More from McKinstry

Continuing George McKinstry Jr’s letter to Edward Kern, December 1851:


Louis Keseberg

Old Louis Keseberg,* the Donner Party Man-Eater, has made a fortune and is now running a restaurant on K street in Sacramento City. I would like to board there, I wouldn’t.

Pierson B. Reading** is on his farm raising wheat and pumpkins in abundance – I camped on his rancho some six weeks last summer. He was the Whig candidate for Governor but could not make it. It was said his friendship with Captain Sutter cost him the Squatter votes. He has been wounded twice in Bear-Hunts since you left—shot in the hand two years ago and broke his leg badly two months ago. Next time it will be his head if he doesn’t quit. He plans to go to Philadelphia on the 1st of April next and marry; about time I think. . .

Old Snyder and Sam Hensley*** both married. Bidwell too damn prosperous to mention.

After all the death and disaster that befell the Sutter’s Fort “Old Guard” it is refreshing to hear McKinstry say “Bidwell too damn prosperous to mention.” At least someone was successful.

Sam Norris has made two or three hundred thousand, but is reputed hard up and thought to be busted. Sam Brannan, ditto. In fact I could fill up a foolscap sheet with the names of the busted Old Guard in this community, including your humble servant. I purchased the Chico Rancho of old William Dickey, who went to the States or Ireland—I don’t know where the hell he is. Old John Yates**** went to England. Sam Neal† is on his farm; he has built a large frame house and still loves horses—still rides the little grey.

Dr. Bates and his brother made a snug fortune—lost it—gone to practicing again. Old Nicolaus Altgeier made a city on his farm. The city blew up and I think the explosion bent him some.

*So much has been written on the Donner Party disaster that I have never thought I needed to cover it. Whether or not Keseberg was a murderer or a cannibal is still debated.

Major Pierson Barton Reading

Pierson B. Reading

**Pierson B. Reading came to California in 1844 as part of the Chiles-Walker Party. He owned Rancho Buena Ventura at the site of present-day Redding. (Which is named after him even though the railroad changed the spelling.)

***Samuel Hensley came to California with the same group as Reading. Both men were close friends with John Bidwell, and Hensley’s grant, Rancho Aguas Nieves, lay just south and east of Rancho Chico.

****John Yates was an English sailor who came to California in 1842. In 1845 he was located on Rancho Chico with Dickey. Later he owned Yates Ranch, a few miles south of Oroville.

Sam Neal†Someday I need to write about Sam Neal. His ranch was south of Rancho Chico, where Neal Road is today.

Here is a picture of Sam Neal — who looks like he is being played by Clint Eastwood.

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Much Scattered by Death and Disaster

One of the most entertaining letters on California history that I have seen is one written by George McKinstry Jr. to Edward Kern in December 1851. Kern was John C. Fremont’s cartographer and artist on his expedition to California in 1846. McKinstry and Kern had known each other at Sutter’s Fort, but Kern returned to the United States with Fremont at the end of the Mexican War. He never came back to California. In spite of his short stay, the Kern River and Kern County are named for him.


George McKinstry Jr. in 1880

McKinstry, who had moved on to San Diego, gives Kern updates on long list of men they had known at Sutter’s Fort. It is astonishing how many of these men are no longer in the land of the living. I don’t recognize all these names, but I will give notes on a few that I do know, and links to ones that I have written about.

Since you left this country a most astonishing change has taken place. The new Yankees would say for the better, but not we old fellows from Captain Sutter down to old Bray!*. . . Times are not what they “useter was.”

The old Sacramento crowd are much scattered by death and disaster since you left. William Daylor by cholera; Jared Sheldon shot in a row with miners; Perry McCoon by a fall from his horse; Sebastian Keyser** drowned; Little Bill Johnson*** – x – Kin Sabe? Captain “Luce” missing in the mountains; Olimpio, Sutter’s Indian messenger, shot by miners; Old Thomas Hardy, rum; John Sinclair, cholera; William E. Shannon, cholera; old William Knight,**** rum as expected; Charley Heath, rum and missing; Bob Ridley,† fever I think; and others too numerous to set down.

