She was Colorado’s first black settler, a prosperous entrepreneur who devoted her time and money to helping others. She was honored throughout the territory and after her death in 1885, her portrait was hung in the rotunda of the capitol in Denver—one of many tributes to her role in the early history of Colorado. All this from a woman born a slave in Tennessee in 1803; a woman who watched in horror as her husband and three children were sold off in a slave auction in 1835, knowing they would disappear from her life. She was sold at the same auction to a man who set her free upon his death in 1857.
Clara first settled in Kansas, but feared marauders who kidnapped free blacks and sold them back into slavery. She heard that the west was more tolerant of race. She joined a wagon train that reached Auraria, Colorado in 1859. There she worked at the city bakery, cooking for prospectors and minors, and quickly earned a reputation for compassion and assistance. She moved to Central City and opened a laundry, perhaps the first in the state. Her business was popular and she reinvested her earnings in mining claims and property that would, at least for a time, make her a well-off woman. She spent most of her money on helping other ex-slaves migrate west after the Civil War—the Exodusters who named themselves because they felt they were on a journey to freedom.
In 1883—48 years after her family was splintered in that slave auction–Aunt Clara found one of her children, discovering she was a grandmother. She never found any of the others. According to More Than Petticoats, Remarkable Colorado Women by Gayle Shirley, people of all races attended her funeral. She died destitute, but a burial plot in Denver’s Riverside Cemetery was donated by the Colorado Pioneer Association who called Aunt Clara Brown a “kind old friend whose heart always responded to the cry of distress, and who, rising from the humble position of slave to the angelic type of a noble woman, won our sympathy and commanded our respect.”