Life’s funny: Sometimes you start researching potatoes and end up digging into the story of Sonoma County’s first criminal sociopath. But first: The noble spud.
A few months ago Gaye LeBaron wrote “How Sonoma County’s Prized Potato Got its Start” as a companion to a piece heralding the return of Bodega Red, the little red potato that fed San Francisco during the Gold Rush and for decades thereafter. It was an endangered ‘tater many feared lost until a donor stepped forward in 2012 with a few seedy samples for the Bodega Land Trust, and today it is gourmet produce at your local farmer’s market, sold next to the heirloom tomatoes and strange fertile turkey eggs. But a 1911 article in the Press Democrat lamented that even back then Red was becoming scarce. “Old settlers can still remember the day when our rolling hills swarmed to their tops with rows upon rows of the productive tubers…[now a farmer is] raising little more of the potato than will supply his own needs.”
The modern PD story repeats the speculation that the potato was brought to the area by Captain Stephen Smith, an early settler in Bodega Bay who was married to a Peruvian woman. Peru, as we all barely remember from our middle school social studies class, is Mr. Potato’s homeland, so that seems a likely enough possibility. But thanks to another 1911 Press Democrat article, we now know that en route to California his sailing ship docked in Peru where his future wife and in-laws came aboard; given that the point of the voyage was to outfit his Bodega homestead, it would be more surprising if he had not thrown a few sacks of potatoes into the ship’s hold.
That 1911 article, transcribed below (apparently for the first time since it appeared), will be studied by any interested in Bodega history and the transitional era of Fort Ross. It’s also a fun read; don’t miss the story about the ship that crashed with a cargo from China: “For years, China silks, embroidered shawls and silk handkerchiefs were as common in Bodega as calico; the vaqueros made picket ropes of elegant sashes.” Be forewarned, however, there are also several transcription errors, where the poor soul at the PD had trouble reading the old man’s handwriting. Some are obvious – “Doudloons” was surely intended to be “Doubloons” and “Annery Gulch” is certain to be “Tannery Gulch” – but he also describes “the Aleutian Indians, with their bedascoes, dotted the ocean.” The name commonly used for the Aleut sea kayaks was “baldarkas” which was derived from Russian. It’s probably the same word with a combination of phonetic spelling and transcription failure, but perhaps not.
(RIGHT: Sketch of the Smith adobe by Honoria Tuomey, ca. 1900. Although she captioned it “1843,” this is certainly the Monterey Colonial style home built by the Fowlers in 1851, and often described in writings. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library)
The article was a memoir by James E. Fowler, a 49er who came to California with his brother and tried their hands at house building in San Francisco and gold mining. In the spring of 1851 they found themselves in Bodega, where the captain had his brother build the grand house seen at right. (Excerpts from his brother’s unpublished diary can be found in the 1880 county history written by Munro-Fraser.) James became a merchant and potato farmer who founded the town of Valley Ford; when he died in 1914 the Santa Rosa Republican commented, “For many years he lived in Valley Ford and endeavored to build up his pet town–in fact because of his great interest in the little village in the western part of Sonoma, but close to the Marin line, it came near getting on the map as Fowlerville, which would have been more appropriate than the present meaningless title.”
Fowler’s essay is particularly interesting when taken together with “The Mistress of Rancho Bodega” by Tish Levee1. This deeply researched (but, alas, un-footnoted) series that appeared thirty years ago in the Historical Society journal fills other parts of the picture. For example, it’s well known that Captain Smith first visited the area in 1841, two years before he returned with a cargo that included a steam engine to power his celebrated sawmill. But Levee explains the 1841 trip was important because it included negotiations with the Mexican government; they desperately wanted a sawmill near Yerba Buena (San Francisco, prior to 1847) because they were then shipping in lumber from Hawaii. This explains why Smith, an American citizen, was able to obtain the generous Mexican land grant of Rancho Bodega and get all that equipment into the country duty-free. From the Fowler essay we learn that the Mexican government also gave him two large lots on Sansome street for a lumber yard.
As good as the Fowler and Levee essays are, they neglect Tyler Curtis; Fowler doesn’t mention him at all and Levee gives him just a few mentions as being the man whom widow Smith married after the Captain died. The various Sonoma County history books name him only in connection to the “Bodega War,” which was one of the least of his villainous deeds (heck of a good Wild West story, though). But after Samuel Smith, Curtis was surely the most important person in Bodega history during the early decades of statehood, and his long-forgotten story remains the most interesting – like a monster from a horror movie he acted with methodical guile, destroying the lives of everyone around him.
