Many and many a time it has been noted that there is nowhere in all this country, a monument to the foremothers of the land. It is a trite saying that the Puritan foremothers are deserving of honor, since they not only had to endure the hardships and privations of a new country, but were obligated to endure the forefathers, too.
And so it comes that the pioneer woman of California—the dear foremothers—have never been properly honored. Time and again the gray-haired, blithe-hearted Pioneers have ridden in carriages, but the women, always by their sides in the primitive cabins, or crossing the plains with their little children tugging at their skirts and a baby at the breast, were in the background. In deadly dread of Indians, more for the tender little lives about them than for their own, for the thought of laying down their own burdens must have been rather a pleasant one, they cowered in the covered wagons that crawled across the plains or prayed to heaven in the fearful storms about Cape Horn, or in the fever-laden heat of the isthmus. They tell a brave tale about a pioneer woman in one of the early caravans. The wagons were surrounded by Indians, and she, with her little brood, had retired to her wagon. When they lifted the canvas flaps they saw her with her babies behind her, and two great pistols across her knees. They spoke to her, but she did not answer, for her mouth was full of bullets. She had resolved to sell the lives of her babies dear.
In spite of the hard conditions of life, the lack of all the creature comforts, the business of child bearing and rearing went on apace. Families were large and the burden must have been well nigh crushing, for gold mining was not always profitable, and women knew what it was to be obligated to help to fill the family larder. Heaven alone knows how these women toiled and silently suffered. Their hair is white now, and their faces deeply graven with lines. They say that wrinkles tell in cipher the story of a woman’s life, and these faces tell a noble story that they who run may read.
When January of 1850 dawned upon California her population had jumped during the preceding year to approximately 100,000 people, nearly all of them men and nine-tenths of them gold-fever immigrants. It was not until these hurried adventurers had rushed to the mines and made their stake that they sent for their Eastern wives and the girls they’d left behind them, and the era of women pioneers really began. But women came to the Golden State prior to 1850, yes, three years before the forty-niners arrived. Some of those earliest pioneer mothers are still living. It is with their interesting experiences that this article deals. Read the personal reminiscences of several of them and you get facts and scenes that seem hardly credible, so marvelously have all things changed since California was an obscure Mexican territory.
Mrs. F.A. Van Winkle of Colusa, who was originally Miss Frances Anne Cooper of Howard county, Mo., and then the wife of the late Dr. [Robert] Semple, the founder of Benicia, arrived in Napa on October 3, 1846, from Council Bluffs, Ia., and was one of the first white women married in California. Mrs. Van Winkle’s story is of more than passing interest. It is historical and filled with information.
Here is the tale as it was simply told by Mrs. Van Winkle the other afternoon at her present residence in this city, 911 Van Ness avenue:
“We came to California the same year as the ill-fated Donner party. It started about a month ahead of us, but it kept taking imaginary short cuts and hurrying until it met with frightful disaster. My father, who was captain of our train, led his party of about eighty people across trackless plains and mountains for five months, simply with the sun and the stars as guides, and came west almost as straight as the crow flies. He believed in moving every day, if only three miles and the result was that all our oxen were in better condition when they arrived in California than when they started. Several of the survivors of the Donner party, young George Donner and Mrs. Reed, came to our house in Napa after they were rescued. I heard the other day that Mrs. Reed’s daughter, ‘Patty’ Reed, who was then a very little girl, is living on Franklin street in Oakland. She is Mrs. Martha Lewis now.
“Both father and mother were born in Kentucky, but like a good many other Kentuckians of those days, they moved out to Missouri, where we children were born. Then father was appointed Indian Agent at Council Bluffs, Ia., old Colonel Thomas Benton getting him the position. There was no town there then—just the agency buildings. The only white people besides us were the blacksmith and another family. We children grew up there with the Indians as our playmates.
