stofenvault

WHO ROBBED THE COUNTY TREASURY?

Santa Rosa made national news in the days after Christmas, 1894. Hundreds of newspapers nationwide, from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to the Wah-shah-she News in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, ran a wire story that began this way:


Santa Rosa, Cal., Dec. 28.—Santa Rosa had the biggest sensation in its history today. The county treasury was robbed of nearly $8000 and County Treasurer Stofen was left insensible in the vault to suffocate by the robbers, who locked the door of the vault on him. The robbery occurred about 9 o’clock this morning, but was not discovered until about 5 o’clock this afternoon. All this time Treasurer Stofen lay on the floor of the vault gasping for breath, fearing every moment during conscious intervals would be his last.

Stofen told reporters the next day that he had opened his office at the county courthouse as usual on Dec. 28 and was bringing coin trays out of the vault (it was 1894, remember, and “money” meant gold and silver coins, not greenback dollars). Suddenly there was a man in front of him holding a large dagger. “Drop that money,” he ordered. The 58 year-old Stofen put the tray down and either was struck on the head or fainted. The next thing he knew was waking up to discover he was locked in the vault.

“I pounded on the door, but of course no one could hear me,” he told reporters. He knew there was a faint draught at the bottom of the door and lay with his face near it. He passed out again.

Meanwhile, his two kids stopped by at noon to drop off his lunch. Not finding dad in the office and the door locked, they hung around waiting for him. A man from San Francisco wanted to make a payment and was annoyed to find the office closed, as he did not want to make another trip to Santa Rosa. The sheriff – whose office was next door – suggested he give the money to Stofen’s 18 year-old daughter which he did, since it’s 1894 and you can trust a teenager you don’t know with making cash deposits and there’s another reason I wish we were all living back then.

In the middle of the afternoon Mrs. Stofen drops by the office after a day trip to Cloverdale. Finding his lunch outside the door, she goes home, fearing he might be ill. Not finding him there either, she rushes back to the courthouse and learns no one had seen him since morning. She has the janitor open the door and finds the office in disarray. “Then I screamed and immediately heard knocks coming from the vault,” she told the SF Examiner.

She tries the combination of the vault, since it’s 1894, of course the wife of the country treasurer knows the combination to the county vault and is the only other person who does. It doesn’t work. She tries again, and this time the door opens. “When we got Mr. Stofen out,” the janitor told the Sonoma Democrat, “he looked pale and much prostrated. The meeting between Mr. and Mrs. Stofen was one of the most painful things I ever saw in all my life.”

Mr. and Mrs. Stofen, San Francisco Examiner, December 30 1894
Mr. and Mrs. Stofen, San Francisco Examiner, December 30 1894

It was decided that the robber got away with $8400.79 total – over a quarter-million dollars today. Of that $7,815.79 belonged to the treasury; also taken was $585 of Stofen’s own money and non-treasury accounts, such as unclaimed funds collected on behalf of estates.

Stofen and the sheriff formed a theory that the robber had been in the courthouse for hours, maybe overnight. Between the treasurer’s office and the sheriff’s there was a closet-sized gap, as each office had its own lockable door. The space was used only for light storage. There was also the question of the three push-button alarms in the treasurer’s office; it was discovered a corner of the carpet was ripped up near that little passageway and the wires connecting it to the sheriff had been cut.

Stofen was all but useless in providing a description of the robber. In the few seconds before he was clubbed or fainted, he fixated on the knife blade with its sharp edge. “The closest description I can give of him is that he was a large man, had chin whiskers and had no shoes on his feet.”

Assorted suspicious characters were recalled. Assistant DA Leppo saw “a German looking man” walking up steps inside the courthouse turn around when he seemed to notice he was being observed. Two men were reported driving away quickly in a buggy. Another German-ish stranger matching the vague description was supposedly hanging out around the train station before dawn. Given that seven hours had passed since Stofen was locked in the vault the sheriff assumed the robber(s) were far away, and sent out telegrams to be on the lookout.

The robbery also caused legal problems for Stofen. County officers were held personally liable for any funds found missing during their term in office; Stofen and other candidates had to show they were bonded for significant losses. As a member of Santa Rosa’s monied elite, his bondsmen were five of the top bankers and investors in town.1

A petition began circulating which asked the legislature to make up for the loss but nothing came of it. In mid-March – ten weeks after the robbery – the Board of Supervisors filed a lawsuit against Stofen and the bondsmen for the recovery of $7,815.79.

At the first hearing for that case it was revealed the defense would argue Stofen and the bondsmen were not liable because it had been a robbery. California law was unclear if that was a valid defense – in fact, a similar case was then waiting to be heard by the state Supreme Court which involved the robbery of the Healdsburg treasurer a year earlier. (In that theft everything was stolen except for some petty cash, leaving the town so flat broke it had to release prisoners because the jailer could no longer afford to feed them.)2

It took the Supreme Court months to decide, but in the summer of 1896 they ruled that yes, robbery is a valid defense – but it must be proven that a robbery indeed took place.

By that time there was growing suspicion that Stofen was either an accomplice to the theft or had made up the robbery story to cover up embezzlement.

The Daily/Sonoma Democrat was firmly in Stofen’s corner from the beginning. A few days after he was found in the vault the paper offered a long item praising his good character: “The boon of a good name was never more fully shown than in the case of County Treasurer Stofen. No man in this city who knows the treasurer, for a moment doubts his thorough honesty…” The Democrat went so far as to downplay or ignore new details that contradicted his story; fortunately all of the major San Francisco papers were interested in the case and had stringers reporting from here.

Light-fingered treasurers were surprisingly common; in 1857 the Sonoma County Treasurer was convicted of stealing state money, county money, and county school funds, a perfect trifecta of embezzlement. Crooked treasurers also had a habit of making up dime novel-type stories about stickups to hide their crime. The San Francisco Chronicle remarked, “in nearly every instance investigation of detectives has shown that the robbery was mythical.”

Several aspects of Stofen’s story didn’t jibe. He kept adding more details; although he first said he only noticed the robber’s whiskers and lack of shoes, a year later he described him as about six feet, stout and wearing a pistol on his hip. Except for a “slight swelling” on his head he was uninjured, casting doubt on whether he had been knocked out. And then there was the matter of trying to get help.

He said initially he had “pounded on the door,” but experiments were made with someone locked in the vault and hitting the door; the noise could be easily heard on that floor of the courthouse. Attorney Frances McG. Martin was in her nearby office that day and heard nothing, nor did the deputy sheriff on duty next door.

The Grand Jury looked at the noise question and passed an inconclusive resolution that it could have been either a “real or pretended robbery.” When the lawsuit hearings resumed, most of the testimony centered on whether door pounding could be heard in the corridor just a few feet away.

In Dec. 1896 – almost two years after the incident – Judge Dougherty ruled in favor of the county. Stofen had not proven that a robbery had taken place, as the only evidence that it really happened was his word.

Stofen and the bond boys requested a jury trial, citing the usual sorts of legal hairsplitting. While that was being considered, there was a sensational twist: A witness came forward to say he saw the likely robber leaving the treasurer’s office.

George Peery, who was taking his brother’s place as courthouse engineer that day, claimed a stranger with a big satchel came out of the treasurer’s office. (If the stolen money was mainly $20 gold pieces, the haul would have weighed around 30 pounds.) In his statement he described the man as rather small and wearing a light overcoat. Peery claimed he asked if the treasurer was in his office and the stranger said he was.

