THE OBIT NOT WRITTEN

Pity our children’s children’s children; if our 22nd century descendants want to do a little genealogy project they will probably find only our archived Facebook or mySpace pages, and there they will learn of great-grandma Tiffani’s dismay that someone named Sanjay didn’t win an American “Idol,” or find only a missing-file icon for a youTube video of grandpa Trig’s cat slurping spaghetti that was viewed 8,362 times. “Oh,” our future kin will lament, “if only they still had real newspaper obituaries in that era, so that we could discover more about our ancestors!”

Don’t count on it; newspaper obits always have been hit-or-miss. In recent decades, obituaries have become a major revenue source for newspapers, no different from any other kind of advertisement. Now a typical 50-line death notice in a major U.S. paper can easily cost over $500 (and that’s usually just for the first weekday, not counting Sundays and not counting photos) unless the deceased is considered “newsworthy.” But if your family can’t afford it and no one on the classifieds staff recognizes the dearly departed’s name, rei memoriam sempiterna oblivione delere.

In Santa Rosa a century ago, the dead were newsworthy or nothing — there were no newspaper columns stacked up with short, paid obits, as found today. The deceased generally had to be white, well-known about town, revered as a “pioneer,” or have suffered a ghastly, violent death. But Press Democrat editor Ernest L. Finley clearly loved to tell stories, and exceptions were sometimes made for those with unusually colorful pasts. Which makes it odd that Finley twice flubbed an opportunity to tell the story of Haln Killigrew Dunbar. It wouldn’t have been a hard obituary to research; all Finley needed to do was drop by the nearby library.

Santa Rosa’s new library almost certainly had a copy of the 12-year-old book, Hard Life in the Colonies, and Other Experiences by Sea and Land, by local author Catherine Carolyn Jenkins (spelled as, “Jenkyns” in the book, for whatever reason). Cobbled together from letters written by two of her brothers and friend Dunbar, the book covers their adventures from 1873 to about 1878. And adventures they had, indeed. Brother Arthur was conned into shipping out as a merchant seaman at age 16, and sailed around the horn; brother Gilbert saw Asia and India as a sailor, meeting Dunbar while serving as a mercenary hired to fight the Maori in New Zealand.

It is a ripping yarn, filled with events that might have appeared in 19th century novels by Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, or even Dickens. The narratives span the high drama of a moonlit battle against pirates in Hong Kong harbor to the down-and-out life on San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, where Gilbert washed restaurant dishes alongside a French count while poor Dunbar cleaned the degutting chutes at a pork slaughterhouse. Gilbert was stabbed in the same spot on his head twice by bayonets, first by Calcutta police when he was among a group of rioting sailors, then years later by a drunken soldier he was attempting to disarm.

The supporting cast of characters is no less amazing, from cowardly ship captains to “Mercury Jack” Mitchell, whom Gilbert and Dunbar met in the Napa quicksilver mines, to poor Amos, who “drew but blanks in the lottery of life.” But no further spoilers here; download the book for a good read, as long as you’re comfortable with a slower, rambling 19th century style.

Gilbert and Dunbar bought a small, rundown homestead along Mark West Creek after the San Francisco chapter of their adventures, and their chronicle ended until this Press Democrat item appeared, 27 years later. The belated obit (misspelling Dunbar’s first name as “Haley”) stated Gilbert intended to move his old friend’s body from the local potter’s field to his own plot at the Rural Cemetery, but historian Jeremy Nichols, who is preparing a book on the burials at the Chanate site, says that Haln Dunbar is still there in the graveyard, his exact whereabouts now unknown. But presumably his long-time companion Gilbert sometimes visited and remembered happier times: Of the Englishman and Irishman friends tromping around New Zealand singing songs from the American Civil War, or memories of their little ranch, where Dunbar built an Aeolian harp in their shack window, “letting the winds tell their secrets in sweet sounds.”

ONCE NOTED MAN DIES IN POVERTY
GRADUATE OF TRINITY COLLEGE, DUBLIN, BURIED IN A PAUPER’S GRAVE
County Physician Receives Interesting Letter Giving History of H.K. Dunbar Who Died Recently

Haley K. Dunbar, an old man who died at the county hospital on November 2, and whose remains occupy a grave in the county’s cemetery on the hill near the poor farm, was in his day a man of note. This fact is brought out in a letter which was received on Wednesday by County physician J. W. Jesse from Gilbert C. Jenkins, an old friend of the deceased, who resides in the Freestone country. By accident Mr. Jenkins heard that the man had passed away and wrote to the doctor for particulars of his death. It seems that some time before Dr. Jesse became county physician Mr. Jenkins, so he says, made a request that in the event of Mr. Dunbar’s death, he should be informed, so that the remains, instead of being buried [illegible microfilm] should be interred in his (Jenkin’s) plot in the cemetery.

Mr. Jenkins says that the deceased was a graduate of the famous Trinity College, Dublin, and took his degree of Bachelor of Arts from that university. He was also proficient in Greek and Hebrew and other tongues. He was once prominent in fraternal life, and was a member of an old and distinguished family in the old country. He was an artist in modeling pottery, and some of his art work, Mr. Jenkins says, found its way and was considered almost priceless in the palaces of the late Queen Victoria. The late pioneer James Marshall of this city on the occasion of a visit [illegible microfilm] purchased some of the pottery modelled by the late Mr. Dunbar from the famous Belleck Pottery. Mr. Jenkins, who did what he could for his old friend after reverses overtook him, will now endeavor to have his remains moved and interred in the Jenkins plot in the cemetery.

– Press Democrat, November 17, 1904

2 thoughts on “THE OBIT NOT WRITTEN

  1. https://archive.org/details/hardlifeincoloni00jenkiala/page/168

    Is this the same fellow: Haln Killigrew Dunbar in “Hard life in the Colonies”?

    Federal 1880 census shows Haln K. Dunbar, Age 64, Birth Date Abt 1816, Birthplace Scotland, Home in 1880 Santa Rosa, Sonoma, California,
    Dwelling Number 21
    Race White, Gender Male, Marital Status Single, Father’s Birthplace Jamaica, Mother’s Birthplace Ireland
    Occupation Farmer
    Haln K. Dunbar

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