“There were several Indians—Chippewas, Ottawas and Pottawattomies—at the Council Bluffs agency when father was in charge. They were all lazy. They considered it a disgrace to work, and would rather be killed than made to labor. They didn’t know any English, and wouldn’t talk much in their own language, but as a girl I used to speak Indian.
“One day I read a pamphlet written by a man who had been in California. His name was Hastings, and he was a cousin to Judge Hastings. His description of the beautiful flowers blooming in winter, of the great herds of Spanish cattle in lovely fields, of glorious scenery, and of the ideal climate and blue skies, made me just crazy to move out there, for I thought such a country must be a paradise. Mother though so too, but father told us it was a dangerous trip and that Indians might kill all of us on the way. He had been a good ways west, hunting buffalo, and he knew something of the great stretches of plains. But we kept talking about California until father decided to put it to a family vote whether we should go or stay.
“Father went out with Fremont in 1845 to explore the Far Western country. The parties separated and returned. Father came home in time to lead our party, although we had already decided to go anyway.”
The pioneering spirit appears not to have been monopolized by the men.
“So, in May, 1846, we started, I being then 20 years of age. We hadn’t been on the way a month — there were no roads or trails—when we were attacked one day by Indians. Five hundred Cherokees swooped down upon us on horseback and surrounded our wagon train. They rode around and around us. Father knew how to deal with Indians and after the wagons had been drawn together at the first alarm, he stepped out to parley with them, and offered flour and tobacco. The Indians of those days were simply crazy for flour and tobacco. They would take a little flour and mix it with water and make it into tortillas and pat them lovingly for hours like little flapjacks and then cook them on hot stones. Father took out a half barrel of flour and measured it out, a little cupful to each Indian, and he cut plug tobacco up and gave it to them. Then they all smoked the pipe of peace. We knew father simply detested smoking; it make him sick, and we almost laughed to see; him puffing away there with all those Indians. We were a little afraid of the Sioux Indians, for they were very wild and fierce, but father smoked with them and gave them flour and tobacco, too, when we encountered them a little while later.
“We ran into one herd of about 500 buffalo, and father killed several, but ordinarily he would not permit any delays or turning aside for game. We came steadily along, making about twelve or fourteen miles a day. There was no baggage but bedding and provisions. In one wagon drawn by two big oxen we had the bedding, and we used to ride in that. We rode all the way except up the slopes of the Rocky mountains and the Sierra Nevada. It was awful coming up those mountains. There were great rocks, waist high, that the wheels had to bump over, and it was all the poor oxen could do to drag the lightened loads.
“Altogether our trip was exceptionally fortunate. We made good time, came by the most direct route, had no sickness and lost but one person, a little baby that died after its mother had tried to doctor it herself.
“We were received at Napa by Mr. Yount, who had lived originally in Howard county, Missouri. He was just as glad to see us as if we had been his own family. He owned seven leagues of land there in the Napa valley, had 600 mares and thousands of horses and cattle. The whole valley was covered with grazing cattle. In those days the only Americans there were the Gregories, the Stewards, the Derbons and a few other families.
“Spanish vaqueros used to be riding all over the country in little groups. They never bothered us or happened in for meals. All they needed was a piece of jerked beef and some roasted corn, and they would carry that with them and ride hundred and hundreds of miles before returning to their homes. There were so many thousands of long-horned Spanish cattle in the country that anybody that liked went out and killed a beef when he needed meat, and no one said anything. And it was good beef, too, probably because there was so much excellent grass.
“All the Spanish families had Indian slaves. They never permitted them to walk, but made them go about on the trot all the time. Those Indians made good slaves, excellent. The Spanish vaqueros used to go up to what is now Ukiah and ride in among the Indian rancherias and drive out the boys and girls, leaving the mothers behind and killing the bucks if they offered any resistance. Then they would herd the captives down like so many cattle and sell them to the ranchers. About $100 was the standard price. A good girl would bring that, but some sold for as little as $50.
