Sebastian Keyser and the Llano Seco Land Grant

An Old-Time Mountain Man with His Horse by Frederic Remington

Sebastian Keyser was a native of Austria and a rough-and-ready mountain man in the employ of the Hudson Bay Company when he met John Sutter in 1838. Sutter was making his way to the Oregon Territory when he met Keyser and Nicolaus Allgeier at a fur trappers’ rendezvous in the Rockies. No doubt the three men found a commonality in the German language that they shared.

They traveled together to the Willamette Valley. Sutter was anxious to get to California, so he took ship to Hawaii. It was easier to travel by ship to California than by land, although Sutter would end up taking a roundabout trip to get there. Arriving in Hawaii, the only transport he could find was a ship bound for Sitka which would eventually make its way to California. He probably told Keyser and Allgeier that if they ever looked him up in California, he would be happy to have them join his venture.

Keyser and Allgeier made their way to Sutter’s land grant in 1840 or possibly 1841. Sutter was in need of tough men like those two. He was trying to establish a post near the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers, but the local Nisenan and Miwok Indians resented his presence and made off with his cattle and horses. Enlisting men like Keyser gave Sutter what his biographer, Albert Hurtado, called “Sutter’s Praetorian Guard.” It was unlikely that the Indians would be able to eject Sutter from the valley; “too many hard men with weapons stood in the way.”

Working for Sutter was fine, but what nearly all men wanted was land of their own. Sutter assisted Keyser in acquiring a land grant from the Mexican government. In 1844 Keyser got Rancho Llano Seco on the east side of the Sacramento River, shown here in a detail from a map drawn by John Bidwell.

You can see “Rancho de Keyser” just below “Rancho de Farwell.” “Rancho de Dickey” on the north side of what is labeled A[rroyo] Chico is the later Rancho Chico acquired by Bidwell. Keyser had explored the area and selected his future rancho in 1843, accompanied by William Dickey and Swedish naturalist G. M. Waseurtz af Sandels.

Mapa del Valle del Sacramento detail. California State Library

Llano Seco means “dry plain,” although there are plenty of wetlands on the ranch. Sebastian Keyser never occupied the ranch and never made improvements on it, in fact he turned right around and sold it to Edward Farwell in November 1844, four months after he was given the deed.

Next Time: The Rest of the Story of Sebastian Keyser

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Happy Birthday, General Bidwell!

August 5th marks the 203rd birthday of John Bidwell, California pioneer and founder of Chico.  So wish him a “Happy Birthday!” (wherever he is), and maybe pay a visit to his home, Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park, sometime soon. It is now open for tours on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Looks pretty good for being over 200, doesn’t he? Evidently, he was the type that ages well. According to Annie Bidwell’s diary entry for August 5, 1893:

General’s birthday. 74 –
Scarce a gray hair in his rich brown hair, and not a bald place! Dressed in white today he is the picture of freshness, roses on his cheeks & happiness in his eyes, and fun & wisdom in his conversation.

What a pleasant hour we have passed at dinner table. General, Col. Royce, Prof. H. W. Henshaw & self! Funny stories and scientific & social conversation. How the watermelons suffered! Had four large ones, blackberries, peaches, plums, & enormous nectarines, the first of latter of the season.

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Black Bart in Butte County, Again

Weekly Butte Record 3 August 1878

Black Bart’s first stagecoach robbery in Butte County, and his fifth overall, occurred on July 25, 1878. He held up of the Quincy-Oroville stage about a mile from Berry Creek.

Although not noted in this newspaper report, this was the second time that Bart left a verse at the scene of the crime. (The first was at his fourth robbery on August 3, 1877 in Sonoma County.)

Here I lay me down to sleep
To wait the coming morrow
Perhaps success, perhaps defeat,
And everlasting sorrow.

Let come what will, I'll try it on
My condition can't be worse,
And if there's money in that box,
'Tis munny in my purse.

Black Bart the Po8

Just five days later, in Plumas County, he robbed the LaPorte to Oroville stage five miles out of LaPorte. It was a busy summer for Black Bart.

Black Bart lived on in story and film. His story was told in an episode of Death Valley Days. Not entirely accurate, but fun.

