The Lopez Island Historical Society & Museum

Lopez Island, San Juan County, Washington

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Mother Brown and her family—community leaders, boat builders, farmers

Charles Brown moved to Lopez Island in 1870. In tow were his wife, Conna (K-naugh), young daughters Ella (b. 1858), Maggie (b. 1863), Mariah (b. 1865), and Mary Jane (b. 1867). He homesteaded 167 acres adjacent to James Nelson's property and Charles Swift's near Port Stanley. Many fruit trees in the beautiful orchard he planted still stand and bear fruit, due south of the Port Stanley school.

Charles Brown, c.1900

Born in Sweden on August 1, 1828, Charles (whose surname may have originally been Christianson) learned carpentry skills from his father, Erik, who was considered a master carpenter in his village. When Charles was fifteen, he left Sweden on a British Merchant ship. He spent ten years traveling from port to port in Europe, the East Indies, around Cape Horn, and eventually to San Francisco. From there he was believed to have sailed to the Hawaiian Islands on an American vessel. He arrived in Victoria, British Columbia in 1953, where he left the ship. Soon he hired a couple of Indians to paddle him across the straits to Port Townsend in a canoe, for which he paid them $40 (Rev. H.K.Hines, 1893).

In 1872, Charles and Conna were officially married in American Camp on San Juan Island. Her name became Mary Jane. She was born in the Prince Rupert area of British Columbia, known as Metlakatla. She was a Coast Tsimshian. It is still unclear how Charles met her. There were many marriages between white settlers and Metlakatla women in the San Juans. Northern Indians came all the way down to this area on hunting and gathering trips, as well as, raiding attacks, and taking slaves. One story has her family leaving her behind on one such trip. It was believed that she was caught stealing food at the construction site of a lighthouse. Supposedly, the lighthouse keeper was a friend of Charles' and he (Charles) took her in. Mary, or Mother Brown, as locals later called her, became a sort of liaison between the natives and settlers on the island. She learned Chinook Jargon and English.

Mother Brown and Mary Jane

Charles' family grew during their years on Lopez. Ten children Ella, Maggie, Maria (pronounced “Mariah”), Mary Jane, Sarah, Catherine (Kitty), Emily, Henry, Willie, and Nettie, all spent their childhood on the island. An eleventh baby was said to have been washed out of Mary Brown's arms while on board one of the boats near Cattle Point, and drowned. We have found no record of it. Charles' daughter Mary recalled her father churning butter to sell in Victoria, so that he could buy shoes for his children. He sailed his small boat from Swift's Bay to conduct his business. Charles continued farming until his health failed, and Mary Eaton and her husband managed his farm. Charles died in 1908, and Mary Brown in 1920.

Ella married Charles Anderson; Maggie was married to LeMaister, Mitchell, and Bauer; Maria married John Hackwell, later Ben Korman; Mary Jane married Erwin Eaton; Kitty married Andrews, she and Sarah each eventually moved to Alaska; Emily married Johnson Williams, who was a teacher in the Indian Schools in Taholah, and Neah Bay; Willie became a steam ship engineer, and lived on Vashon Island for a time. Nettie and Henry each died unexpectedly in their twenties, and are buried with their parents. Charles and Mary Brown, daughters Ella, Maggie (Marguerite), Maria, Mary Jane, are all buried in the Lopez Union Cemetery, along with their many of their families.

This article was written by Mother Brown's great-great-granddaughter, Mary Jane Reece.

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