Our good friend Captain John Sutter has fitted up the Hock Rancho in superb style but I regret to say his reign seems smashed to flinders; old Theodore Cordua, tambien; Daylor and Sheldon estates said to be insolvent; our old and particular crony, John L. Schwartz,‡ still inhabits the Fishing Rancheria and has finally built that two-story house to escape the mosquitoes which he talked about so much. God know how he stands the pressure; he goes it, though, more than ever on the rum.

Old Kitnor is Captain Sutter’s mayordomo at Hock – he made a fortune and went bust; William A. Liedesdorff, dead; old Eliab Grimes, dead; Jack Fuller, ditto – also Allen Montgomery. Montgomery’s widow married the man who called himself Talbot H. Green, formerly with Larkin at Monterey and afterwards W. D. M. Howard’s partner in San Francisco. His real name was found to be Paul Geddes some time back, a bank robber from the United States. He departed to clear up his character, which was the last seen of him.

And there is much more — so stay tuned!

*Bray – Irish immigrant in the Stevens party of 1844.

**Sebastian Keyser – an Austrian trapper who came overland with Sutter. He was the recipient of the Llano Seco grant and later ran a ferry on the Cosumnes River, where he drowned in 1850.

***Bill Johnson – owner of Johnson’s Ranch on the immigrant trail. Bancroft notes he either died or went to the Sandwich Isles. If McKinstry knew anything, de’s not saying.

****William Knight – for whom Knight’s Landing is named.

†Bob Ridley – managed Fort Ross for Sutter before Bidwell took over the task.

‡Schwartz – member of the 1841 Bidwell-Bartleson Party, who had a grant on the Sacramento River where he established a fishing station.


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New Diggings in Red Bluff

Often when I am looking for a particular story in an old newspaper, I don’t find what I want, but something else catches my eye. This time it was the Red Bluff Beacon for May 11, 1859. I was looking for an item on Peter Lassen, but instead I cam across this verse promoting Oppenheim’s Dry Good Store, which was moving to “new diggings.”

M. OPPENHEIM has just returned from San Francisco with an extensive and varied stock of Fine and Fancy Dry Goods; probably the largest stock of this description of goods ever brought to this place.

RBB18590608.2.18.3-a1-399wOh Ladies! all attention, pray,
Give ear unto my strain;
And as you walk about so gay,
To call on be but deign.
For though a lady’s toilet is
Composed of things a heap,
You’ll find them all within my store,
Best quality and cheap.

A lady’s dress will oft wear out,
No doubt to her great bother.
But now she need no longer pout,
When cheap she’ll get another.
From hooks and eyes to Eugenie Hoops,
All things I have in store,
So low that all who buy, confess
They ne’er bought like before.

Then come and buy, at prices low,
My goods are fast a-selling;
But buy, or not, the goods I’ll show,
You’ll may be buy, no telling.
But remember that my prices are
But down to suit the times;
And all the ladies wants can now be filled
At Mr. M. Oppenheim’s.

At present my store is next door to Pierce, Church & Co’s. On and after the 20th inst., I will be found next door to Markwitz’s tin shop, on the west side of Main Street. M. OPPENHEIM  Red Bluff, May 11 1859


Empress Eugenie in 1860, wearing the fashionable Eugenie hoop skirt. “Everybody buys ’em now.”

Note his mention of Eugenie Hoops, so named because the Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, popularized them in Europe. Hoop skirts were becoming fashionable in the mid-1850s and ladies in Red Bluff probably weren’t wearing such things quite yet. But they would want to be en vogue, and they could get what they needed at Mr. Oppenheim’s.

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The Wildflowers of Table Mountain


The young naturalist at work

It is a tradition in our family to visit Table Mountain here in Butte County at least once in the spring, and I never feel that once is enough. Today was the day for our first visit — a perfect sunny day for it, and we are expecting rain most of the rest of the week. Rain is great for the flowers, but sunshine is best for viewing.


My love of wildflowers is the source of the name of this blog. Goldfields (Lasthenia) carpets the hillsides of Table Mountain, especially near the vernal pools.  Wildflowers plus California history — what a great combination.