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A Journey to the Gold Diggins

Considered the first ever American comic book, Journey to the Gold Diggins, by Jeremiah Saddlebags, is a humorous look at the California Gold Rush. It was written and illustrated by J. A. and D. F. Read (James Alexander and Donald F. Read). I don’t know anything about the originators of this work, but it showed exactly what gold-seekers could expect — mostly disaster and penury. The two author/illustrators didn’t waste any time in 1849 getting their timely picture book into print.

They probably didn’t have to actually make the trip to know what was in store. Jeremiah Saddlebags, a “man of fashion” is bit by the gold bug and decides to seek his fortune in California. Being totally ignorant and credulous, he buys himself a baby’s cradle to take along.

He makes the journey on the Panama route, where he encounters stereotypical natives and pirates and wrestles an alligator. Arriving in San Francisco, he is disappointed to see that every building is a tent.

He makes it to the diggins, where he finds a lump of gold, but loses it on his journey home.

The original book is rare and certainly quite expensive to acquire. It was reprinted in 1950 by the Grabhorn Press in a limited edition, and one of those can be had for $50 to $100. A knock-off reprint is available on Amazon — you gotta wonder where it’s from, with a vague description like this: “We expect that you will understand our compulsion in these books.”

The best and easiest way to read it is online, either at Yale Digital Collections or at the Internet Archive. I wrote about another illustrated satiric look at the Gold Rush from the same era in an earlier post here.

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On the Radio!

My interview with Nancy Wiegman on Nancy’s Bookshelf was broadcast today on NSPR 91.7 FM. You can listen in by going to the NSPR Nancy’s Bookshelf webpage.

Nancy interviewed me about my new book about black pioneer Alvin Coffey. You can order the book from Amazon or purchase from one of the local vendors listed on the My Books tab.

The interview was recorded a couple of weeks ago, just after I got back from a trip. It sounds better than I expected, considering that I was getting over the cold I picked up in Germany and that I had to get myself very very close to the microphone on my monitor. NSPR’s engineers can work wonders in maximizing audio quality.

The interview was a lot of fun. It’s always a pleasure to spend some time with Nancy W. Go and have a listen!

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The Very Last of Lola

Lola kept up a steady pace of lecturing in 1857-1860. She not only toured throughout the eastern states, but had a successful tour of England and Scotland. The popularity of her lectures and books put her on a sound financial footing, and she could afford to give generously to religious and charitable causes. She attended a Methodist church weekly and lived modestly. Gone were the extravagances of her youth.

She lectured as Lola Montez but referred to herself privately as Mrs. Heald, the name of her deceased second husband. She also still proudly claimed the title of Countess of Landsfeld.

Lola Montez in 1858 with a new shorter hairstyle

On Saturday, June 30, 1860 she suffered a stroke. Paralyzed on her left side, she was looked after by friends. Slowly she recovered some powers of speech and mobility and by December she hoped for a full recovery. She began visiting the women at the New York Magdalen Society’s refuge for women who were trying to escape prostitution. As one who had suffered the mockery and scorn of society herself, she sympathized with their plight.

An excursion in the open air in December brought about a setback. She developed pneumonia and on January 17, 1861 she died. She was forty years old.

A number of sources have attributed her death to tertiary syphilis (looking at you, Wikipedia). Bruce Seymour, the author of the most thorough biography of Lola makes no mention of this. Surely a stroke and pneumonia was enough to bring about her death. Likely the notion of syphilis is a rumor in the “wages of sin” vein that some people find satisfying.

Her friend, Mrs. Buchanan, who had known her as a schoolmate in Scotland, saw to her burial at the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Her tombstone gives her name as “Mrs. Eliza Gilbert,” the name her friend knew her as in school. Lola Montez was no more.

Lola’s headstone. The age given is probably incorrect. She was always inconsistent about her birthdate.
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The Last of Lola (Almost)

Lola returned from her Australian tour in 1856 a changed woman. It had been a successful tour, but on the voyage back to the United States her leading man and lover, Frank Folland, fell overboard and was drowned. Or he may have committed suicide. No one knew what caused his death, but Lola blamed herself.

