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Dead Reckoning

In search of Owen Brown, the antislavery abolitionist buried in the hills of Altadena

The last time I visited Owen Brown’s grave, a friend and I took the surface streets into Pasadena, driving by long rows of magnolias and neat Craftsman bungalows. As we entered Altadena and the foothills of the San Gabriels, the road began to grade more steeply. We passed liquor stores and 99-cent stores, the houses stucco boxes on dry and tidy lawns. Soon we were twisting up the hills, and the bougainvillea gave way to native chaparral. We parked on a side street and walked to the El Prieto Fire Road—now not much more than a dirt path. The road was originally cleared as a wagon trail by the man himself, Owen Brown—veteran of the Kansas-Missouri border battles of the 1850s, third son of the insurrectionary abolitionist John Brown, and the only one of Brown’s sons who took part in his 1859 raid on the U.S. armory at Harper’s Ferry to escape alive.

We had been hiking for barely five minutes when we passed beneath three high electrical towers and scrambled off the trail and up the slope of Little Round Top, which is both little and round but was named after the hill in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, defended by Union troops with a famous bayonet charge against the attacking Confederate army. And there at the peak, among yuccas and sage and manzanitas still black from the 2009 Station Fire, we found an oblong sandy bald spot, the for-now unmarked grave dug for Owen Brown in January 1889. Brown Mountain, named for Owen’s father, loomed to the north. A hawk hung in the air above the power lines. Below us the city was invisible, the entire L.A. basin one big, cottony bowl of haze. We could hear it nonetheless: the hum of traffic on the 210 freeway, leaf blowers, dogs barking, a siren somewhere.

It is occasionally shocking to recall that threads exist connecting Los Angeles to the remainder of the planet, and to its various pasts. Forgetfulness has long been part of the region’s draw. If you’re after wealth and fame, New York will do, but only L.A. promises a clean break: self-invention, sunshine, and oblivion. L.A., we would like to think, is less a place than an escape from place. Older towns have proud foundation myths involving she-wolves, goddesses giving birth to trees. L.A.’s myth is pastlessness, as if they built the freeways and the city just happened, a sleek, dry beast pulling itself from the swamps of history, racing ever forward, leaving no trail. But no matter how hard the bulldozers work to erase it, the past builds up. Even here, so high above the city. It hides on the hilltops and beneath the streets. If you live in L.A. long enough, or pay close enough attention, you begin to find that the town is heaving with ghosts.

Owen Brown, like a lot of us, came here because it was as far as he could go. Convinced of the radical iniquity of a society that tolerated slavery, he had sworn to his father that he would “break the jaws of the wicked and pluck the spoil out of his teeth.” When skirmishes broke out over whether Kansas would enter the Union as a free state or a slave state, Owen and four of his brothers moved west from Ohio to join the fight. Their father and another brother followed soon after (Brown père sired 20 kids in all). One night in May 1856, after “border ruffians” from Missouri looted and burned the city of Lawrence, John Brown, four of his sons, a brother-in-law, and two others rode to their pro-slavery neighbors’ farms, armed with guns and swords. They left five men dead that night. Owen killed a man, his brother Salmon later said, and “felt terribly conscience stricken.… He cried and took on at an agonizing rate.” Young Jason Brown, who had not joined his father and older brothers, recalled that the shock of their actions “nearly deprived me of my reason.” A pro-slavery militia burned the Browns’ homes. They took to the woods and fought a full-scale battle ten days later, five years before the beginning of the Civil War.

In the summer of 1859, Owen and brothers Oliver and Watson followed their father (who was traveling under the surname Smith) to a farmhouse in Maryland to prepare themselves for war. According to their father’s plans, they would raid the Harper’s Ferry armory and, with the weapons they had liberated, wage a guerrilla campaign from the Allegheny Mountains, freeing and arming slaves as they went. “Hung be the Heavens in Scarlet,” John Brown wrote in his 1859 manifesto, “Declaration of Liberty.” It didn’t work out. After seizing the armory, Brown froze and let himself be cornered. Ten members of his party, including Oliver and Watson, were killed. “The meteor of the war,” as Herman Melville called the elder Brown, was captured and hanged along with four of his followers. In his will he left Owen an opera glass, a rifle, and $50—“in consideration of his terrible sufferings in Kansas.” Owen, who had remained at the farmhouse to guard the weapons and horses, escaped with six compatriots. Two of them were caught and also hanged.

“Despised bitterly,” Owen’s brother Salmon later wrote, “our family was long buffeted from pillar to post. Efforts to forget were fruitless.” The Browns ran west until there was no more continent to cross. Owen’s stepmother and several of his siblings moved to Humboldt County and then south to what is now Silicon Valley. In 1884, Owen, who was 59, his younger brother Jason, and sister Ruth arrived in what is now Altadena, at the time the very edge of nothingness. The brothers built a cabin and cleared some land to farm. (Their dwelling, a small, rough-hewn log affair uphill from the grave site, no longer stands.) Ruth, according to the excellent A People’s Guide to Los Angeles, later taught at Garfield High.

The one novelistic depiction of Owen Brown—Russell Banks’s 1998 Cloudsplitter—mined his tale for its biblical resonance, portraying Owen as a sheepherding “isolato.” His obituary in the Pasadena Standard, though, suggests he was “much visited by tourists and citizens” and spent his last days in town attending “Col. Woodford’s gospel temperance meeting” before succumbing at 64 to typhoid pneumonia. His funeral was attended by 2,000 people, including several old friends and coconspirators of his father who, like Brown, had sought the clean, free air of the farthest West.

By the 1960s, Altadena was one of the only communities in the San Gabriel Valley with a sizable African American population, but the town’s radical antislavery past had slipped from local memory. Little Round Top had become a popular motorbike jump. Ian White, a painter who grew up just down the hill, recalls that the granite headstone marking Brown’s grave was knocked over so many times by teens that in 1972 a neighbor secured it in concrete affixed with a hook so that it could be more easily towed back up the hill. (White is the son of the renowned African American artist Charles White; John Brown was one of two Anglo men whose portrait his father drew.) Attempts to protect the site with landmark status were rejected. “He was out there killing white folk,” explains Ian White. In 2002, shortly after the land was bought by a man named Michael Cichy, the marker disappeared. Advocates have twice gone to court to prevent Cichy and a group of home owners from denying public access to the site. They won both times.

Last August, White was out walking with his infant son when he saw a hook protruding from a slab of concrete at the bottom of a ravine. The text was not visible, but he recognized Brown’s headstone. It appeared to have been rolled down the hill and later dislodged by heavy rains. With help from two friends, he hauled out the 400-pound marker. Until it can be safely returned, and Brown’s legacy honored, it remains, White says, in a “secure location.”