Asked why he had waited over two years before coming forward, Peery said he did not want to get involved, but claimed at the time he had spoken about it to his late wife and a friend in Santa Cruz. Peery’s affidavit was added to the bundle of documents filed with the court asking for a new trial. It’s unknown whether anyone realized at the time that Peery was a crazy drunk who made up stuff. He would spend much of the next five years in an asylum.3

In August 1897 Judge Dougherty denied the motion for a new trial, saying nothing had changed since his original decision. “No person but Stofen knows what the truth about the matter is. No other person can say that he was robbed or was not robbed. If he was robbed it is his misfortune.” An appeal was made to the state Supreme Court, and in 1899 they affirmed Dougherty’s decision.

With about $12k now due thanks to four and a half years’ interest, the bondsmen made a deal to settle with the county for $8,089.24. Under the civil code they could sue Stofen for repayment, and one of them did. He signed over the deed to his house on Third street, although the family had been living in San Francisco for at least three years.

The Stofen robbery – um, the alleged Stofen robbery – is an intriguing little whodunnit.

stofen1900(RIGHT: Peter N. Stofen, detail from photo of 1900 family picnic. Image: Sonoma County Library)

At the time of the robbery Peter Stofen had been the county treasurer for six years, but it probably wasn’t because he needed the paycheck. He was called “Captain Stofen” because he and his brother famously owned steamers and schooners running to San Francisco from Petaluma and Sonoma; there is spot on Sonoma Creek still called Stofen’s Landing. He had owned houses on Second and Third street, a ranch around Schellville (where he died), and spent his last years in San Francisco while traveling frequently. In short: He didn’t appear to need the missing money, and even losing the Third street house – which likely had a value around $1,200-$1,500 – would not have caused serious financial harm.

There’s no question his story was shaky and the court and Grand Jury were right to focus on proving he had not “pounded” on the vault door to draw attention. And even if they thought in 1897 that Peery was a credible witness, his account of the mysterious stranger with the satchel wasn’t proof of anything.

But as a graduate of ACU/Wingback (Agatha Christie University, Armchair campus), I find two other details stand out as suspicious – yet were not mentioned in any coverage of the case.

The incident occurred when there were just four business days remaining in his term in office. If Stofen knew there was a shortage – intentional or no – it would soon be discovered by the incoming treasurer. If he had embezzled the money, the imminent handover would have been a motive to fake the robbery.

There was also the curious bit about $585 of his own money being stolen as well. Why did he keep so much personal cash around the office? That was the equivalent to a full year’s pay for most skilled workers at the time.

One possibility is that the $585 wasn’t there at all – it was a fib to make the robbery look more real by giving him the chance to say, “hey, I lost money as well” (h/t to Ray Owen for suggesting this).

Another theory is that Stofen had some private business on the side that required ready access to cash. Two that come to mind are loansharking or gambling – the latter either by placing large bets himself or acting as the bank for bookies. This was turn-of-the-century Santa Rosa, remember, and the town had a sizable underground economy centered around gambling and prostitution, as has been hashed over here many times. And 1894 was a major year for sporting events; besides lots of horse racing, the craze for competition bicycle racing was catching fire. So in this scenario perhaps there really was a robbery by one of his clients, but Stofen couldn’t reveal who did it without risk of exposing his own crime.

Peter N. Stofen died in 1910 and is buried at the Mountain Cemetery in Sonoma. None of the money was ever recovered and no one was ever identified as a suspect. None of his obituaries mentioned the robbery, only that he was a well-respected member in the community.


1 Peter Stofen’s bondsmen were Matt Doyle, A. P. Overton, Con Shea, J. H. Brush and Hollis Hitchcock.

2 In October 1893, the Healdsburg city marshal discovered the iron doors of the city treasury open but Treasurer George V. Mulligan could not be found. Much of the town joined the search party that found him handcuffed to a manzanita tree in the park next to the cemetery, but otherwise uninjured. Mulligan said he had been jumped by two men with pistols who forced him to open the safe. According to the San Francisco newspapers the town was divided between those who thought he was scrupulously honest and those who believed he was an accomplice. Strong circumstantial evidence suggested one of the two men who found him shackled to the tree was involved in the robbery. Mulligan died five months later with stomach cancer and the missing $3,560 was never recovered. After his death the Superior Court ruled his estate and the bondsmen were liable for the loss, as the robbery could not be proven. A lawsuit followed where a jury ruled for the city. The bondsmen settled in 1897 and agreed to pay $4.6k.

3 George E. Peery – a sometimes insurance agent, schoolteacher and reporter – was first committed to the Mendocino State Hospital in Ukiah by Judge Dougherty in 1898. He was diagnosed as having “alcoholic insanity” and addiction to narcotics. During his hospital stays of 1898-1899 and 1901-1902 notes on his records state he had delusions of grandiosity, spoke with imaginary persons, and was called in 1902 a “mental wreck.”

 

sources

THE COIN ROBBERY.
Treasurer Stofen Interviewed at His Home.
He Offers a Reward for the Arrest and Conviction ot the Robber.
Attorney Leppo Saw a Suspicious Stranger in the Courthouse — Janitor Hassett’s Story.

Captain Stofen was seen by a Democrat representative on Saturday morning at 11:30 a. m., and lying in his bed told again the now oft-told story of his terrible experience, which was in substance as already stated.

As to the looks of the villain, the Captain has not the slightest recollection. His attention was directed to the knife, which he says was a double-edged dirk with a blade probably six or seven inches in length, held in the man’s right hand with the blade downward, ready to do its deadly work at the slightest movement of non-compliance. The captain does not remember putting the money on the floor, but says the glance he caught of the man’s clothes was that they were dark and that he was in his stocking feet. Then everything became blank. The Captain does not know whether he received a blow or fainted from the effects of the shock. His head had received a bump, but that might have been caused by his being pushed into the vault. He has no idea when he awoke, as he seems to have been only partially conscious for some time; but an intense coldness of his feet made him try to pull off his boots, which were wet with perspiration, as was also his whole body, and rub them as hard as he could; he seemed unable to get his blood to circulate. Then came the sound of voices and making as much noise as possible to attract their attention, he heard the combination click and recognized his wife’s voice, and when it missed and did not open he sank back utterly exhausted, but another try, which was more successful, brought the sunlight with wife and friends.

Treasurer Stofen is resting quietly and it is expected he will he able to go to his office in a few days.

In discussing the robbery with a number of citizens the general opinion is that the robbers had got such a good start after the deed was done that it would be a difficult matter to overtake them.

Sheriff Allen has telegraphed to all the chief points where the robbers might be headed off.

The following notice has been sent out offering a reward:

ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS REWARD.
The above sum will be paid for the arrest and conviction of the person or persons who assaulted County Treasurer P. N. Stofen and robbed the Treasurer’s office of Sonoma County, California, on Friday, December 28, 1894. Signed,
P. N. Stofen.
Dated Santa Rosa, Cal., Dec. 29, 1894.

While Mrs. Stofen was visiting at Cloverdale a friend invited her to go to Ukiah to spend Friday and at one time she had almost decided to go. Had she accepted the invitation her husband would have died, as no one else would have discovered the robbery and no one else knew the combination of the vault.

