About J. Ross Browne

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J. Ross Browne was a Forty-Niner, a typical Irish immigrant born in 1821 in Beggers Bushnear, Dublin, Ireland, the son of an Irish republican writer who had been jailed for seditious libel and inciting revolution against British tyranny.The elder Browne founded an organization to protest the required tithe to the Anglican Church. The government tried him and found him guilty of seditious libel and enticing to riot. He was sentenced to one year in jail. Only a few months of the sentence was served. Thomas Browne was released on the condition that he leave the country. Browne's family immigrated to Kentucky when he was 11 years old. As a young man Browne worked on Ohio river flatboats and Atlantic whalers. He came to California in 1849. Before embarking for California, Browne had worked as a newspaper reporter, and he had also trained himself to be efficient in shorthand reporting. He even served a stint in the United States Senate, as a shorthand reporter.

Browne's shorthand reporting experience proved valuable. Soon after his arrival in San Francisco in 1849, he secured the position of official reporter of the constitutional convention in Monterey that led to the admission of California as a state of the Union in 1850. The position, which paid a fee of $10,000, was obtained through the influence of Thomas M. Gwin, who would become the state's first United States senator.

As a literary man, Brown made his reputation as a travel writer. His first book, published in 1846 before he came to California, was Etchings of a Whaling Cruise. The book was based on Browne's experiences aboard a whaler in the Indian Ocean, which included being stranded on Zanzibar Island in Africa. His experiences coming around the Horn to California in 1849 found their way into Crusoe's Island. Browne's fees for reporting the California constitutional convention paid for a trip through the Mediterranean, which in turn resulted in the publication of "Yusef'' in 1853. A subsequent European tour produced Land of Thor, published in 1867. Browne's work as an Indian agent provided content for his 1869 book Adventures in Apache Country, and his travels through the West  resulted in a series of articles for Harper's magazine.

Browne's books and articles were not only stunningly descriptive, they were rich in satire and wit. Browne's humorous portrayals of Americans traveling abroad is said to have inspired Mark Twain's books on his travels. to the  Crusoe's Island was the model for Twain's Roughing It (1871), the autobiographical account of Twain's life in Nevada and California in the 1860s.

Browne was also a skilled artist, and his books contain many fine drawings of frontier life in California during and after the Gold Rush. Some of his illustrations became classics, such as the sketch of a group of miners attacking an Indian village in gold country. The picture is awesomely descriptive and emotionally powerful. It will be found in many books and articles describing treatment of the Indians by immigrants in California during the 1850s.

Browne was also a secret agent for the United States government investigating fraud and corruption in federal agencies, which was rampant in San Francisco in the 1850s and 1860s. His first assignments were as an agent for the Internal Revenue Service in San Francisco. He was later assigned by Secretary of the Treasury Robert J. Walker to investigate corruption and waste at the federal custom house in San Francisco. He found plenty of both. Among his discoveries was the fact that 20 customs agents did nothing more than come into the office once a week to pick up their paychecks. Later he was assigned to investigate malfeasance and misfeasance in Indian affairs in California and Oregon.

Browne's most famous case involved Agoston Haraszthy, a titled Hungarian emigre who was an assayer at the U.S. Mint in San Francisco. Browne discovered a shortfall of $130,000 in gold shipments to and from the Mint. Despite his earnest claim that the missing gold went up the Mint's flue in smoke, Haraszthy was fired from his job. Undaunted, Haraszthy moved to Sonoma County, founded the Buena Vista Winery and became the father of the California wine industry.

Besides the missing gold, Haraszthy was found paying far too much attention to his outside business affairs. This was a tradition at the Mint, however. Jobs there were regarded as political patronage. Jessie Fremont, John C. Fremont's wife, used her considerable influence to get Bret Harte a job at the Mint, and it enabled him to begin his career as a fiction writer and poet. His assigned tasks were easily dealt with in a few hours upon arrival in the morning, which left Harte the rest of the day to write verses and stories. In a similar fashion Ambrose Bierce began his literary career at the Mint before moving on to William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner where he put out his acidic and immensely popular "Prattle'' column.

Browne's career in government service was marked by intrepidity, integrity, loyalty, honesty and efficiency. He was finally rewarded by being made a commissioner of mines for the federal government, following which he was appointed by President Andrew Johnson as United States Minister to China. The latter role was his undoing, however. His predecessor was politically well connected in Washington. When Browne sought to change some of the former minister's practices he found questionable, the axe fell, and Browne was returned to America unemployed.

