In October 1952, the Lobero Theatre prepared to stage a production of the play John Brown’s Body, based on the poetry of Stephen Vincent Benet and starring Raymond Massey, Tyrone Power, and Judith Anderson. This prompted Clarence Phelps, former president of Santa Barbara State College, to come forward with a startling pronouncement: One of John Brown’s brothers was buried in Santa Barbara.
Anyone familiar with the events leading up to the Civil War knows about John Brown. He hated slavery with a religious fervor and believed that violence was necessary to eradicate slaveholding. One of his favorite Biblical passages read, “Without shedding of blood there is no remission of sin.” He first put these ideas into action in Kansas in 1856 when he and his men kidnapped five proslavery settlers and split open their skulls with swords.
He is best known for his actions in 1859, when he and a small group of followers seized the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in the hope of arming the slaves that he expected would rise up in revolt. Only a handful of slaves, however, ended up joining him. U.S. Marines (commanded by Robert E. Lee, who would become the outstanding general of the Confederacy) stormed the arsenal and captured Brown. He was tried, convicted of treason and murder, and executed. His actions sent a shock wave through the South, while some in the North hailed him as a hero. Relations between the two regions were further polarized. Secession was just over the horizon.
Jeremiah Root Brown was John Brown’s half-brother, born to Owen Brown and his second wife, Sally Root, in 1819. In all Owen Brown fathered 16 children with three wives. Jeremiah’s relationship with his father took an interesting turn when, in 1841, Owen took as his third wife, Lucy Hinsdale. She was the widowed mother of Jeremiah’s wife, Abi. Owen was thus both father and father-in-law to Jeremiah, and stepfather and father-in-law to Abi.
Jeremiah and John were close, engaging in a number of business affairs over the years. Although also anti-slavery, Jeremiah never subscribed to John’s avocation of violence. By the time of Harper’s Ferry, Jeremiah had become seriously concerned over John’s mental state. It was apparent that John was willing to risk all, even the destruction of his large family (20 children) for his cause. Nevertheless, after John’s arrest, Jeremiah defended him in the press and worked with John’s lawyer in a vain attempt to convince the authorities to spare his life. John Brown’s last letter was to Jeremiah asking him to help look after his family’s affairs.
In 1927, there was a knock on Clarence Phelps’s door in Santa Barbara. Standing on the doorstep was Lucy Brown Clark, one of Jeremiah’s daughters. Phelps had attended Berea College in Kentucky in 1901-1904 and had come to know the Clark family. Lucy Clark had come west to seek her father’s grave: Suffering from tuberculosis, Jeremiah had fled the harsh Ohio winters to Santa Barbara. He was here only a few months before he died in February 1874.
Phelps agreed to help Clark, and the two drove out to Santa Barbara Cemetery and soon located the grave. Clark placed flowers at the weather-beaten marker and left town that same day.
Jeremiah Root Brown remained forgotten here until that October in 1952 when the Lobero announced its new production. His memory stirred, Clarence Phelps then stepped forward to tell his story.
Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara’s history. Write him c/o The Santa Barbara Independent, 12 East Figueroa Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101.