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The Adventures of Kootenai Brown (1/7): The Seven Seas

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The Adventures of Kootenai Brown (1/7): The Seven Seas


Early Life


John George Brown’s was born on October 10, 1839 in Ennistymon, County Clare, Ireland. Orphaned at a young age during the Great Famine (Gorta Mor/Irish Potato Famine) that ravaged Ireland from 1845 to 1852, Brown was largely raised by his widowed paternal grandmother, Bridget Sophia Brown (nee Butler) in Clonmel, County Tipperary, Ireland. As John Brown hailed from a long line of Scottish-English military men, his grandmother naturally sought to steer him towards a military career.

In those days, military men had to purchase their commissions, as well as any subsequent advances in rank. Brown’s grandmother, being of limited means, could not afford to purchase her grandson’s commission. Accordingly, when John Brown was 16 year old, his grandmother wrote to Lord Henry Hardinge, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, and requested that her grandson be granted a gratuitous commission in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces on account of his father and late grandfather’s dutiful service to the Crown. After forwarding a copy of her grandson’s baptismal certificate to the Military Secretary in London and writing another letter to Lord Hardinge, Brown’s grandmother was informed that John had been placed on the commission list and would enter the ranks once he passed a requisite examination at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst.

Brown studied for the exam- which likely spanned the subjects of English, arithmetic, algebra, Latin, French or German, and the geography of Great Britain- took it and passed with the highest possible credit. However, in spite of his excellent results, Brown was not granted his promised commission. Undaunted, Brown’s grandmother began a long and stubborn battle with the War Office, writing a series of increasingly eloquent entreaties that were all similarly rebuked. Finally, her wish was granted when the (East) Indian Rebellion of 1957 came to a head, leaving the Army in desperate need of officers. On December 13, 1857, John George Brown was commissioned as an Ensign without purchase in the 8th (King’s) Regiment of Foot, a 170-year-old unit (at the time) with a distinguished campaign record.


Service in India


On January 14, 1858, Brown joined Number 12 Company of the first Battalion Eighth Regiment. After undergoing basic training at the regimental depot in Chatham, Kent, the 18-year-old officer was put in charge of 21 private soldiers and dispatched to India.

The voyage to India, which began in Gravesend, Kent, took four months. The ships followed the route of the British East India Company down the Atlantic, around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, up the Indian Ocean and into the Port of Calcutta. By the time Brown and his 21 men arrived in India, the skirmishing that had characterized the previous few months had abated. Instead of facing the musket balls of Indian sepoy rebels, Brown and his men were subject to gastrointestinal illnesses and boredom. They spent their days in India around Fattehgurh, the Army’s headquarters, performing typical regimental duties without ever seeing combat.

Brown’s service in India was relatively short. On December 2, 1859, the forward units of the first Battalion were recalled to Britain. Brown- after shining his parade boots and polishing his brass buttons for a regimental review by Lord Clyde, commander of the British Forces, and a formal ball held in the honour of Lady Canning, wife of the Governor-General of India- proceeded with his men to Calcutta. On May 5, 1860, he boarded the Clara, a full-rigged vessel, and began the long voyage back home.

On the return voyage, the Clara made two stops. The first stop was at Simon’s Bay near Cape Town, South Africa, where the crew obtained fresh water and provisions and a chance to stretch their legs. The second stop was in St. Helena, the British-owned isle in the middle of the equatorial Atlantic. There, military men marched from the dock at Jamestown to the Valley of Geraniums- or the “Valley of the Grave”- to see the late Napoleon Bonaparte’s last residence (after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon was exiled on St. Helena until his death in 1821) and original resting place (Napoleon’s bones had since been moved to Les Invalides in Paris). The Clara reached England in September 1860. Eleven deaths had occurred during the 124-day voyage.




As a result of his experience in India, Brown became disenchanted with military life. The low wages, the lack of adventure and the impossibility of advancement (Brown’s meagre ensign salary did not afford him the ability to purchase a promotion) likely contributed to his discontent. When his regiment returned to its headquarters in Gosport, Brown took a two-week leave of absence in order to reassess his future and spend Christmas with his grandmother in Ireland. It was possibly during this leave of absence that Brown first seriously considered heading west across the Atlantic to take his chances in the goldfields of western British North America, which were a hot topic in the British Isles in lieu of the 1858 Fraser River Gold Rush.

