The Great Solar Eclipse of 1889

Are you heading up to Oregon to see the total eclipse of the sun? Are you already there, waiting for the event tomorrow? Here in Chico we will see a partial eclipse, about 83% coverage, I am told.

Solar_eclipse_1889jan01-mapTo see a total solar eclipse in Chico, you would have had to be here in 1889. That’s the last time that Chico was in the path of totality. We had an annular eclipse here in 2012, but not a total eclipse within living memory. (In an annular eclipse the moon is further away from the earth and does not completely cover the sun — a solar ring shows around the moon. Which is cool too.)

John Bidwell recorded the eclipse in his diary:

Tues., January l.  Professors Pearson, Payne & Wilson, astronomers here to observe the total eclipse of the sun > Mansion. Events: Great total solar eclipse. The Astronomers had a very fair view of same. Weather: Fair some haze or thin clouds – air cold and raw.

Astronomers from around the nation flocked to northern California and Nevada to observe the eclipse. The Chico Daily Enterprise reported:

The party of observers from Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota, were stationed in this town on a fine, open piece of ground on the ranch of General Bidwell. Professor Payne was in charge of the 2-inch zenith telescope, used for accurate determination of the times of contact of the moon with the sun, and for the study of the corona of the sun during totality. Professors Pearson and Wilson were in charge of the 6-inch reflecting telescope and the various cameras used for photographic purposes. . . .

The close of totality was as startling and pleasing as the beginning was depressing. The sense of awe and of being in the presence of an uncanny event cannot be described.

As the eclipse approached totality flocks of quail were observed flying to roost, and later came the crowing of cocks, while the sounds which came from the Indian camp should have been heard to be appreciated.

The Enterprise also included this little item:Issue Date JANUARY 02 1889 page 3

I wonder if that would still work on modern observers.

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Two More Letters from Nancy

Kelsey, that is. Two more letters to her friend, Helen Weber, are in the Weber Family Papers. They are written from Gilroy, where the Kelseys moved after they left Lone Pine, Inyo County.

The earthquake occurred in March 1872. By October they were in Gilroy, and by the next February they had rented a place. Nancy’s letter gives us an idea of what people were looking for in a piece of property, and what it cost in 1872. I have fixed up her spelling and added some punctuation.

We have rented a place in old Gilroy. We have to pay ten dollars a month. There is three acres of ground and a barn and a few fruit trees. I have a few chickens and ducks. I am again going to try to make me a home here if I can.

And that what Nancy, and many a pioneer woman did over and over — start again to


Farm Girl Feeding Chickens, by Julien Dupre

make a home in a new place.


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The Lone Pine Earthquake

The 1872 Lone Pine Earthquake experienced by Nancy Kelsey was felt throughout California. John Bidwell, almost 400 miles north in Chico, recorded in his diary for March 26:

Very heavy earthquake at about 2.24 a.m

So the earthquake was noticeable enough in Chico to wake folks up in the wee hours of the morning. In the Owens Valley, it was devastating. 52 of Lone Pine’s 59 homes were destroyed, and 30 people died.

The earthquake had an estimated magnitude of 7.8, making it comparable to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. It was only the sparse settlement of this remote area of California that kept this quake from being equally destructive.

One of most famous accounts of this earthquake came from John Muir, who was working as a caretaker at a Yosemite hotel at the time. Here is his report:

The shocks were so violent and varied, and succeeded one another so closely, one had to balance in walking as if on the deck of a ship among the waves, and it seemed impossible the high cliffs should escape being shattered. In particular, I feared that the sheer-fronted Sentinel Rock, which rises to a height of three thousand feet, would be shaken down, and I took shelter back of a big Pine, hoping I might be protected from outbounding boulders, should any come so far. Then, suddenly, out of the strange silence and strange motion there came a tremendous roar. The Eagle Rock, a short distance up the valley, had given way, and I saw it falling in thousands of the great boulders I had been studying so long, pouring to the valley floor in a free curve luminous from friction, making a terribly sublime and beautiful spectacle—an arc of fire fifteen hundred feet span, as true in form and as steady as a rainbow, in the midst of the stupendous roaring rock-storm.