“I bought one Indian girl from a Spaniard for $100, but soon after that another Indian girl and two boys came to my house of their own accord and explained that they had no home and wanted to work. The four of them did all my work, washing, ironing, cooking and housecleaning. One of the girls was a splendid nurse. The shameful treatment of the Indians by the Spanish was never equaled by the whites. As Americans settled up the country the enslaving of young Indians naturally stopped.
“We had a Fourth of July celebration near Napa in 1847. It was given by us at the Yount place. It must have been the first affair of the kind in California. We had about forty guests, most of them Spanish people of some prominence in the country. I made an enormous pound cake for the center of the table. Nobody had brought an American flag to California, so my sister, now Mrs. Wolfskill of Winters, made a little one of some narrow red ribbon and cut some blue silk from her best dress, and sewed on but one star, for material was very scarce, and the whole thing was not bigger than a woman’s handkerchief. we stuck it in the top of the cake. One of our guests was a Dr. Bailey, an Englishman of whom we all thought a great deal. He died long ago, but his two daughters are married and are living near St. Helena in Napa county, where they own big wine vineyards.
“Father had written across the little flag, ‘California is ours as long as the stars remain.’ The Spaniards took it all right, but Dr. Bailey became very much excited and snatched at the flag. All through the dinner he insisted upon removing it, declaring that the American flag should never wave over California. After the dinner, as my sister and I were driving to our house, Dr. Bailey rode beside our wagon and we clung to the little silk flag and kept waving it at him from one side and then the other as he urged his horse close and tried to grab it from our hands. About a dozen years ago father lent the flag to the California Pioneers, and they have it in their collection yet.
“It used to be claimed that I was the first white woman married in California, but Miss Yount was married in 1845 to Mr. Davis. There were many early Spanish brides just as white skinned as I. Father had moved to San Francisco, now called Benicia, and had started a boarding-house. Dr. Semple, who was a native of Kentucky, owned nearly all the land where the town is now. In those days that was thought to be the coming city. The present San Francisco was but an insignificant group of tents occupied by Spanish people and bearing the name Yerba Buena. Governor Vallejo had made Dr. Semple a present of half of Benicia, believing that he would build it up.
“I was married in Benicia in the fall of 1847. The ceremony was performed in the big dining-room of father’s boarding-house, which was decorated for the event. There were two other women in town at the time, besides mother and my sisters, and they and about twenty sailors were at my wedding.
“The sailors were as proud as could be and came all dressed in white suits. We gave them a supper affair and they all enjoyed it. The wedding was set for 9 o’clock, but it was a stormy, rainy night, and very dark. Ex-Governor Boggs of Missouri was to come visit Napa to perform the ceremony. We waited until 10 o’clock, and were just despairing of seeing him that night when he arrived. He had ridden horseback all the way through mud and water, and he was a very large, stout man, too.
“My husband, Dr. Semple, owned the only ferry-boat at Benicia. It was often said that he made money enough with it to sink that boat a half dozen times over, but he was one of the most remarkable speculators I ever knew, and went right through his money.
“Our town was San Francisco, but the people down here took the name away from us. Dr. Semple opposed them, but it did no good. They named this place San Francisco and dropped the name Yerba Buena, so Dr. Semple called his town Benicia, after Mrs. Vallejo, whose maiden name was Francisca Benicia.
“At first we thought California would be a great stock country, a fine place for farming, an elegant climate to live in, but no one had any idea then that there was gold here. But in 1848 and 1849 Dr. Semple was the only man left in Benicia, and mother, my sister and I the only women. All the others had gone to the mines. We lived in Benicia just four years, then we moved to what is now Colusa.
