Clara Brown was a kind-hearted, generous woman whose determination led her on a life-long quest to be reunited with her daughter. Born in Virginia in 1803, Clara grew up as a young slave in Kentucky. She married at age 18, and had four children. At age 36 her owner died and her entire family was sold and separated to settle his estate. Her oldest child,Robert was sold so many times that Clara lost track of him. Her eldest daughter Margaret was sold to another Kentuckian but died several years after. The last two children were the twin girls were named Eliza Jane and Paulina. Paulina died at age 8, just two years before the family was split up. Eliza Jane was sold to another family nearby. In 1852 when she was 23, Eliza Jane was sold again and Clara lost track of her last surviving child. Despite her continued enslavement, Clara vowed to never give up searching for her lost daughter.
Clara had been sold to George Brown-a hatter and worked for him for 20 years raising his children. In 1856, her owner died and according to his wishes and the efforts of his three daughters, Clara’s freedom was bought at age 53 and set out to find her daughter. After searching Kentucky, Missouri, and Kansas with no leads,Clara thought Eliza Jane had joined the thousands that were rushing to Colorado where just over Pike’s Peak from Colorado Springs the biggest good strike in US history had been made in 1859.
She had secured a job as a cook on a wagon train in exchange for the free transportation of her laundry tubs and followed the wagon train on foot for 680 miles to Cherry Creek, Colorado where she set up a laundry business to serve the miners. She left shortly after since Eliza Jane was not there. She went further west to the mountain community of Central City where she set up another laundry business and invested her earnings in multiple pieces of real estate. All totaled, she owned 7 houses in Central City, 16 lots in Denver, Georgetown,Boulder and Idaho Springs and a few mines. She acquired a small fortune. Although she could not write, with the help of influential white friends, she set up a letter writing campaign to send lookout to any states she thought her ‘Liza Jane could be.
She became known in Central City as “Aunt Clara” as she provided food, shelter, philanthropy and nursing care to the townspeople.
When the Civil War ended in 1865 Clara Brown returned east to Kentucky and then to Tennessee in search of Eliza Jane. Brown offered her $10,000 in savings and earnings as a reward for news of her daughter. Her search was unsuccessful but Brown returned to Central City, Colorado, bringing with her a dozen impoverished freed people she had befriended while in the south. In 1879 at age 76,She repeated this rescue mission,spending large sums of her own money helping other blacks emigrate to Colorado. Far and wide, she was known as the “Angel of the Rockies.”
Clara Brown’s continual search for her daughter, her support for local churches and charities and her financial assistance to college bound young women of color, eliminated most of her wealth but at nearly 80 years old, she received the news she had waited her life for.
On Tuesday last, Aunt Clara was almost overwhelmed with joy upon the receipt of a letter from Council Bluffs, Iowa, giving tidings of her long lost daughter. A telegram was sent to Mrs. Eliza Jane Brewer last night, assuring her that there was no mistake and that Aunt Clara would come to Council Bluffs as soon as she could perfect the necessary arrangements. The Denver Republican Feb 18, 1882
The story of this heartwarming reunion was published by newspapers throughout the west.The two women, possibly with one of Clara’s grandchildren, returned to Denver and lived there together until Clara’s death on October 26,1885. Clara’s life and achievements are commemorated with a stained glass portrait of her in the Old Supreme Court Chambers of the state capitol in 1977. She was inducted into the Colorado Woman’s Hall of Fame in 1989.
T Lee’s thoughts on designing a collection for Clara Brown:
‘Clara was an exceptional woman of substance but her greatest success was finding her daughter after 47 years of searching. She would not have been a woman to spend money on convincing anyone of her status through decorative jewelry but if it helped her further her sole purpose of finding Eliza Jane, she would wear it. Like a proud hockey mom wears an over sized picture pin of their kid with a hockey stick so they can talk about them, Clara would wear the Spotlight Pin and Searchlight Earrings as she asked everyone she met “Have you seen my daughter Eliza Jane?” Although she settled her business in the gold rush town of Central City, it was easily apparent that her treasures were her 4 children, represented by the 24k beads. A woman who could not sign her own name with anything other than an X, she never let her shortcomings stop her life long campaign of being reunited with her child. She was the living example of the message of never losing faith in what we search for.’ T Lee, December 2016