No clue has yet been found. There was a report on the street Saturday night that a man had been arrested on suspicion in Vallejo who had considerable coin on his person, but no confirmation of the report could be obtained from the officers here.

Assistant District Attorney Leppo told a Democrat reporter Saturday that he noticed a German looking man on the landing of the stair leading to his office, as he started to come down stairs. The man changed his mind, apparently, when he saw Mr. Leppo, for instead of continuing his ascent he turned and went down stairs again. His notions struck Mr. Leppo at the time as being rather peculiar, and he recalled the man and his actions as soon as he heard of the robbery later in the day.

Mr. Stofen had a number of friends to call upon him Saturday, but he is not in any condition to see many people.

Janitor Hassett says the night before the treasury robbery he left the building at 7 p. m. He returned at 2 o’clock the next morning to begin his work. He went in by the lower Fourth street entrance, going first into the sheriff’s office; cleaned it up, and was in there an hour. Leaving there he went to the surveyor’s and then to the district attorney’s office, then went into the third story; came down after 5 o’clock, and during this time he did not hear a sound or see anything out of the usual run. He remained in the building until 8 o’clock, then went to the hall of records, and returned to the courthouse at 7:30 o’clock. The janitor only cleans the treasurer’s office on Sunday, and so did not go into that office. Mr. Hassett thinks the robber got into the private office with a skeleton key. Mr. Hassett saw Captain Stofen’s mail and lunch at the door during the day but gave it no thought, as Mr. Stofen was in the habit of going away without saying anything about it. He did not know, nor did others, when the treasurer went to Sacramento and returned. The janitor opened the door and went in with Mrs. Stofen. “When we got Mr. Stofen out,” says Mr. Hassett, “he looked pale and much prostrated. The meeting between Mr. and Mrs. Stofen was one of the most painful things I ever saw in all my life.”

Treasurer Stofen was able to be at his office Monday. It is now known that the robber or robbers got away with $7,200 on Friday last. No definite clue has yet been found of the perpetrators. It is the opinion of some that the robbers are not fifty miles away from Santa Rosa. It is hoped they will be caught when perhaps some of the coin will be recovered.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 5 1895

 

A GOOD NAME.

The boon of a good name was never more fully shown than in the case of County Treasurer Stofen. No man in this city who knows the treasurer, for a moment doubts his thorough honesty. He is exact, punctual, economical and careful in his methods to an unusual degree. The misfortune which came upon him is in no way his fault. So fully is this recognised that at least three of his five bondsmen, Matt Doyle, Mr. Hitchcock and Con Shea have been heard to say since the robbery that sooner than see Mr. Stofen give up his home they would willingly draw their checks for $1,530 each, their share of the loss. No doubt his other bondsmen feel the same way. They all, so far as they have spoken, have the utmost confidence in Mr. Stofen. At the time this unfortunate occurrence took place the treasurer had nearly $200,000 in the banks at his command. The actual amount of cash in the safe in the office was, fortunately, on that day much below the average usually kept there. The expressions of confidence in the treasurer by Messrs. Doyle, Hitchcock and Shea must be extremely gratifying to Mr Stofen in this time of his great misfortune. It is only at such times that true friendship and good will can be shown. Of those who know Captain Stofen not one will pass him by on the other side. His friends here and in Sonoma, and everywhere he is known, have the most unlimited confidence in his integrity and the deepest sympathy for his misfortune.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 12 1895

 

…[Sheriff Sam Allen] wore a puzzled look yesterday when he was asked if there were yet any clews to the big robbery of the County Treasurer’s office, which occurred about a year ago.

“It is a mystery yet,” he said, “and as much a mystery as It was on December 28, 1894, when it was committed. I have employed different detectives and have followed all the clews, but all the work counts for nothing.

“It is as strange still as when the safe was unlocked and Captain Stofen, the County Treasurer, was taken out of the vault.

“I have gone over the entire field. It has cost considerable to investigate the matter, but that wouldn’t count for anything if we had caught the guilty persons. I am at a loss today to tell about it.

“The robbers got $8000. We followed a good many different clews, but we always came up against a stone wall.

“We didn’t discover anybody who was spending any unusual amount of money, and if the offenders are yet in the county they have always been too smart to spend the money. They are either staying there and laying low, or else have goi out of the county entirely. I do not know which.

– The San Francisco Call, December 28, 1895

 

…There have been doubts openly expressed whether there really was a robbery or not.

Of these doubts the Jury seem to have taken cognizance of for they made some experiments In regard to the doors locks ventilation and acoustic qualities of the vault, intended to test the probability of the account of his robbery which Mr Stofen gave. Just what conclusion if any the Jurors came to as the result of these experiments they failed to make known in their report. It would seem however that their belief in the reality of the robbery was not made complete by their use of the expression “alleged robbery.” Suit has beep begun for the shortage and the question of whether there really was a robbery or not may be made an issue in the trial.

– San Francisco Chronicle, February 16, 1896

 

…One of the Grand Jurymen was locked in the vault and his hammering on the walls could be heard on the second floor of the Courthouse. Stofen claimed that he was unable to make noise enough to attract the attention of passers-by in the passage within a few feet of him.

At our last session we passed the following resolutions: That having spent much time in the examination of witnesses in connection with the alleged robbery of the county treasury, and having heard the supplementary report of the expert on the accounts of ex-Treasurer Stofen, this Grand Jury hereby records its opinion that the accounts of ex-Treasurer Stofen are correct up to 1894, and we could find no explanation of the reported deficiency of nearly $8000, except a real or pretended robbery.

– Sonoma Democrat, February 22 1896

 

THE TREASURY CASE.
Sonoma County vs P. N. Stofen and Bondsmen.
Numerous Witnesses Called and the Case Submitted Without Argument.

The case of Sonoma County vs P. N. Stofen and bondsmen came up regularly in Department Two of the Superior Court Thursday.

The Supreme Court decided in the Mulligan case that robbery could be plead as a defense, and the Stofen case being a parallel one, that part of the case was eliminated from the present trial and the only point left to decide was whether it was robbery or not.

Captain Stofen was the first witness called and testified to the main facts of the robbery, also as to how his books were kept and the amount of money he had on hand on December 28, 1894, the day of the robbery.

Mrs. F. McG. Martin testified that she was in her office during the day of the robbery, but heard no unusual noises in the treasurer’s office.

Deputy Sheriff Brophy also testified to this.

Messrs. B. M. Spencer, W. T. Mears, Ben S. Wood Jr., James Hassett, L. E. Ricksecker, E. F. Woodward and W. V, Griffith were called as witnesses. They had all been present when experiments had been made with the vault in the treasurer’s office to test how far the sounds of pounding in the vault could be heard in different parts of the court house.

After the testimony was all in the case was submitted without argument.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 3 1896

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davisonFB

THE STARTLING LIFE THAT ONCE HE LIVED (Hidden Lives III)

It came to this: He was afraid to step outside at night because they might be waiting for him in the dark.

His attackers during 1886 were a troupe of Santa Rosa boys who thought it was great fun to pelt Henry’s little house with stones and other objects, with Henry sometimes being struck himself. The boys made a project of it, curating rotten chicken eggs and spoiled fruit along with heavy-but-throwable rocks, hauling this ammunition stockpile down to the poorest part of town on First Street. His door was their target, but sometimes the missiles went through windows.