Captain Smith died in 1855 and left one-third of the great rancho to his widow Manuela, with their three children to split the rest equally. (Smith also had four grown children from two prior marriages and he bequeathed to them similar shares in the rancho to the south, which he had purchased a few years earlier. Completely left out of the will was another son, Bill Smith, whose mother was Tsupu, a Coast Miwok and believed to be his housekeeper). The estate proved knotty to untangle, in part because there was unfounded speculation that his Mexican land grants were fraudulent.
With small children, limited English skills and little or no support from her late husband’s friends – one of whom petitioned the court to remove her as executrix because she was a woman – it is no surprise that she remarried almost immediately after her year of mourning was over. Her new husband was John Tyler Curtis, nephew of a former U.S. president and scion of an esteemed Virginia family. Unlike the crusty old sea captain who was over forty years older than Manuela, Curtis was also younger than her (he was 24, she was 29) and although it was unclear what he did for a living, he was described as a “dandy” and “smooth talker.”2
In short order Curtis was the new administrator of Smith’s estate, guardian of the children until adulthood and manager of the entire enterprise. Things were looking up; Curtis obtained the much sought-after U.S. patent for Rancho Bodega, allowing him to sell parcels of land. First, however, he had to clear off the people who were already there.
Smith had exceptional relationships with the local Indians, according to Fowler’s essay. He traded them beef and clothing for labor while his wife and mother-in-law evangelized with many baptized by a visiting priest, who also consecrated an Indian cemetery. “Taking all in all, it was a scene of rural contentment and happiness,” wrote Fowler. All that changed once the widow Smith remarried. “When the rancho passed into the hands of Tyler Curtis he drove the Indians all away to the reservation,” wrote historian Munro-Fraser. The Sonoma Democrat reported in December 1857 that twenty Indians from “near Bodega” passed through Santa Rosa on their way to the newly-opened Round Valley reservation, the newspaper editorializing that was for their own good.
Stories of the “Death March” are still passed down by Pomo and Coast Miwok descendants, remembering how entire villages were cleared by horse-riding men with bullwhips. Twenty years ago I interviewed Pomo elder Grant Smith, who recalled his grandmother’s tale: “They herded them like cattle, like animals. Old people couldn’t make it, couldn’t keep up and died on the road. [When I was a boy] they talked about it, they would talk about what happened on the road and they would cry, go all to pieces. It was misery, it was hardship. It was death.”
What role personally Curtis played in these horrors is unknown, but he bears ultimate responsibility as the landowner. And he wasn’t alone in the abuses taking place on his property; the same year the Alta California newspaper reported “the citizens of Fort Ross” lynched three Indians accused of “murder, robbery, etc.” despite efforts by the local constable to take them to Santa Rosa for trial. Fort Ross was then owned by William Benitz, the successful potato farmer and apple grower also mentioned in the Fowler essay.
The Indians were not the only obstacles Curtis faced before trying to sell off land; once the U.S. issued the land patent in 1859 he moved aggressively to evict the tenant farmers and squatters whom Captain Smith had welcomed – or at least, tolerated – on the Bodega Rancho, selling them potato seeds and even loaning them tools and money, according to Levee. Thus was launched what newspapers dubbed the “Bodega War.”
There are several variations to the story (more modern retellings often add florid embellishments), but an account published at the time states Curtis obtained a court order for the farmers to vacate. The county sheriff rode alone to the coast area a day before he was to issue the eviction notices. Apparently unknown to him, Curtis at the same time was arriving in Petaluma with 40-50 toughs he had recruited in San Francisco, outfitting them with “government” rifles, ammo and a month’s worth of supplies. The appearance of this strange militia in Petaluma created quite a stir, as the sheriff’s role was unknown. It was assumed Curtis was planning violence. As the thuggish platoon marched towards Bodega, several men rode ahead to warn the farmers. Curtis and his crew bivouacked that night at his big house, only to awake the next morning to find themselves surrounded by upwards of 350 angry locals armed to the teeth. The sheriff arrived at the scene and tried to mediate between Curtis and the farmers, who told Curtis to his face he had committed a “gross outrage” in bringing in an “armed body of citizens, in violation of law and good order, and for purposes which could not be recognized or tolerated.” Curtis replied they were “misinformed” and “unnecessarily excited” and he was Mr. Nice Guy who would never dream of using goons to force anyone off their farms, honest. In fact, he would be pleased to lease them more land at half the going rate. He agreed on the spot to pay transportation costs for his armed forces to return to San Francisco and they were followed as far as Petaluma by a mob of jubilant Bodegans at their heels.
