The First Pioneer Child Born in California

Ann Gregson Reid wrote or dictated her memories for the Golden Jubilee edition of the San Francisco Call, January 23, 1898. She had seen fifty years of California history.  Here is her memoir:

Being the first white child born in California*, perhaps I take a deeper interest in her welfare than others. I was born at Sutter’s Fort on September 3, 1846. My father, John Gregson,** and mother [Eliza] had come to California the year before from Illinois. They arrived at Johnston’s ranch, on Bear Creek, on October 20, 1846, and a couple of weeks later they moved to Sutter’s Fort, where father obtained employment at his trade of blacksmithing. Here my birth occurred the following fall. The fort at that time consisted of about one hundred men and a few women. But the discovery of gold soon made the place a bustling headquarters for mining men. Shortly after my birth father joined a company that was organized to go to General Fremont at Monterey. They took down a drove of horses. When General Vallejo was a prisoner of the Bear Flag party at the fort father was one of the guards in charge of the distinguished personage. My birth, according to my parents’ version, created great excitement at the little fort.


James and Eliza Gregson

When the Indians heard of me, they, too, must see the little paleface. They were amused, but skeptical; and insisted on pinching me to make me cry before they were satisfied I was alive. The squaws hung around the place and watched me for hours at a time. Captain John Sutter was so pleased over the event that he wanted my parents to call me John Sutter Gregson,*** and said he would give me a league of land if they would do so. But they hardly thought John Sutter a proper name for a girl, and I was called Ann Gregson, and his wish went unfulfilled.

In February, 1848. father went to Coloma to assist Marshall in building the millrace in which gold was discovered. He was with Marshall at the time he found the gold. The pick which was used on the ditch and which was really instrumental in the gold being discovered, was made by my father at Sutter’s Fort. It was the first pick made in California. The news of the existence of gold California soon spread, [and men left] their homes in the East and flocked to the Pacific Slope by the thousands.

My folks removed to Green Valley. Sonoma County, in 1850. There my girlhood was spent. The mining excitement was then at its height, and but little attention was paid to children. Everything was primitive, and the boys and girls of my time enjoyed none of the toys and playthings that the children of to-day get.


A gold-washing cradle

There were no cradles in California when I was a baby, and when one day the miners put me in an old miner’s cradle and rocked me. I thought mining was the greatest pleasure on earth.

We lived in a three-room log cabin, and with other children I attended a school presided over by a middle-aged Irishman. The school was of logs. Rough boards formed the benches and there were no desks. A shelf along the side of the room was where the children did their writing. The teacher was an incessant smoker and had his pipe in his mouth all day long. The gold fever even had possession of the children. I remember on one occasion three or four little companions and myself found some rich specimens of mica. We thought the glittering stuff gold and the whole afternoon we labored in carrying pieces of it home How tired we were at night and how crushed our spirits were when father returned at night and pronounced it “false” gold. The visions of cakes and candy that filled our heads during the afternoon soon filled and gave way to disappointment.

I have witnessed the transformation of California into one of the brightest States in the sisterhood.

Ann Elizabeth Gregson Reid

Posted on by Harry Noel

I am the mother of five native sons and seven native daughters. Two others are dead. I also have two grandchildren. So I have done my share toward populating the State. My husband, Robert M. Reid, died six years ago. John Gregson. my father, still lives at Green Valley, Sonoma County, and is upward of 70 years of age.

The present Golden Jubilee celebration is a fitting one, for the half-century that has passed since Marshall made the discovery that brought the world to California’s feet. It should be a grand reunion and serve to reunite the acquaintances and friendships formed by the sturdy pioneers in the early days. MRS. R. M. REID. (Nee Gregson)

* “The first white child born in” someplace, formerly a favorite trope, is not much heard anymore. Nancy Kelsey had actually given birth at Sutter’s Fort to a male infant in December 1841, but since he did not survive, we can let Mrs. Reid’s claim stand.

** Her father’s name was James, not John, which leads me to think this was dictated to a reporter.

*** Why not Johanna or Joanna Gregson? After all, Sutter’s first name was really Johann.

The Library of Congress has published the “Gregson Memoirs” by James and Eliza Gregson, online and they are well worth reading for a look at the emigrant experience and life in early California.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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