The aftershocks were powerful and numerous. It’s no wonder that Nancy wrote that “the earth shakes so that I cant rite” and that her husband, whose boots were made for wandering anyway, was determined to sell their place at whatever loss and leave.


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Letters from Nancy Kelsey

I am working on a picture book biography of Nancy Kelsey, who came to California in 1841 as the only female member of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party. I’ve done lots of research, but I am always looking for that last elusive bit of information.


Helen Murphy Weber

Friday I was at the Bancroft Library to look at three letters written by Nancy Kelsey to her friend, Helen Murphy Weber, wife of Charles M. Weber, the founder of Stockton. The Webers have their own story— he was another member of the 1841 Bidwell-Bartleson Party, and she was part of the Stephens-Murphy Party of 1844 that were the first to get wagons over the Sierra Nevada. But that is a tale for another time.

I found a reference to Nancy’s letters in the bibliography to Cecelia Holland’s “dramatized biography” of Nancy Kelsey, An Ordinary Woman. Up till now I had surmised that Nancy Kelsey was illiterate, a not unlikely conjecture for a backwoods Kentucky girl who married at 15, and who dictated her memoir. But I was wrong.

Nancy could write a good letter — her spelling was somewhat uncertain but she had decent penmanship — and there is no indication that someone else was doing the writing for her.

Here is her letter written from the Owens Valley in 1872, two weeks after the massive Lone Pine Earthquake (estimated magnitude 7.4 to 7.9). I have retained her spelling.

April the 11 1872

Mrs. Helen A. Weber

Dear friend,

As I promised to wright to you I will proceed. I would of written to you sooner but the country has bin in such An up roar that I couldnt. Ther was none of my folks hurt but they were all most scard to death. The earthquake shook down our chimney but the house did not fall. We have earthquakes every day and night yet, and my husband is sow dissatisfied that he is A-going to sell his place and leave. I am sory that he is A-going to sell for we cant get much for it at presant.

Rit to me and tell me if there is any land A round Stockton that we can get if we come out thair. The earth shakes so that I cant rite. Answer this or soon as you get it and tell me if you think that we can make A living thair.

Give my best regards to mr. webber and tell him that I would of A sent that money to him in this letter but I couldnt At present. Remember me to your children. . . . . . . . . .

Good ByDSCF3840

I remain your Friend.

Mrs. Nancy Kelsey

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More from The Center for Sacramento History

It’s been over two weeks since I have posted anything about California history, but I have a good excuse. My three cute granddaughters were visiting for two weeks, and when you have grandchildren around, nothing else gets done.

But now it’s back to history—

As I mentioned in my last post, I visited The Center for Sacramento History with John Rudderow. We were looking for deeds and other legal papers relating to Butte County, before it was Butte County. I was particularly interested to see if I could find a power of attorney granted by John Bidwell to someone he trusted in 1850, when he left for Washington, D.C.

Well, I didn’t find it. We did find one for Samuel Hensley, who went with Bidwell to Washington. It looks like this:


Hensley gave his power of attorney to Robert D Merrill, who was his business partner in Sacramento. Although Hensley owned a land grant adjoining Bidwell’s grant, he didn’t live on it and spent his time in Sacramento and San Jose.


Samuel J. Hensley

This particular power of attorney was recorded on May 31, 1850. On that date John Bidwell was in San Francisco, according to a letter he wrote to George McKinstrey. He says in the letter that “Mr. H.E. Robinson was down here, and I made an arrangement for him to act in my stead.” This is in regard to properties in Sutterville, but possibly he gave Robinson authority to act in all his business. But I don’t know who H.E. Robinson was.

I wonder if I’ll ever find out?


