John Henry Brown, pioneer historian, newspaper editor, soldier, and legislator, was born on October 29, 1820, in Pike County, Missouri, to Margaret (Jones) and Henry S. Brown. Although Henry S. Brown was involved in Texas affairs from 1824 till his death in 1834, his family remained in Missouri, where John Henry began working in a printing office at age twelve. The younger Brown spent most of his adolescence working on newspapers in Pike County and St. Louis and received little formal schooling. In November 1837 he moved to Texas to live with his uncle, James Kerr, on the Lavaca River. Two years later Brown moved to Austin and began working on the Austin Texas Sentinel. He was soon drawn into skirmishes with Indians on the Texas frontier and participated as a private in the battle of Plum Creek in August 1840. By 1841 he had been elected first sergeant of a company of minutemen. He moved to Victoria the same year, but he remained active in frontier warfare. In the spring of 1842, in the wake of the Mexican Invasions, he joined John C. Hays's company following the Battle of Salado Creek. He then took part in the Somervell expedition and afterward returned to San Antonio, on January 7, 1843.
In April of the same year Brown returned to Missouri, where he married Marion (Mary) F. Mitchel on July 9. He remained in his home state working as a journalist for almost two years, then returned to Texas with his wife in April 1845 and settled in a small community near Rock Spring. In late 1846 he moved again to Victoria, where he gained employment on the Victoria Advocate and became a major of the newly formed state militia. In 1848 he and his family, now including two sons, moved to Indianola. There Brown founded and edited the Indianola Bulletin, contributed a series of articles on "Early Life in the Southwest" to De Bow's Review, and published a pamphlet on Texas history.
In 1854 Brown became associate editor of the Civilian and Galveston Gazette (see GALVESTON CIVILIAN) and gained such popularity in Galveston that he was elected to the state legislature. After his legislative service he was elected mayor of Galveston, in 1856. He began a second term as mayor in 1857, but it was cut short by his reelection to the legislature.
Tired and suffering from ill health, Brown moved in 1858 to Belton. He was appointed to a committee to study problems with placing Indians on reservations and became captain of two military companies formed in 1859 to enforce the committee's recommendations. In this capacity he again saw action as an Indian fighter. He also again took on editorial duties, this time for the Belton Democrat. He edited the Democrat until 1861, when he became a delegate to the Secession Convention, where he served as chairman of the committee that prepared the articles of secession. With the outbreak of the Civil War he became a member of Brig. Gen. Benjamin McCulloch's staff; he advanced from private to major and published the War Bulletin from McCulloch's camp in Arkansas. When the general was killed in 1862 Brown was transferred to the staff of Gen. Henry E. McCulloch, where he served as assistant adjutant general. But poor health forced him in 1863 to rejoin his family, then in Austin. During the remainder of the war Brown served with the Texas militia and commanded the Third Frontier District. He participated with Col. John S. Ford in the last engagement of the war, the battle of Palmito Ranch, on May 13, 1865.
In June 1865 Brown and his family emigrated to Mexico, along with a number of other disaffected Southerners. The Browns settled in the Tuxpan River valley, and Brown surveyed areas for settlement as assistant commissioner of immigration for the Mexican government of Maximilian. In 1869 he visited Texas and the East on behalf of the Mexican government, and the next year he made a lecture tour of the northern states for the Evangelical Church in Mexico. After a brief period in New Orleans the family returned to Texas to live in 1871; they finally settled in Dallas. In 1872 Brown was again elected to the state legislature, and three years later he became a member of the state Constitutional Convention of 1875.
During the last fifteen years of his life he divided his time primarily between political duties and historical writing and editing. In 1880–81 he served as the revising editor of the Encyclopedia of the New West. In 1881 he was also appointed state commissioner for the surveying, marking, and locating of school lands. He served as a Dallas alderman in 1884 and from 1885 to 1887 as the city's mayor. From 1888 to 1890 he held a post as justice of the peace. Meanwhile, he found time to write and publish two historical books, The History of Dallas County, 1837–1887 (1887) and The Life and Times of Henry Smith (1887). These were followed by his two most ambitious works, Indian Wars and Pioneers of Texas (ca. 1896) and The History of Texas from 1685 to 1892 (1892), both considered standards.
Brown and his wife had five children, including a daughter, Marion Taylor Brown. She studied under San Antonio artist Julian Onderdonk's father Robert J. Onderdonk, and illustrated her father's History of Texas from 1685 to 1892 and her mother's A Condensed History of Texas for Schools (1895). Brown died of a bronchial ailment on May 31, 1895, in Dallas. His voluminous papers are preserved in the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.