THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY© Christopher Earls Brennen
A DIFFERENT PILGRIMAGE
``If a man does not keep pace with his companions,
perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.
Let him step to the music which he hears,
however measured or far away''.
From ``Conclusion" by Henry David Thoreau.
John Brown (1800-1859) was one of the most remarkable men to tread the pages of the history of the United States. An ardent and fanatical abolistionist, Brown, for most of his life, was a poor farmer who failed miserably in many small farming business ventures. Married twice he had twenty children and moved from place to place to avoid his many debts. His children were equally committed to the banishment of slavery and with their father several of his sons came to the attention of the nation in the 1850s when they figured prominently in the bloody skirmishes between free and slave state supporters in Kansas. It was during this time that Brown began to form his own plan to free the slaves of the southern states. He surmised that if he could form a small army and begin an incursion into the south then all the slaves would flock to his flag generating a massive army that would sweep all before it. His Kansas notoriety allowed him an introduction to many determined abolitionists in New England and during a visit there he was able to acquire some financial support with which to put his plan into action. Encouraged, he secretly began to recruit his army of liberation but with very modest success. In the end it consisted of but 21 men including three of his sons, Oliver, Watson and Owen.
Brown fixed upon the small town of Harper's Ferry, Virginia as the starting point for his southern invasion. Harper's Ferry was a railroad town at the junction of two substantial rivers. More importantly it contained a very lightly guarded arsenal whose capture would allow him to arm the anticipated host. Surrounded by cliffs and mountains it was also relatively isolated. On July 3, 1859, John Brown arrived in the vicinity of Harper's Ferry with his 34-year-old son Owen, his 20-year-old son Oliver and the Kansas veteran Jeremiah G. Anderson. They rented a small farm in Sandy Hook, a village on the Maryland side of the Potomac river about a mile downstream from Harper's Ferry. There they made secret preparations for their military operation. During the next few weeks the rest of the small but dedicated army began to assemble.
On the morning of Sunday, October 16, 1859, John Brown and his army of liberation, took up their arms and marched on Harper's Ferry. Son Owen Brown was left at the farm to tend the horses. Perhaps John recognized a lack of total commitment in Owen, a sensible doubt about this madcap scheme. In doing so he spared his son's life. For the invasion of Harper's Ferry was doomed from the start. Those of the army who were not killed during the raid, were later tried and hung for treason. Among the latter was John Brown himself. His trial became a national sensation and the widespread recognition that Brown was going to die for his commitment to this lofty goal turned him into a hero, remembered for ever in song and legend. Crazy as his exploits were, they galvanized a nation in a way that made the end of slavery inevitable. Even Henry David Thoreau modified his views on violence and in the end wrote: ``He is not Old Brown any longer; he is an angel of light''. And yet the debate must linger.
But this story is not about John Brown whose life and legend have filled the pages of countless volumes. Rather this story is about a very different personality, his son Owen, one of the few survivors of the Harper's Ferry raid. Owen was born in Hudson, Ohio, on Nov.4, 1824, the third son of John Brown and his first wife, Dianthe Lusk. Surrounded by an obsessed father and equally headstrong brothers Owen, a gentler soul, grew up learning to compromise and to conciliate. In his marvellous novel, ``Cloudsplitter'', Russell Banks paints a sympathetic picture of Owen's introspective nature. His loyalty to father and family placed him in impossible situations and dilemnas that his natural inclinations would have avoided. And yet he was convinced of the evil of slavery. Thus Owen personifies the dilemna of the many abolitionists who were both pacificists and abolitionists by conviction and yet could not visualize an end to slavery that avoided violence.
Throughout his life, Owen travelled in his father's shadow, trying where he could to ameliorate the worst excesses of his fathers zeal. He was present at the notorious and indefensible incident at Pottawatomie, Kansas, where the Browns murdered five pro-slavery raiders, one of whom was summarily executed by John Brown himself. Yet none of the accounts of that incident indicate that Owen was an active participant.
As he was preparing his plan for the Harper's Ferry raid, John Brown must have recognized that his third son, while a valuable assistant in other ways, was not by nature comfortable with the use of violence. So, on that October morning when the rest of the army descended from the Maryland Heights and crossed the railroad bridge into Harper's Ferry, Owen was left behind at their farmhouse base to tend to the horses. Later that day, after gunfire was heard, another man who had remained behind with Owen was able to observe the situation from the clifftop above the town. When he described how the army was now surrounded, trapped and doomed to death or capture, Owen was left with only one option, namely to flee.
And so began Owen's epic flight from Harper's Ferry, recorded in an article in the March 1874 edition of the Atlantic Monthly. Five living and uncaptured members of John Brown's army (one other, a black man who ended up in Liberia, escaped separately), Owen, Barclay Coppoc, Frank Merriam, Charles Tidd and John Cook, travelled for weeks, hiding by day and moving through the woods at night in their effort to evade their pursuers. With a price on their heads and their story filling the newspapers, they suffered starvation and degradation, and evaded capture only by the narrowest of margins on numerous occasions. Only the resourcefulness and strength of Owen Brown kept them together and kept them going. They travelled on for many weeks, raiding barns, chicken coops and orchards as they made their way north through Pennsylvania. At one point John Cook volunteered to expose himself in an effort to buy food. He was summarily captured and then hanged. Later, Merriam became so exhausted and ill that he could not continue. The others had no alternative but to clean him up and, despite the fear that he would be taken, put him on a train toward his home. Miraculously he evaded capture but died a few years later in New York. The remaining three continued their flight north. Eventually, when far enough away in time and distance that the chances of capture had begun to ebb, they dispersed. Coppoc reached home, joined the Union army and was killed. Tidd died of fever during the Civil War. And thus Owen became the last survivor of the Harper's Ferry drama. He found his way to the home of his eldest brother, John Brown Jr., on an island in Lake Erie called Put-in Bay. There he lived in hiding for years.