Curtis continued selling parcels of the rancho, but most of the land was off-limits because Captain Smith had willed it to his three children. To sidestep this obstacle, Curtis managed to have the California legislature pass in 1861 a sweetheart law that only applied to him; as guardian of the Smith children, he could sell property in their name as long as the income was kept separate and interest was paid. How he managed to get such a law passed is unknown, but his brother-in-law, Manuel Torres, had been elected two years earlier as an Assemblyman for Marin county. More about this deal in a moment.
Three daughters were born to Manuela and Curtis in the years around 1860 and the federal census that year shows them doing quite well, indeed. There were five Indian domestic servants in their household and a 50 year-old Irish woman who was probably nursemaid to the wee ones. The value of their real estate was put at $250,000, which meant that he was a very, very wealthy man. His occupation was listed as “gentleman.” (Curiously, he lied about his age; he was 28 but told the census enumerator he was 34, reversing the actual age difference between he and and his wife. He also shaved three years off Manuela’s age – perhaps to show he was a gentleman.)
In the next few years, Tyler Curtis emerged as a man of great ambition. Captain Smith’s old tannery was the most lucrative part of the rancho (next to selling off chunks of the rancho, of course). He opened a leather goods store in San Francisco and the family moved to the city, taking a house on the prestigious corner of Van Ness and Sutter.
He tried to step into the cut-throat world of San Francisco politics without much luck. Curtis made a half-hearted try for the powerful position of Tax Collector in 1867, claiming his friends demanded he toss in his hat; Curtis failed to even get the Democratic party nomination for the post. A couple of years later, the governor appointed him an interim member of the Board of Fire Commissioners, but the Democratic County Committee again wouldn’t allow him to run for the seat in the regular election. He “reluctantly” accepted the Democratic nomination for mayor in 1871 and spent the enormous sum of $45,000 (around $11 million in today’s money) before losing the election in a landslide. “Curtis’ strong position seemed to be that he never wanted anything, but that his ‘friends’ should ‘insist’ that he be on the ticket,” commented a San Francisco newspaper later, looking back on his political misadventures. “The ‘boys’ all pronounced him ‘weak-kneed.'”3
Without backing from his own political party (except when he was waving fistfuls of cash) and without having won a single election of any sort, it may seem like hubris for Curtis to have run for San Francisco mayor. But articles about him that appeared years later recalled his high stature in San Francisco society; he was “a magnate among merchants, an honor to a drawing room and a pet among ladies,” the San Francisco Chronicle remarked. What may have seemed odd about his run for mayor, however, is that he was passing out cigars and gladhanding voters so soon after his wife’s death – Manuela had just passed away in late February of that year. In her will she left her entire share of the ranchos to Tyler. Her own children received nothing.4
By then her three children by Captain Smith were all adults. College-educated Stephen, the oldest son, was the bookkeeper for the family’s leather trade and had lived with his mother and stepfather in San Francisco. Daughter Manuelita had married an Alameda County farmer. Youngest son James had turned 18 before his mother died, and was now asking his stepdad about the money in the trust established under that special law passed ten years earlier. There was supposed to be $40,000 in the bank for each of the Smith children. Curtis hemmed, Curtis hawed, but Curtis did not show him the books.
Then in March 1873, the truth revealed: Sometime in 1871 between Manuela’s death and the mayoral election, Tyler Curtis had stolen all their money. He had convinced the three Smith children to become partners in the leather store, for which he would withdraw $9,000 each from the trust account. They all signed the contracts, unaware that the fine print gave Curtis access to the entire account, which he predictably had drained to the last dollar. Lawyers for the Smiths forced Curtis to immediately dissolve the partnership, presumably to protect them from being further responsible for his mounting debts.
(NOTE: The details above come from the San Francisco Bulletin, which was generally more reliable than its contemporaries because it was mostly a business newspaper. Accounts in other papers suggest he was involved in blatant theft since the law was passed in 1861, but it seems likely he would have been arrested immediately once such crime was discovered, particularly because of the customized state law. Odds are far greater that there was a complicating detail, such as the described partnership contract that stymied investigators because it appeared possibly legal. Nevertheless, it was understood that almost the entire Bodega Rancho had been fraudulently sold off by Curtis.)
