Pasadena’s Progressive Spirit Began With Abolitionist Pioneers

Sep 15, 2011

Clockwise from top left—some of the city’s abolitionist forebears: Ruth Brown Thompson, Benjamin F. Ball, Jabez Banbury, Thomas Foulds Ellsworth, Jason Brown, Amos G. Throop.

Awhile back, we wrote about abolitionist John Brown’s three children and son-in-law, who settled in Pasadena in the 1880s. Though certainly the most famous, they were far from being the only abolitionists in early Pasadena; nor were they the only ones with connections to John Brown. The city’s ties to the pre-Civil War antislavery movement were evident in a diverse group of pioneers.

Street names attest to long-forgotten anti-slavery warriors. Painter Street, several blocks south of the La Pintoresca Branch Library, is named for Iowa Quaker John H. Painter, who helped box and ship the Sharps rifles that Brown eventually used to attack Harpers Ferry, and later operated a successful resort hotel where the library now stands. (Fittingly, “pintor” means “painter” in Spanish.)

Painter’s business partner, Benjamin Franklin Ball, was another Brown associate, as well as a cousin of Charles Ball, who operated a secret way station on the Underground Railroad. He was also distantly related to Barclay and Edwin Coppoc, Quaker brothers from Iowa who joined the raid on Harpers Ferry. Incidentally, Ball was partly responsible for naming Mary Street, a short thoroughfare that was bulldozed to make way for the Parsons Corporation headquarters.

A depiction of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859.

Giddings Alley near Pasadena City College is named for the influential Giddings family, whose nearby estate once stood at the corner of Holliston and Colorado. Though none of Giddingses who settled in Pasadena had direct involvement with the abolitionist cause, Levi W. Giddings, patriarch of this Pasadena clan, was the nephew of Joshua Reed Giddings, one of the leading figures in the organization of the Underground Railroad, and a friend of John Brown’s father.

Banbury Alley in Northwest Pasadena is a reminder of one of the city’s earliest settlers, Jabez Banbury, a Union Civil War colonel who distinguished himself at the Battle of Missionary Ridge. He showed “great courage, riding constantly under the heavy artillery and musketry fire of the enemy,” according to one observer’s account of the battle. Banbury moved to the Pasadena area in 1872 and is said to have built the first house in the city when it was known as the Indiana Colony. Banbury not only helped create Altadena’s Mountain View Cemetery but is also one of 500 Union Civil War veterans buried there.

Though no street bears his name, Horatio Nelson Rust was another anti-slavery crusader who settled in nearby South Pasadena. He also had a link to John Brown, having repaired pistols used by Brown’s “provisional army.” Later, he helped organize Owen Brown’s large Pasadena funeral.

John Brown’s sons Owen and Jason at their cabin in Altadena – 1880s. (Courtesy of the Archives, Pasadena Museum of History.)

Amos G. Throop, founder of Throop Polytechnic Institute, which became Caltech, was one of the staunchest abolitionists of the antebellum period. Though he lost two mayoral elections in his native Chicago in the 1850s (he ran on the Temperance ticket), Throop was eventually elected mayor of Pasadena in 1888. Today he also is known for founding Throop Unitarian Universalist Church, a longtime leader in progressive causes.

Several former slaves even resided in the city, including Willis P. Jones, a veteran of the 5th Kansas Cavalry. “Born in slavery on an old plantation in Bowling Green, KY, he was moved to Missouri before the outbreak of the Civil War to work for the son of his former master,” stated his obituary in the Pasadena Star-News. “His intense desire to serve the Union Army became so strong that one night in November 1863, he slipped silently away from the homestead and joined the army.” After the war, Jones operated a bakery in Paola, Kansas and worked on a ranch in Colorado before moving to Pasadena, where he lived at the corner of Claremont Street and Garfield Avenue.

Another former slave, “Uncle” Aaron Burks, also settled in the city. A well-loved figure in the community, he died in Pasadena in 1907 at the age of 100.

Thomas Foulds Ellsworth (1840-1911).

Numerous other Union veterans called Pasadena home. These included Thomas Foulds Ellsworth, a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, who led one of the first black regiments of the Union Army—the 55th Massachusetts Infantry; and John L. Ransom, famed for his Andersonville Diary, an account of his confinement in a Confederate POW camp.

John Brown’s sons Owen and Jason remained the most famous of Pasadena’s abolitionist residents. The brothers took up residence in a cabin in Altadena in the 1880s, becoming local celebrities. Their presence in the city had great symbolic importance for its small African-American community. After Owen Brown’s death in 1889, black Pasadenans would make annual pilgrimages to his foothill gravesite each Memorial Day. 

On John Brown’s 100th birthday in May 1900, a celebration was held in South Pasadena, featuring “splendid singing by the schoolchildren” and several speeches by prominent citizens of the city, including Jefferson L. Edmonds, publisher of Pasadena’s first black newspaper, the Pasadena Searchlight, himself a former slave.

Playbill for “Gallows Glorious.” (Boyd B. Stutler Archives, West Virginia Division of Culture and History.)

It’s interesting to note that the Pasadena Playhouse even staged a play about John Brown in 1935, titled Gallows Glorious. Before the show opened, the producers invited people in Pasadena to share their memories of Owen, Jason and Ruth Brown—recollections that were reprinted in the Pasadena Playhouse News. An exhibit of John Brown mementoes was displayed in the lobby, including a lock of his hair. The small artifact, accompanied by a yellowed, autographed photo of Brown, illuminated yet another Southern California connection to the famed abolitionist—it was loaned to the theater by Harold Hinckley of Los Angeles, whose great aunt, Abbie C. Hinckley, married Brown’s son, Salmon, in 1857.

3 Responses for “Pasadena’s Progressive Spirit Began With Abolitionist Pioneers”

  1. Jason Townsend says:

    I would love to see a photo of James Townsend, friend of John Brown and later Pasadena resident.

  2. Matt Hormann says:

    Hi, Jason. You might try the Pasadena Museum of History archives, 470 W. Walnut Street; or the Centennial Room at the Pasadena Central Library, 285 E. Walnut Street.

  3. Jason Townsend says:

    Found out the H. N. Rust photo collection at Huntington Library actually has a lot of John Brown related photos including James Townsend. Thanks for the help though.



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