“My husband owned half of Colusa, old Colonel Hagar owning the other half. Dr. Semple had an idea that he could make a fortune out of the land. So we went up there. We were the first white people in that part of the State. There was a big rancheria of Indians right in what is now the heart of the town of Colusa, hundreds and hundreds of them. And five miles up the river was another big rancheria on what is now known as the John Boggs place. John Boggs did not come to Colusa until a good deal later, but he had big droves of cattle, and did well and made money.
“In Colusa, in the early days we raised vegetables to sell to the miners, and we grew grain and shipped it down to San Francisco on steamers. When I first saw Sacramento it was an apparently endless sweep of small tents, not a frame building anywhere in sight. That was in 1850. It was a terrifying place. I was frightened. Men were gambling on all sides. They were shooting and cursing and yelling. The noise and uproar were awful.
“I lived in Colusa for thirty-two years, never getting away much. It was along in the seventies before I saw San Francisco and I haven’t visited Benicia for many years. Little by little, as more white people settled in Colusa, the Indians moved back farther from civilization. They disappeared somewhere. I still own a lovely home place of 670 acres at Colusa, and I’ve been offered $75 an acre for it and wouldn’t take it. About ten miles from the house is an Indian rancheria, with a little colony of Indians. They sell chickens and pigs, and in the summer time they work in the harvest field and manage to get along pretty well. There at Colusa are the graves of my parents—my mother, who died twenty years ago, and my father, who died ten years ago, and there in Colusa lives my nephew, Willard Green, the editor of the Colusa Sun. He was the very first white person ever in Colusa. He spent a year there taking care of the property of his uncle, Dr. Semple, before we moved up from Benicia.”
Mrs. Susan Cooper Wolfskill of Winters, widow of the late John Wolfskill, who arrived in Los Angeles in 1834, is a sister of Mrs. Van Winkle. She is visiting her younger sister, Mrs. Martha Cooper Roberts, at 564 Fourteenth street, in Oakland. Mrs. Wolfskill supplements her older sister’s reminiscences with some further interesting takes of the very earliest pioneering days.
“I saw the first gold ever discovered in California” said Mrs. Wolfskill. “Marshall came over to our house in Benicia and stayed all night. He was on his way to San Francisco from Sutter’s mill. He said he thought he had gold. He took out a little rag that looked like the bit of a bag that housewives keep aniseed in and opened it. We all looked at it in wonder. Three days after that Sam Brannan, a Mormon, came riding breathless into our place in Benicia and asked John Wolfskill, who was afterward my husband, for a fresh horse. He said that gold had been discovered, and that he was going up there to locate all the land he could and return to Monterey and file on it. Monterey was then the capital of California. But some time before that Brannan had been very unaccommodating to Mr. Wolfskill when he wanted horses to help bring his fruit trees from Los Angeles, so he would not let Brannan have a horse. Brannan rode on, urging his tired beast. He and [John] Bidwell were going to locate the whole gold-bearing country, but Mr. Wolfskill told them it was placer mining, and that they could not hold it all.
“Everybody was guarding the secret of gold in California in hope of monopolizing the product. My father was the first man to write of the discovery. He sent a long letter East to his old friend, Senator Thomas Benton, who had secured him the position of Indian Agent at Council Bluffs years before, and that letter of my father’s was primarily the cause of the gold fever that swept through the Eastern States.
“In 1848 and 1849 we had a school in Benicia. Father started it and got seven pupils to come from a distance and board at our places. They were Clements Harbin from Napa, whose family afterward owned Harbin Springs; Nanny Harlin from Martinez, and Lucy, Carmelita, Ellen, Joe and Goyla Knight from Knight’s Ferry. The other pupils were my two brothers and myself and my two sisters, Mrs. Calmes, who is now dead, and Mrs. Roberts, now of Oakland.
“In 1849 and 1850 our only source of social amusement was dancing. And such dances! We used to ride horseback miles to attend them. I rode all the way from Benicia to Sonoma, about thirty miles, and then danced all night. And the only music for these balls was the fiddle. We left Benicia in 1852 and went to Green valley, and lived there three years. Then we moved to Colusa, and I stayed there until 1860, when I was married and went to Winters to live on the old Wolfskill place, where my husband died.”
