It’s hard to lay eyes on John Brown Canyon, on even the clearest of days. The Central Oregon gorge is remote, four miles long, with a thin creek called Campbell running through it. Just south of Highway 26, it’s in shouting distance of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. Until just two years ago, the essence of this Jefferson County physical feature, which meanders down to the Deschutes River, just north of Madras, was even more difficult to see.
The name of the 900-acre canyon was part of the problem: “John Brown Canyon” wasn’t on a map. Residents in the region would hear the canyon’s other names in passing. Elders might recall reading its original name in the newspapers of Madras or Bend: Nigger Brown Canyon.
Until 2013 the spot was still on maps as Negro Brown Canyon—an improvement of a kind, but not the sort of name for a landscape feature capable of drawing positive attention. Around this time, the Oregon Geographic Names Board was deluged by requests to rename geographic features with the pejorative “squaw” in their titles. Board members found themselves just as intrigued by a name change proposed by a local elementary school teacher and a college English teacher from Central Oregon.
“My first impulse,” says historian Jarold Ramsey, “it was to address a wrong. It was monstrous that, at least orally, the physical feature of the canyon was called Nigger Brown Canyon.”
This map shows geographical landmarks in Oregon that have had “negro” or the n-word as part of their official names. Current names are in bold, and past names are in italics. Map by Paste in Place/Ryan Sullivan
In the journey toward justifying the name change, the educators learned about John Brown. He was a nineteenth-century adventurer bold enough to escape slavery, then return to seek his fortune in America. In his last act, he has illuminated Oregonians’ sense of place.
The Agency Plains home Ramsey grew up in overlooks the canyon. He left Oregon for the East Coast after high school, but returned upon hanging up his textbooks in the early 2000s. Ramsey says it was one of his daughters who spurred the name-change effort when she complained about the racist appellation on a summer visit. But retired grade school teacher Beth Crow was the one who tracked down John Brown’s canyon homesteading claim and title to the land.
John Brown’s story is difficult to piece together based on historical records. Some sources say he was born a slave in Georgia in 1839 and that his parents escaped plantation life and whisked him away to Canada, where there was a community of freed slaves. The idea of returning to the United States must have seemed preposterous to Brown’s Canadian kin, but what is documented is that he crossed back over the Canadian border and put in a homesteading claim in the relatively unpopulated Central Oregon location. Ramsey supposes Brown had come to be part of the Oregon Gold Rush.
Crow and Ramsey continued their research, with Crow drilling down on census reports, voting records, and other paper documentation, and Ramsey focusing on gathering a number of surviving, local John Brown stories.
Together they learned that John Brown filed a claim in 1881 and eventually gained title to the 160 acres near the mouth of the canyon, making him the first African American homesteader in Central Oregon. Brown and his wife, thought to be Native American, had a daughter in the mid-1880s. Brown farmed the land as a truck garden, growing vegetables and fruit to sell at market in Prineville, a sixty-mile round trip. His garden was irrigated, one of the earliest in the area. Prineville is also where Brown, who was literate, voted on a regular basis.
Brown and his family left the area in the late 1890s, turning up later as a prospector in what is now the Sunriver area; places in that area officially bear his name. He died in 1903 and was buried in Prineville. A few years ago, the Crook County Historical Society erected a monument to him in the Pioneer Cemetery just north of town.
Ramsey reached out to the last living person who might have known John Brown: his former neighbor, John Campbell. Campbell’s family homesteaded a property that abutted Brown’s farther up the canyon. Campbell remembered Brown as a frequent visitor at the Campbell place, and recalls the day of Brown’s last visit: “One day, probably in the late ’90s, he came to see my dad and said, ‘I’ll be gone for a while.’ Only, he never came back.”
Crow and Ramsey took their seven-page application, along with the approval of Jefferson and Crook County’s Historical Societies, to the Oregon Geographic Names Board, which would make a recommendation to the US Board on Geographic Names if approved.
“When the case of John Brown Canyon came up,” explains Phil Cogswell of the Oregon Geographic Names Board, “we saw the proposal and we worked through it and we saw that it was appropriate to put John Brown’s name on it. We had hoped to put on it John A. Brown, to keep from being confused with the famous John Brown. But the US Board doesn’t really care for middle initials.”
That middle initial is the sole aspect of the effort that failed. In November of 2013, a few months before Beth Crow died, the board approved the name clarification.
There’s a yellow rose bush on the floor of John Brown Canyon. It's as big as a Beverly Hills swimming pool and taller than a full-grown human. John Brown planted that. In the spring you can see it bloom, like a reminder. Canyons are strewn across Jefferson County. Its most notable gorge may well come to be this one.
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