she didn't stay long. At the time, many people were moving west in search of gold and other opportunities. She wanted to find something even more precious--her family.

Brown traveled west to look for them, working as a cook for a group of gold prospectors headed to Colorado. It is believed that she was the first African-American woman to make it to Colorado's gold rush region. Once she reached Colorado, she moved from town to town, seeking economic opportunities. Settling in Central City, she made money by running a laundry business and became quite a success. Brown earned enough to buy property and invest in mines. She was known to help anyone in need. A pious Christian, Brown also hosted religious services in her home and was a strong supporter of the Methodist church.

Search for Loved Ones

After the Civil War, Brown returned to the South to look for her daughter Eliza Jane. Over the years, she had learned of the death of Margaret and could not find any trace of her son and her husband. While she had no luck finding her daughter, she helped sixteen other former slaves start a new life in Central City, Colorado. At the age of seven-nine, Brown again strove to help others. In 1879, Brown traveled to Kansas to help freed slaves who had migrated there to build a community and farm the land.

By her eighties, Brown's health was failing and her funds were running low. Despite her hardships, this became a joyous time in her life. Brown received the news that her daughter Eliza Jane was alive and living in Iowa. The two were later reunited, close to 50 years after they were separated.

Brown died in 1885. Before her death, she was made a member of the Society of Colorado Pioneers for her role in the Colorado gold rush. Brown's kindness touched so many people in the Denver area.

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