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A Visit to the Center for Sacramento History

CSH-BuildingYesterday I went with John Rudderow to the Center for Sacramento History. I have done a fair amount of research at the California State Library and the Bancroft Library, but I never knew (until now) about the Center for Sacramento History. It houses archives for the City and County of Sacramento.

The Center is in a building in an industrial part of Sacramento, near I-5 and the American River, that could house any kind of office or business.

The thing to know about CSH is that if you are interested in early California history, before statehood, they may just have something you want, even if your area of research is outside Sacramento. Before counties were created in 1850, deeds and other legal papers for northern California were filed in the District of Sacramento.

What were we looking for?

John wanted to find the deed recording the sale by John Bidwell of 640 acres of Rancho Chico to Alfred H. Stout. I was hoping to find out who Bidwell gave his power of attorney to when he left California to go to Washington D.C. in May 1850. He knew he would be gone for four or five months, so he probably left his affairs in the hands of someone he trusted. Who might it be?

Unfortunately, neither of us found what we were looking for. But our trip was not wasted. We found some other items of interest, plus I just like going to archives and looking at old records. That’s my particular quirk.

Bidwell went to Washington in company with Samuel Hensley. Hensley owned the land grant on the south side of Chico Creek, but he lived in San Jose and did not plan to develop the grant himself. In 1849 he sold two leagues to John Bidwell. That gave Bidwell control of land on both sides of Chico Creek. The deed was executed on July 6, 1849, while both men were in Sacramento.

Here is the deed:


Know all men by these presents I, Samuel J. Hensley, of the Sacramento district and Sacramento valley for and in consideration of the sum of Five thousand dollars to me in hand paid, the receipt whereof I hereby acknowledge, have given, granted and transferred and by these presents do give, grant and transfer, unto John Bidwell of said district and valley his heirs and assigns, the undivided half of four square leagues of land situated between Bute and Chico Creeks and bounded as follows, on the west by the tract of land granted to E.A. Farwell by the Mexican Government and Chico Creek, on the northeast and east by the barren land along the base of the Sierra Nevada and by Bute Creek, and on the South and Southwest by a tract of land granted by by me, the said Saml. J. Hensley unto one James W. Marshall and by the grant of the aforesaid E. A. Farwell  . . . .

Next time: Another item from the Center for Sacramento History.


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A Chico Fourth of July


How did 19th century Chicoans celebrate Independence Day? Here’s an entry from John Bidwell’s diary for 1876 that will give you a glimpse:

Tues. July 4
Warm, very – no wind. = Bells rang & cannon & anvils roared all last night – Celebration went off well – good oration by Rev. Mr Dickerman – Fireworks & ball in evening. = Lost our greyhound, Roamer = Haynes had watermelons ripe in town. =

An oration by a public figure was a must. That would be followed by the reading of the Declaration of Independence and at least one patriotic poem. There would have been a parade too, and the town was decked out in red, white, and blue bunting. It was a day-long event, and as Bidwell notes, it started the night before, and went on well into the evening of the 4th with fireworks and dancing.

Watermelons were a feature, then as now. Roamer the greyhound was probably frightened off by all the noise from the cannons and fireworks. He was found a few days later seven miles away at Hog Springs, a place you can still see on the old Humboldt Road.

Bells ringing and cannon firing were a popular way to mark Independence Day.  But what’s this about “anvils roared?” How do they do that?

If you didn’t have a cannon (or even if you did), “firing the anvil” was a great way to generate noise and excitement in the 19th century. All you needed were two anvils and some black powder, which you could get from your friendly neighborhood blacksmith. Here’s what you do:anvil

(I don’t recommend trying this at home, even if you do happen to have an anvil. Could be dangerous.)

Take one anvil and turn it upside down. On the underside is a hollow about the size of a brick. Pour in some gunpowder and place a fuse or a trail of gunpowder. Then place the other anvil right side up on top. When you light off the gunpowder, you will get a terrific explosion and the top anvil will fly at least a hundred feet in the air. It will come down too, so clear the deck.

You can find some examples of anvil firing on YouTube, like this one.



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