The harassment had gone on for a while – weeks, maybe months – while his pleas for help were ignored by the authorities. “The Marshal told him that the boys would not do it if they did not think it annoyed him, and they do it to hear the old gentleman complain”, reported the Democrat newspaper in January. Another item about the ongoing attacks appeared nine months later, with the comment it was too bad that it was happening because Henry and his wife were such good Christians.

The boys likely picked on the Davisons because they were African-Americans. Santa Rosa in the 19th century never had much tolerance for its non-white residents, and 1886 was particularly bad – on a downtown street that summer, a youth repeatedly beat a Chinese man in the head with an iron bar; no arrests were made and the newspaper waved it off with the same “boys will be boys” attitude.

Henry was also an easy target because he was elderly (67) and had the humblest job in town, shining shoes at Gus Koch’s barber shop on the corner of Mendocino and Fourth Street. His nickname was even “Shiner” – and let’s not overlook that was also racist slang for anyone with a black complexion.

Another reason they may have gone after him was because he had to be a liar or a fabulist. There were stories told about him which couldn’t possibly be true – such a frail, old shoeshine man in a farmtown like Santa Rosa couldn’t have known famous people, taken part in historic events or done any other remarkable things. It all had to be made up. Right?

This is the third and final installment in the series “THE HIDDEN LIVES OF BLACK SANTA ROSA.” Each of the other profiles had lost or fragmentary chapters where we don’t know much about the early parts of their story. For Henry Davison, the pages in the whole middle section of his book are ripped out.

Henry William Davison was born in Savannah on August 12, 1819. Lloyd Belton, who researched Davison’s genealogy as part of his PhD work on black abolitionists, believes his mother was a Jamaican house slave and his father was her white English slaveowner. Both Henry and his brother George were likely slaves at birth.

We first meet Henry as a teenager in New York City. How he got there is unknown; he and George might have escaped or been released from slavery. What we do know is that he was smart, articulate and a radical abolitionist – which meant he believed all slavery in the U.S. should be abolished immediately, some arguing it should be done by any means necessary including violence (John Brown being that most famous adherent).

Despite his youth, Henry was a firebrand within the early American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), the first national group fighting to end slavery. This was cutting-edge activism in the 1830s, years before the more famous figures we celebrate today such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth or Harriet Tubman.

There was a schism within AASS from the beginning; on one side were the radical abolitionists led by William Lloyd Garrison, a white printer who was also an early advocate of women’s rights. Opposing them were those who believed in the older colonization movement, which thought white Americans would never welcome freed slaves as equals and thought it was best for them to emigrate to Liberia in Africa or maybe Central America.1 That faction also opposed allowing women to vote or even join in anti-slavery societies.

Henry Davison was firmly tethered to the Garrison camp, and while still eighteen founded the black-only “Garrison Anti-Slavery Society” in New York City, the use of the name to probably signal there was no question about which side of the fence they stood. A few months later a letter from Henry was published in The Liberator (the weekly abolitionist newspaper published by Garrison in Boston). There Davison denounced colonizationists as “apologists,” a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” and called their associated church a “nest of unclean birds” (nice phrase, that). This drew sharp responses from leaders of that movement.

Despite his youth Henry was a rising star in AASS, being part of the New York state delegation at their 1839 convention when the organization had over a quarter-million members nationwide. There he must have rubbed shoulders with the men and women who were founding the Underground Railroad.

His life as a radical abolitionist shifted in his twenties as he became an AASS organizer in Jamaica, working under the umbrella of Oberlin College. This was right after full emancipation was granted in the British West Indies, and the Herculean task was helping the former slaves build an autonomous society while staving off efforts by the planters to dominate. He went to work for the London Missionary Society, which was more experienced in culture building (culture imposing might be a better way to say it) and was affiliated with another British charity focused just on public education. (The pay was likely better than AASS, too.)

Now we’ve come to the part of his lifestory where the middle chapters are missing. In 1849 he married Jane Rachael Malliet, the daughter of a Jamaican planter and who is buried next to him at Santa Rosa’s Rural Cemetery. But little is known from 1850 until he arrives in Sonoma county in 1870 aside from a few lines in his obituary, which seem to be badly garbled. Our loss is that the writer drops the intriguing tease that Henry “had some startling experiences.”

Some of it involves the Panama Railroad. Before the transcontinental train, people were desperate for a faster route between the East Coast and San Francisco – the best anyone could do in the mid-19th century was building a railroad across Panama, which shaved months off the trip of sailing around South America. Construction began in 1850 and would take five years to complete; it was brutal work and involved many Jamaican laborers, which might have been Henry’s connection to the initial project. The obit stated he was “appointed head steward by the chief engineer.” Years later, after the trains began running he was supposedly involved with the railroad again; during that time there was at least one incident where abolitionists used the trip to assist slaves escaping their slaveholders.2

Davison’s “startling experiences” supposedly happened in 1856, when he “accompanied General Walker to Nicaragua.” This is not the place to dig into the complicated (and very weird) story of William Walker; all Gentle Reader needs to know is he was an American freebooter who invaded Nicaragua that year, had himself named president and re-legalized slavery, all part of a plan to annex the country to the U.S. as a new slave-holding state. For more there’s Wikipedia, an entertaining animated short video that rushes through most of his story and a first-rate thesis which should be turned into a book (PDF).

No matter how hard one tries, there’s no way to square the circle on this story – an African-American abolitionist like Davison would have no truck with a rabid white supremacist such as Walker, who not only wanted to bring slaves from southern states but reboot the African slave trade. While I’ll easily believe Henry could have been in Nicaragua at the time and had come away with some ripping yarns about the chaos there, methinks the obituary writer must have gotten the details upside down.

Whatever startling experiences he had there, that marks the beginning of his untraceable years. What happened to their children? We don’t know (their youngest, Henry Jr. was born in Jamaica the year after he was in Nicaragua). Why did they come to Sonoma county – did they have friends here? We don’t know. Once they arrived in Santa Rosa, why did he (apparently) have no connection with the network of Bay Area civil rights activists, even though some of the East Coast abolitionists from his past were in San Francisco? We don’t know.

Intersection of Mendocino and Fourth streets in Santa Rosa c. 1870, when Henry Davison arrived. The courthouse and jail are seen at left; on the opposite corner is the Roney Building, which was where Davison shined shoes in Gus Koch’s barber shop. This is likely another drawing by African-American artist Grafton Tyler Brown (see intro). Image courtesy Sonoma County Library
Intersection of Mendocino and Fourth streets in Santa Rosa c. 1870, when Henry Davison arrived. The courthouse and jail are seen at left; on the opposite corner is the Roney Building, which was where Davison shined shoes in Gus Koch’s barber shop. This is likely another drawing by African-American artist Grafton Tyler Brown (see intro). Image courtesy Sonoma County Library

He was 50/51 in 1870 when he and Jane landed in Santa Rosa and until he died almost thirty years later, he led a nondescript life.

He made 25¢ for four shoeshines – to just earn as much as a California farm laborer, he needed to shine a minimum of 46 shoes every day. It was barely enough to live on; his obituary stated he “subsisted almost entirely upon the charity of the friends he made in better days.” Still, he needed to beg for public charity. The year before the boys began pelting the Davison’s home with rocks and rotten eggs, the Board of Supervisors authorized the treasurer to make his rent payment (such grants to the destitute were not unusual).

