Sarah Brown, Artist and Abolitionist
There is nothing that is more fascinating to an art historian than discovering the body of work of a significant artist. There is nothing more interesting to a historian than introducing a relatively unknown historical figure to a much wider audience. So it is with great excitement that we present Sarah Brown, a California artist recently discovered by historical researcher Mary Miller Chiao. Working with material in the files of the Saratoga Museum in Saratoga, California, Mrs. Chiao has been able to reveal Sarah Brown's contributions to California history and her work in art.
Thoughtful and retiring, Sarah Brown was the seventeenth of the twenty children of her father, Abolitionist John Brown. She was born in Akron, Ohio in 1846, and moved with her family to New York State in 1855. Sarah was thirteen years old when her father led his famous raid against the armory at Harper's Ferry, was captured, tried and hanged for murder and treason. Sarah was named for an older sister, born in 1834 and dead of dysentery in 1843 at age nine. Sarah never knew her namesake.
Born into a family with intense spiritual values, the children of John Brown were trained to follow their father's high ideals. John Brown was an ardent Christian whose belief in the abolition of slavery drove him to put his religious beliefs into action. He married twice. His first wife, Dianthe, died in childbirth, in 1832 with their seventh child. They had already lost one child, Frederick, at the age of four. Widower John Brown needed help raising the surviving five children so he hired the daughters of neighbor Charles Day.
The two Day girls helped with the daily chores of raising the five surviving children. The drudgery of daily routine changed rather abruptly one day in 1833. According to historian Damon Nalty, John Brown handed the younger sister a letter one day, asking for her hand in marriage. She accepted his proposal a day later, and at age seventeen became the bride of a man twice her age. Her oldest stepchild was only four years younger. Mary Day Brown became the mother of thirteen of John Brown's children.
Only eleven of John Brown's twenty children reached adulthood. Four died in 1843 when an epidemic of dysentery swept through the family. Amelia died at 16 months in a household accident when her sister accidentally scalded her. Two baby boys died a few days after birth. A daughter named Ellen died of consumption at eleven months and a son, Frederick, died at age four.
Of the eleven adult children, Frederick II was murdered in Osawatomie, Kansas in an Abolitionist raid and two other sons, Watson and Oliver, died at Harper's Ferry. Four children survived to adulthood from the John Brown's first marriage and four from the second; Salmon, Annie, Sarah II and Ellen II.
After her father's death in 1859, the men who had helped finance the Abolitionist uprising financed the education of the younger Brown children. In 1860 wealthy educator Franklin Sanborn, one of the backers of the movement, offered to educate Sarah and her older sister Annie at his school in Concord, Massachusetts. Concord was celebrated as the birthplace of the American Revolution and was very proud of its distinguished heritage. At this time Concord was also the center of the Transcendental Movement and abolitionist ideas were strongly supported by many of the famous local residents. Sarah wrote about her meeting with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott, notable thinkers of their time. She visited in the home of Nathaniel Hawthorne and met Miss Elizabeth Peabody. Thoreau was a neighbor and Sarah often took walks to the many historical parts of the town and out to Walden Pond.
After two years in Concord, Sarah moved to the Fort Edwards Institute near Saratoga, New York to continue her art studies. She continued to study art under the direction of Mary Artemisia Lathbury (1841-1913), a prominent artist and a pioneer in book and magazine illustration for the religious community. Miss Lathbury used her artistic and editorial skill to illustrate religious publications, although today she is best remembered for writing some of the hymns that continue to be favorites.
Only five years older than Sarah, Mary Artemisia Lathbury was already noted for her various talents. She was the daughter of a Methodist minister and both of her brothers were also ministers in the Methodist Episcopal Church. She felt her artistic gifts came from God and she must use them to serve the Lord. At the age of twenty she was an instructor at the Fort Edwards Institute and was noted for her writing, illustration and hymn writing.
With Methodist bishop John H. Vincent, Miss Lathbury later helped organize and develop the famous Chautauqua Institute near Jamestown, NY in 1874. Each summer thousands gather for cultural and spiritual enlightenment at the summer camps offered by the Institute. But in the early 1860's, Sarah Brown was a young student who needed not only educational instruction, she also needed sympathetic understanding.
The notoriety and the pressures related to the Civil War caused the Brown family to consider moving west. In 1863 Mrs. Brown packed up the remaining children, tried to sell the farm in New York and moved to Decorah, Iowa. It turned out to be the coldest Iowa winter on record, not a hospitable home for the Brown family. While living in Decorah, Mrs. Brown was visited by a cousin who was returning from a trip to California. Listening to his recommendations, she decided to move her family farther west. In September of 1864 they arrived in Red Bluff, California. It would be their home until 1881.
Camping with their covered wagon just outside of Red Bluff in September of 1864, the day before their long cross-country journey ended, Sarah Brown met another important artist who would have a profound impact on the Brown family. The artist was Helen Tanner Brodt (1838-1908), one of California's most significant early painters.