In 1874, long after the end of the Civil War, when the chances of recrimination had withered, the reporter Ralph Keeler found Owen Brown on Put-in Bay Island and told his story in the Atlantic Monthly. By this time Owen had become a footnote in history and no one seemed inclined to prosecute him. Indeed, he became something of a folk hero, especially to the veterans of the Union Army who had fought so long and hard to eliminate slavery. He never married, and led a somewhat itinerant life involving visits to the remaining members of the Brown family, particularly his brother Jason Brown, his sister, Ruth, and her husband, Henry Thompson. In 1884, Jason and the Thompsons left Ohio and moved west to settle in Pasadena, California. The following year, Owen joined them. He and Jason found a sloping bench in the foothills of the rugged San Gabriel Mountains just north of that growing city. It was a place called Las Casitas, on the east side of Millard Canyon and there they homesteaded 80 acres where they built a cabin and cleared the land for a vegetable plot. Two years later, in 1886, their Las Casitas land was bought out and Jason and Owen moved to another homestead in El Prieto Canyon, just over the ridge from Millard. There, in a lovely wooded glen with a sparkling stream, they built a small mountain home under the oak trees. For the next three years, they lived simply and contentedly in El Prieto Canyon. They enjoyed gardening, reading, hiking and exploring in the mountains. Visitors often sought them out, especially curious to meet the last survivor of Harper's Ferry. And they were not disappointed for Owen and Jason enjoyed recounting stories of the family's adventures.
But at least one ambition remained. Surrounded by the precipitous San Gabriel Mountains that they had come to love, the Brown boys decided to find an unnamed peak to name after their father. After several failed efforts, they pursuaded the powers that be to name the 4485ft peak immediately north of their home in their father's honor. Thus it became, officially, Brown Mountain and appears as such on the topographical maps though few of those who live in its shadow seem to know that it is named after the liberator.
Owen Brown died of pneumonia on Jan.9, 1889, at the age of 64. It is said that his last words were: ``It is better to be in a place and suffer wrong than to do wrong.'' And his efforts in the abolitionist cause became recognized in death as they never had been while he was living. The City of Pasadena gave him a grand funeral attended by all sorts of dignitaries and thousands of people. The orations were long and numerous. Then Owen was buried on a small but prominent knoll on the ridge between Millard and El Prieto Canyons, overlooking both the Las Casitas and El Prieto homesteads. The knoll is called Little Roundtop. It is a quiet, even lonely spot on the edge of the wilderness. The gravestone is a simple round boulder. Chiselled into the stone are the words
Died Jan.9, 1889
aged 64 years
To this day the grave in the wilderness is lovingly tended, in recognition of the important place John Brown occupies in the conscience of the nation. I would like to think that it also remembers Owen, a man torn between two great and noble objectives, the principles of nonviolence and equality of man. It has become a place of pilgrimage for those who still wish to honor their memory and their cause.
Like the other chapters in this collection this story is about a walk in the wilderness. Unlike the others, the physical effort involved with the hike is minimal. It is a short and easy walk, little more than a mile in each direction. But in other ways it is a long and troubling road. For the destination is the grave of Owen Brown, perched on its wilderness summit.
The grave of Owen Brown The route to Little Roundtop
To reach the start of this walk, drive north up Lake Avenue from Pasadena through neighbouring Altadena. Turn left at the top of Lake onto Loma Alta and drive several blocks west. Turn right onto the small road labelled Chaney Trail. Follow that up and over Sunset Ridge, dropping down into the Millard Canyon where the road ends in a parking lot close by Millard Canyon Campground. There the hike begins; follow the fire road through the campground, veering left after crossing Millard Creek. From there the dirt road turns west and slowly climbs the ridge that separates Millard Canyon from El Prieto Canyon to the northwest. After a mile and just after passing a beehive corral, you will come to a fork. The right fork leads to the Brown Mountain Road that terminates high on the shoulder of Brown Mountain above the Arroyo Seco. But the present route lies straight on along the top of the ridge. After several hundred yards you pass a metal gate and two small houses. Just beyond the second house, the narrow asphalt road turns left. Go straight here along the dirt road. After about 20yds take the trail that contours right around a knoll topped by three large power pylons. The next knoll without any pylons is Little Roundtop. A use-trail climbs a short way to the summit.
If you are very ambitious you may decided to carry the pilgrimage all the way to the top of Brown Mountain. That is a very different proposition. While there is no maintained trail to the summit, 4485ft Brown Mountain can be climbed from either the east or the west. The Brown Mountain Road climbs to a shoulder on the west side of the mountain and, from there, a steep use-trail up the ridge takes you to the summit. A similar use-trail cum firebreak also climbs to the top from the east starting at the trail junction on Tom Sloan Saddle, a junction that can be reached by hiking up the Millard Canyon trail. Both approaches to the summit are tough all-day hikes.
On Martin Luther King Day in January 2001, I decided on a different pilgrimage, drove to Millard Campground and made my way along the quiet dirt road to the top of Little Roundtop. I thought of all that King stood for and all he has come to symbolize. Of the nobility of his convictions and the power of his legacy. That the words ``I have a dream ... '' will last as long as this country exists and will rightly energize all the generations yet to come.
But I also thought of Owen Brown, a simple man, caught in the most violent vortex in the history of this nation, and striving to find a path between violence and virtue. It is a struggle we will always face and one that Owen's life, too, has something to teach us. I placed a flower on the round boulder and watched the sun sink below the horizon.
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Last updated 23/1/01.
Christopher E. Brennen