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William Wells Brown (1814? - 1884)

An author, playwright, and lecturer, William Wells Brown is considered one of the first significant African American writers and antislavery activists. His autobiography, Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave, documents his life as a slave in Missouri and is one of most widely published and influential slave narratives
After slavery fell out of favor and became illegal in the northern states between the late 1700s and the early 1800s, many slaves from southern slaveholding states escaped to the North to live in freedom. As the American abolitionist (antislavery) movement began to pick up steam in the first half of the 1800s, demand increased for former slaves to write their own stories about life under slavery and their escape to freedom. These stories were called "slave narratives." Some of the most well-known slave narratives are Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave (the story of a slave from Missouri); The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself; Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave; The Narrative of Sojourner Truth; and Solomon Northup's Twelve Years a Slave.
William Wells Brown was born a slave around 1814 near Lexington, Kentucky. He was one of seven children by his mother, Elizabeth. His father was likely a male relative of his master, Dr. John Young. In 1816, Dr. Young took William and his family to Missouri territory and they settled on a farm along the Missouri River
At 2,341 miles in length, the Missouri River is one of the longest rivers in North America and a major waterway in the central United States. The river flows east and south from western Montana, forming Missouri's northwest border and crossing the state before merging with the Mississippi River north of St. Louis. With the invention of the steamboat in the early 1800s, the river became part of the nation's first major transportation system and served as a main route during the nation's westward expansion. The Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, houses the remains of the cargo from a steamboat that sank on the Missouri River in 1856.
in what is now Montgomery County. In 1827 they moved again, this time to a farm outside of St. Louis, where William was frequently hired out to local merchants and sometimes steamboat captains, including slave traders. During this time, William was exposed to many people and learned a great deal about life in America outside of the Young household.

In 1832 William attempted to escape slavery with his mother, but they were both caught and taken back to St. Louis. William was sold to a merchant and his mother was put on a boat to New Orleans. It was the last time he ever saw her. Soon, he was sold to riverboat captain Enoch Price, the last man to be his master. On January 1, 1834, while docked in Cincinnati, Ohio, William finally escaped. He was helped by a Quaker man named Wells Brown, and William took his name.

Brown made his way to Cleveland, where he spent years working on a Lake Erie steamboat to help others escape slavery into Canada. While in Cleveland, Brown met and married Elizabeth Schooner. The couple had two daughters, Clarissa and Josephine. While working to help free slaves, Brown’s zeal for abolition
The goal of the American abolition movement was to end the system of slavery that existed in the United States from its early colonization until the Civil War era. From the late 1770s to the early 1800s, several northern states abolished slavery by passing antislavery laws that called for slaves in those states to be gradually emancipated (freed) over a period of time. From the 1830s onward, the abolition movement grew quickly and began to call for the immediate emancipation of all slaves in America. In the 1850s, tension between people with proslavery views and those favoring abolition dominated American politics. The fight over abolition was one of the main issues leading to the Civil War. Abolition was formally adopted in Missouri in January of 1865. Later that year, slavery was ended in America with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
increased and he became more involved in the slavery issue. The family moved to Buffalo and then to Farmington, New York, where the abolitionist movement was very strong. Between 1843 and 1847 Brown worked on behalf of the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society as a lecturer. Brown’s constant traveling on the lecture circuit led to a divorce from Elizabeth in 1847. Brown kept custody of his daughters and they moved to Boston. At this same time he wrote Narrative, his first book. The slave narrative, which documents the harshness of slave life on the plantation and in St. Louis, sold ten thousand copies in two years.
In 1849 Brown went to England to lecture and stayed for five years due to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required authorities in the free states to return slaves to their masters.
. While there, he wrote several more books, including Three Years in Europe and Clotel, the earliest known African American novel. Friends purchased his freedom from Enoch Price in 1854, and Brown returned to Boston to work for the New England Anti-Slavery Society. In 1855 he published The American Fugitive in Europe and in 1858 he wrote the first play by an African American, The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom.
On April 12, 1860, Brown married Anna Elizabeth Gray. The couple had a son, William Wells Brown Jr., in 1861, who died as an infant of cholera
Cholera is a sickness caused by a water-dwelling type of bacteria. Its symptoms include extreme nausea and diarrhea, often causing dehydration and death. Cholera spread from Asia to Europe in the early 1800s, then to America at the beginning of the 1830s. Since cholera lives in water that has been contaminated with feces, it thrived in highly populated areas around rivers and other bodies of water with poor sewer drainage systems. Cholera outbreaks affected several American cities in the Mississippi River Valley during the mid-1800s. St. Louis was one of the cities hardest hit during this period, enduring cholera epidemics numerous times between 1832 and 1867. The 1849 and 1866 epidemics were especially severe, killing several thousand people. Cholera became less of a problem in American cities later in the 1800s as sewage systems improved and public health awareness increased.
, and a daughter named Clotelle on May 8, 1862, who died in 1870 of typhoid fever.

For the remainder of his life, Brown continued to write and lecture. He also became a physician in his later years. He wrote plays, speeches, fiction, and history, and he rewrote his autobiography several times. His final book, My Southern Home; or, The South and Its People, was published in 1880. With both his actions and his words, Brown worked tirelessly on behalf of the abolition movement. His writings brought attention to the plight of slaves and later to free blacks everywhere. Brown died of complications from “tumor of the bladder” on November 6, 1884, and is buried in the Cambridge Cemetery in Chelsea, Massachusetts.

Text and Research by Laura R. Jolley


References and Resources

For more information about William Wells Brown's life and career, see the following resources:

Society Resources

The following is a selected list of books, articles, and manuscripts about William Wells Brown in the research centers of The State Historical Society of Missouri. The Society’s call numbers follow the citations in brackets. All links will open in a new tab.

  • Books & Articles
    • Andrews, William L., ed. From Fugitive Slave to Free Man: The Autobiographies of William Wells Brown. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003. [REF 921 B815br]
    • Christensen, Lawrence O., William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, eds. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999. Pp. 125–127. [REF F508 D561]
    • Farrison, William Edward. William Wells Brown: Author and Reformer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969. [REF 921 B815]
    • Greenspan, Ezra, ed. William Wells Brown: A Reader. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008. [REF 921 B815g]

Outside Resources

These links, which open in another window, will take you outside the Society's website. The Society is not responsible for the content of the following websites:

Historic Missourians: William Wells Brown
William Wells BrownWilliam Wells Brown.

[The State Historical Society of Missouri, Photograph Collection (007357)]

William Wells Brown

Born: 1814?
Died: November 6, 1884 (age 70?)
Categories: African Americans, Writers
Region of Missouri: St. Louis
Missouri Hometown or County: Montgomery County, St. Louis