Jedediah Strong Smith (1799–1831) and about fifteen trappers with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company entered California in November 1826. They were hoping to "find parts of the country as well stocked with Beaver as the waters of the Missouri." Smith and his party had crossed the Mojave Desert and the San Bernardino Mountains (a route later known as the Old Spanish Trail). They were the first Americans to enter California by land. Smith disobeyed an order from Mexican governor José María de Echeandía to turn around and return the way he had come. Instead, Smith and his men traveled north through the great San Joaquin Valley.
Jedediah Smith’s party crossing the burning Mojave Desert during the 1826 trek to California, by Frederic Remington (1906).
Smith's party trapped along the Mokelumne River in what is now northern San Joaquin County, but the Miwok-speaking Indians were less cooperative than the Yokuts-speakers to the south had been. On the Cosumnes River, near present-day Wilton, Indians stole some traps. Farther north on the American River, which is named for these trappers, Smith's party killed two Maidu Indians in a skirmish. The trappers returned to the friendly Natives on the Stanislaus River and camped for the winter near present-day Oakdale. They had accumulated more than fifteen hundred pounds of beaver pelts.
In May 1827, Jedediah Smith and two of his men crossed the Sierra Nevada near present Ebbetts Pass—the first non-Indians to cross the mountain range. They traveled east through the Great Basin Desert and attended the annual trappers' rendezvous on the west slope of the Rocky Mountains. They spoke to other trappers about the richness of the California heartland.
Smith returned in January 1828, and he and his men trapped along the lower Calaveras, Mokelumne, and Cosumnes Rivers. But Mexican authorities arrested Smith, so the American trappers left California for Oregon country.
The entry of the American trappers into this region encouraged Native freedom fighters like Estanislao and stirred old Spanish/Mexican concerns about the Russians, whose Rus colony (Americanized as "Fort Ross") had been established in 1812 on the Northern California coast. Smith's reports of the rich trapping here prompted Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Vancouver, in Oregon country, to send trapping parties south.
French Camp, about five miles south of Stockton, is the oldest non-Indian settlement in San Joaquin County. It was seasonally occupied by French-Canadian trappers working for Hudson's Bay Company from about 1829 through 1840, hence its name. Although the Mexican governor repeatedly ordered the trappers to leave, as many as four hundred trappers lived with their wives and children for part of the year at French Camp. Mexican authorities eventually allowed the company to establish a post at Yerba Buena (now San Francisco) from 1841 to 1845, but by then changes in hat styles and over-trapping had sent the fur business into steep decline.
In the fall of 1832, Hudson's Bay Company trappers unwittingly introduced malaria into the mosquito-infested wetlands of central California. The Indian inhabitants had no immunity to the disease and died in huge numbers. By the late 1830s, the Bay Miwok nations had disappeared and the Valley Miwok nations in what is now northern San Joaquin County and southern Sacramento County had lost at least 80 per cent of their people to the epidemic.
Getting things done at the Museum requires a lot of work, much of it done behind the scenes. Fortunately, lots of people have answered the call.
The largest group of workers at the Museum consists of volunteers, most of whom serve with either the Museum’s educational programs, on its Board of Trustees, or as mechanics on its antique farm equipment. Then there are interns and other volunteers of a different kind who help maintain the Museum’s collections while gaining professional training or academic credit. In addition, a number of state and federal programs finance short-term employees, who empty waste baskets, fold newsletters, lick stamps, and keep the buildings in order. Only a handful of workers get paid as members of the professional staff, either on a part-time or full-time basis.
Band from Ripon, California, ca. 1914. Scanned image courtesy of Ed Wittmayer.
This week, the Museum says goodbye to Ed Wittmayer, a retiree and longtime resident of Lodi, who started working at the Museum a couple years ago. Ed brought with him a wealth of lifetime experience doing, among other things, construction work, accounting, and paralegal work. Rumor has it that Ed can also think circles around opposing attorneys unfortunate enough to find themselves on the other side of the courtroom.
Working at the Museum has enabled Ed to put several more arrows in his quiver of professional expertise. Ed has spent most of his time at the Museum working in its archives and library. He has carried and shelved books, helped accession them, and mastered the fine art of digitizing photographic slides, prints, and negatives before organizing them into collections that can be easily accessed. He has also learned how to work with the digital catalog that stands at the center of the Museum’s collections and gained skill at listening to diatribes by longwinded colleagues.
Ed will be missed, not only because of his industriousness and sage observations, but also because of his wonderful sense of humor. It’s impossible to predict when that will emerge, but Halloween seems to provide especially fertile opportunities.
