Pasadena’s Abolitionist Heritage

Oct 15, 2009

One of the casualties of the recent Station Fire was a serene peak in the Altadena foothills known as Little Round Top. Named for the site of a decisive Union victory in the Civil War, it is also the gravesite of one of the unsung heroes of the abolitionist movement. Owen Brown, son of radical abolitionist John Brown, moved to the Pasadena area in 1884, along with his brother Jason, sister, Ruth, and brother-in-law, Henry Thompson. As this month marks the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, it seems fitting to illustrate Pasadena’s connection to one of the most pivotal periods in American history.

Bird's eye view of Brown Boys Ranch. Image courtesy of the Archives, Pasadena Museum of History (B6-4b)

Bird's-eye view of Brown Boys' Ranch, with Little Round Top visible in back. Image courtesy of the Archives, Pasadena Museum of History (B6-4b).

Known primarily through the notoriety of their father, brothers Owen, Jason and Henry Thompson also played important roles in history. All three fought proslavery forces in Kansas during the 1850s, and Owen participated in the Harpers Ferry raid, along with Henry’s brothers, William and Dauphin. Ruth Brown was one of her father’s closest confidants, and her letters have proved an invaluable resource to John Brown’s biographers.

In the late 1850s, Owen became involved in the event that would solidify his father’s legacy. After months of careful planning, John Brown and 21 followers overtook the U.S. Federal Arsenal and Rifle Works in the town of Harpers Ferry, Virginia, on October 16, 1859, in an attempt to steal weapons for a planned slave revolt.

Preceding the raid, Owen Brown befriended residents of Harpers Ferry and obtained crucial information about train routes and local slave owners.

John Brown's men at Harper's Ferry. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, v. 8, no. 205 (1859 Nov. 5), p. 359.

John Brown's men at Harpers Ferry. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, v. 8, no. 205 (1859 Nov. 5), p. 359.

Though the raid ended in disaster, Owen and four others managed to escape, and over the course of 36 days, made their way to safety in the North. Existing as a fugitive for nearly twenty years, Owen hid with family in Ohio during the Civil War, and worked for the Underground Railroad until Emancipation.

By the time the Browns moved to Pasadena in the 1880s, their radical days were long behind them. Their identities, however, were known to many, and soon they became minor celebrities in the growing city.

While Ruth and Henry were unbothered by the attention, Owen and Jason shied away from the spotlight, instead seeking a pastoral life of gardening, reading and hiking in the Altadena foothills. According to their niece, Mary Thompson, they “did not like cities, even one as small as Pasadena was then, and they loved the outdoor life.”

Brown cabin with Owen and Jason. Image courtesy of the Archives, Pasadena Museum of History (B6-8)

The Brown cabin with Owen and Jason. Image courtesy of the Archives, Pasadena Museum of History (B6-8).

Despite this, they were active in the community. Owen and Jason were elected honorary members of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and were frequent guests at meetings of Civil War veterans. Jason helped lay the foundation for the Echo Mountain House and was curator of Thaddeus Lowe’s Wild Animal Museum.

They were “full of a great love of all humanity,” recalled their niece. Jason in particular was “as gentle as a dove with all of God’s creatures.” It was said, however, that Owen carried two Colt revolvers with him wherever he went.

Although the Browns became beloved figures in Pasadena, particularly its small African American community, Owen and Jason cherished their solitude and soon moved further into the foothills, building a second cabin near Millard Canyon. There they were happy to receive visitors but rarely made trips into town.

Owen fell sick and died in 1889. His funeral, held at the Methodist Tabernacle on South Marengo Avenue, drew 2,000 people. Among his pallbearers was fellow Pasadena resident John H. Painter, a close friend of John Brown, who was excommunicated by his church for helping to box and ship the weapons used at Harpers Ferry.

Owen Brown's funeral. Image courtesy of the Archives, Pasadena Museum of History (B6-15)

Owen Brown's funeral. Image courtesy of the Archives, Pasadena Museum of History (B6-15).

“It is quite remarkable,” wrote the author of Owen’s obituary in The Pasadena Standard, “that there should be found in Pasadena so many men who were associated with John Brown in his mighty work, which heaved up the nation and made the entering wedge for the overthrow of slavery thirty years ago.”

Owen was buried on Little Round Top with a modest headstone that read “Owen Brown, Son Of John Brown The Liberator, Died Jan. 9, 1889, Aged 64 Yrs.”

Jason remained in Pasadena until he lost his cabin to debt in 1893. After settling for a short time in Santa Cruz County, he eventually moved back to Ohio, where he died in 1912.

Ruth and Henry Thompson remained in Pasadena until their deaths, Ruth in 1904 and Henry in 1911. Their funerals, which were also well attended, were held at All Saints’ Episcopal Church. Buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena, their graves are easily viewable (see Find A Grave for details).

As a sad coda to Owen’s saga, his headstone disappeared from Little Round Top in 2002, casting suspicion on the owner of the adjacent property, who had long tried to prevent people from visiting the site. The recent fires have made access to the grave iffy, but websites such as will likely have updates on current conditions.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to post photos of Ruth or Henry Thompson, but some wonderful ones are linked below, courtesy of the West Virginia State Archives:

– Owen, Jason, and Ruth at the Brown cabin

– Henry Thompson, later in life

– Ruth Brown Thompson during her Pasadena years

7 Responses for “Pasadena’s Abolitionist Heritage”

  1. gloriana casey says:

    This month’s Smithsonian magazine also has a very good article on John Brown and Harper’s Ferry. Harriet Tubman was supposed to join Brown, but thankfully, for the history of the nation, she could not attend, and was able to continue her work with the Underground Railroad, along with being able to contribute as a guide to the Union Army during the Civil War. A well researched article, and I recommend it to everyone.

  2. Matt Hormann says:

    Thanks for the tip; I will definitely check out that article. Interestingly enough, John Brown’s father (also named Owen) was one of the earliest participants in the Underground Railroad in Ohio in the 1820s, and Brown himself once hid a runaway slave in his cabin as a teenager.

  3. Don Papson says:

    November 30, 2009

    I am in need of jpg images of Ruth Brown Thompson and Henry Thompson. Can you help? I am presenting a lecture “john Brown and the Underground Railroad” this coming Sunday and would like to include them.

    Thank you.

    Don Papson
    North Country
    Underground Railroad
    Historical Association
    P.O. Box 12413
    Plattsburgh, NY 12901
    (518) 561-0277

  4. Pasadena’s Abolitionist Heritage #MyHometown #Pasadena

  5. Larry Hooper says:

    Was the land for BrookSide park donated by a black woman? if so what is her name

  6. Matt Hormann says:

    Good question, Larry. I’m afraid I don’t know the answer.

  7. […] 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 […]



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