What is the line between fame and infamy? Many figures in American History have blurred the borders between those ideas, leading to endless speculation about their character and their impact. Jacob Brown was one such figure. He was a veteran of two wars, a leading financial figure in early Arkansas, a defender of early Texas, and one of the chief officials directing the Trail of Tears. Brown’s life took him through some of the darkest chapters in American History.
Jacob Brown was born in Massachusetts, probably around 1789. His father had fought in the American Revolution. Little is known about his early life, but as a young man, he enlisted in the army early during the War of 1812.
Brown’s war service was otherwise respectable. He stayed in the military after the war and slowly moved up the ranks as peacetime promotions in the greatly-reduced army of that time were rare. From about 1818 to 1825, his infantry unit was assigned to the area along the borders of Missouri and the Arkansas Territory to keep the peace between the settlers and the Native American tribes of the area.
In 1831, at the insistence of President Andrew Jackson, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, stating that the southeastern tribes would be moved from their ancestral lands. Removal of the tribes was to be the responsibility of the army. Tens of thousands of people were removed from their homes and marched at gunpoint to the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) where the federal government had set aside land for tribal reservations. Countless individuals died on the way.
To facilitate these removals, a branch of the Office of Removal and Subsistence was established in Little Rock, and Brown eventually came to lead it. His role in this office was to coordinate removal of tribes through the area and their movements from Arkansas into the Indian Territory and also to make sure they were fed. Once the tribes were at their reservations, Brown’s office would continue to send food. By 1835, all tribal claims in the Arkansas Territory were extinguished, but removal of other tribes further east was still taking place.
In 1837, a year after Arkansas statehood, Brown was named president of the Real Estate Bank, a bank established by Arkansas legislators specializing in real estate loans and investments and one of the first in the state. Though popular among many in Arkansas, he soon became the focus of intense criticism by his successor at the Removal and Subsistence Office. Captain Richard Collins accused Brown of feeding the Native Americans rotten food. Others began to criticize Brown for holding two positions at once, through the army and through the bank. Stung by the criticisms, Brown stepped away from both positions. He continued with other army positions, rising to the rank of major by 1843.
The army reassigned Brown. With the admission of Texas into the Union and Mexico’s accompanying threat of war against the United States if Texas were so admitted forced American planners to reinforce the American claim. The situation was complicated by conflicting claims as the U. S. claimed the Rio Grande as the southern border for Texas while Mexico claimed it was further north at the Nueces River. Gen. Zachary Taylor arrived on the scene to enforce the American claim and established Fort Texas on the Rio Grande in March 1846 just across from Matamoros. Brown was given command of the fort while Taylor rushed up and down the Lower Rio Grande Valley preparing to defend American positions.
After Mexican forces attacked an army patrol on the north side of the Rio Grande on April 25, Brown readied Fort Texas for attack. On May 3, Mexican artillery in Matamoros opened fire on the fort. Brown directed his own artillery as he was slowly surrounded. On May 6, one shell struck inside the fort and exploded. Shrapnel wounded Brown, but the wounds were too severe to treat. Taylor charged to relieve the fort, temporarily blocked by the Mexican Army at the Battle of Palo Alto on May 8. After sweeping aside Mexican forces, Taylor was able to reach the fort and break the siege later that day. Reinforcements poured in. Brown died just hours later on May 9, one of only two fatalities at the fort. The United States declared war on Mexico on May 13.
After Brown’s death, Taylor ordered Fort Texas renamed Fort Brown. The city of Brownsville, founded in 1848 next to the fort, was named in his honor. Today, it is a city of 183,000 on the southernmost tip of Texas. Fort Brown itself is a National Historic Landmark with tours of the site available. The Jacob Brown Auditorium in on the campus of Texas Southmost College near the site of the old fort.