Those of us who work at the Museum want to thank Ed, not only for all of his hard work, but also for his friendship. We wish him all the best with the additional time he’ll be spending with his children and grandchildren. And, yes, we will welcome him back if, as he has suggested, he gets the itch to come back to the Museum a couple days each week.
The San Joaquin County Historical Society and Museum welcomes volunteers. Give us a call if you’re interested: (209) 331-2055.
By now, you’ve experienced the beginning of Christmas shopping, with all the retail promotions, the decorations at the mall, and the first appearances of Santa Claus. If you’re weary of holiday commercialization and long for a down-to-earth, nostalgic Christmas experience, you may be delighted to learn about the Festival of Trees.
This family holiday event will be held Saturday, December 1, and Sunday, December 2, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum, located in Micke Grove Park, in the south end of Lodi, about one mile west of Highway 99 off Armstrong Road. Docents dressed in vintage Victorian and pioneer clothes will make those attending feel as though they have stepped back in time to celebrate Christmas.
Saturday and Sunday, the museum buildings will be brimming with more than sixty festive trees, each decorated according to a unique theme by individuals and groups from throughout San Joaquin County. The festival also features charming exhibits, model trains, and entertainment.
For children, there will be many hands-on activities, including decorating cookies, making cornhusk dolls, dipping candles, and punching tin ornaments. There is a nominal fee of one to two dollars for children to make the crafts. Children also will be able to visit Santa Claus, and families can purchase photographs of their children with Santa.
Tickets are eight dollars for adults and one dollar for children two to ten years old. Children under two are admitted free. Tickets may be purchased at the event or in advance by calling the museum at (209) 331–2055 or 953–3460. With advance tickets, the five-dollar parking fee into Micke Grove Park is waived.
Festival of Trees is the Museum’s Docent Council’s only fundraiser of the year. Proceeds from this event help pay for the Museum’s educational youth programs, which include Valley Days and Pioneer School. More than one hundred San Joaquin County classes of third- and fourth-graders participate in these two living history museum programs each year.
For more information, see the Museum Web site at www.sanjoaquinhistory.org.
Christi Weybret manages publicity for the Museum’s Docent Council.
Nudity certainly has its place. I honestly can't imagine showering in my clothes. But why anybody would want to walk around au natural in the middle of a densely populated city escapes me. Especially in cold weather, for crying out loud! And in San Francisco! What about the fog, clouds, and rain? Simply thinking about the possibility turns my fingers blue and sends shivers down my spine.
Painting by Louis Choris of Northern Valley Yokuts hunting near San Francisco Bay (1816).
For whatever reason, going without clothes seems to be a tradition that goes way back in San Francisco history. Look as closely as you dare at the image to your left. The year was 1816 and the place San Francisco Bay. A scientific expedition organized by the emperor of Russia had traveled around Cape Horn to the West Coast of North America in search of the Northwest Passage. One of its members was a Russian-German artist named Louis Choris (1795–1828), who had already gained prominence as a botanical illustrator. Choris kept a visual record of people, plants, and animals that the party encountered.
Choris and other members of the expedition spent the month of October 1816 anchored in San Francisco Bay. The paintings he made during that period offer some of the most valuable insights we have into Northern California's Native Americans, their rich and vibrant culture, and California's Catholic missions before settlers from the United States arrived during the 1840s. The image shown here depicts two Native American hunters from the area around San Francisco Bay. The Smithsonian Institution identifies them as Northern Valley Yukots, members of the Native American group that lived in and around San Joaquin County. As with today's nature lovers, both hunters seem unfazed by what must have been chilly weather as summer waned and autumn arrived.
Leaving San Francisco Bay, Choris and the expedition headed west to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), then north to the Pacific Northwest and the territory we currently know as Alaska. Then they sailed home to Russia. Afterward, Chorus carried his paintings to Paris, copied them as lithographs, and had them published as a book titled Voyage pittoresque autour du monde, avec des portraits de sauvages d'Amérique, d'Asie, d'Afrique, et des îles du Grand Océan (Paris: Didot, 1822).
Choris's book includes images of Miwok and Yokut people, some of which are destined to appear in the upgraded exhibit on Native Americans in San Joaquin County currently under development at the Museum. Stay tuned for details as the planning proceeds.
Additional information about Choris, the Russian expedition of 1816, and other scientific excursions along the West Coast of North America can be found at the Web sites of the California Academy of Sciences and the Oakland Museum of California History.
Nancy Kelsey, pioneer Californian and Bartleson-Bidwell group member.