Frank Folland had a wife and children in Cincinnati and Lola vowed to assist them if she could. She vowed to change her ways and seek a more spiritual life. She also must have realized that she couldn’t go on performing as she had in the past. She tired more easily, she was no longer as young and fresh as she had been, and she was prone to recurring bouts of malaria.

She took her plan to change her way of life seriously. She put her considerable collection of jewelry up for sale, intending to use the money to benefit Folland’s family. A lady’s jewelry was considered her insurance, her retirement fund, so this was no small gesture.

Folland’s wife wanted nothing to do with the notorious Madame Montez, but when Lola went back east she took his sister Miriam under her wing and promoted her career on the stage.

Daily Alta California 12 October 1856

Lola didn’t leave the theater life immediately. She was still popular and did several performances in San Francisco and Sacramento.

Here is an advertisement for her farewell performance. “Follies of a Night” was one of her most popular comedies. She also appeared in a burletta (a short comic opera) of “Anthony and Cleopatra.” Her partner was Junius Booth, of the famous Booth family of actors. One of his brothers was John Wilkes Booth.

She even occasionally favored the audience with her famous Spider Dance.

She made a brief return to Grass Valley and sold her cottage. Then she headed east.

She continued to perform for a short time, but her heart wasn’t in it. Instead she reinvented herself as a lecturer. That was less tiring and just as rewarding as life on the stage.

She lectured on her own life, although she was still prone to exaggeration and invention. Her account of her life can’t always be trusted. She also gave lectures on “Beautiful Women,” “The Wit and Women of Paris,” and “Comic Aspects of Love.” She was praised for her wit and her clear, pleasing voice.

She turned her lecture on beautiful women into a book entitled The Arts of Beauty, or Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet. Much of her advice is still pertinent. She told her readers to avoid commercial beauty products and gave recipes for such things as tooth powder and skin cleanser made from natural products.

She told her readers to pay close and dutiful attention to all aspects of their face and figure if they would cultivate beauty. She gave such advice as “To ensure the great charm of a beautiful mouth requires unremitting attention to the health of the teeth and gums.”

Lola in 1858. Daguerreotype by Henry Meade

Above all she encouraged her readers to rely on exercise, fresh air, moderation in habits, and cleanliness to enhance their natural beauty. It is advice that will never go out of style.

Next time: The Very Last of Lola

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Ice Cream for the 4th of July

On July 4th 1849, Charles Ross Parke wrote in his journal that:

I determined to do something no other living man ever did in this place and on this sacred day of the year, and that was to make Ice Cream at the South Pass of the Rockies.

Dreams to Dust: A diary of the California Gold Rush, by Charles Ross Parke, p. 46
South Pass

South Pass, a low saddle between two ranges of the Rocky Mountains, made passage of the Rockies possible for wagon trains. Many of the travelers noted that they found ice and snow there in the middle of the summer.

Parke’s company had two milk cows, so he had plenty of milk.

I procured a small tin bucket which held about 2 quarts. This I sweetened and flavored with peppermint — had nothing else. This bucket was placed inside a wooden bucket, or Yankee Pale [sic], and the top put on.

Nature had supplied a huge bank of course snow, or hail, nearby, which was just the thing for this new factory. With alternate layers of this, and salt between the two buckets and the aid of a clean stick to stir with, I soon produced the most delicious ice cream tasted in this place. In fact, the whole company so decided, and as a compliment drew up in front of our tent and fired a salute, bursting one gun but injuring no one.

This is almost exactly how my husband and I make ice cream — in a hand-cranked White Mountain ice cream maker, which has an inner metal bucket and an outer wooden pail. Although we don’t have to milk our own cow or get ice from a snowbank.

Ice Cream on the 4th is an old tradition, and long may it wave!
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An Old-Fashioned Chico Fourth of July

From the Chico Enterprise Weekly, here is what you could expect on July 4, 1877:

The patriotic citizens of Chico, always ready to do homage to the birthday of a great and glorious Republic, made this the one hundred and first anniversary no exception. The weather was most favorable, with the sweet south wind coming in refreshing zephyrs to temper the sultry Summer sun. The joyous occasion was ushered in at midnight by the ringing of a merry peal from the city bells. At sunrise a salute was fired from the old cannon which has hone good service in this city for sixteen years, on many similar occasions, and the bells again took up the chorus, waking the unconscious sleeper to the fact that the day’s rejoicing had opened, and that loyal hearts were even now astir to welcome in the day and throw “old glory” to the breeze.

