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Oregon Geographic Names Board to consider change June 22

by: HOLLY M. GILL - Jerry Ramsey stands on his property, above the area he hopes will be called John Brown Canyon.When he arrived in 1881 from Polk County, John A. Brown was among the earliest homesteaders in what is now Jefferson County.

Brown, who is believed to have been the first African American in Central Oregon, settled on a 160-acre parcel in the canyon south and west of the Warm Springs grade (U.S. Highway 26), along what is now known as Campbell Creek.

A hardworking, industrious man, Brown built a two-story home and settled in with his wife, growing produce and raising stock for the Prineville market. For decades, from the 1880s until as late as the 1930s, area residents and even the Madras Pioneer newspaper referred to the canyon with a racial slur — "N----- Brown Canyon."

Local historian Jerry Ramsey, of Madras, who owns the property at the head of the canyon, decided it was time to recognize and honor Brown's contribution to the area by officially requesting a name change for the canyon. In November 2012, Ramsey asked the Oregon Geographic Names Board to change the name to John Brown Canyon.

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Sarah Campbell, the wife of pioneer homesteader Ed Campbell, was an early photographer, who took the photo, above, of a crew working on the Oregon Trunk Railroad that was staying in the old John Brown house around 1910. "It just seemed to us that it was altogether wrong," said Ramsey, who had heard the canyon called by the racial epithet when he was growing up. So he gathered information about Brown, filled out the name change application, and sent it in to the board.

On Saturday, June 22, the board will meet in Eugene to consider the proposal, along with 13 other proposals for name changes for Oregon geographic features.

The president of the Oregon Geographic Names Board, Sharon Nesbit, praised Ramsey's effort to change the name to recognize Brown. Coincidentally, Nesbit is a former Madras resident who was a couple years behind Ramsey at Madras High School before she and her family moved away decades ago.

In an email, Nesbit noted that the canyon had not been known by that name for many years. "It was removed in a cleansing of racist and derogatory names by the U.S. Board of Geographic Names a long time ago, but doing so also erased the memory of the African American man who lived there," she wrote.

"Jerry Ramsey and other historians have worked hard to research him and restore his memory," Nesbit continued. "It is, in my view, a great way to set a good name in place."

In researching John Brown, Ramsey and historian Beth Crow, also of Madras, made significant findings. Crow found that Brown moved to Prineville in 1878, and took up the homestead claim in 1881.

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Sarah Campbell took the photo of John Brown's two-story house and farm around 1910, when she and her husband Ed Campbell owned it.Proved up, got title

"He was no mere squatter," said Ramsey. "He proved up and got title to it in 1888. He irrigated his vegetables with water from the creek. He also had fruit trees on both sides of the creek."

During the seven years he was "proving" his claim, Brown voted every year at Hay Creek, and census records show that he could both read and write.

Brown eventually sold part of the homestead to pioneers Ed and Sarah Campbell, whose son, John, was a historian and mentor to Ramsey.

"John Campbell knew him as a little boy, and remembered him as a jovial, funny man," said Ramsey, adding that Brown was married and had a daughter, although neither was named in a birth notice in the Prineville newspaper.

Ramsey recalled a couple stories that he had heard about Brown and his family. "When (former county judge) Herschel Read's grandfather Perry was a young man, he was riding for strayed cattle," said Ramsey. "He got down to the Brown place — the only habitated place in the whole area — and found an emergency. Mrs. Brown was going into labor."

"John Brown had gone to Prineville to get the doctor. By the time John Brown and the doctor got back, there were three people: Mrs. Brown, the baby, and Perry Read, who assisted as much as he could," Ramsey recounted.

Campbell told Ramsey that Brown's wife, who was believed to have been Native American, was known locally as a midwife and healer.

In another story, Brown was in Prineville on market day, when he stopped into a bar for refreshment and heard the local cattlemen talking about how many head they had sold. Brown chimed in with, "I sold a thousand head today," to the astonishment of the cattlemen, who responded, "What?"

"A thousand head of cabbage," said the quick-witted Brown.

Brown leaves county

Sometime after 1888, when Brown sold part of the property to the Campbells, John Campbell, who was a child at the time, remembered a visit from the Browns, according to Ramsey.

"He said, 'I'm going to be gone awhile, but I'll be back,'" said Ramsey.

From voting records, historians know that Brown turned up beyond Wickiup. "The legend is that he was a gold prospector and had a cabin up there," said Ramsey. "He was said to have paid his bills in gold."

Brown's name has already indelibly marked that area of Central Oregon, where Browns Mountain, south of Crane Prairie Reservoir, and Browns Creek, both in southern Deschutes County, are named after him.

At the turn of the century, Brown was counted twice in separate federal census records. The first, in Prineville on June 14, 1900, listed Brown as: black, born in Canada 1836, mother and father born in Georgia, single and a laborer. The second record on June 23, 1900, in the Ireland precinct, south of Bend, noted that he was black, divorced, a trapper, and a servant to Hiram Palmer.

Brown died in 1903, from the disease erysipelas, an acute streptococcus bacterial infection of the skin, which can be treated easily nowadays with antibiotics, and was buried in Prineville. From various sources, his birth year was listed as 1830, 1836 or 1839 (on the new headstone), but his age was recorded as 73 in his obituary, 70 when he last voted in 1902, and 68 in 1900.

"He was working for a hotel man in Prineville," said Ramsey. "The man saw that he had a decent burial."

In 2007, the Crook County Historical Society and Genealogical Society installed a tall, granite headstone to remember John A. Brown. On the program for the unveiling of the headstone, it was noted, "The extensive research on John Brown's life, done by Beth Crow and Jarold Ramsey, both well-known Jefferson County historians, reveals hitherto unknown details about this unusual man's life, which would take a book to enumerate."

The property first owned by Brown, and then the Campbell family, is now owned by Dean and Becky Roberts, who moved there in the early 1990s.

Brown descendant visits

One summer day shortly after they moved there, Dean Roberts was walking around the field by their house, when a Volkswagen van pulled in. "An elderly man got out and four or five others — two older ones and kids," said Roberts. "He was saying, 'Yeah, I used to live here.' He was looking for the homestead where he lived."

Roberts said that the African American man, who appeared to be in his mid-80s, was being driven by a relative, and wasn't sure which side of the road the house would have been on. Roberts didn't ask for the man's name.

Ramsey, who was intrigued by the story, believes the man must have been a grandson or great-grandson of Brown. He's tried unsuccessfully to locate descendants of John Brown, but is still hopeful that someday they will be found.

Dean and Becky Roberts both support the name change for the canyon. "I think it's great," said Dean Roberts. "Might as well celebrate it."

Becky Roberts wrote a letter to the board. "I said I thought it was appropriate, that we needed to respect these early pioneers," she said.

The Oregon Geographic Names Board will meet in the Knight Law Center in Eugene at 1:30 p.m., June 22, at 1515 Agate St., Room 142.

"In so many other cases in Oregon, it has been impossible to establish the true name of the black person for whom a site was named," said Nesbit. "This is a rare chance, and all credit goes to local historians who have worked hard on this."

Complete information on the applications is on the Oregon Historical Society website under Oregon Geographic Names: www.ohs.org.

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