The Wild West of Yester-Year

Clara Brown, Angel of the Rockies
By Rachel Kovaciny


Why were a woman in her eighties and her middle-aged daughter sitting in the middle of a muddy Iowa street, hugging, laughing, and crying, one rainy day in 1882? Because Clara Brown, the “Angel of the Rockies,” had finally found her long-lost daughter.


Clara Brown was born a slave in Virginia around the year 1800. Like most enslaved people, she never knew her actual birth date because no one recorded it, so her ages in this article are estimates. Her owner sold Clara and her mother to a tobacco farmer who permitted them to attend the local Methodist church. There, Clara learned the basics of Christianity, and her faith would guide her every action later in life.

When Clara was eighteen, she married another slave, Robert. Together, they had four children: Richard, Margaret, and twins, Eliza Jane and Paulina Ann. Tragically, Paulina Ann drowned when she was eight years old, but the other three children enjoyed a rarity in the enslaved world: they lived with their mother for many years. However, when Clara was thirty-five, her master died. All the slaves went to auction. The entire family got separated. Clara never saw her husband, son, or daughter Margaret again.

Clara went to a Kentucky man named George Brown. She cared for his three daughters and eventually adopted the family’s last name as her own. When George Brown died, he freed Clara in his will. Now in her fifties, she moved to St. Louis because she had heard one of her daughters may have moved west and passed through there. Around that time, Clara learned her daughter Margaret had died of a fever.

From St. Louis, Clara worked her way west, always searching for news of her family. She arrived in Denver as part of a wagon train in 1859. Denver was barely large enough to be called a town, much less a city. Reportedly, Clara was the first black woman to live in Denver, though there were about twenty black men there. Clara opened a laundry there, but left there after about a year, following the gold rush to Central City, CO. She opened another laundry and also worked as a midwife, nurse, and cook.

In Central City, Clara worked hard and saved up enough extra money to fund the building of St. James Methodist Church, where she attended services and taught Sunday school. She began buying real estate and investing in mines. She often “grub-staked” new miners, loaning them the money to buy their equipment for the promise of a share in their findings. Clara was so successful in her many ventures that her savings account at the local bank grew to more than $10,000.

Although she saved much of her money, Clara Brown did not hoard it. Anyone who needed a meal or a place to stay had only to ask for help, and she gave it. She believed she should act out her Christian faith by helping others the way Christ taught in the Bible. It didn’t matter to her what race, religion, gender, or reputation a person had—she freely gave to anyone in need. She helped people find jobs and housing, nursed the sick, and delivered babies. After the Civil War ended, Clara funded an entire wagon train of former slaves who wanted to move west and start new lives. All of that philanthropy earned her the nickname “Angel of the Rockies.”

By the 1880s, Clara Brown had given away all her money. Now at eighty years old, she sold her laundry business and moved back to Denver. All these years, she had continued to write letters to people all over the country who might help her track down her family members. Finally, in 1882, Clara received news that a former slave named Eliza Jane was living near Council Bluffs, Iowa. This woman was the right age to be Clara’s daughter and came from Virginia.
Clara traveled to Iowa, where she discovered this Eliza Jane was indeed her long-lost daughter. Newspapers all over the country reported on the joyous reunion. When Clara and Eliza Jane saw each other, they threw their arms around each other, laughing and crying so hard they fell over into the mud. They were so happy to have found each other they did not want to let go even long enough to stand back up, and sat there embracing in the middle of the street.

Eliza Jane and her family moved to Denver and lived with her mother until Clara’s death in 1885. Clara’s years of searching were over, and she died surrounded by her grandchildren and her daughter. Her years as the “Angel of the Rockies” had touched lives great and small, and both the mayor of Denver and the governor of Colorado attended her funeral.