Mrs. Noble Martin of 2001 Haste street, Berkeley, widow of the late Senator Martin, was originally Miss Weare of Independence, Mo., and arrived at Sutter’s Fort, near Sacramento, on November 20, 1849, when she was 15 years of age.
These are by no means all the pioneer women, but their stories are typical. There is Mrs. Germain and Mrs. Mary J. Martin Hall of Fairfield, Solano county. Mrs. Hall is a pioneer of 1849, having left Missouri on May 1st of that year. It is wonderful how many pioneers Missouri furnished. They had pushed west twice before, and the fever still strong in their blood, came west across the desert and the mighty mountains to make their homes beside the Pacific waters.
“We were just six months to the day crossing the plains,” said Mrs. Martin. “Our destination was Sutter’s Fort, and we did not consider that we were really in California until we had arrived there. Mike McClelland, who was also from Independence, kept the hotel at Sutter’s Fort and was a family connection of ours.
“We came west by the old Santa Fe trail and passed through what is now the State of Kansas, but it was then Indian Territory. Of course, we received no mail and got no news on the way. It was not until 1860 that the Pony Express was started. As I remember it, our long journey was a continuous pleasure trip. When we arrived at Sutter’s Fort the whole inclosure was a human beehive, just swarming with people, and there were people in the little rooms all about the court, and soldiers, perhaps twenty of them.
“After a few days’ entertainment the women of our party moved over to Sacramento. I remember going down J street in a flat-bottom boat. We all camped out. I suppose there were 200 or 300 women in Sacramento at that time. From Sacramento we went up the river by boat to Marysville, and later to Bidwell’s Bar, and to each of the other new mining camps as they were formed.
“I sluiced many and many a day. One member of our party picked up a $400 nugget on the Honecut.
“There were no bakeshops in those early days, and I made many an apple pie, just of common dried apples, and sold them for a dollar apiece. The women helped in that way to support he families, for mining was not always a certain means of livelihood.
“Christmas, 1852, I was at Point Reyes, at the cabin of Dr. Crandell, who owned the land there. I was all alone that day, not a human being within ten or twelve miles of me. It was raining. As I stood within the cabin and looked out the door across the ravine, a great mountain lion came out about 300 feet away. He looked toward the cabin and then let out a frightful yell. I shut the door and threw the crossbar into place.
“Later, father and mother lived at Alta Hill, near Grass Valley, but after my marriage to Dr. Martin I lived for many years at Dutch Flat, and then moved to Berkeley. Up there in Nevada county, father and mother lie at rest at the foot of a big thirty-foot rock that rises like a natural monument. They were married when father was 21 and mother 17, and they lived happily together all those years, father dying at the age of 89 and mother at the age of 85 within four months of each other. A remarkable thing was that father, after he was 80 years old, homesteaded the farm where he died.”
It was November 4, 1849, when Mrs. Hall landed in the mining town of Ophir on the Feather river. She lived there until the fall of 1850, and, as a little girl, panned out $75 in gold. For fifty years she has lived in Solano county, but during the [1900 California statehood] celebration she will be the guest of Mrs. Martha Cooper Roberts in Oakland.
Another pioneer woman of 1849 is Mrs. Joseph Figel, who reached San Francisco November 23, 1849, in the ship Balance, which sailed from New York on April 1st of the same year, under Captain Charles Ruggles. Mrs. Figel was the daughter of the late Joseph Shannan, who was County Treasurer in 1852 and 1853. The family consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Shannan, two daughters and a son.
Most of these women are widows, but their step is firm and elastic, their hair white but abundant, and their memories clear and untarnished. Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi, was not more honored than they shall be, for these are the matrons of the commonwealth. The Chronicle, San Francisco
September 9, 1900