A group of settlers from Missouri was the first to split off from others continuing on the Oregon Trail to follow its dreams in California. The group, with thirty-two men, one woman, and a baby, had to abandon its wagons in Nevada, its horses were stolen by Indians, and it had only a slight idea where it was—the California Trail had not been identified and they had no guide, maps, or guidebooks. One member of the group later recalled: "Our ignorance of the route was complete. We knew that California lay west, and that was the extent of our knowledge."
They crossed Sonora Pass on foot and followed the Stanislaus River down into the Great Valley, not even knowing that they had reached California. All thirty-four members of the group arrived safely.
Twenty-seven-year-old Charles M. Weber (1814–1881), who later founded Stockton, was one of the so-called Bartleson-Bidwell group. Although his first trip through what was to become San Joaquin County was under dire circumstances, one wonders if he recognized the richness of this area. It was very similar to the Landstuhl Swamps near his home in southwest Germany, from which rich farmland had been reclaimed.
Four members of the group were Kelseys: brothers Andrew and Benjamin, and Ben's wife Nancy and their baby Martha Ann. The Kelsey family was involved in many notable events in early California. Kelseyville in Lake County and Kelsey's Diggings (Kelsey) in El Dorado County are named for them.
Although Ben Kelsey may have really led the group over the Sierra, John Bidwell's name was attached to it after he gained prominence and wrote an account of the journey. Bidwell (1819–1900), was a twenty-one-year-old school teacher on the trip west, but he later founded an agricultural empire and the City of Chico in Butte County and served as a U.S. senator. Bidwell recalled:
[W]e saw timber to the north of us, evidently bordering a stream running west. It turned out to be the stream that we followed down [out of] the mountains—the Stanislaus River. As soon as we came in sight of the bottom land of the stream we saw an abundance of antelopes and sandhill cranes. We killed two of each the first evening. Wild grapes also abounded. The next day we killed fifteen deer and antelopes, jerked the meat and got ready to go on….
We were really almost down to tidewater and did not know it. Some thought it was five hundred miles yet to California. But all thought we had to cross at least that range of mountains in sight to the west before entering the promised land, and how many [ranges] beyond no man could tell. Nearly all thought it best to press on lest snows might overtake us in the mountains before us, as they had already nearly done on the mountains behind us—the Sierra [Nevada].
It was now about the first of November. Our party set forth bearing northwest, aiming for a…gap north of a high mountain in the chain west of us. That mountain was found to be Mount Diablo….
[J]udging from the timber we saw, we concluded there was a river to the west…. The timber proved to be along what is now known as the San Joaquin River. …[We] found ourselves two days later at Dr. Marsh's ranch, and there we learned that we were really in California and our journey [was] at an end. After six months we had now arrived at the first [American] settlement in California, [on] November 4, 1841.
Thus the California Trail was initiated….
In 1860, San Joaquin County voters went to the polls on November 6 to select a president, just as they did in 2012. But unlike yesterday, 152 years ago voters in the County had four major options, thanks to simmering sectional passions over slavery.
San Joaquin County’s favorite presidential candidate in the election of 1860, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, Constitutional (Southern) Democratic Party.
Earlier in the year, Democratic representatives from across the country had gathered in Charleston, South Carolina, to nominate their candidate. Instead of uniting behind one standard bearer, however, they split into factions, adjourned, and gathered again in Baltimore.
The presidential candidate for National (Northern) Democrats was Stephen A. Douglas, a U.S. senator from Illinois affectionately known as the Little Giant. Southern Democrats found Douglas and his attitude toward the expansion of slavery unacceptable. So they walked out of the Baltimore convention, reconvened in Richmond, Virginia, and selected as their presidential nominee John C. Breckinridge, a former U.S. senator from Kentucky and, at that time, the sitting vice president. This branch called itself the Constitutional (Southern) Democratic Party.
Meanwhile, Republicans assembled in Chicago and selected as their candidate Abraham Lincoln, a frontier attorney and somewhat obscure former Whig congressman from Illinois. A fourth party, the Constitutional Union Party, which consisted mainly of former Whigs, chose John Bell of Tennessee, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Political tensions rose steadily in San Joaquin County throughout the second half of 1860, just as they did elsewhere in the United States. Two highly partisan newspapers, the Stockton Argus (Republican) and the Daily San Joaquin Republican (Democrat), fueled emotions. Spokesmen on both sides gave speeches, organized clubs, marched in parades, flew flags, and extolled the virtues of their candidates time after time. By November 6, each side saw the nation standing at the edge of a precipice.
According to the San Joaquin Republican, the election represented "a turning point, an epoch in the world's history. The safety of the cause of rational liberty and sensible humanity depends upon today's vote," warned the editors on election day.
