John Brown Descendant Looks Back—and to the Future

Interview by Gordon Berg

All families have secrets.  Imagine 16 year-old Alice Kesey Mecoy’s suprise when she found out she was directly related to John Brown, one of the most controversial figures in American history.  Mecoy is the great, great, granddaughter of Brown’s daughter Annie. Before her death in 1926, Annie insisted that all her letters be burned—presumably because she didn’t want to bring attention to her family’s history. Alice’s parents and grandparents knew of the relationship but kept quiet about it until a historian  interviewed them in the 1960s. For the past 15 years, Alice has devoted herself to researching the family, particularly its women, whose lives after Brown’s march on Harpers Ferry have long been unheralded.

How many direct descendants of John Brown are there?

There’s a few hundred.  I haven’t contacted all of them but I’ve found many that don’t want to discuss the family.

Brown’s widow, Mary, and surviving children moved from their farm in North Elba, NY, in 1863. Where did they go?
First they went to Iowa, where they put money down on a farm. But after six months, and the coldest winter on record, Mary, said, “I’m going on to California.” They originally went to Red Bluff, where people built them a house, after collecting pennies and nickels from all over the state. The family moved on within three years (there’s some disagreement whether it was because it was too hot near Sacramento or because there were a lot of ex-Confederates in the area who were threatening them). They went north to Humboldt County. Later Mary with Sarah and Ellen, the two youngest daughters, went down to the Santa Clara area. But Annie stayed in Humboldt County, where my dad, Paul Meredith Keasey, was born.

When did you first find out you were related to Brown?
My dad’s mother, Beatrice Cook Keasey, participated in a quilt-making group celebrating history.  Every woman sewed something different on her square; my grandmother chose  Harpers Ferry and mentioned her relationship to John Brown. When Jean Libby, a John Brown expert, heard about it, she wanted to photograph and interview our family. My dad said no, but my grandmother said she could take pictures of the grandchildren. I was 16 and my brother was 11. My first reaction was, “I’m related to that crazy guy!”  In my schoolbooks, that’s how he was portrayed.

Did your understanding of Brown change as you grew up?
I really didn’t care when I was 16.  I didn’t care until I had children of my own. Then I started doing a little research, and for the past 15 years I’ve been really getting into it. I think there are enough people out there writing about Grandpa that I leave it to them. I’m focusing on the genealogy and the women, and also what Brown’s ideas were on women’s rights. I have a great respect for him now.

Do Americans have a true sense of who he was and what he tried to do?
No, I don’t think so. It’s a lot better than it used to be. For a long time he was a villain, and depicted as a crazy man. Then some saw him as a saint; now he’s finally come back around to being just a man. He wasn’t just out to free the slaves, he wanted women and Indians to have the right to vote. He wanted equality across the board.  He was well ahead of his time.
What are you doing to improve the public’s understanding of Brown and his family?
I lecture on the Brown women and correct misinformation in public and on my blog. I also answer about 30 e-mails a week. I’m writing a book about the Brown women. We actually had the John Brown sesquicentennial in 2009. We reenacted the march from the Kennedy farm, the trial, the hanging, and the funeral. I stood on the exact spot where they built the gallows. That was very emotional for me.

Did any of Brown’s children renounce him?
No.  But Annie never spoke of him. She didn’t tell her children.  It was always a secret in my family—we didn’t talk about it.  But reading her letters you can tell she was frustrated at the way people interpreted who he was and what he tried to do.  Later in life, Annie did start speaking out. She was very adamant about women’s rights. She was a teetotaler, too, so she was for prohibition.

Why do you think Annie never spoke of him?
She was trying to protect her children, which is part of why the family came to California.They wanted the kids not to be burdened with the legacy of being John Brown’s grandchildren.They had been in the limelight so long.They would still give interviews if people found them, but they weren’t searching for it.

So none of the children tried to exploit the relationship?
No.  In fact, they gave away everything that they could later have sold—signatures, letters, a hand-written copy of his constitution—they just sent them off to people. And when Annie was asked to be at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago  she adamantly refused, writing: “I’m not going on display. I think it’s awful, I just can’t believe it, but they want my kids to go, and my kids are thinking about it.”  In the end, none of the Browns participated.

Do you think John Brown has a valid message today?
He wanted equality for everyone. When you read his articles and his letters, he was for equality of women, blacks and the Indians. He didn’t want to free the slaves and send them away. He wanted to free them and live with them. He wanted all people to live together in harmony and all people to be treated equal. That was a pretty radical thing for 1859, and in some places that’s still a radical thing now.

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Alice Keasy Mecoy lives in Allen, TX
Her blog can be found at

Gordon Berg is a past President and member of the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia (  His reviews and articles appear in the Civil War Times and America's Civil War, among other publications.