Goldfields, and a few sky lupine


Kellogg’s monkeyflower

Today we saw plenty of lupines, frying pans (a smaller version of California poppies), goldfields, yellow carpet, and purple owl’s clover. The bluedicks and bird’s eye gilia were just getting started. We also spotted meadowfoam, Douglas violets, oakwoods violets, yellow seep monkeyflower, Kellogg’s monkeyflower, popcorn flower, larkspur, redmaids, volcanic onion and bitterroot. The season for wildflower viewing will continue for about a month.


Owl’s Clover

Get yourself a copy of Wildflowers of Table Mountain, by Albin Bills and Samantha Mackey, and go! You will be glad you did. (The book is a wonderful guide, and locally available at many book outlets.) Photography cannot do justice to the streams, the waterfalls, and the California blue and gold wildflowers of Table Mountain.


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More Time Traveling to Chico

The Pacific Rural Press’s issue for July 3, 1886, continues with a description of “the famous Rancho Chico.” John Bidwell was known throughout the state for introducing new plant varieties and for innovative agricultural methods. The reader will notice the antiquated and condescending way in which the Indians on Rancho Chico are described.

Adjoining Chico on the northwest side is General John Bidwell’s princely estate, the famous Rancho Chico, which embraces over 20,000 acres of the most fertile land, and is noted for the great variety of its productions. Here are to be seen miles and miles of beautiful avenues, lined with stately trees laden with the choicest fruits of many different climes; northern and tropical trees and plants nourishing side by side.

One famous fig tree on the ranch never fails to attract the attention of visitors. It was planted in 1856 and has attained a marvelous growth. One foot above the ground the trunk measures 11 feet in circumference; the wide-spreading branches have been trained toward the ground, and taking root there, banyan-like, they now form a wonderful enclosure over 150 feet in diameter. The tree is loaded every year, and has produced tons and tons of figs.

E. Nelson Blake told his biographer in 1920 that he and John Bidwell had planted this fig tree from a cutting obtained at Mission San Jose in 1851 (not 1856). “One of these trees still stands in front of the late General’s home and is used by Sunday-school parties from Chico as a picnic ground. Some of the branches have reached to the ground and have taken root like a banyan tree.”

A short distance in the rear of the General’s residence is a pretty little deer park, which adds much to the beauty of the grounds. Chico creek flows through the ranch, and irrigating ditches run in all directions. On the estate is a flour mill, a fruit cannery, a dairy, and numerous hothouse, fruit-driers, packinghouses, etc.


This map from about 1890 shows where the deer pen, the cannery, the flour mill, and the college were.

A curious feature of the place is the large Indian rancheria situated on the back part of the ranch. The dusky inhabitants of this village live very contented lives here in their primitive fashion, and fare much better than their brethren in many other parts of the State. They are wedded to many of their old customs and traditions and have an immense sweat-house, in which, at certain times, they hold their usual orgies and go through the famous melting process. A brass band, composed of about a dozen of the younger bucks, is much in demand at picnics and outdoor celebrations. Many of the Indians find profitable employment on the ranch and prove valuable help during the fruit gathering season.


The Mechoopda Indian brass band

The prosperity of Chico would be further advanced by the subdivision into small farms of several large tracts of land in this vicinity now held by a few persons. The Reavis ranch, the Pratt grant and the Parrott grant include immense tracts of land of more than ordinary fertility, which at present is almost exclusively devoted to wheat-raising on a large scale but should be divided into 20 and 40-acre plots and set out in fruit trees and vines. It is estimated that in this county there are 102 landowners whose holdings vary from 1000 acres to 116,000 acres each. That these large tracts will in the near future be subdivided and sold off in small-sized farms seems very probable, as the land must soon become too valuable for farming by the present methods.

The Pacific Rural Press was in favor of smaller farms so that more farmers could obtain land. Gradually this came to pass, as landowners like Bidwell sold off pieces of their property, although some very large spreads remained.