Besides having his house stoned – and the police refusing to do anything to stop it – Davison endured other indignities in Santa Rosa.

Right after he arrived in 1871, Henry registered to vote. The Registrar of Voters began requiring a physical description in the 1890s; while the data for 1892 appear correct, in 1896 Henry was identified as a blue-eyed blonde in the Great Register. It probably was just a racist prank, but we can’t rule out it might have been a ruse to block him from casting his ballot.

Then there was the fundraiser for the San Francisco Midwinter Fair. The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago had been such a hit that it was decided to have a big exposition in Golden Gate Park to boost California, including an exhibit of Sonoma County products (Healdsburg’s contribution was a prune bridge). This project consumed the county and particularly Santa Rosa; hundreds of articles appeared in the Democrat about meetings to plan planning meetings and committees formed to form subcommittees. It kept much of the town busy for months.

To help pay the necessary expenses, there were three nights of entertainments by local people presented at the big Athenaeum theater at the corner of Fourth and D. The first half of each show was like an amateur vaudeville bill, with a string of singers, piano players and fiddlers (I confess surprise at finding one act was a “trapeze performance by the Cole family”). The second part of the program was a rehearsed production, of sorts. One evening it was the portrayal of a schoolday with the “Mud-Alley Kindergarten” which was apparently as adorable as it sounded, and another night it was “Ye Old Folk’s Concert.” But the evening that was most popular, according to the Democrat, had a revue done in blackface:

The second night of the Midwinter Fair entertainment in the Athenaeum was in every way worthy to follow its predecessor. There was not the burlesque which characterized the first evening’s performance, though the audience found much to laugh at in the admirable and varied makeups of the ladies and gentlemen who took their daintiest steps for the cake. To say that the aggregation of counterfeit Africans was elite would be bare of hyperbole. There was nothing shabby or rowdyish in the character representation. The elegance of the costumes and toilets added a zest to the fun of guessing the identities which were concealed beneath the curled hair and prepared cork. The march which preceded the walk for the cake abounded in graceful evolutions, all ot which were paired off in a manner appropriate to the occasion…C. B. Kirkpatrick, as “Shiner,” was a feature of the cake walk. Campbell should take out patent papers on his admirable impersonation of the character.

henrydavisonMaybe that was not the lowest depth to which our 19th century Santa Rosa ancestors ever sunk, but mocking an impoverished 74 year-old man has to rank near the bottom. The worst part is that I doubt any of them even considered the cruelty of having a good laugh at his expense.

Henry W. Davison died in 1899, nine years after Jane (she had no obituary, nor even a single-line death notice in the paper). As an indigent, he was about to be buried in the Potter’s Field when the Press Democrat stepped in and paid to have him laid to rest next to his wife in the regular part of the cemetery. I don’t believe the newspaper ever did anything like that again, and it’s unknown why they offered this act of charity – although the paper slipped some PR into his obituary by pointing out “…the additional expense of the interment consequent to his being placed where he wished being borne by the Press Democrat.” This doesn’t completely explain why, but keep in mind the journal was no longer the old Democrat edited by the racist Thompson brothers, but now helmed by a new generation of young men who grew up in Santa Rosa. I have a theory which needs more background to explain than is appropriate here, which is explored in the story about the origins of the PD.

Of all the mysteries whispered in the old Rural Cemetery, the story of Henry Davison stands among the most haunting. He should not have ended up here as he did; he should not have ended up here at all. Henry Davison should have ended up as one of the storied men in the quest for slavery’s end and then the long struggle for equal rights. But something happened and we’ll probably never know what caused his retreat. When Act II of his life took place in the Caribbean, Henry Davison was an educated man who likely had considerable leadership abilities and political skills. When the curtain rose for Act III in Santa Rosa, we saw on stage a man with his back bent low over the feet of less notable men, working at an unskilled job usually held by boys, or men with damaged wits. There must be a story there that none know.

 


1 Abraham Lincoln was a colonizationist before the Emancipation Proclamation, and in 1862 pushed forward a plan to resettle District of Columbia’s freed slaves at the Chiriquí province of Panama, which the Republican Press suggested should be called “The Colony of Linconia.”

2 In “The Negro Trail Blazers of California,” researcher Delilah Beasley tells the story about abolitionists in 1856 intercepting a family of slaves who were being taken by a Virginia slaveholder to work on a ranch near Petaluma (!) but en route plans were made for the family to escape once the journey ended in San Francisco. The crews on the steamers were supposedly entirely black, and the train porters were probably black as well.

 

sources
Court-house.- From and after this day the undersigned will give the best polish with first-class blacking – no acid — at 4 shines for 25c. His old friends and customers are requested to call and patronize the pioneer old man, H. W. Davidson.

– Daily Democrat, November 10 1877

 

On motion of Supervisor Coulter the Board ordered that a warrant be drawn on the County Treasurer in favor of Proctor, Reynolds & Co., for payment of house rent occupied by Henry W. Davidson, (colored) alias “Shiner.”

– Sonoma Democrat, December 12 1885

 

Malicious Mischief.

Henry Davis, better known as “Shiner,” has made a complaint to the city authorities against a gang of hoodlums of tender years, who take delight in bothering the old couple. They throw large stones and missiles of every description against the old gentleman’s cottage door, and he further states that he is afraid to stir outside of his house after dark, as he has frequently been struck with stones, decayed vegetables, and antiquated hen fruit at different times. The Marshal told him that the boys would not do it if they did not think it annoyed him, and they do it to hear the old gentleman complain. It is carrying the joke a little too far, aud some of them may get hurt when the old gentleman gets up his ire.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 23 1886

 

Not Pleasant.

Old Uncle Davidson (colored) alias “Shiner,” complains that his aged wife and himself are very much annoyed by a few young hoodlums who make a practice of throwing rocks and other missiles against their door, and on one or two occasions through the windows, while they are engaged in their religious devotions. The old couple, although a littie off color, possess as white hearts as the average of mankind, and are very strict in what they term their religious duties. The old gentleman says there is not a day passes that they do not read their Bible and say their Litany; and it is not hard to agree with him that it is not pleasant to have rocks, decayed fruit, etc., hurled through the door, when it is open, and against it, when it is shut, while the inmates are thus engaged.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 4 1886

 

The second night of the Midwinter Fair entertainment in the Athenaeum was in every way worthy to follow its predecessor. There was not the burlesque which characterized the first evening’s performance, though the audience found much to laugh at in the admirable and varied makeups of the ladies and gentlemen who took their daintiest steps for the cake. To say that the aggregation of counterfeit Africans was elite would be bare of hyperbole. There was nothing shabby or rowdyish in the character representation. The elegance of the costumes and toilets added a zest to the fun of guessing the identities which were concealed beneath the curled hair and prepared cork. The march which preceded the walk for the cake abounded in graceful evolutions, all ot which were paired off in a manner appropriate to the occasion…C. B. Kirkpatrick, as “Shiner,” was a feature of the cake walk. Campbell should take out patent papers on his admirable impersonation of the character.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 23 1893

 

SHINER GONE HOME
Found Dead in His Room Here Thursday Horning
The Little Old Man Laid to Rest at Eventide Beside His Wife in the Cemetery

Henry W. Davison, known, however, to every man, woman and child in Santa Rosa at the present time and for many years past as “Shiner” Davis, the little, old, tottering colored man, is no more.