It soon came out that Curtis was involved in another great financial scandal. Also that March, he was forced to resign as president of the State Investment Insurance Company, an esteemed and high-paying executive position that he was awarded during his heyday of a few years earlier. The Board of Directors discovered he had given himself a $31,000 loan and demanded he make good at once, which required Curtis to make some frantic deals on his San Francisco properties.5 Before he was kicked out of the insurance company offices, however, Mrs. Swift stopped by and gave his face a good slap.
The widow Swift was a friend of his late wife, and Curtis began visiting her home after Manuela died, paying particular attention to her teenage daughter. “Rich, famous, influential and a widower, it was no wonder that a lonely widow and an unsophisticated girl should yield to the glamour and encourage his attentions,” the San Francisco Chronicle observed. Although he was more than twice her age, Curtis proposed marriage to the young woman. Her mother apparently had mixed feelings; he was charming and rich (she thought) but had a reputation for carousing. Still, it must have come as a bit of a surprise when a young woman knocked on her door and said tearfully that she, too, was engaged to Tyler Curtis. “Mrs. Swift then instituted inquiries, and found there were at least five or six ladies to whom Curtis had been paying court and had promised to marry.”6
If there ever was a good time to skip town, it would be when you are being investigated for having robbed your stepchildren of their inheritance, are about to be exposed as a fraud and have a half-dozen potential mothers-in-law lining up for a slap-fest. And there were still other misdeeds that are now lost to history but hinted at in a story from the April 29, 1873 San Francisco Bulletin:
|The announcement was made public yesterday that Tyler Curtis had left the city in a clandestine manner, leaving behind him unsettled debts and unexplained transactions of a much darker character than mere financial involvements, exciting a feeling of lively surprise at the hill of a man who had once stood so well in the community, All this, as is usual in such cases, excited such comments as, “It was only what I expected, “I knew there was something queer long ago.” But for some time past there have been rumors that Curtis was over head and ears in debt, injured in reputation by women — only too well founded, and his friends began to lose confidence in him; business men were shy of him, and his own recklessness showed that he was losing hope in himself. He was given the lie in the office of the State Investment Insurance Company in the presence of his fellow officials; his face was slapped subsequently in his office on Montgomery street; he was unpleasantly connected with the Fagan forgery case; his check was dishonored at a leading banking house, and so on.
Curtis pulled his three daughters out of the Catholic school in San Jose and they boarded a steamer bound for Panama – the Chronicle speculated that he would stay in South America and not be heard of again, but other papers assumed the family was headed for the East Coast. And New York would be the destination for Tyler Curtis and his his new wife; just before departing he had quickly married Annie McKenzie, a divorcee and wanna-be pro opera singer. In 1873 it would have been a coin toss to decide which attribute might have raised more eyebrows.
With his girls tucked away at a boarding school in Virginia, Tyler Curtis tried to reinvent himself once more in New York. He told his Park Row lawyer he was the “president of a flourishing life insurance company, chairman of the San Francisco Board of Public Works, and the head of a large mercantile business.” Also, he said he owned “valuable real estate in California, the title to which had in some manner become involved.” 7 These lies were apparently enough to convince some poor sap to float him a loan, allowing Tyler and Annie to travel to Europe. “They spent several months abroad,” the New York Times later reported, “she studying Italian and music, and he, as she has since averred, devoting himself almost exclusively to drinking.”8
When the money ran out at the end of the year they returned to New York. The story he now told was that his former partners in California were cheating him; while he was in Europe, they refused to make good on a $100,000 note owed to him for selling his share in a business. The reason they supposedly gave was an objection to “the improper application of a considerable amount of money which he had formerly held in trust for a relative of his partners.”9 (How remarkable that each fib contains sprinkles of detail from his own outrageous crimes.)
Curtis told his New York lawyer he needed to sort this out and although he didn’t want to leave his family, he couldn’t afford to take the four of them back to California with him, darn it. He left, and promised to send money. He did, for a while, and she could even take music lessons. Affectionate letters arrived frequently; less so, money. Sinking into debt as she tried to support both herself and his daughters, Annie asked her father in San Francisco to find out what was going on. “The answer came that Tyler Curtis was throwing himself away so persistently that she had better forget him altogether.”10
Annie was befriended by Benjamin Gregory, a music lover and church organist who was also the wealthy son of a famous New Jersey congressman and industrialist. When she fell behind in rent and the landlord locked her apartment along with her possessions, Gregory found her a cheaper place. About a year after Curtis had deserted her, she became pregnant with Gregory’s child. She sought an abortion. She died.