In the end, the Democrats prevailed in San Joaquin County, just as they had in almost every California state election between 1850 and 1860. In the County, Breckinridge won with 1,374 votes. Lincoln followed with 1,131, and Douglas and Bell took up the rear with 733 and 199 votes, respectively. Statewide, however, the Republicans managed to squeeze out a narrow victory, which gave California's electoral votes to Lincoln.
The rest, as they often say, is history. Most readers of this blog probably already know the rest of the story: Lincoln was inaugurated early in 1861; Confederate forces fired on federal troops at Fort Sumter; and the United States entered into a bloodbath that lasted the next four years.
Does history ever repeat itself? I don't think so. However, I do believe it holds valuable lessons. One thing it tells me is that the American political system usually works well. It also informs me that the United States is strongest when its people argue openly, respect their opponents, and end their disagreements at the ballot box, rather than the battlefield.
Of course, I can't speak with certainty for Americans who lived during the Civil War Era, but I suspect that in hindsight many of them would agree with me.
The political musings of the author have benefited from two venerable sources on San Joaquin County during the Civil War: Beat! Beat! Drums! A History of Stockton During the Civil War (Stockton, 1965), by Delmar Martin McComb, Jr.; and George H. Tinkham, History of San Joaquin County, California, with Biographical Sketches (Los Angeles, 1923), pages 178–87.
The San Joaquin County Historical Society is pleased to report progress on significant exhibit updates and additions at the Museum. Readers of this blog may recall the Museum's announcement in April 2011 of a half-million-dollar grant from the Nature Education Facilities Program, created by the Proposition 84 water bond of 2006 and administered by the California State Parks. The Society was one of forty-four California entities to benefit from the program.
The Historical Society's project has four main components:
- New exhibits at the Museum entrance to provide orientation to the County's natural features and setting.
- An updated and expanded Native Peoples gallery in the Erickson Building.
- Updated audio messages, graphics, and so forth, along the Sunshine Trail living exhibition of native plants and habitats.
- Development of a new Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta/water walkway around the existing "Weber" pond.
Plans include development of a new walkway around the "Weber" pond.
After an extensive search, the Historical Society selected The Sibbett Group, with headquarters in Sausalito, California, to guide exhibit planning and design. The planning process kicked off with stakeholder meetings in March and the development of broad conceptual understandings of the project. A second stakeholders meeting in mid-September at the end of the preliminary design phase verified that the process was on the right track.
Members of the Museum staff have just begun working with The Sibbett Group on the final design phase for the project exhibits. We anticipate having exhibit blueprints completed in the spring of 2013, after which the fabricator will build the exhibits. We hope to have all the new exhibits installed by the fall of 2013.
Additional details about the exhibit update can be found under the "Featured Activities" section on the San Joaquin County Historical Society's Web site. Stay tuned for additional updates as the process continues.
Life can be hard. Life was very hard for many of our ancestors. Last week, I was reminded of this reality when I came across an eighty-page manuscript consisting of transcribed letters between Henry Beers Underhill (1821-1904); an early settler of Stockton, California; his first wife, Harriette Young Fish Underhill (1827-1854); and other family members.
“The Isthmus of Panama at the Height of the Chagres River,” by Charles Christian Nahl (1850).
An 1845 graduate of Amherst College, Underhill was born in Troy, New York, to a Hudson River boat captain and his wife. Two years after graduation, he married Harriette Young Fish. Underhill spent the first eight years of his professional life teaching school, mostly in Mississippi. Disillusioned with life as a teacher, he decided in 1854 to seek his fortune in California in partnership with his brother, James W. Underhill (1818-1876), who had already made his mark as a Stockton businessman.
Underhill arrived in San Francisco in the spring of that year, having traveled through the Isthmus of Panama. He left behind in Saint Louis his wife, who died of cholera shortly after his arrival in California, and two small children, Anna Fish Underhill (1849-1943) and Henry Beers Underhill, Jr. (b. 1851).
At the core of this collection is a series of heartwrenching letters written in 1854 between Underhill and his wife. Underhill took pains to chronicle his journey westward, traveling first down the Mississippi, then sailing across the Caribbean to Jamaica and Panama. In the final stage, he headed northward up the Central and North American coasts to San Francisco. The anguish of separation from his wife and two small children was always close to the surface.
