Best of 2015: The untold story of Seattle's racist mayor

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Portrait of frontier journalist and Seattle mayor Beriah Brown and his wife Jeanie taken at E. F. Dollarhide’s Seattle studio in the 1870s.

This week Crosscut is running some of our best stories of the year, as selected both by our writers and by popularity with readers. We will resume our original content next week.

The legacy of the Civil War is in the news. The debate over the Confederate flag in South Carolina brought up reminders that the rebel banner flies along I-5 in Washington in a private park dedicated to Jefferson Davis. A Confederate veteran’s memorial on Capitol Hill has been vandalized and a local group is calling for its removal. One hundred and fifty years after the war’s end, we are learning that our region was not untouched by the conflict or its politics, and that issues of race are still unresolved and infuse our present-day politics.

In that context, meet Beriah Brown, one of Seattle’s most important pioneer citizens. When he came to the young city, he brought the first power press and in 1871 founded Seattle’s first real daily newspaper, the Puget Sound Dispatch, which later merged with a competitor to form an entity that became the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Brown also served as president of the budding territorial University of Washington’s board of regents in the mid 1870s, and was clerk to the U.S. District court here. He was active in politics, too, and in 1878 he was elected to a single term as Seattle’s mayor.

But Beriah Brown was no ordinary frontier newsman. He came to Seattle as a refugee of Civil War and antebellum politics who sought to reinvent himself in fresh country. At one point, Brown fled to the Pacific Northwest from San Francisco to save his neck from an angry lynch mob.

That’s because Brown’s politics were not unlike those of Confederate President Jefferson Davis himself: He believed in white supremacy, defended slavery, wrote harshly about the “malignant” Abraham Lincoln. He was accused of Southern sympathies and suspected of heading a secret society dedicated to extending slavery throughout the Western Hemisphere, including the West Coast.

In short, the city’s onetime mayor was a man with a controversial past and an ideology that was repugnant, even to many of his contemporaries. Yet that aspect of this career is almost entirely forgotten. It’s time, though, to remember what he believed and what he ran from, and why he came here.

When Brown arrived in Seattle, he dug into the civic life of the young frontier town on Elliott Bay. He was a feisty newspaper editor—at least three of his four sons followed him into the newspaper business, including Beriah Jr. who became a longtime staffer and editorialist for the P-I (he was credited with the famous “ton of gold” line that announced the Klondike gold rush to the world).

Beriah Brown Senior was a civic force in the era when names like Denny, Yesler and Maynard were still central in Seattle’s struggle to survive and thrive. He rallied the city when the railroad picked Tacoma as the transcontinental railroad terminus, a decision that many considered a fatal blow to Seattle’s ambitions. He boosted Seattle’s growth, argued against vice, and he even defended the admission of African American students into the territorial university, striking given his long held views on race. The Seattle Times called him “one of the most remarkable men that ever lived in Seattle.”

This is the picture you get from thumbnail sketches of Brown from local history sources, but if you asked the citizens of Civil War-era California and Oregon, many might have told you that Beriah was a pariah. In the partisan newspapers of the time he was called a “treason-shrieker,”  “a snake in the grass…and a scavenger of the lowest most execrable type,” “Beriah the Liar,” and “Generalissimo of the Knights of the Traitors.” A history of the abolition movement in Wisconsin refers to him as a “bitter racist,” and in many editorials he left no doubt that he indeed believed that blacks were inferior and better off as slaves.

Granted, the rhetoric of 19th-century frontier publishing could be colorful, putting today’s Internet trolls to shame, but the line about the “Knights of the Traitors” was a key one. When Brown emigrated from Wisconsin to California during the Civil War, he became known in the state for his anti-Lincoln views. He was a Copperhead, a northerner with southern political sympathies. But beyond his editorializing in various newspapers on the southern side, there were other allegations. A government informant identified Brown as a member of the pro-slavery Knights of the Golden Circle’s super-secret third degree leadership division, the Knights of the Columbian Star. The Oregonian described Brown as “‘head-center’ of the California branch of the great treasonable secret organization which existed throughout the entire North during the Rebellion.”

The Knights were a pro-Southern paramilitary brotherhood that pre-dated the Civil War and continued to exist in the North and West during it. Their goal was to create a “golden circle” of slave states extending from the American South to Mexico, Central America, and Cuba. They played a key role in instigating secession and providing troops for the Confederacy. In the West, the Knights toyed with taking the West Coast out of the Union to form a “neutral” country—a Pacific Confederacy—sympathetic to the South. Some versions of the Republic envisioned a vast Western slave regime.

