The Storied Life of Davy Brown (Davy Brown Campground, Santa Barbara County)

A drawing of Davy Brown’s cabin published in The herald, September 25, 1898.

In the only image known to exist of Davy Brown, a tintype, he sits crossed legged on an upholstered chair in front of what appears to be some sort of backdrop resembling rolling hills or a seascape. It is a formal posed picture. He is wearing a dark jacket, scuffed up boots and heavy-clothed pants turned up at the cuffs a good four inches. He is resting his hands together on his lap with clenched fists, as if handcuffed, and the corners of his mouth are turned down slightly. The rest of his face below his pursed lips disappears behind a shaggy, ratty looking white beard. He is an old man with pale skin and a long narrow nose. He is said to have had “piercing, ice-blue eyes” and a “rose-pink complexion.” Lying beside him on the plank floor is a dark-colored wide-brimmed hat turned on its side. The image looks like a cross between a portrait and a full body mug shot.

Davy Brown was born in Mount Charles Ireland in 1800, though one pioneer from Santa Maria said he spoke with a Scottish accent. As a young lad he took to the high seas on a British privateer that raided American ships during the War of 1812. After the Americans captured the ship he was aboard, he was taken to Charleston, South Carolina and released into the great American frontier. Davy Brown went west crossing the vast wilderness of an untamed continent.

When the Mexican-American War of 1846 erupted he was hired as a teamster for the United States Army. He later became a Texas Ranger fighting gunslingers and smugglers and facing Indian warriors chiseled from the sinewy stock of native America. This was the era of the Wild West.

Davy Brown continued to drift west. He trapped with Kit Carson and was mentioned by John Muir who crossed paths with him in the pine forests of the granite studded Sierra. By his fifties he was in California during the Gold Rush and earning his keep by hunting game and selling fresh meat to miners.

At some point in the early 1870s Brown came to Santa Barbara County and settled on 300 acres of land near Guadalupe. He later left the coast for the mountains to purportedly escape the growing population, and sometime around age 83, he set off to live in a tent in the wilds of what is now the San Rafael Wilderness with two mules, “Jinks” and “Tommy,” loaded for bear.

Davy Brown settled along a brook in a grassy hollow on the west end of Sunset Valley, tucked behind the northeast side of Figueroa Mountain and a short walk from what is now Davy Brown Campground. He crafted a log cabin from the timber of his surroundings with help from a friend named George Wills. Brown lived in the cabin until the mid-1890s before returning to Guadalupe where, according to the coroner’s record, he passed at age 98 from cancer.

(Update August 18, 2011: To learn more about the life and times of Davy Brown and to see the aforementioned tintype image of Brown see Inside the Santa Ynez Valley‘s story “Davy Brown” from the summer of 2003.)


Source: The Yankee Barbarenos: The American Colonization of Santa Barbara County, California 1796-1925 and It Happened in Old Santa Barbara by Walker A. Tompkins.

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11 Responses to The Storied Life of Davy Brown (Davy Brown Campground, Santa Barbara County)

  1. Craig says:

    Jack, I submit the following only as additional edification … something I found in the 2e of Burtness’s campground guide (1963).
    “This camp derives its name from William S. (Davy) Brown, who imported slaves from Africa and served under General “Stonewall” Jackson at New Orleans. He later moved to Northern California where he engaged in gold mining and bear hunting. His favorite haunt was a place called Brown’s Flat, on the north fork of the Merced River.
    In 1883, he emigrated to Southern California, and a year later, built a cabin at the present Davy Brown Camp. Consequently, this was his home until 1898 when he died at the age of 97. Later, the cabin was razed by the Forest Service, so as to prevent campers from burning it down a perhaps causing a forest fire. An earth-encrusted pile of rocks at the lower edge of camp mark the only remains of the cabin today.”

  2. Jack Elliott says:

    I wonder how accurate the quote from Burtness is regarding Brown’s involvement in slavery. Burtness makes a declarative statement that Brown “imported slaves,” but in all other references to this purported detail of Brown’s life that I have read none of them use such decisive language as if it was a confirmed fact.

    In “The Yankee Barbarenos” Tompkins put is this way: “As a little girl, Santa Ynez historian Grace Lyons Davison knew Uncle Davy Brown and believed that Brown had once been a slave runner, Indian scout and famous bear hunter.”

    In an article published by “Inside the Santa Ynez Valley” magazine, the author writes: “Born in Ireland in 1800, he left his homeland at the age of 12 to take work on a slaver, bringing black cargo from Africa to the United States. He found the work disturbing tales of those slave trading days would keep many a listener spellbound in later years, so he found another job on a privateer.”

    And in “It Happened in Old Santa Barbara” Tompkins writes: “Davy was born in Mount Charles, Ireland, in 1800, and at age 12 shipped on a British privateersman which preyed on Yankee commerce during the war of 1812.

    During the early period of his life, Davy is believed to also have done some ‘black birding,’ or slave running from Africa to Cuba. It was a facet of his life that Davy Brown did not care to talk about.”

  3. Bryan says:

    A picture of Davy’s old cabin. Feel free to use as you see fit:

  4. Roy Harthorn says:

    Jack, the 1883 article says Davy had 5 adopted children but never married. Send me an email and perhaps we can discuss some other trace information that suggests Bob ‘s statement (and Walker) were reasonably accurate re. the slave trade. One item I think Bob has wrong is Davy being “William S. Brown.” William was the USFS historian who wrote about the naming of Davy Brown Creek in his 1944 history of the Los Padres. I have a PDF of it if you are interested.

  5. Roy Harthorn says:

    I shared a PDF copy of the above referenced history with LPFW who has posted it at the following link:

    ER Jim Blakley’s and Karen Barnette’s book is also posted there.

    • Jack Elliott says:

      Hey Roy. Thanks for bringing that to my attention and offering my a PDF copy. I’ll definitely download a copy of it. I already have a copy of the Blakley/Barnette book, which I consult fairly frequently.

  6. Roy Harthorn says:

    Dear Jack, In case you or your readers are not aware, I have been asked by the Santa Ynez Historical Museum to do a talk re. the materials I have collected re. Davy Brown over the past few years. The event is on Oct. 24, 6.30-8 pm. Here is a link to the announcement the Museum has posted. The book they mention is more of a work in progress but I am confident I will get it done in the foreseeable future.
    Best, Roy

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