Thursday morning shortly before 11 o’clock, Bert Gardner, in a room of whose house on First street old “Shiner” resided, discovered the old man lying on the floor beside his bed quite dead, and he had been so apparently for several hours.

Everything was very still in the old man’s room on Thursday morning. A little before 11 o’clock Mrs. Gardner went to the door to see if he wanted something to eat.

She called to him, but received no reply. Becoming alarmed she called her husband, who was outside, who, in company with a neighbor Mr. Thompson, went to the room and found Mr. Davison had passed away. He was partially undressed.

Undertaker Pedersen was notified, and so was Coroner Pierce, who held an inquest later in the day, the verdict being in accordance with the testimony. A Press Democrat representative ascertained from Mr. Gardner that the old man had frequently expressed a wish to be buried in Rural cemetery by his wife, who died here in 1890. Mr. Pedersen, who has the contract for burying the county indigents, was consulted. It was found there would be extra expense beyond that allowed by the county if the old man’s wish was complied with, and his remains buried in his lot at the cemetery beside those of his wife, instead of in the potter’s field.

Late in the afternoon the old man’s body was laid to rest. The funeral was a quiet affair but the old man was not buried in the lonely potter’s field. Old “Shiner’s” last wish was gratified, the additional expense of the interment consequent to his being placed where he wished being borne by the Press Democrat.

Henry W. Davison was born in Savannah, Georgia, on August 12, 1819. His father was an Englishman and his mother was a native of the island of Jamaica. At 13 years of age he left Georgia and went to New York, where shortly after becoming of age he secured a position with the missionaries sent out by Oberlin university to Jamaica. He taught the Jamaicans under the direction of the society for some time, and later became associated with the London missionary society. Returning to New York he joined the Congregational church, and in 1848 started for Aspinwall, having been appointed head steward by the chief engineer of the Panama railroad. The following year he returned to Jamaica for his health, and the same year, 1849, was married there to a daughter of Jean Marjeatte, a planter.

In 1B56 he accompanied General Walker to Nicaragua, and had some startling experiences while with him. Later he returned to New York, went thence to Aspinwall again, and in 1870 came to Petaluma, moving to Santa Rosa the same year, where he resided until the day of his death. For many years he ran a bootblack stand in Koch’s barber shop. His wife died in this city on April 4, 1890. “Shiner” was a kind hearted old man, and for several years had subsisted almost entirely upon the charity of the friends he made in better days.

– Press Democrat, February 18 1899

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pipedreams

SEBASTOPOL’S CHINATOWNS

In other times and places they may have been considered twin villages. The two communities brushed against each other, each with a mercantile district, its own places of worship and sometimes populations of roughly the same size. But never did they have equal standing, which is because one of those communities was entirely Chinese immigrants and this was the American West in the 19th century. Specifically, this was Sebastopol and its Chinatown. Its two Chinatowns, actually.

Before diving in, it pains me to admit the tale you’re about to read is incomplete. I’ve pecked away at the history of this fascinating lost world for ages, returning to it whenever another historic newspaper or trove of other data came online. But it’s been a while since anything really significant surfaced; it looks like some sections of the puzzle – critically important sections, at that – will always be missing. So here I’ve put together what I have, in the hope that someday a family memoir, a dusty photo album or a history by one of San Francisco’s Six Companies will appear, allowing scholars of Chinese culture in the West to cement more parts of the picture together.

This project began over seven years ago after finding a remark by West County historian Bill Borba: “Sebastopol had two Chinatowns that must have had in the neighborhood of 200-300 Chinese in them…” Sure enough, I found the fire maps which showed the village seemed to have two Chinese enclaves about a block apart. I soon learned this was a very unusual situation.


“JOHN CHINAMAN” COMES TO SONOMA

The earliest Chinese immigrants probably arrived in Sonoma county around 1855, as they did in Marin; the 1860 census shows about forty, all but a handful living in the town of Sonoma. During this decade the local newspapers fed readers a steady diet of racist stories about the doings of “John Chinaman” in San Francisco or the Gold Country, but little about the men living here. A rare 1868 item from the Santa Rosa paper told of a Chinese man who reported being robbed by two boys – but “several white persons near by when the alleged act was committed” claimed he was lying, so the case was dropped.

By the 1870 census the Chinese population had grown tenfold; 470 men were counted in the county overall with over half (280) living in Petaluma. Salt Point was the third largest Chinese group with 96 (mainly logging camps at Timber Cove and Duncan’s Mills). Five were listed in Bloomfield. In 1871, California Pacific railroad brought in a crew of over a thousand Chinese laborers to begin work on a rail line between Santa Rosa and Cloverdale. Judging by the number of newspaper reports, this decade was by far the most violent for Chinese immigrants, with multiple reports of beatings, shootings and a trend of young white boys shooting them in the face. The most disturbing incidents were when hunters found a body in the Laguna; although the Coroner’s Jury met there and believed the man had been murdered, there was no further investigation and the remains were buried at the site following the verdict. Near Bloomfield, an immigrant supposedly attempted suicide by cutting his throat, followed by splitting his head open with an axe. When the Coroner’s Jury arrived at the scene they found the body some distance away in a potato field; it was decided the injured man stumbled there on his own and there was no foul play involved in any of it. The body remained lying in the field for several days.

Although the 1880 census missed the entire Chinese community at Bloomfield (although there were eight counted in Valley Ford), there were still 901 enumerated in the county, with Sonoma City, Santa Rosa and Petaluma having the largest populations, in that order. The population of the Analy Township was 1,380 with 37 Chinese immigrants, and Sebastopol had 197 residents with only three from China.

Only summaries of the 1890 census exist, but there were 1,173 identified as Chinese in the entire county with 231 in the Analy Township (there was no breakout for Sebastopol), slightly behind Santa Rosa’s leading count of 277.

Was this a single community split between different streets or were these really two separate Chinatowns? Evidence points both ways. Until the last buildings were razed in 1943 1945, the Sebastopol newspaper referred to one as New (or Barnes’) Chinatown and the other as Old (or Brown’s) Chinatown. Each had its own “joss house” (a place of worship) which I’m told was never seen in a town so small. (By contrast, there was no joss house at all in Santa Rosa, although we know there was a room used as a temple.) But did one group have better status, more wealth than the other? Those and other loose threads are tugged below.

Nor do we have any images of the Chinatowns except for grainy photos taken before it was to be demolished. There are no known pictures of any residents – the man seen at the top of this article is from Arnold Genthe’s book on San Francisco’s Chinatown at around the turn of the century.

Even worse, we don’t have an accurate view of how many people were living there at any particular time. Old census data was often problematic when it came to enumerating ethnic minorities, possibly because of racism or language barriers. In the 1880 census there were no Chinese counted in Bloomfield, for example, although there were probably hundreds living there; other census takers in the county that year didn’t make much of an effort to record Chinese names with any accuracy, filling in the census forms with meaningless stubs such as “Lee,” “ah Gus,” “Hong Kong,” or “Sing.” Complicating matters, the census was usually taken during the summer months when Chinese ag workers might be away from where they lived most of the year, dispersed on farms or among work crews where they could be overlooked (or hidden). A more specific example of these problems is below.