The 4th of July celebration was an all-day affair. A large crowd, including many from surrounding communities, assembled at the Armory and the Engine house to watch the mustering of the militia and the firemen. At 9:30 a.m. the festivities began with a parade through the streets, ending at “the grove near the Sierra flume.” The program that followed consisted of music by the Chico Brass Band, an invocation by the Rev. J.W. Ellis, a song from the Chico Glee Club, and the reading of the Declaration of Independence.

This was followed by a poem written for the occasion and read by George F. Nourse. The poem, The People’s Pioneer Line, was quite a lengthy one and was printed in the newspaper. It likened the nation to a railway line:

‘Tis just one hundred years and one ago,
With thirteen cars we pulled from Station One,
And under orders steamed along quite slow,
Making by day and night our wondrous run.
From time to time we lengthened out our train,
By adding on new freshly peopled cars,
Til now our line does thirty-eight maintain,
And on our flag there’s just as many stars.

The poem was followed by an oration, given by J.F. Hutton, “full of eloquence and original thought”and also printed in full. According to the newspaper report:

There was a breathless silence prevailed during the delivery of the oration, and at its close the audience broke forth in rapturous applause.  The benediction was then given and a rush was made for the tables.

The tables were laden with barbecued meat, several oxen having been cut into quarters and roasted for 12 hours. 1800 pounds of beef were served, along with a dozen hams, plenty of bread, and a variety of pickles.

Next came the “Comicalities” or the “Parade of Horribles,” described by the reporter as the “most ludicrous, comical and laughable exhibition we have seen in many a day.” After a solemn morning assembly and a good meal, it was time for some entertainment.

The Parade of Antiques and Horribles was an old New England custom in which folks dressed up in grotesque costumes and rode old nags to make fun of local dignitaries and current events. The morning parade was a stirring procession of soldiers, bands, and notable citizens in carriages. The afternoon parade was a parody to lighten the day’s mood.

The Chico parade featured a “burlesque on the City Police force and the City Fathers,” and a depiction of “Brother Jonathan and his family going West in an old cart.” “About half a dozen lengths of stovepipes on wheels burlesqued the artillery representation in the forenoon’s procession.”

I haven’t seen any photos of Chico’s Parade of Horribles, and I don’t know how long the custom lasted. Here’s a photo from a New England parade in the same period.

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Lola and her Grizzly Bear

Bancroft Library

In this contemporary picture of Lola’s cottage on Mill Street in Grass Valley, you can see a bear and a lady on the right. Lola Montez was fond of animals and kept a grizzly bear cubs in her yard. You can see that the bear is on a chain.

Lola met with an accident with her pet while feeding him sugar cubes from her hand. A report from Grass Valley published in the Sacramento Daily Union stated:

The event of most general interest in town today is the attack on Madame Lola Montez by her pet grizzly bear. While feeding him with sugar from her hand, he caught her hand in his mouth, and wounded it badly; he struck at her with his paw, but fortunately did not reach her. A man standing near caught a club, and by a stroke across bruin’s head, caused him to let go his hold, and thereby probably saved the life of the Countess. (9 February 1854)

The story was widely reported. Frank Soule, journalist and editor of the California Chronicle, responded in verse

Lola and Her Pet

One day when the season was drizzly,
  And outside amusement were wet,
Fair Lola paid court to her grizzly,
  And undertook petting her pet.

But ah, it was not the Bavarian,
  Who softened so under her hand,
No ermined kind octogenarian,
  But Bruin, coarse cub of the land.

So all her caresses combatting,
  He crushed her white slender hand flat,
Refusing his love to her patting,
  As she refused hers to Pat.

On, had her pet been him whose glory
  And title were won on the field,
Less bloodless hap ended this story,
  More easy her hand had been Heald!

But since she was bitten by Bruin,
  The question is anxiously plied;
Not if 'tis the Countess's ruin,
  But whether the poor bear has died?

(“Pat” refers to her third husband, Patrick Hull. “Heald” (George Heald) was her second husband, whose name she continued to use after she kicked out Pat Hull.)

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