After returning to duty and serving for some time as the senior ensign (all other ensigns had likely resigned or purchased a promotion) in Gosport, and later in the regiment’s new headquarters in Aldershot, Brown retired from the Army in November, 1861, ostensibly to take care of his grandmother in Ireland. On January 31, 1862, Brown’s grandmother, who had featured so prominently in his life, died, and along with her Brown’s last incentive to remain in Ireland. Shortly after her death, Brown, along with his friend Arthur Wellesley Vowell (the son of a prominent Clonmel lawyer; a fellow veteran of the 1957 Indian Mutiny), travelled to Liverpool, England, and boarded a steamship bound for Panama Isthmus (the narrow strip of land that links North and South America). The two friends hoped to travel north from the Caribbean and strike it rich, or to at least find some adventure, in the newly-discovered Cariboo goldfields of interior British Columbia.

After about three weeks on the Atlantic, the steamship that bore Brown and Vowell entered the port of Colon, Panama. There, Brown and Vowell purchased two surprisingly expensive train tickets and travelled west through the jungled mountains, across the Isthmus, to Panama City on the Pacific coast, where they hoped to board another steamer bound for San Francisco. According to Brown, the journey across the Isthmus was slow, as the steam locomotives burned wood instead of coal and the railway underwent perpetual maintenance due to the harsh jungle conditions through which it passed.

Upon their arrival in Panama City, the two travellers discovered that the steamship they had hoped to board was undergoing repairs and would not depart for some time. Instead of remaining in the city- in which cholera, yellow fever, malaria and other infectious diseases ran rampant- Brown and Vowell opted to explore the Chagres River by boat. During their sojourn, they subsisted on the fish that they caught and an alligator that they bagged.

In later writings, Brown described his prevailing impression of Panama:

“I thought I knew something about hot countries- I had recently lived in India- but the heat in Panama was different to that in India. When rain fell on our hands or face it was almost hot enough to scald… We found white men keeping stores at Panama (City) and Colon, the two terminals of the railway. The soldiers were a queer-looking lot, dressed in khaki with bare feet. The natives seemed to fish for a living and for recreation they gambled and promoted cock-fighting. I have travelled a good deal in my day but a more miserable crowd of people it has never been my misfortune to behold.”

After their hunting-fishing trip, Brown and Vowell returned to Panama City and boarded a Pacific Mail Steamship Company vessel bound for San Francisco.


The Pacific Northwest


The unexpected delay in Panama, as well as the expensive train and steamship tickets, left Brown and Vowell nearly broke. Upon their arrival in San Francisco, the two adventurers discovered that they lacked the funds to travel further north. Out of necessity, they searched for jobs. In no time, Brown and Vowell found themselves driving horse teams laden with goods from the old wharf uptown to the rough district in the lower part of town. This was Brown’s first experience with horses, and he admitted in later writings that he “didn’t like it one bit”.

Once Brown and Vowell had saved up enough money to purchase a steamer ticket, they boarded an Oregon and California Steamship Company vessel and travelled to Victoria, British Columbia. They arrived at the future capital of British Columbia on Vancouver Island in late February, 1862. Said Brown of Victoria:

“Victoria in 1862 had no idea of ever becoming a capital of anything. It was just one of those little places. Any prairie town in Alberta is as big as Victoria was then… Only an occasional boat landed at Victoria and it carried adventurers looking for various forms of excitement on the Pacific… Chopping poles in the vicinity of Victoria kept me afloat during my short stay of one winter. The most interesting man there I remember was Governor Douglas (the Governor of Vancouver Island who would initiate the construction of the Cariboo Road [not to be confused with the Old Cariboo Road] in May of that year) of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who was head bamboo chief.”

When Brown and Vowell had saved enough money to purchase gear and provisions, they boarded a steamship, crossed the Strait of Georgia to the mainland, and travelled a short ways up the Fraser River to New Westminster (then the capital of Colony of British Columbia and presently a part of Vancouver Metro). Although there is no documentation on the route the two adventurers took, it is likely that they outfitted themselves in New Westminster, travelled further up the Fraser to Port Douglas, and took the rough northward Lillooet Trail that stretched from Port Douglas, through Pemberton, to Cayoosh Flat (present-day Lillooet). From there, Brown and Vowell almost certainly took the rugged Old Cariboo Road that ran northeast to the Cariboo goldfields around Williams Creek.

By all accounts, the trail from New Westminster to the Cariboo goldfields was a brutal one that could only be traversed by men and women of considerable character and physical strength. Evidently, Brown and Vowell were men who possessed such qualities, as they reached the Cariboo goldfields several weeks after their departure. There, on Williams Creek in the spring of 1862, the two partners began to pan for gold.

(continued on The Adventures of Kootenai Brown (2/7): The Canadian Rockies)




  • Kootenai Brown: The Unknown Frontiersman, 1996, William Rodney


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