Meanwhile, Harriette waited at home with her children, adult sister, and aged father, plagued with uncertainty, loneliness, and rotting teeth. The feelings expressed in her letters can still be felt more than 150 years later. "My dearest one how I wish I could know where you are this dreary night," she wrote on March 24. "I hear from you so seldom that it makes me feel almost heartsick," she continued. "If it pleases God to permit us to meet again then I will tell you of my heartaches, of the bitter tears I shed for you and of my sighs and groans."
The letters don't tell us when or how Underhill learned of his wife's death. However, we do know from other sources that he eventually sent for his two children, who joined him after traveling to California via Cape Horn. Later in life, Underhill married again (twice!), was admitted to the California Bar, and held positions as a San Joaquin County district attorney and judge, and as a lawyer for the Central Pacific and Southern Railroads.
Sometimes I marvel at the intriguing surprises I come across in the Museum's archives. The Underhill Family Collection is one of them. Not only does it paint a picture of real, multidimensional people with joys, pains, and aspirations similar to ours, it also informs us in vivid detail that the westward migration followed many different routes and that the cost in human lives and emotions could often be high.
Researchers are welcome to view the letters by appointment, which can be made by contacting me at the following e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have you ever had the irresistible urge to study the history of San Joaquin County agriculture over the past century? Well, your moment has arrived. The San Joaquin County Historical Society and Museum is pleased to announce the availability of its U.C. Agricultural Cooperative Extension Collection for San Joaquin County.
Extension agent Elizabeth Willis embarks on an advisory trip in San Joaquin County, 1923.
The collection documents the history of the University of California Agricultural Cooperative Extension in San Joaquin County from 1914 to 1994. It affords insights not only into the relationship between the U.S. government, the University of California, and San Joaquin County farmers, but also into the course of local agriculture during the first half of the twentieth century.
Also of note is material related to the history of the U.C. Agricultural Cooperative Extension Service throughout California, related legislative issues, and the history of the San Joaquin County Farm Bureau. The collection includes staff reports written yearly, monthly, and weekly; descriptions of projects and experiments; administrative files; published research; and photographs of staff members, projects, experiments, technologies, educational programs, and farm animals.
The U. C. Agricultural Cooperative Extension Service traces its origins to the Smith Lever Act of May 1914, federal legislation that established a system of cooperative agricultural services to work with public land grant universities throughout the United States. It was founded to facilitate the transfer of scientific knowledge from the classroom and laboratory to rural residents.
One month later, the first representative from the U.C. Agricultural Cooperative Extension set up residence in San Joaquin County. The program grew over the next half century, not only in the size of its staff and breadth of services, but also in popularity and the extent of its involvement in rural San Joaquin County.
Activities of the advisors included troubleshooting diseases of plants and animals, conducting information sessions, demonstrating new farming techniques, engaging in experiments, offering advice for housekeepers, educating young people, and sponsoring summer retreats. The program proved crucial during World Wars I and II, not only for successful efforts to coordinate increased agricultural production, but also for the role it played in addressing labor shortages.
Officials at the San Joaquin County branch of Cooperative Extension deeded the collection to the Museum in 2011. Since then, members of the Museum's staff have been preparing it for use by patrons. An online guide to the collection can be found at the Online Archive of California. The collection itself can be consulted in the Museum's library by appointment.
Remember the Museum's 1919 Holt 75 tractor, the one being restored? This blog has discussed it a number of times over the past year or so. Well, the work goes on.
Too big for your Honda: Jerry and Mike with the Museum’s Holt 75 engine.
Visit the Museum on any given Tuesday and you'll find the shop a beehive of activity. In one corner, volunteer mechanics might be cleaning parts. In another, they could be turning a lathe to make replacements. Elsewhere, several men might be sorting through old nuts and bolts. And off in a corner a fourth group might be pouring over an old shop manual seeking out the finer points of assembly or adjustment.
Watching the process month after month reminds me of how complex the task is. It also serves as a reminder of the tractor's massive size. Look carefully at the picture to the left. The men standing beside the engine are full-grown adults. The engine is an oversize, slow-revving, four-cylinder gasoline pushrod engine that generates seventy-five horsepower. That's less than half the power in your standard Honda Accord. The torque, gearing, and purposes of the two engines differ quite a bit, but the comparison should offer a useful basis for putting the tractor and its engine in perspective.
The Museum's Holt 75 will continue to take shape in coming months as repaired or replacement parts come together and take the form of a whole tractor. All of us here at the Museum look forward to the day when this complex and massive task is finished and workmen can fire up the Museum's Holt 75 and take it for a spin.
I plan to post pictures and progress reports on occasion between now and then. In the meantime, the San Joaquin County Historical Society welcomes monetary contributions to help the process. Let me know if you want to help. I can be reached at email@example.com.