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John Henry Brown

1867 - 1960

John Henry Brown was born on October 14, 1867, in Maryland, USA. He was born a plantation slave baby and didn't know his parents. As was the custom of the plantations, regardless of colour, religion or creed, all infants received the same family name on this plantation so the family name of Brown was taken.

Very little is known of his early years except that he did work in Missouri and Kansas for awhile and then tried his hand at mining in Colorado and Utah, but he is thought to have immigrated to Canada in 1903 and moved to Cumberland in 1909. At some early point in his adventures in Canada Brown searched for the Indian gold that was believed to be buried near Pitt Lake east of Vancouver but he ran out of grubstake. Even these dates are clouded in mystery and may be wrong as according to the late Ben Hughes who interviewed him in the late 1950's when Brown was eighty-nine, he said "I came to Ladysmith first, Extension [as it was know back then] and then I went back East and worked in the mines. Travelled around a bit, later on I think it was 1898 that I came… I just don't remember the exact date in years." Brown lived in the part of town known as Coontown, between Chinatown and Number One Camp, and was probably one of the earliest workers in Union, as the town was known before it became Cumberland. As with many miners of Cumberland he received an affectionate (if indelicate) nickname, "Nigger" Brown, that although today is considered unacceptable, it was common practice back then and some referred to him by that name. During the winter he worked in the Cumberland coal mines but in the summer he took-off to the mountains prospecting. He was a firm believer that he would strike it rich some day with Iron Ore or Uranium. One time in the 1940's Ruth Masters was with a hiking group and came across Brown at his camp at McPhee Lake. He gave Masters a brown envelope and asked her to mail to Nanaimo but said to guard it carefully or the whole world would be in on it. He thought he had found the mother lode and wanted to file his claim with the mining office.

Loggers and hunters were never surprised to meet him far up in the hills behind Comox Lake on his own and he was one of the early explorers of Forbidden Plateau. Brown would find his way to the head of Comox Lake and then hitch a ride on one of the logging trains up the Cruikshank River. From the end of the tracks he would hike the rough trail that eventually arrived not far from Circlet Lake. Around this area he spent many of his summers. At McPhee Lake, located below Strata Mountain, he built a rustic cabin that stood for many years and was used by other part-time prospectors such as Sid Williams and Jimmy Aston. For awhile Williams hired Brown to work in his Searle's Shoes store in Cumberland. Brown also had a significant claim on the Oyster River that he worked with Davey Jones.

He was married to Mary Wilson and they had one son but they parted many years ago. Brown spoke slowly and had a deep, resonant voice which was great for storyteller, something many locals remembered him for. According to Joe Ducca, "Every kid in Cumberland knew John Brown. He'd sit down and tell you the damndest stories you ever heard." From card games, fights and women, to fishing, hunting and prospecting, Brown had a story. In 1954 while prospecting around Pitt Lake on the mainland he broke a kneecap which ultimately led him to give up wandering the mountain trails. He was eighty-seven. Brown was also a very superstitious man and was regularly known to turn around and walk back home if a black cat walked in front of him on his way into Cumberland or wherever he happened to be going.

On September 19, 1960, John Henry Brown passed away at Cumberland General Hospital after a two month illness. He was ninety-three years old. John Brown Lake, on Forbidden Plateau near where he prospected, has been named after him.

Masters, Ruth. Personal communication. 2008.

Obituary. Comox District Free Press. [Courtenay, B.C.] (September 21, 1960) p. 6.

Hagen, Judy. "The Talking Owl and the Irate Bear." Comox Valley Echo. [Courtenay, B.C.] (March 17, 1998) p.

Hagen, Judy. "The Lure of Gold." Comox Valley Echo. [Courtenay, B.C.] (September 24, 2002) p. B4.

Hagen, Judy. "Cumberland's Black Community." Comox Valley Echo. [Courtenay, B.C.] (March 10, 1998) p.

"Black Residents Remembered." Comox Valley Echo. [Courtenay, B.C.] (….) p.

Isenor, D. Stephens, E. Watson, D. One hundred Spirited Years: A History Of Cumberland 1888 - 1988. Ptarmigan Press. Campbell River, B.C. 1988.

Mayse, Susan. Ginger: The Life and Death of Albert Goodwin. Harbour Publishing. Madeira Park, B.C. 1990.

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