Our story begins in 1885, although newspapers had occasionally mentioned Chinese men in Sebastopol over the previous decade. (Most news about early Sebastopol comes from the Petaluma Argus, as older 19th century Santa Rosa papers mostly ignored the village.) That year Aaron Barnes announced he was moving “his China houses” off Main Street; it didn’t happen for several years, as the 1888 fire map shown below still showed a Chinatown with about a dozen buildings, roughly across the street from today’s Copperfield’s store.

Aaron Barnes (1816-1897) was a farmer/real estate investor who owned several lots around downtown Sebastopol, most notably the large corner at Petaluma Ave. and (modern) Highway 12, where the CVS and Benedetti Tire now stand. He had a quirky life, which earned him a profile in “SEBASTOPOL WAS ALWAYS QUIRKY,” but it was never explained why he seemed to have so much devotion to his Chinese tenants. There’s a family story that he liked them better than the white townsfolk because a church had done something to offend him and his first wife. But his cause of death was diagnosed as constipation, which might seem unusual because the cure-all tonics during his era were usually strong laxatives mixed with alcohol. That condition is also famously a side-effect from chronic use of opium.

1888 Sanborn map of Sebastopol's downtown Chinatown
1888 Sanborn map of Sebastopol’s downtown Chinatown

The situation changed quickly and dangerously in the first weeks of 1886. Anti-Chinese vigilante committees had been running amok on the West Coast for months, terrorizing immigrants into leaving their communities under threats of death. While Sonoma County locals were chanting the popular “Chinese must go” mantra, there was no violence or anti-Chinese activism here. But when members of Petaluma’s Wickersham family were brutally killed in mid-January and their Chinese cook was accused of the deed, anti-Chinese Leagues sprouted overnight in every Sonoma community with intent to expel them. For in-depth coverage on that story, see “THE YEAR OF THE ANTI-CHINESE LEAGUE.”

Before the end of that January there was a trickle of Chinese coming into Santa Rosa from Cloverdale, Healdsburg and other points north. Some were passing through on their way to San Francisco, but many apparently were lingering in town to see how the situation would develop – the Democrat newspaper reported there were over 600 Chinese in Santa Rosa as the month ended. Sebastopol’s Chinatown swelled at the same time. The correspondent for the Argus wrote “the town has about 360 Chinese and they outnumber about 250 whites.” In the next few weeks, the Chinese population of Sebastopol peaked at an estimated 400-450.


BLOOMFIELD’S “PIGTAIL ALLEY”

Before it became dairy county, Big Valley (Bloomfield + Valley Ford) was known for its potatoes; 100,000 sacks a year were carted down to the Petaluma wharf in the wagons which were jokingly called “spud schooners.” As planting and digging so many potatoes is quite labor intensive, Big Valley was also known for its many, many Chinese immigrants. When they hit Peak Potato around 1880 it’s often claimed 300 Chinese men lived in or around Bloomfield, although local historian Bill Borba always said the number was closer to 600, far larger than Sebastopol’s combined Chinatowns.

Several locations have been identified but none are documented by archaeology; camps were said to be at the current location of Emma Herbert Memorial Park and near the intersection of Roblar Road and Valley Ford Road. Several buildings were rented along Main Street (now Bloomfield Road), with “Pigtail Alley” somewhere nearby. This was probably their Chinatown; a Chinese butcher shop and laundry are mentioned in articles below, so it’s fairly safe to assume there was a business area similar in size to Sebastopol.

In February 1886 an Anti-Chinese Committee was formed in Bloomfield, same as in all other Sonoma County communities. But the situation was different, due to the size of the Chinese community (“there is no town in the state, of its size, where there are so many Chinese” – Sonoma Democrat) and because some Bloomfielders were inclined to vigilante activity. An unsuccessful attempt was made to blow up a Chinese laundry (“result, a lot of frightened Chinamen and a shattered floor”) and a spring that supplied water was salted. That October – months after the anti-Chinese fervor had sputtered out in Santa Rosa and other places – the Argus reported that vigilantes “…have AGAIN [emphasis mine] taken the law into their own hands and have forcibly ejected them from the town.”

Predictably, the farmers found themselves short-handed when potato harvest season arrived in 1887: “It is impossible to get enough white hands. Chinamen are scarce and disposed to boycott the Bloomfield country, from which they were driven a year since.” Potato blight damaged much of the crop in 1889 and by 1891 there were only about 100 acres still planted in potatoes, most of the land converted to dairy pastures.

Many who sought refuge in Sebastopol presumably were coming from nearby Bloomfield, which had the largest sustained Chinese community in the county. Bloomfield was also the site of the only local vigilante activity, which continued for months (see sidebar). But as winter turned into spring even the Chinatowns in Sebastopol and Santa Rosa shrunk greatly, although it’s most likely because of residents melting away into the countryside to take their customary farm jobs now that growing season approached.

After a year passed there was no sign the anti-Chinese furor had any lasting effect in Sebastopol (“there are more Chinamen in Sebastopol to the square foot than in any American town that we know of” – Argus). The Petaluma paper reported boys – and women from Santa Rosa – were coming to the village’s Chinatown to smoke opium, a matter of some irritation to the townsfolk.

The first possible sighting of a second Chinatown appears in 1889: “The Chinese have built a Joss house in town.” That it was built by the Chinese themselves (or perhaps, paid for by them) suggests Barnes was not involved, as he apparently always hired contractors.

This other Chinatown was on property owned by John Brown, like Barnes a farmer/real estate investor, although on a much larger scale – he had some 1,400 acres on the east end of Sebastopol which he leased to others, making him the second largest landowner in the area (the Walker ranch was larger). His cottage still exists on the edge of town and is currently home to the Animal Kingdom Veterinary Hospital.

That became known as Old Chinatown. Then 15 months later, in early 1891, New Chinatown started to appear: “Elliot & Berry are building a fine Joss House for the Chinamen.” Later that year, “a number of China houses are in course of erection on the corner of Petaluma and Bodega avenues by Mr. Aaron Barnes, and the Joss house which has been located near Mr. Barnes’ residence has been moved to the same lot.” (It never ceases to amaze me that they moved houses around like dominoes back then.) To be clear: This Chinatown occupied the entire footprint of the modern CVS and its parking lot.

And so Sebastopol became accustomed to having two Chinatowns in its backyard. One of the rare items in the Sebastopol paper that mentions both describes the comic 1898 efforts to restrain a bull running through the town: “…he concluded to have some noodle soup and charged the restaurant in Barnes’ Chinatown. The boss cook banged a big tin pan against the noodle pot with such effect that his lordship wheeled for Brown’s Chinatown. Whether he wanted to hit the pipe or was looking for a game of fan tan is not known…”

Another episode from the same year shows how fairly the town treated their Chinese residents. During Lunar New Year celebrations Deputy Constable Woodward attempted a little extortion, demanding $5 from each merchant who was exploding firecrackers. As there was no such thing as a firecracker tax, two men began arguing with Woodward; that turned into a fight with the cop pistol-whipping a young man named Ah Woy, who filed a complaint against the constable. During the court hearing a few days later about a dozen Chinese witnesses testified. Woodward’s defense was that he only asked Woy to quiet down and was attacked by Woy while trying to assist him to go indoors. “Some of the Chinese witnesses, however, did not seem to agree with the constable’s version of the fracas,” the Press Democrat reported. “Some of them of the ‘little bit Engleesh’ persuasion just looked daggers at Mr. Woodward.” The court fined Woodward $20 for battery and dismissed Woodward’s assault charge against Woy.

