John Brown the Scrapper: 1867 - 1927

by Thomas J. Blumer

The Catawba Nation has its share of complex and colorful personalities who are remembered fondly in Catawba folklore. John Brown is just one of them. When John Brown is studied, two persons emerge: the historical man of Catawba documents and the pages of the "Evening Herald" and the John Brown of memory. He was a fellow who never turned away from a fight. At the same time he was a tender soul who kept the Catawba people close to his heart. John Brown was born in 1867 the son of Catawba Confederate war veteran John Brown and Margaret George. Catawba was his first language.

In 1889, at age 22, John Brown married Rachel George. That same year was marked by a violence which permeated much of John's life. History and folklore leaves us with only a fragment of what happened. The dispute apparently had something to do with the fact that John Ballard (a white man) came onto the reservation and courted a Catawba Indian girl by the name of Lillie Harris. The result was that Ballard gave John Brown and severe beating. Family tradition declares that Ballard stabbed Brown in the heel. In any case, Ballard and Lillie fled to Oklahoma never to return. Lillie's Catawba descendants say she always refused to talk about why she left the reservation. An entire group of Western Catawba are descended from this couple.

In 1894, John Brown had another historical fight. This time it was with Catawba tribal member Davis Ayers. Ayers had a white wife and sued to have his children participate in the annual appropriation made by the South Carolina Legislature. According to tribal law, the children of white women were not counted as Indians and did not share in the appropriation. Traditionalist John Brown could not tolerate the suggestion that tribal law be changed.

Around 1905, John Brown had a fight which is still vividly remembered by tribal elders. This episode did not reach the press. He and Archie Wheelock, an Oneida Indian who had married into the Nation, drank together one night. While walking home on a dark reservation path, they argued over who was the best man on the reservation. In the scuffle which ensued, John Brown grabbed Archie by the ear and yanked it off. Archie's wife Rosa searched the path, found her husband's ear, wrapped it in a clean towel, and took both the ear and her husband to the doctor. Nothing could be done. For the rest of his life, Archie Wheelock carefully covered the scar. The two men made peace and remained fast friends.

John Brown's most highly publicized fracas occurred in 1913 when he attacked fellow Catawba Indian William Sanders with a knife. The place was outside the Catawba Indian Mormon Church. The Indians had gathered there to attend an Indian program. Several of the men, rather than attend the show, stayed outside and drank. An argument ensued, and John Brown critically cut Bill Sanders. Bleeding profusely from his wounds, Sanders fled into the night. Concerned tribal members pursued him for fear he would bleed to death. They searched all night and found him at daylight. Sanders had gone to the river to bathe his wounds. His white shirt was scarlet with his own blood. William Sanders was taken to the hospital where his wounds were sewn up. Fortunately for John Brown, Sanders survived this incident.

Catawba folklore records a complex man who did more than participate in fights. By combining the two records, we can approach some truth about this complex man.

John Brown was probably one of the most civic-minded Catawba to march across the pages of early 20th century history. He ran the ferry on the Catawba River for a living. As a result of being one of the few Catawba men of his time to have a steady salary, he was the first tribal member to purchase an automobile. He used this car, which he never learned to drive, to expand his wife's ability to peddle pottery. With a car, the Brown family could cover a larger area than those Indians who peddled by foot or wagon.

Brown was an impassioned hunter. In 1900 he surprised Mrs. Dunlap, the Catawba Indian School's first teacher, with a Christmas possum. When Dunlap left the reservation, John Brown used bully tactics to keep Chief James Harris from taking possession of the Dunlap house. His descendants still occupy the much renovated structure.

He organized tribal picnics. A direct result of this interest was the first Catawba Indian Baseball Team which he founded in 1907. That same year, he welcomed Harrington into his home. This visit produced the first published study of Catawba pottery making.

He endured the sorrow of losing much of his family in the 1918 Influenza Epidemic. John Brown then took his proceeds from the ferry and purchased each lost loved one with a tombstone. Visitors to the Old Cemetery find themselves reliving the events of 1918 as they read the inscriptions on the Brown family grave markers.

Although John Brown caused his share of trouble on the reservation, when he passed away from the cancer in 1927 he was mourned by everyone. Today the Catawba still talk of John Brown the big boned man who never turned away from a fight. They also talk of the man who was tender hearted enough to provide each reservation child with a ride in his automobile, an event none of them ever forgot.