Curtis received a telegram about his wife’s death, but did not learn the details until he read about them in the San Francisco newspapers. He headed east at once, telegraphing ahead that her body should be placed in a receiving vault until he arrived. He made it to New York a month later, in late April, 1875 and immediately signed a notarized document relinquishing control over her remains to Gregory, who wanted to pay for her burial in Woodlawn Cemetery. Gregory also paid the rent due on the apartment where she had been locked out, and was granted permission to send Annie’s belongings back to her mother in San Francisco, except for a list of items Curtis wanted, including “many articles of much value, among them diamond jewelry, costly clothing, &c.”11
What happened over the next few days is unclear but Tyler Curtis also died; the cause was reported in some California newspapers as “quick consumption” or a “broken heart,” and it seemed generally agreed he was in bad shape when he arrived in the city. The NY Daily Graphic reported he lingered for several days, in constant care of his loving daughters. Then there was this:
| As stated in our yesterday’s fourth edition, Tyler Curtis, the husband of Mrs. Anna M. Curtis, who died a victim of mal-practice in New York, received $300 from Benj. Gregory, on account of his being involved in the affair, and proposed to leave for California with this salve for his wounded honor and feelings. We stated that Curtis had actually departed, taking his daughters with him. We hav since learned that instead of leaving, Curtis, after he got the money, went on a drinking spree in New York and finished up his mortal career by dying last night at Barnum’s Hotel in New York, a victim to rum and loathsome diseases. So ends this chapter of the horrible affair–a wretched ending of a wretched business.12
That New Jersey paper sort of retracted their remarks two weeks later, after receiving a letter from Curtis’ Park Row attorney. His doctor was quoted as saying Curtis didn’t die from “hard drinking or any other discreditable cause” and “his ailments were greatly aggravated and his death hastened by the sorrow and shame of the circumstances of his wife’s death.” Further, it was suggested Curtis should be held blameless because he wrote such nice letters: “Mr. Curtis’ correspondence with and his care for her during their separation would indicate that he deserved from her that she should have behaved better than she did,” the paper hedged.
There are two epilogues to the misadventures of John Tyler Curtis, born in the lost hamlet of Puccoon, Virginia and who died in the fabled Barnum’s Hotel:
For reasons unclear, the Smith heirs did not sue their swindling stepfather – again, there was likely something about the leather shop investment contract preventing that. Equally unclear is why James Smith, after Curtis died, filed suit against all the farmers who had bought rancho land that was fraudulently sold in their name; he demanded the entire 35,487 acre Rancho Bodega be returned to he and his siblings. The suit went as far as the Supreme Court and Smith ultimately lost in 1878.
James Smith also told the press he intended to have his mother exhumed and her body checked for signs of poisoning. No further mention of that can be found.
|1Levee, Tish; “The Mistress of Rancho Bodega”, Journal of the Sonoma County Historical Society, issues 2-4, 1983
|3San Francisco Bulletin, “Sudden Departure of Tyler Curtis,” April 29, 1873
|5San Francisco Chronicle, as reprinted in the Sonoma Democrat, “Tyler Curtis a Defaulter and Absconder,” May 3, 1873
|7NY Daily Graphic, “A Crushing Family Sorrow,” May 4, 1875
|8New York Times, “A Deserted Wife’s Death,” March 17, 1875
|9op. cit. NY Daily Graphic
|11Jersey Evening Journal, “The Curtis Case,” May 8, 1875
|12Jersey Journal, “Curtis Miserable Death,” April 24, 1875
SONOMA COUNTY AS VIEWED BY PIONEER OF EARLY DAYS
Jas. E. Fowler Writes Interestingly of Old Times
(By James E. Fowler)
There has been so much said and written about Sonoma county that it seems almost superfluous to attempt to add anything of interest, except along its rock-bound coast of fifty miles, extending from Estero Americano to the Gualala river, which includes the harbor of Bodega, Fort Ross, and several chutes where vessels can lie at anchor and receive cargoes of lumber, tan bark, cord wood, posts, pickets, etc.
Russian river, after meandering through the Coast Range and valley of its name for a hundred miles, finds an outlet to the ocean, about seven miles above Bodega port. The mesa between Bodega and Russian river is like hundreds of miles of our coast bears unmistakable signs of having [illegible microfilm] period. All along the shores are footprints of countless number of aborigines that had been attracted here in ages past to enjoy the rich harvest nature furnished them for the gathering. Those of the interior valleys brought acorns and panola [pinole] to barter with those living on the coast, for dried fish and rock weed, from which they obtained the only condiments they ever indulged in.
