Nancy Kelsey’s Last Years

San Francisco Examiner 5 February 1893

Nancy Kelsey was 65 years old when she moved to the Cuyama Valley to be near her daughter Martha Ann Lewis. In 1889 the age of 65 was considered elderly and Nancy had certainly seen a good deal of hardship during her life. Not that she was gloomy, far from it. Life could be tough, she knew that, but she had always faced up to whatever life handed her. She never complained.

Another daughter, Nancy Rose, was also living in Cuyama at the time. She was married to John Wesley Clanton, the oldest son of Newman Clanton, patriarch of the notorious Clanton family of Tombstone, Arizona. John Wesley stayed clear of his brothers outlawry and was living in California at the time of the famous “Gunfight at the OK Corral” in 1881.

Only a few ranching and farming family lived in Cuyama, a remote corner of Santa Barbara County. The nearest town was Santa Maria, 60 miles over rutted road to the west.

Minnie Beatrice Heath, who had known Nancy when she was a young schoolteacher in Cuyama, later wrote of her:

Always ready to help others in time of need, she never had a selfish thought in her fine old head. Up until a few weeks of her death, she would mount her pinto pony to ride across the mountains to help bring a baby into this world, bind splints on a broken leg, or minister to a fever-ridden child. Her knowledge of herbs was so extensive that rarely did she fail to help in her care of the sick.

The Grizzly bear, February 1937

In 1893 Addison M. Powell, a surveyor in Santa Maria, heard of Nancy Kelsey and rode out to her little home to interview her. He described her as “a cheery old lady, still sturdy” who would talk “with spirit” about the early days of California. His article, published in the San Francisco Examiner on February 5, 1893, consists almost entirely of her own words, as she told the tale of her overland journey, her travels in California, and a number of encounters with natives.

I have enjoyed riches and suffered the pangs of poverty. I have seen U.S. Grant when he was little known; I have baked bread for General Fremont and talked to Kit Carson; I have run from bear and killed most other kinds of smaller game.

Since Mrs. Kelsey wanted to go to town (Santa Maria), Mr. Powell gave her a ride in his wagon. “The trip of sixty miles in a buckboard over a mountain road was made in ten hours. Although seventy years of age she did not complain of being tired.” Which just goes to show that she was made of sterner stuff than I.

Mrs. Kelsey, though burdened with years and poor, has all her pioneer pride unimpaired and asks for nothing, but as one who knows and esteems her said when she set out for her mountain refuge:

“The generous men who have made their fortunes in the Far West, and were enabled to do it by the risk of lives such as hers, might well extend their generosity sufficiently to enable that modest old heroine to live in a comfortable cottage and free from want or care during he few days that are left to her.”

Next time: How Addison Powell found help for Nancy Kelsey

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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6 Responses to Nancy Kelsey’s Last Years

  1. Jodie says:

    I wonder why she chose to live in such a remote location. How close in proximity were her daughters? And why did THEY choose to live 20 hours from civilization?

  2. Suzanne Stone says:

    I am confused….The 1893 newspaper says Mrs. Kelsey lived in Cuyama Mountains in San Diego County, but according to your essay, she lived in Santa Barbara County. I see the Cuyamaca Mountains are in San Diego County…a 130 year old editorial error just discovered?

  3. Marian Ware says:

    I cannot wait for the next episode to learn more about Nancy Kelsey’s final years!

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