The Knights recruited Confederate volunteers and drew federal resources away from the main war effort. The U.S. military was determined to protect California from an uprising or mischief that would interrupt the government’s much needed supply of gold and silver supply to fund the war. A Knights’ plan to capture federal facilities in San Francisco during the war was foiled. With secret oaths, codes and quasi-military structure, they formed a template, writes Knights historian David C. Keehn, for groups like the post-war Ku Klux Klan. Brown pooh-poohed such conspiracies as nothing more than a Republican smear campaign or a government strategy to justify denying civil liberties of dissenters. The government thought Brown was a key player in a web of Southern conspiracy, a fifth columnist in time of war.

A native of New York state, Brown went west first to Michigan and then Wisconsin to make his way in journalism, mining and politics. Politically, he was a Democrat of the old school, a Constitutionalist, he said. He ran for Congress in Wisconsin and lost in 1858. He thought the federal government had no role in deciding the issue of slavery—he was a state’s rights man.

He hated slavery Abolitionists and called them “brainless…dirt-eaters” and was outraged that the rights of blacks in the territories were supposedly “paramount to the rights of the great white race.” He also argued that if the “supremacy of the white man” over the “negro” were abolished, blacks “would soon relapse into his original condition of savagery.” On the eve of the Civil War, he blamed secession on Lincoln. His view was that the South shouldn’t have seceded, but once states did, the government had no right to force them back into the Union, a union that the Republicans were responsible for breaking up. He wanted the Union “as it was.”

Documents turned up with Brown’s name on them listing him as part of a group raising funds for a “White Man’s Colony” in Sonora, northern Mexico, “specifically excluding any Negro, Mongolian or abolitionist,” reported the Sacramento Union in 1864. In writing about Mexico later, he referred to it as an example of what happens when a nation is turned over to “mongrels.” Brown railed against miscegenation (a term used for interracial marriages, legally prohibited for generations in many U.S. states).

While the U.S. military authorities on the Pacific Coast arrested some Southern sympathizers as subversives—“Alcatraz Democrats,” the Republican newspapers called them—Brown managed to avoid jail even as he raged against the war and Lincoln’s supposed despotism. In his mind, he was a loyal anti-war American with the Constitution on his side, and he decried federal crackdowns on Southern sympathizers. A young reporter for the San Francisco’s Daily Morning Call named Mark Twain covered a protest rally of Copperhead speakers led by Brown in 1864. It amounted “to a very short row of small potatoes,” an unimpressed Twain reported.

Few Unionists on the West Coast believed Brown’s claims of loyalty. It was one thing to defend Southern rights before the war, but during it was another matter. California had many Southern sympathizers. The state’s political establishment had been dominated by Southerners in the 1850s. Still, California entered the Union a free state and Lincoln won the vote there in both 1860 and 1864. San Francisco was strongly pro-Lincoln. Emotions ran high as the war’s body count mounted. Thousands of Californians fought for the Union or volunteered to patrol the frontier in the place of regular troops withdrawn to battle in the East. Wartime paranoia and patriotism flourished when it came to the idea of Southern subversion.

One letter writer to a California newspaper, the Marysville Daily Appeal, delivered a message to Brown in 1864, capturing the mood some people had for dissenters like him: “I would advise you, Mr. Brown, to look out, for there is a point at which forbearance ceases to be a virtue, and an outraged people will demand atonement for the wrongs you do them—for you may rest assured, Beriah, that people will tire of having the best and noblest blood of the land shed like water in defense of the Union, while you are using every endeavor to create discord and destroy the Government which protects your miserable carcass, and furnishes you food and raiment.”

In the heated atmosphere of wartime, something was bound to happen.

And it did.

On April 15, 1865, when word of Lincoln’s assassination hit San Francisco, the city’s pro-Union majority was suddenly plunged into despair. At the time, Brown was editing and editorializing in the Daily Democratic Press, a forerunner of the San Francisco Examiner. A mob gathered and several anti-Lincoln newspapers were attacked and sacked, including Brown’s. The crowd thoroughly demolished the Press: its type, books, papers and furniture were tossed from an upstairs window, piled high and burned in a great bonfire near Washington and Sansome streets, today in the shadow of the Transamerica pyramid. Brown just barely escaped with his life—the crowd was out to hang him.