Wild strawberries, salmon berries, whortle berries [bilberries], and blackberries were found in abundance along the coast, but never in the interior.
Their semi-annual pilgrimages were often prolonged for weeks, and finally, before parting, the grand occasion would wind up with a big fandango after which each squaw, with an ordinary donkey’s load, supported by a band around her forehead, would take up her line of march when her lord and master would fall in, armed with his bow and quiver.
All streams emptying into the river were alive with trout and salmon. Aquatic fowls darkened the waters with their immense numbers, having but little fear of man, as the Indians captured them entirely with nets. Elk, antelope and deer roamed over the hills like sheep. No report of a rifle was heard or echoed back through these valleys; their only enemy was a buck Indian with antlers on his head, who would crawl stealthily up through the tall grass, always careful to be on the leeward side, when he got with a few feet of his victim, he would draw his bow and pierce him to the heart.
And thus ages rolled on; these people had none of the vices of the white man. All their wants were easily gratified. But lo! a change came over them. In the early part of this eighteenth century, the Muscovites invaded this country, bringing with them and introducing all the vices, without the virtues of civilization. The Razanofs, the Ruskofs, with their native followers, and the Aleutian Indians, with their bedascoes, dotted the ocean, from the Farallones to Point Arena, in pursuit of and capture of fur seal and seal otter; while those on shore at Fort Ross and Bodega were cultivating the land and raising various kinds of produce, at the same time trapping with the Indians, coon, musk, beaver, land otter, silver-gray fox, muskrat, wild cat and badger for their skins. All animals of the above, which were so numerous, are now extinct.
The result of all their labor was gathered into the great warehouses at Bodega and Fort Ross. Having their own vessels, they could load at any time, either with fur or produce, that found a ready market at Sitka. How inscrutable are the ways of Providence when we think of all those fur-bearing animals that basked in the sunshine of our shores and river banks with all the care and pride they bestowed upon their glossy coats, should be transported thousands of miles over land to adorn the elite of St. Petersburg.
As these Russians were only here by the sufferance of the Spanish government, the time came when they must leave; they found a purchaser in Capt. John A. Sutter in 1841, for all their live stock and improvements at Fort Ross and Bodega. Thirty thousand dollars was the price paid in four yearly installments, mostly in wheat. At the close of the year, Fotochov [Alexander Rotchev] and the remaining employees of the company bid adieu to the scenes of their labor and attachments, in our genial clime, boarded the Constantine, and headed her prow for Alaska.
What a feeling of sadness must have been experienced by that little band as they looked back over the Starboard rail, as the winter day was drawing to a close. The setting sun gilded the spires of the Greek [sic] church, and the arms of the old windmill that had served them so well during their thirty years’ residence, to grind their wheat and barley. Some traces of Russian blood is still perceptible among the Indians.
Wm. Bonetz [Benitz] bought the improvements of Capt. John A. Sutter, and secured a title to the land from the Mexican Government, which was, in area, equal to a German Principality.
Being favorably situated at the time gold was discovered, with the assistance of the Indians, he raised thousands of sacks of potatoes that found a ready market in San Francisco at from six to twelve cents a pound. From the Russian orchards, containing one acre of apple trees, he sometimes realized five thousand dollars in a single year. He was an affable German gentleman, and entertained travelers with that hospitality which is so proverbial of old Californians. He married the oldest daughter of Michel Kohlmer, who settled in a little valley on the Bodega ranch, which is now known as Coleman Valley. Mr. Bonetz disposed of his vast estate in 1867 and moved with his family to Oakland.
Now that the Russians have set sail for Alaska, we leave Bodega bay and travel five miles in an easterly direction to the Valley of Bodega. As we ascend the hill to the Eastward, that seems like a great barrier set up by Nature, whether for protection or beauty, it matters not, as both are combined we enter a grove of grand [missing line or lines in newspaper] [pic]turesque valley, the meandering streams all tending towards the ocean, the rolling hills with their beautiful verdure and realize that we are standing beneath the shadow of one of those grand old sentinels, that has withstood the storms, and viewed this scene through all ages, since Alexander the Great was in the zenith of his glory we are lost in bewilderment. As we return to our normal condition we look down upon the that valley under Russian cultivation with its varied hues, that dark green of the potatoes and the golden shades of the ripening grain.
Upon a rise of ground in the West, and overlooking all, stands a long one-story building, the sills and plates were of hewn timber with a four-inch groove the whole length. No nails were used. The roof was of shakes. This was the Headquarters. In one end was the store, the other part was partitioned off into various sized rooms, near to it were still smaller buildings.