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Time Traveling to Chico

The article on Chico in the Pacific Rural Press, published July 3, 1886, continues with a  description of Chico’s financial and manufacturing capacity:


The Bank of Chico, ca. 1900. Look familiar?

Chico has two solid banks—the Bank of Butte County and the Bank of Chico. Both are located in fine brick blocks on opposite corners of Broadway and Second street. The former has a capital of $250,000, with a surplus of about $24,000. N. D. Rideout, the well-known banker of Northern California, is president, and Charles Faulkner cashier. The Bank of Chico, organized in 1872, has a paid-up capital of $100,000, and a surplus of $30,000. W. D. Heath is president, and Alex. Crew cashier. Both banks carry on a general banking business and buy and sell exchange on all the principal cities of the United States.

Among the manufactories are included planing mills, box factories, foundries, breweries, soda works, carriage and harness factories, and two large roller flour mills fitted with the latest improved machinery.


Employees of the Sierra Lumber Company at the yard where the flume ended. The water was discharged back into Chico Creek.

On the east side of town is situated the extensive lumber yard and planing mills of the Sierra Flume and Lumber Company, whose great V-shaped flume extends for 40 miles up into the fine timber belt of the Sierras. The company manufactures extensively sash, doors and blinds of all kinds, and gives employment to a large force of men. The immense lumber yard, embracing 15 acres, is filled with lumber and building material of every description. A side track from the railroad, running through the yard, affords excellent shipping facilities.


The Sierra Flume running through Chico Creek Canyon

Chico has lines of stages running to Oroville, Prattville (Big Meadows), Cherokee, Deadwood, Colusa, and to Newville, Colusa county, by way of St. Johns and Orland.

I want to know where Deadwood was, or is. Mining camp or lumber camp? Is it a ghost town today? I have never heard of Deadwood in Butte County.

All photos are used courtesy of Special Collections, Meriam Library. California State University, Chico.  The library has many more historical photos, including many flume pictures, in the Northeastern California Historical Photograph Collection.

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Visiting the Garden City

I’ve been browsing online issues of the Pacific Rural Press. Look at their masthead — isn’t that a delight? They don’t make them like that anymore.

pacific rural press-001

Note the locomotive in the loop of the P and the horse’s head in the R, with a beehive below. Is that Yosemite Falls in the center? I like the house (or is it a school?) on the left and the wheat field on the right, not to mention all  the implements (a little tricky to make out) along the bottom.

The Pacific Rural Press was published from 1871 to 1922 by Dewey & Co. of San Francisco. Here is what they had to say about visiting Chico in 1886:

PRP chico1Chico is a flourishing young city of about 6000 inhabitants, situated on the C. & O. R. R., in the northwestern part of the county, close to the foothills, and a few miles east of the Sacramento river. It is about 100 miles north of Sacramento City, and is frequently spoken of by visitors as the garden city of Northern California. The rich, level farming country surrounding the town is dotted with wide-spreading oaks of noble proportions, many of them showing great age. This is one of the best shaded towns in the State. Its streets are wide and regular, and one may stroll for hours along the well-kept avenues lined with beautiful shade trees, without being exposed to the rays of the sun.

Elegant private residences, set in the midst of tastefully-arranged lawns and gardens, and pretty little vine-covered cottages, are to be seen on all sides, while an attractive feature of the place is a handsome little park, occupying a square in the center of the town. Chico creek, a clear, cool stream from which the town takes its name, flows through the place; and Recreation Park, Bidwell’s Park, and other fine groves in the suburbs, contribute to the beauty of the surroundings. The town has well-equipped gas works and water works, and an effort is being made to place electric lights on some of the main streets.

The press is well represented by several live weekly and daily newspapers. Chico is noted for the large number and variety of its well-filled stores and the many different business establishments. The High School building, a fine brick structure, the different private schools, and the several large churches, show that educational and religious matters are not neglected. The new opera house, the commodious public halls, the many hotels and restaurants, and the elegant equipages seen on the streets, give the place quite a metropolitan appearance.

Doesn’t that sound pleasant? The garden city of Northern California! Oh for a time machine so that we could visit Chico as it was!


Chico City Plaza, ca. 1905


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