Browne built a home in Oakland he called "Pagoda Hill.'' The structure was a quaint mixture of Moorish, Chinese, Indian, Italian and Russian architecture constructed in the Gothic manner. Browne retired there to devote the rest of his life to literature. Browne's fascinating career as a government agent is narrated in Richard Dillon's J. Ross Browne: Confidential Agent in Old California (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965).

Browne's trek up the old Placerville Road took him to Virginia City, but he stayed there only a month. He described the town as a "mud hole ... (with) no title to property and no property worth having.'' He said the Washoe mines were "nothing more than squirrel holes on a large scale, the difference being that the squirrels burrow in the ground because they want to live there, and men because they want to live somewhere else.''

Browne died on Dec. 9, 1875. He was struck down with appendicitis on the ferry boat bringing him to Oakland from San Francisco. Unable to make his way home, he put up with a friend who had a house on the Oakland estuary. He died in the night. He was 54 years old. He is fondly remembered as a pioneer of San Francisco's literary frontier and an ardent champion of civil rights for Chinese and Indians in California.

As for the Northwest, an dea of Browne's writing may be had from his section on Port Townsend, Washington, which then described itself as "the hub of Puget Sound":


 She finds occasional occupation in chasing porpoises and wild Indians. It is to be regretted that but little revenue has yet been derived from either of these sources; but should she persist in her efforts there is hope that at no distant day she may overhaul a canoe containing a keg of British brandy that is to say, in case the paddles are lost, and the Indians have no means of propelling it out of the way. . . . Now and then they run on the rocks in trying to find their way from one anchorage to another, in which event they require extra repairs. As this is for the benefit of navigation, it should not be included in the account. They generally avoid running on the same rock, and endeavor to find out a new one not laid down upon the charts-unless perhaps, by some reckless fly-in order that their vessels may enjoy the advantage of additional experience. ... Port Townsend is indeed a remarkable place. The houses, of which there must be at least twenty in the city and suburbs, are built chiefly of pine boards, thatched with shingles, canvas and wood slabs. The streets of Port Townsend are paved with sand, and the public squares are curiously ornamented with dead horses and the bones of many dead cows. This of course gives a very original appearance to the public pleasure grounds and enables strangers to know when they arrive in the city, by reason of the peculiar odor, so that, even admitting the absence of lamps, no person can fail to recognize Port Townsend in the darkest night. The prevailing languages spoken are the Clallam, Chinook and Skookum-Chuck, or Strong Water, with a mixture of broken English; and all the public notices are written on shingles with burnt sticks, and nailed up over the door of the town-hall. A newspaper, issued here once every six months, is printed by means of wooden types whittled out of pine knots by the Indians, and rubbed against the bottom of the editor's potato pot. The cast-off shirts of the inhabitants answer for paper. On the day of election, notice having been previously given on the town shingles, all the candidates for corporate honors go up on the top of the hill back of the waterfront and play at pitch penny and quoits till a certain number are declared eligible; after which all the eligible candidates are required to climb a greased pole in the center of the main public square. The two best then become eligible for the mayorally, and the twelve next best for the common council." These fourteen candidates then get on the roof of the town hall and begin to yell like Indians. Whoever can yell the loudest is declared mayor, and the six next loudest become members of the common council for the ensuing year. Of the local native American chief, Browne wrote: " I complimented him upon his general reputation as a good man and proceeded to make the usual speech, derived from the official formula, about the Great Chief in Washington, whose children were as numerous as the leaves on the trees and the grass on the plains. "Oh damn," said the duke, impatiently. "Him send any whisky?" No, on the contrary, the Great Chief had beard with profound regret that the Indians of Puget Sound were addicted to the evil practice of drinking whisky, and it made his heart bleed to learn that it was killing them off rapidly, and was the principal cause of all their misery. It was very cruel and very wicked for white men to sell whisky to the Indians and it was his earnest wish that the law against this illicit traffic might be enforced and the offenders punished. "Oh, damn," said the duke, turning over on his bed and contemptuously waving his hand in termination of the interview. "This Tyee [Tyler] no 'count!"

Browne's Writings