Brown later complained that this was all done in the presence of the mayor, the sheriff, the police and the military authorities, without their interference. He described the crowd as a “cowardly, thieving, dirty mob, the city scum of San Francisco, urged on by men who ought to be as much ashamed of their own respectability as the meanest chicken-thief could be of his character.”

Brown’s library and papers were also lost—some 20,000 volumes compiled for a planned political history of the country, his life’s work. A few letters survived, including correspondence apparently from fellow suspected members of the Knights that were published by the opposition press as evidence of Brown’s treason.

If Brown wasn’t the Knights' leader, he was a friend, associate, apologist, crony and cheerleader of many of the most devoted Southern sympathizers and pro-Confederate Californians. Only a very few rare copies of the Democratic Press appear to have survived the bonfire, nearly erasing it from history, yet they reveal a newspaper that dwelled on news that reflected ill on the federal government and war, cast the Confederacy in a sympathetic light, sowed doubt about the conduct of the war, printed the speeches and opinions of Copperhead extremists, and did its best to portray the war as undermining white rule.

Brown fled to Portland and claimed to be a fugitive from “anarchy.” One California newspaper correspondent in Oregon reported, “A worse scared man I never saw than Beriah Brown, when he come here in April 1865. He told me he was a refugee, an exile and all that, which was indubitably true, and he was a badly used-up man to boot. Beriah deserved all the sympathy due those who sow the wind and find a sudden harvesting due them of whirlwind.”

Brown then headed south to Mexico reportedly to see if he could help get the “White Colony” off the ground. A number of Confederates and adventurers were engaged in trying to set up shop in Latin America, among them one of California’s first senators, a Southern slave-holder named William Gwin, also a rumored Knights member, who served Confederate interests during the war. He was seeking to establish himself in Sonora under the auspices of the Austrian emperor of Mexico, Maximilien, then in control of Mexico. Brown was said to be waiting for Gwin’s arrival, but the plans fell through and Gwin was eventually arrested and jailed when he returned to the U.S. His scheme for a “rebel paradise” ended and along with it Brown’s.

Brown rebounded by heading back to safe haven in the Pacific Northwest. He edited newspapers in Portland and Salem. He’d been in the newspaper business since his early teens. He was a lifelong friend and former roommate of Horace Greeley, though they rarely saw eye to eye on politics. Now in his 50s, Brown tried to put the past behind him. One reporter who saw him in Salem in 1866 said, “We fondly call the Wallamet [Willamette] valley ‘God’s Country’, and you would believe the term deserved of you could see the improved condition of Beriah Brown.” The war over, he was getting a fresh start.

But his past followed him to Oregon where Brown’s political opponents raised his Copperhead history and his newspaper harped on familiar themes. He edited the Oregon Daily Herald in Portland, a Democratic newspaper that supported white rule, engaged in race-baiting and was rabidly opposed to Reconstruction. In one editorial the writer, almost certainly Brown, tried to steer Irish workers away from supporting the Republicans: “You should remember with shame and self-condemnation that you voted for men who believe that the coal black nigger is your equal. Do you consider the negro your equal?”

These were not necessarily outlying opinions during Reconstruction and on the postwar Pacific Coast. Brown opposed black suffrage, as did many Westerners. He hoped that white America could be restored to what he saw as its pre-war position of power.

The Oregon State Journal in 1866 called Brown a “notorious traitor” and a newspaper in Salem described him as “an outcast from respectable communities where he has heretofore lived.” Brown replied that this particular critic was a “street drunk” who had been “whipped like a dog” in the streets of San Francisco. His editorial nemesis replied that Brown was “a traitor by instinct, a coward by nature, and a liar by education, a disgrace even to his own ignoble party.”

The full portrait of frontier journalist and Seattle mayor Beriah Brown and his wife Jeanie. Credit: Brown Family Papers Collection, University oF Washington, Neg # 36689

After Oregon, Brown moved north to the Washington Territory, first working for a newspaper in Olympia, finally landing in the settlement of Seattle. By the time he launched his new Puget Sound Dispatch—his partner in that venture was a friend and former Congressman and Union officer from Wisconsin, Col. Charles H. Larrabee—he was focused not on North and South, Union or Confederate, but on the prospect of a Northwest full of economic promise.

In the first issue of the Dispatch he wrote that he was determined to make the paper “the exponent of the spirit of progress and enterprise which is to make Puget Sound rival any other section of the globe in rapid development.” Instead of railing against abolition he railed about the railroads. He promised to be a partisan of no party.

