Oregon Public Broadcasting

Jefferson County's first African American settler, who homesteaded in the canyon northwest of Agency Plains, will be remembered in a respectful manner, thanks to the efforts of a Prineville historian.

On Saturday, the Oregon Geographic Names Board unanimously approved the application compiled by Jerry Ramsey, of Madras, to change the official name of the canyon from "Negro Brown Canyon" to "John Brown Canyon."

Ramsey grew up on property that overlooks the canyon, and recalled his discomfort when he heard area residents referring to the canyon by a racial epithet.

With assistance from Beth Crow, a local historian who had done research on John Brown, in November 2012, Ramsey submitted an application to name the canyon after its first homesteader.

In 1881, Brown homesteaded on 160 acres at the base of the canyon, where he irrigated with water from the creek, grew fruit and vegetables, and raised stock, all of which he sold in Prineville -- the closest community at the time.

Ramsey said that Brown "proved up" and got title to the property in 1888, and then sold part of the property to pioneers Ed and Sarah Campbell, after whom Campbell Creek was named.

Today, at the site of Brown's house, there's still a huge rosebush, bits and pieces of iron and other materials, but little else to mark the location, said Ramsey, who has been unable to find any descendants of Brown. The property is now owned by Dean and Becky Roberts, who also supported the name change.

The board, which only meets twice a year, considered the application in June, but denied the request, because they had learned that the canyon already had a name from the 1960s -- Negro Brown Canyon -- so it would be a name change application rather than a new name. Also, the board wanted the canyon's name to include Brown's middle initial.

Ramsey agreed with the board's assessment, and the application was reconsidered on Nov. 2, when the board unanimously approved the name -- without the middle initial.

"We tried and were unable to convince the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to use the middle initial," said Sharon Nesbit, president of the Oregon Geographic Names Board. "They don't like middle initials on maps, and while we had hoped for an exception, it was not to be. They get the final decision."

"So we settled for John Brown Canyon," she said, adding that it easily passed. "The idea of applying the name was never a question, just the hope that we might identify him more closely."

Since the first application in June, Ramsey had also hoped that the middle initial would be included. "We wanted the John A. Brown (Canyon), because it would have distinguished him from the other John Browns; it's a common name," he said.

Nevertheless, Ramsey expressed his gratitude that the name will be certified. "Now, it can begin to appear where it really counts -- on maps."

The story behind the application peaked the interest of the Oregon Geographic Names Board, which hopes to hold its next meeting in Prineville, in June, to see the grave where John A. Brown is buried.

By that time, Nesbit anticipates that the national board will have given its official stamp of approval. "Since there is no opposition on any front, I expect it to pass," she said.

This story originally appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.