About four hundred feet to the northward stood a pretentious building one story and a half high, built of hewn timber, of quite a tasty design, which was used as officer’s quarters.
At this writing, 1892, in what is known as Annery gulch, may still be found some remains of a tree that was felled to be used in making these improvements. After taking about four feet of it, the balance was rejected for some cause and left in that shady dell to return to mother Earth. Though much of it has been utilized, generations will have passed away before that spot will be forgotten. The music stand of the picnic grounds known as Fern Grove is built directly over the stump, which is thirteen feet in diameter. There the Russians once rested beneath its umbrageous foliage of indigenous trees, the people of the surrounding country assemble on the return of our nation’s natal day, to celebrate in a becoming manner.
In 1841 we find John Bidwell, now of Chico, ex-member of Congress, in possession of the property as agent for Capt. Sutter.
About this time Capt. Stephen Smith a native of Danforth, Mass., having traded on the Coast, decided to make it his home. He purchased of Capt. Sutter all the title he had acquired from the Russians on the improvements and personal property, having secured a grant for the land from the Mexican Government. One fine day the bark “George and Henry” came to anchor in Bodega Bay, having doubled Cape Horn touching at Callac [Callao, Peru] where he took on board his newly married wife, Manuella Torres, her father, mother and brother, Don Manuel Torres, now of San Francisco. He had also some four or five mechanics whose services he had secured to aid him in his great enterprise. Then commenced an undertaking before which any man save this sturdy pioneer would have quailed, but with his Yankee pluck he landed the first saw mill on the sand pit at Bodega Bay that ever rested on California soil.
With Spanish cattle yoked by the horns with rawhide thongs, the old Spanish cart with solid wheels, and Indians for drivers, he transported that cargo to the valley of Bodega. All that marks that spot now is a clump of trees where the first steam saw mill was erected in which was manufactured the first cargo of lumber that was exported from this coast.
When the first steam whistle disturbed the solitude of this valley and was reverberated back from the canyons, the natives were awestricken, thinking that some demon had come to destroy them. The old Californians came from far and near on that occasion, recognizing it as a new era in the history of the country. Many were the obstacles that beset them in every turn, unskilled labor for choppers, loggers and swampers.
Wagons were unknown, every thing had to be transported on the solid Spanish cart wheels. No part or duplicate of a piece of machinery could be found in the territory, not even a screw bolt. When ordering from the east, after many months delay, they sometimes experienced provoking annoyances and disappointments. On one occasion, having designed a model of an ax, they thought would be the very acme of perfection, for chopping redwood. It was sent east. Long weary months passed until the axes arrived, unfortunately they had neglected to put an eye in the model, consequently, the axes lacked that essential.
The Mexican Government was very willing to manifest its appreciation of the change from Russian occupation to an enterprising American, which they did in a very substantial manner by granting Capt. Smith eight leagues of land, including the Port of Bodega. Yerba Buena gave him two fifty-vara lots [about 277 feet total] in Sansome street for a lumber yard. As adobe houses with tile roofs were the prevailing style in those days, sales of lumber were generally in small bills. Our hardy pioneer, with all his foresight, anticipated the wants of the coast. On the arrival of the ship “Brooklyn,” with the Mormons in 1846, she found a full cargo of lumber awaiting her at Port of Bodega, with which she laded and delivered to a good market in the Sandwich Islands. Thus we find Capt. Smith and his family at this time occupying the Russian buildings, living in perfect seclusion, undisturbed by the demands of fashion, with his cattle upon a thousand hills and horses without number.
The Indian Rancherias, along Salmon creek, furnished him with nearly all of his labor; the squaws raised vegetables and gathered acorns for atola. The men received liberal rations of beef and clothing. Taking all in all, it was a scene of rural contentment and happiness rarely to be found in this fast age.
Months passed and the air was filled with rumors of the wonderful discovery of gold in the Sierras; Marshall had picked up that little nugget in Sutter’s mill-race that sent a thrill through the civilized world. Man abandoned every occupation in life to seek their fortunes in the new El Dorado. The forked stick with which they were tearing up the ground was left standing in the pumpkin patch, the rancheros gathered up their fat cattle that they had previously slaughtered for their hides and tallow, drove them to the mountains, where they found a ready market, often returning with a mule packed with gold dust. Bodega potatoes and onions were worth a dollar a pound. The scurvy having made its appearance among the miners, vegetables were not only a luxury, but a necessity.