Helen Tanner Brodt was an adventurous spirit who had just arrived in California, appearing in 1863, a year before the Brown family. Helen was the first woman to climb Mount Lassen and Helen Lake is named for her. She was educated at the National Academy of Design in New York City and was teaching in Oakland, California by 1867. Using old photographs and guided by comments from Mrs. Brown, Helen Tanner Brodt executed a small oil portrait of the late John Brown. Today the Brodt portrait is in the collection of the Smithsonian. Mary Day Brown commented that it was the best likeness of her husband that she had ever seen.
The Brown family in Red Bluff included Mrs. Brown and four of her children. Salmon Brown was married with young children of his own. The three youngest children, daughters Annie, Sarah II and Ellen II, also made the trip to California with their mother. Two of the girls, Annie and Ellen II, eventually married local men and began family life. Sarah never married and lived with her aging and ailing mother in order to care for her.
During the Red Bluff years, Sarah helped support the family by tracing designs on fabric for decorative needlework projects. Historian Mary Chiao found a small advertisement in the Red Bluff newspaper of 1867, noting that Sarah Brown was offering her design services to the ladies of Red Bluff.
By 1880 Sarah was looking for a better home for her mother. It is supposed that she focused on relocating to Saratoga, California for two reasons. The area was advertised in Congregationalist circles as a desirable retirement location. And the area featured a mineral springs with water similar in composition to the spa at Saratoga Springs, New York. With both her mother and her brother-in-law James Fablinger in poor health, the family decided to relocate one more time.
In 1881 Mrs. Mary Day Brown moved to a small cabin in the hills above Saratoga, California. She came with her two youngest daughters, Sarah and Ellen, who married Red Bluff school teacher James Fablinger. The family also included two young Fablinger children, Sarah (Sadie) and Mary Agnes. The family would later include Margaret, Frances (Fannie), Vera, James and Winnie. Five of the girls followed their parents into the teaching profession.
The cabin location proved to be too remote and after two years the Brown family acquired a farm in Saratoga on Fruitvale Avenue. This allowed the children to attend the local school. Mrs. Brown's condition continued to deteriorate and she died in 1884. Sarah remained on the farm, growing apricots, working in the local fruit drying co-op and teaching. Sarah and her mother joined the Congregationalist Church when they moved to Saratoga, and through the years, Sarah was an active participant in church activities.
The Cunningham family, Amanda and Ebenezer, also moved to Saratoga in 1881. They had a small daughter named Florence who was just a year old when they arrived. The Cunningham's also joined the Congregational Church, and settled on a farm near the Brown family. So Florence grew up with the Fablinger girls. All of the girls went to the Saratoga Elementary School and later attended San Jose Normal School for their teaching certificates.
Florence Cunningham was devoted to her church and her community all her life. She was passionately interested in local history and collected many significant items. Sarah Brown drew a landscape of Mount Diablo for Amanda Cunningham, who missed seeing that important landmark after she relocated to Saratoga. This picture by Sarah Brown was cherished by the Cunningham's and eventually found its way to the museum of the Saratoga Historical Foundation. Over the years, other important items from the Brown family went to Florence for safekeeping. These collections included the magnificent portraits of John and Mary Day Brown drawn by Sarah and the engagement photographs of James and Ellen Brown Fablinger.
Another major interest of both Florence Cunningham and the Fablinger girls were the lives and art of California's Native Americans. The Fablinger collection of Native American baskets was also given to Florence and they are currently part of the Saratoga Museum collection.
At the present time, there are eight known works of art attributed to Sarah Brown. The most important pieces are a pair of portraits of her parents, John Brown and Mary Day Brown, now in the collection of the Saratoga Museum. There are also three smaller works at Saratoga; an oil painting of a branch of peaches, a pastel landscape of Mount Diablo from Suisun Bay, and a small oil study of the Carmel mission that is also attributed to Sarah. The three other known works are a pastel study of a peck basket of apples and a branch of dogwood, both in private collections, and an allegorical figure in the collection of the Kelly-Griggs House Museum in Red Bluff, California.
Sarah Brown died in 1916 and Florence Cunningham kept her memory alive for another fifty years. When Florence died in 1965, she left her entire estate to create a museum for the historic material in her care. It is frequently reported that other works of art by Sarah Brown are still in the Saratoga community, their value completely unknown to their current owners. However the Sarah Brown works that have already come to light are appreciated and permanently exhibited at the Saratoga Museum. The work of this important California artist is now finally recognized and on display.
Damon G. Nalty, The Browns of Madronia, Saratoga Historical Foundation, 1996.
Florence Cunningham, Saratoga's First Hundred Years, Panorama West Books, edited by Frances Fox. 1967.
Leo P. Kibby, After Harper's Ferry, Saratoga Historical Foundation, 1964.
Sarah Brown, research paper by Mary Miller Chiao, presented to the California Pioneers of Santa Clara County in 2005.
Material from the files of the Saratoga Museum.
April Hope Halberstadt