Ephraim Brown – Murdered on the Oregon Trail

Oregon Trail, Wyoming courtesy the Bureau of Land Management.

Oregon Trail, Wyoming, courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management.

Missouri pioneer Ephraim James Brown is the only man murdered on the Oregon Trail whose grave remains at a known location.

Brown was born in Kentucky in 1823. Somewhere along the line, he made his way to Ralls County, Missouri, near the Mississippi River. He married 16-year-old Nancy Ann Sheckles in 1846, with whom he would have three children. The couple settled on land near Nancy’s extended family.

In the early 1850s, Ephraim Brown and his brother-in-law, Nimrod Menefee, went to Sacramento, California, where they operated a general store for a few years. After saving their money, they returned to Missouri with a plan to return to the Golden State with their families.

A family on the Oregon Trail.

A family on the Oregon Trail.

In 1857, Ephraim Brown organized a wagon train that included several members of Nancy’s family, including Nimrod Menefee’s 61-year-old father, Arthur Menefee, who had married the 24-year-old widow Rebecca Sheckles Witt.

Ephraim Brown, Arthur Menefee, and Nimrod Menefee led the wagon train from St. Joseph, Missouri, on May 13, 1857. The three men were married to the daughters of Paulina and Ira Sheckles, Sr.: Rebecca, Mary, and Nancy.

The only account of the journey is Arthur Menefee’s diary.

On May 24, Arthur Menefee wrote:

“All supted together in mutual friendship and harmony & continued until next morning when a little storm arose between Mary [Menefee] and Nancy [Brown].”

South Pass, Wyoming by the National Park Service.

South Pass, Wyoming, by the National Park Service.

On August 2, the company was camped at the Three Crossings of the Sweetwater River east of the Continental Divide at South Pass, Wyoming. Here, while the men stood guard over the stock to prevent Indian raids, Ephraim Brown was shot and killed by a man in a quarrel. He was buried where he died.

Of this event, Arthur Menefee wrote:

“Next morning, at the point of leaving, a conflict took place which terminated in the death of E. Brown. Buried him & left at midnight traveling over a tolerable road… still not satisfied with the justice unfortunateness of the past day, owing all [to] the Women’s tongue.”

He never commented on the incident again in his diary.

On August 11, while the wagon train was camped east of Commissary Ridge on the Sublette Cutoff, about 100 miles west of South Pass, he wrote:

Here we tried the Boy & dismissed him from the Train after finding him guilty, thence pursuing our journey…

The “boy” is unidentified.

After the death of her husband, Nancy and her three children continued westward with the wagon train, which reached Carson City, Nevada, on October 11. Most of the group went on to California. However, Arthur Menefee stayed in Carson City and died two months later. Nancy Brown and her children also remained. Nancy went to California the following year, where she and her family lived at Sutter’s Fort, Markleville, and near Stockton, where the children attended school.

Carson City, Nevada 1863

Carson City, Nevada 1863

On December 25, 1859, she married Chester Stephens Swift in Sacramento, and the couple would have three daughters. Chester worked as a teamster for the Nevada mines, and the family lived in Virginia City, Nevada. However, a chronic gambler, Chester, lost their home sometime in the 1870s and then deserted the family.

Nancy soon returned to California, where she made a modest living as a cook. But her earnings were not enough, and she was forced to give up her three young Swift children to an orphanage in Vallejo, California.

In 1880, she was running a boarding house in Bodie, California. Later, she lived in Merced, California, where her daughter, Anne Louise Brown Carter, resided with her husband and family.

Having been abandoned by Chester Swift for many years, she married William Newman on December 20, 1882, in Tulare, California. She soon retrieved her children from the orphanage. However, not long after the marriage, Chester Swift showed up, and the marriage to Newman was dissolved. Soon afterward, both men left, never to be seen again.

In the 1890s, Nancy Brown Swift moved to a ranch near Winslow, Arizona, with her daughter, Lillie May Swift French. She died there on March 22, 1901. The location of her grave is unknown.

Ephraim Brown’s grave is near Rock Creek, outside Atlantic City, Wyoming. He was 34 at the time of his death. The grave is still marked by the headstone put up by Brown’s companions on August 2, 1857.

Compiled by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated October 2023.

Also See: 

Danger and Hardship on the Oregon Trail

Disease and Death on the Overland Trails

Landmarks Along the Oregon Trail

Oregon Trail  – Pathway to the West


Find a Grave
Merced California Newspaper Clipping, 1935
Modesto Bee and Herald-News, Anne Louise Brown obituary, 1936
Nevada Historical Society Quarterly Spring 1966, Volume IX Number 1
Wyoming History (Randy Brown, The Grave of Ephraim Brown)
Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office