Seattle was a largely Republican town then. Brown’s politics shifted as he tried to work with both parties, yet seemed dissatisfied with each. He settled into his new role as community builder. Occasionally, though, the past did arise. When some Republicans questioned the wisdom of his appointment as Seattle’s district court clerk, they were assured that Brown “a rabid secessionist during the war…renounced his former proclivities and party affiliations, and had since that time maintained his political independence.” In 1880, a writer in the Intelligencer referred to him as an “old rebel.”

When white workers rioted and drove the Chinese out of Seattle in 1886, Brown sided with the outmatched authorities who helped restore order. Undoubtedly his memories of San Francisco mob anarchy were stirred.

But later that year, in a heavily contested Seattle mayoral race between the worker-backed anti-Chinese People’s ticket and the establishment-backed Loyal Citizen’s ticket, some decried the fact that Brown had been speaking to the workers, including socialists and anarchists. At least one political supporter of the largely Republican Loyal Citizen’s ticket of Arthur Denny questioned Brown’s loyalties: “I am told that my old friend Beriah Brown is presiding over the agitator’s meeting tonight. It is the old story of a hog returning to his wallow. The old man always was tainted with disloyalty, and it looks as though he will never get over it. It is quite fitting that he should preside over such a gathering.”

With an appearance before an anti-Chinese group, Brown would seem to have reverted to his long-term race baiting, as the Denny supporter suggested. But there was something else at play: Brown, who had long used editorial wedges to divide the interests of white workers and workers of color, was also no fan of socialism. In an 1887 letter to the Milwaukee Daily Journal, he warned about the founding of the utopian experimental community, the Puget Sound Cooperative Colony in Port Angeles, saying that its founder George Venable Smith had been engaged in Seattle in “organizing branches of a secret, oath-bound political order only publicly known under the name of ‘socialists,’ not generally supposed to be combined to defend the government or for any patriotic purposes.” That this criticism came from a man alleged to have been a leader of the West Coast’s branch of the secretive, oath-bound pro-secession Knights is striking.

While Brown’s Copperhead background was known in Seattle, he was determined to restore his reputation. The charges of treason had taken a toll, as had the loss of his library. He filed a lawsuit against the city and county of San Francisco claiming that the city authorities and police had given him no warning of the mob and did little or nothing to protect his property. He claimed losses of $50,000 and adamantly maintained that he had been “a good, honest and faithful citizen of the United States…. and had never aided or abetted or sympathized with” its enemies. After a trial in 1871, the court reached a judgment in his favor awarding him only $1,200 in damages.

Not everyone was persuaded Brown had been wronged. San Francisco’s African American newspaper, The Elevator, published by the prominent black journalist Philip A. Bell, had little sympathy for the destruction of the Democratic Press, citing the murderous mobs during the war that attacked Northern cities, like New York, and burned orphanages and murdered black women and children. Such depredations often had been excused and rationalized by the Copperhead press. Under the headline, “Negrophobia,” the paper editorialized, “Such were the fiends, both North and South, whom Beriah Brown and other of that ilk were encouraging in their work of rebellion and murder.”

When Brown died in 1900—at age 84 he suffered a fatal illness while visiting a son in Anaconda, Montana—newspapers across the country noted his passing, his long career in newspapering, his association with Horace Greeley. Olympia’s Washington Standard ran an appreciation under the heading, “He Was Good and Great.” The Seattle P-I noted his influence and said of Brown “He was a trenchant and bitter writer with a hearty hatred of hypocrisy….”

One memorialist, fellow newsman Edward Clayson, summed him up this way: “His virtues were many, his errors few. He was both a good lover and a good hater. Consistency was indeed a jewel with him. His greatest misfortune was in being truthful. His truthfulness was disastrous to himself, but a boon to the best interest of society.”

Virtually nothing in his obituaries alluded to the causes of his “greatest misfortune.” Some referred to a mob wrecking his San Francisco newspaper, but avoided all mention of his racist and anti-Lincoln views or the allegations of treason that triggered the attack.

As white America sought postwar reconciliation, the divisions of the Civil War era were glossed over, or recast. Combined with Seattle’s emergence from its pioneer phase to become a major metropolis at the turn of the century, the focus was on the future, not the past. That Brown helped build a burgeoning new city—including helping to establish its journalistic and major educational institutions—became his legacy, not his lengthy career as an editor, commentator and politician devoted to preserving the rights of the South, defending the institution of slavery and claiming the superiority of whites.

Seattle has chosen to overlook the history of racism and rebellion that one of its early prominent citizens worked so diligently to have us forget. One hundred and fifty years on, it's time to remember.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.