In 1848, the California Gold Rush began following the discovery of gold nuggets in the Sacramento Valley. One of the most significant events in American history, the discovery of the gold nuggets caused thousands of prospective gold miners to travel by sea or land to San Francisco and its surrounding areas.
History says that about $2 billion worth of gold was extracted from the area during the Gold Rush. A decade after the California Gold Rush, the Colorado Gold Rush, originally known as the Pikes Peak Gold Rush, started, making it the second-largest mining excitement in the United States. Over 100,000 people participated in this rush. They were known as “Fifty-Niners”, a reference to 1859, the year the rush to Colorado peaked.
Clara Brown lived during this period. A former slave who became an entrepreneur and a philanthropist in Denver, Colorado, she is believed to be the first African-American woman to have traveled West during the Colorado Gold Rush. Once in Colorado, she lived in Central City and established a laundry business before making her home available to freed slaves and providing food and shelter to people in her community, earning her the nickname “Aunt Clara”.
Brown endured hardships in life growing up but never quit. Born a slave in Virginia in 1800, she and her mother were sent to Kentucky to work on a tobacco farm with their Virginian owners when she was nine years old. By 18, she was married, giving birth to four children — Richard Jr., Margaret, and twins Paulina Ann and Eliza Jane.
But when she was 35, she was sold by her owner at auction and this separated her from her husband and children. Paulina Ann later drowned while Brown’s husband and the rest of her children were sold after their owner died. In 1859, Brown was freed by her owner and she began her quest to reunite with her family. She would later get to know that her husband and daughter Margaret had died in slavery, while her son, Richard Jr., could not be traced as he had been sold so many times. Brown was now left to search for her surviving daughter, Eliza Jane.
In 1859 when she was freed, Brown came to Denver, Colorado, by working as a cook on a wagon train in exchange for her transportation. This is what reportedly made her the first Black woman to cross the plains during the Gold Rush. Not too long after coming to Denver, she relocated to Central City, where she established the first laundry in Gilpin County.
By 1866, Brown had acquired housing and mining properties worth $10,000. She began an active search for her daughter Eliza Jane with the money she had saved. While searching for her daughter, she helped formerly enslaved people establish themselves as freedmen and women in Colorado.
In 1882, Brown, who had become known for her philanthropy and for helping establish Colorado’s first Protestant church, finally found her daughter in Council Bluffs, Iowa. She returned to Denver with her daughter and a granddaughter.
Brown passed away on October 23, 1885, but a year before her death, the Denver community honored her and made her a member of the Society of Colorado Pioneers. From slavery to philanthropy and entrepreneurship, Brown’s legacy lives on in the City Opera House, Denver’s capitol building, and in Central City, where a hill is named in honor of her.
In January 2022, she was also inducted into the Colorado Business Hall of Fame.