Johnson of Johnson’s Ranch

When Pablo Gutierrez died in 1845, John Sutter put his land grant up for sale. The ranch was bought by William Johnson. What do we know about Johnson?

Not a lot — we don’t even have a picture of him. He came to California as the mate of the shop Alciope in 1840. He was either a native of Boston or possibly an immigrant from Ireland. From 1842 on he owned a lighter (a flat-bottomed barge) in partnership with Jacob Leese. It would have been used to transfer cargo from ships in San Francisco Bay to shore.

Together with Sebastian Keyser, he bought the ranch on the Bear River in 1845 and lived there until 1852 when “he either died or went to the Sandwich Islands,” according to Bancroft’s Pioneer Register. Mountain man James Clyman recorded in his diary his stay at Johnson’s Ranch in April 1846..

Mr. Jonson who owns the Ranche is like all of his california neighbours 15 miles from the nighest inhabitant and not even a track leading to or from his place at this season of the year although in a dry time the emigration from the states pass.

A California Trail marker at Johnson’s Ranch

Johnson’s Ranch was the first sign of “civilization” that emigrants from the States came to in California. It was a welcome resting place. From here they could proceed to Sutter’s Fort, or to Nevada City, or to Marysville, all of which were between 15 to 40 miles away. Most famously it was the site where the survivors of the Donner Party convalesced.

One of those survivors was Meriam “Mary” Murphy. She wrote:

My older sister had gone to San Francisco and I was without a home, an orphan and not quite eighteen, when Mr. Johnson asked me to go riding with him one afternoon while he rounded up some horses.

Knowing I was uncertain of my future, and having fallen in love with me, Mr. Johnson proposed marriage. In June 1847, at the age of eighteen, I became Mrs. Johnson. For several months I was busy serving to all of Mr. Johnson’s wishes, doing his cooking and washing and trying to make a home out of a cattle ranch. I knew he was a crude man and I sometimes overlooked many of his faults; but I could not love a man who abused me with the rest of the ranch hands. He proved to be a drunken sot. Because of that I got in touch with the rest of my family and secured an annulment of my marriage from the church.

Mary Murphy Covillaud

Mary was actually younger than eighteen, maybe as young as fourteen when she married Johnson. Her birth date (as per was 15 November 1831.) An orphan, and only a teenager, treated as roughly as any ranch hand, and enduring drunkenness and domestic violence — Mary had good cause to leave the marriage. By November of the same year she had left Johnson.

Mary went to Cordua’s Ranch, located at the junction of the Feather and Yuba Rivers, and there she met and married a Frenchman, Charles Covillaud, in December 1848. He took over the ranch from Cordua and founded the town of Marysville, which he named in honor of his wife.

Mary and Charles had five children. She died in 1867 at the age of 35 and is buried in the Catholic cemetery in Marysville.

According to her obituary in the Marysville Daily Appeal (28 Sept. 1867), “She was a woman of more than ordinary intellect, and possessed a kind, generous and noble disposition. All who knew her, loved her.”

This lovely little daguerreotype of Charles and Mary and two of their children belongs to the Couillaud family descendants in France and can be viewed on

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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