There was probably no happier year in those places than 1898. There were now children in the community and there was a wedding:


“A Chinese bride! A Chinese bride!” The word was passed like wildfire among the crowd at the Donahue depot as the ten o’clock train on the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad slowed up there Wednesday morning. Instantly everybody was anxious to catch a glimpse of the celestial maiden, clad in the most fantastic of bridal costumes…When the bride and her party arrived at Sebastopol they were given a great reception by scores of Chinese. In a gaily decorated vehicle adorned with flags and Chinese lanterns, the bride was escorted through the streets. Later in the day the marriage took place amid much pomp. the groom was a “heap high tone” Chinaman employed on the Knowles ranch near Sebastopol.

Less happy was 1899; almost all of Barnes’ Chinatown burned down, wiping out 15 buildings including stores, boarding houses, the Joss house and their Masonic hall. There was great concern during the fire because the winds were blowing towards town and no one knew where their hook and ladder truck was (it was found on a vacant lot, someone having borrowed it for personal use). As Aaron Barnes was now deceased, it was unclear whether his son Henry would rebuild. By the end of the year it was reconstructed about 75 feet further east away from Petaluma Ave. One merchant, Quong Wah, was wealthy enough to build his own place.

1903 Sanborn map of Sebastopol's Old Chinatown and New Chinatown
1903 Sanborn map of Sebastopol’s Old Chinatown and New Chinatown

In the summer of 1900 the census taker found 77 Chinese in and around Sebastopol, two of them women. Most were in small knots of 3-5 laborers living on farms but about a third were in the Chinatowns, which now had two groceries, two merchandise stores, three laundries and a barber. The two Chinatowns were still about equal size on the 1903 map. John A. Brown died in 1905 and the property passed to his daughter, Birdie, who continued making improvements into the 1920s. It was no longer called Old Chinatown/Brown’s Chinatown but “China Alley.”

Fast-forward ahead another decade; the 1910 census is the only one which recognized two Chinatowns, with about 25 people living in each. Seven were female and nine were born in California. Kim Lee owned a laundry; there were five grocers and eight other stores, which seems like a lot, if there were really only fifty people.

1911 Sanborn map of Sebastopol's China Alley and Barnes street Chinatown
1911 Sanborn map of Sebastopol’s China Alley and Barnes street Chinatown

And now we come to the 1920s; there’s a druggist who has his own store, two salesmen, and sixteen people under age 20, with two dozen people born in California. The census says there are 84 living in “China Town.” Except that’s apparently not really true. To (somewhat) repeat myself: When it comes to the Chinese, the census data is like a house of cards – touch it lightly and it all falls apart.

Meet Johnny Ginn. He was an old man in the early 1970s when he was interviewed by sociologists collecting oral histories of the Chinese experience in California.* He was the only one interviewed who spoke about Sebastopol, having grown up around there; that 1898 story about the Chinese bride concerned his mother.

Johnny’s father was named Ginn Wall and as the wedding item states, he worked on the Knowles ranch near Sebastopol. But according to the 1900 census, there were no Chinese living on or near the William H. Knowles ranch. Same for 1910, 1920. In fact, Johnny and his parents can’t be spotted in any census at all, as far as I can tell, and they were not alone in being overlooked. As he told the researchers, “There were about three hundred Chinese farmworkers up there, and they were all old men…and except for my mother, not a single woman. That was the whole Chinese settlement in Sebastopol.”

Johnny’s mother died in 1929 and his father went broke being a tenant farmer. After saving for the next six years they finally had the $600 to send Ginn Wall back to China by himself. Johnny told the researchers he realized that the farm settlement in Sebastopol was dying:


All those old guys thought about was how they wanted to go back to China. But there’s only about six months work in the year on apples, so they never saved a thing. And the only other thing besides work was gambling. Gambling was the social life, and gambling was the pastime. Everybody hoped to make a few bucks so they could go home in the easy way. The others lost their money and got stuck from year to year.

By then in the mid-1930s it was a bachelor society of elderly men. There was nothing still keeping him there, so Johnny became a migrant worker.

1929 Sanborn map of Sebastopol's Brown ave. and Barnes ave.
1929 Sanborn map of Sebastopol’s Brown ave. and Barnes ave.

Our last glimpse of the Chinatowns comes from the 1929 map, which shows the one on Brown Ave. (now Brown St.) in slow decline, while Barnes Ave. has slightly grown. The census in the following year again had a low headcount of 54 residents, but there was also now the eight-member Gin Hop family with their own house on Pitt Ave. (He was a China-born merchant and presumably no relation to Ginn Wall.)


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PDF file of transcribed sources discussed in this article (26 pages)



Of most interest to historians is the 1929 map appearance of a Tong Hall at the southernmost end, which raises several intriguing questions. It’s possible it had been there for years, but escaped notice of white cartographers who didn’t understand it possibly represented the foothold of a crime gang. In the late 1890s the Sebastopol paper had several items about highbinders (tong enforcers, sometimes hit men) being in town and a man who supposedly was a local highbinder was himself killed there in 1899. Although the separate Chinatowns began as protectorates of Messrs. Barnes and Brown, it’s possible they soon came under the control of rival tongs. This would explain why two joss houses were sustained the entire time. (UPDATE: Most tongs were not criminal, particularly at this late date.)

It all came to an end in 1943, when Sebastopol condemned the last buildings on Barnes ave. as fire hazards. Press Democrat reporter Pete Johnson described the place as “ghostlike,” although there were some people still living there. A few remained in Brown’s Chinatown until August, 1945 when that district was likewise condemned.

The last celebration of Chinese New Year was apparently 1932 and it was a low-key affair, the usual gaiety dampened by the Japanese invasion of Manchuria a few months earlier. “Chinese and Japanese in the settlement here are said to exchange nothing but short greetings, but the situation isn’t acute,” the Sebastopol Times reported. Only a few gathered at the joss house to celebrate because only a few were still around. “Old-timers in the Chinatown here estimate their number to be less than 70…about one-fourth of the population several years ago,” said the Times, the paper at last acknowledging the true size of the historic community.

But earlier New Year celebrations there were always happy times, regardless of their pitiable situations, and it was also the only time of the year when the Sebastopol gwáilóu came over to visit with them. Let’s end our survey with a peek at the celebration in 1920:


Wednesday noon in front of the joss house several strings of fire crackers, each over thirty feet in length, were exploded, much to the delight of Sebastopol’s boyhood. The Chinese had erected a high tripod on which they suspended the long strings of fire crackers by means of a pulley, but the first string had hardly been ignited when the tripod collapsed and the entire string exploded at once, much to the dismay of the Chinese…The rest of the fire crackers were more successful. All afternoon the tom toms and cymbals were kept busy by the Chinese musicians who were stationed in the joss house.
1943 views of Barnes Ave. Chinatown (Press Democrat) The Sonoma County Library History & Genealogical Library has another photo with a partial view of the Wing Yuen Tai Co. store and employment office on the corner of Barnes Ave. in the 1920s.
1943 views of Barnes Ave. Chinatown (Press Democrat) The Sonoma County Library History & Genealogical Library has another photo with a partial view of the Wing Yuen Tai Co. store and employment office on the corner of Barnes Ave. in the 1920s.

* Longtime Californ’: A Documentary Study of an American Chinatown; Victor Nee and Brett De Bary; 1986; pp. 25-29

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