This section being so celebrated for the quality of its tubers, men came from all sections to make arrangements with Capt. Smith to raise a crop, some with means and some without, that grand old man, with his unselfish spirit and [missing line or lines in newspaper] the victim of misplaced confidence.
During the summer of 1850 the mining excitement had subsided, nearly every interest had return to its normal condition, except occasionally some returned miner would have more Doudloons [Doubloons] than he knew what to do with.
One morning, like a thunderbolt from a clear sky, came the announcement that the Baltimore brig “Frolic” loaded with a very valuable cargo, direct from China, had gone ashore up the coast.
Everybody who could mounted his mustang, and whatever pack animal he could set out to explore the unknown region.
After encountering many difficulties and hardships, almost discouraged in search of what they concluded to be a phantom ship, when about to retrace their steps, discovered the sails of a vessel in a little cove three miles above Big river, with her bow high upon the rocks, her bowspit [bowsprit] answered for a gang plang [gangplank]. Then commenced the work of discharging.
The inventory was never entered at the custom house, but there probably never has been since a more elegant cargo of China goods, as embroidered bed spreads, silk shawls, sashes and China silks entered the Golden Gate. Having landed as much as possible of everything they could carry, they soon discovered that they would be compelled to leave at least half of it behind them. Fortune favors the brave, just then a big band of Indians put in an appearance, whom they persuaded to become pack animals for awhile.
For years, China silks, embroidered shawls and silk handkerchiefs were as common in Bodega as calico; the vaqueros made picket ropes of elegant sashes.
Capt. Smith moved on in the even tenor of his ways always enthusiastic in every enterprise that was undertaken for the development of his beloved California. His tannery built in 1851 was at that time the best in the state.
Though he had become a citizen of Mexico when Capt. Fremont visited him with his company in 1846, and erected the flag staff that still stands on the knoll near where the Russian buildings stood, he gave them a hundred [illegible line of microfilm] any pay for them, saying that he owed that to the old flag under which he had sailed. His hospitality knew no bounds; often men who had no claims upon him would remain for weeks, and when about to depart he would press them to remain longer.
November, 1855, Stephen Smith died, full of years, honored, respected and beloved by all who had ever come in contact with him. His widow, Dona Manuella, his son Stephen, his daughter, now Mrs. English of Oakland, and his son James survive him. It would seem that some strange fatality hung over that spot; the old mill succumbed to the flames in 1854, the entire tannery plant some years later. Not a vestige of the old Russian buildings is life [sic]. Nothing but a heap of crumbling adobes marks the spot where this grand old man spent his declining years. We will trust that the tall trees that have escaped the vandal’s ax may remain for ages to come, to adorn the place he loved so well, and sing his requiem.
– Press Democrat, May 7, 1911
THE POTATOES, WHERE ARE THEY?
Tuber Famine at Bodega
Bodega, July 11–It is lamentable, though true, that famine stalks abroad in this land. Suffering has not reach the acute [illegible microfilm] able to fight starvation off until the crops are harvested, but today there is a shortage of the main stay of the workingman’s diet. Never since Don Quadra de la Bodega came ashore at Bodega Bay to take possession in the name of his imperial master of Spain and to barter beads and other gew gaws with the original Bodegians has potatoes [sic] been so scarce and high in this land whose first bid for fame in agricultural lines sprung from the enormous productions of that same vegetable.
Since that time conditions have underwent a great change. Old settlers can still remember the day when our rolling hills swarmed to their tops with rows upon rows of the productive tubers. Great schooner loads went to the San Francisco market from Bodega Bay, and the roads leading to that shipping point were thronged with busy teams, horses and oxen, in the fall season. And the scenes around the warehouses on the bay were active ones.
Today it is a rare thing to see a single carload of potatoes shipped out of this section. The more profitable dairy industry absorbs the attention of the rancher and he counts on raising little more of the potato than will supply his own needs. Last year the line was drawn a bit too finely and hence the shortage. Today potatoes are being eaten with avidity that at other times would be thrown to swine. Some families are actually going without this staple vegetable or trying to eke out the supply until the new crop matures. We have a goodly supply of frogs’ legs, cream, butter, chickens and all that common truck, but no potatoes.
– Press Democrat, July 12, 1911
HANGING OF INDIANS
The Petaluma Journal is informed that on the 8th inst. the citizens of Fort Ross hanged three Indians, on charges of murder, robbery, etc. An unsuccessful effort was made, by officer Ingraham, to rescue them from the populace, in order that they might be taken to Santa Rosa for trial.
– Alta California, September 19, 1857