Mazama

I’LL BE RICH, I TELL YOU, RICH

 When the big book of Sonoma county history is writ, there should be a special chapter on some of the remarkably dumb business ventures that were tried here and flopped spectacularly.

 Near the top of the list would be Jack London’s eucalyptus obsession, which caused him to squander a fortune. London wasn’t alone in the mistaken belief that blue gum trees would be a valuable cash crop but he was probably the largest investor, planting about 100,000 seedlings. The trees proved worthless (plus a fire hazard, to boot) and just made London’s Beauty Ranch stink like cheap menthol cough drops.

London only wasted money with his dream of a eucalyptus plantation, but in the 1870s a Glen Ellen farmer inadvertently launched an environmental disaster. In 1871 Julius A. Poppe set up a fish farm but he didn’t stock it with Steelhead or Rainbow Trout or another native fish; instead, he imported common carp all the way from Germany.

Often called a “trash fish,” common carp could be the eucalyptus of the piscatorial world. They grow big very fast, spawn prolifically and crowd out any other species in its vicinity. And like blue gum trees, they are mostly worthless – very difficult to clean as well as eat because of their tiny bones, not to mention being also an acquired taste. Yet it was a traditional food for German/Central European immigrants and carp ponds became a local fad, with Poppe selling breeding fish to more than a dozen farmers.

Big winter storms caused some of the ponds to overflow and by the middle of the decade carp were found in creeks, rivers and the Laguna. That was the death knell for commercial carp farming in Sonoma county, although Poppe also sold stock to farmers in Southern California, Hawai’i, and even Central America.

But there seemed to be an upside to the release of the fish into the wild; carp fishing in the Laguna became a popular sport and a tourist draw. In 1879 the State Board of Fish Commissioners even supported carp by introducing catfish, which would eat the “water dogs” – newts of the now endangered tiger salamander – which preyed upon juvenile carp.

Shift forward fifteen years and attitudes are flipped. Sportsmen realized the carp were forcing out trout and other types of fish which people actually liked to eat, while carp were also reducing the food supply of migratory ducks. Thus in 1896 the state introduced largemouth bass into the Laguna to eat the carp (“all the carp which are now in the stream will eventually be destroyed, as black bass are death on carp” – Sonoma Democrat, 4/24/1897). Two years later the bass itself had become such a nuisance that someone began trying to wipe them out with dynamite: “Every few days a stick of powder is touched off under the water and as a result dead bass in great quantities can be seen floating on the surface,” reported the Sebastopol Times in 1898.

What a fine example this was of the Unintended Consequences Law; in less than a quarter century, a modest side business of a few farmers ended up wrecking an entire ecosystem. Even today, catfish and bass appear to be in all our local waterways, while Mr. Poppe’s carp can still be found in Green Valley Creek, Estero Americano, the Petaluma River and elsewhere.

Although the carp and eucalyptus projects didn’t make any money (or at least not much), at least they moved the ball forward; Poppe successfully imported fish from Germany and sold some. London indeed planted a carpload of trees which no one wanted. But John M. King badly fumbled between the dreaming and the doing. John M. King wanted to become the first steamboat captain on the Russian River.

A 1908 steamer with the same dimensions as King’s Enterprise

 
 

Nothing is known about King – whether he had any experience aboard ships or even how old he was. “John King” and even “John M. King” was a surprisingly common name at that time. From descriptions in the weekly Russian River Flag newspaper we know he indeed built a very small stern-wheel steamboat in 1869. There are no photos but it must have resembled the Mazama steamer shown above. Named the Enterprise, King’s little ship was only fifty feet long and sat high in the water, with a draft of only a foot and the paddles dipping in merely ten inches. Although it was so tiny that it probably looked like somebody’s hobby boat, the specs were a good match for the shallow Russian River except for one issue – the very first article about him mentioned “…in the season of high water the Captain expects to run to Healdsburg.”

Paddling around the lower Russian River and piloting a boat through the bendy twists of the river around Healdsburg are two very different goals. Yes, his dinky steamer was more maneuverable than a larger craft, but that’s not gonna help if that part of the river dried up completely (or nearly so), as it did every autumn back then. The river was only legally declared navigable in 1976 by a court revising the meaning of “navigable” as not necessarily allowing passage year-round. And closer to King’s day back in 1886, the state Supreme Court had declared specifically that “the [Russian] river is not navigable for boats larger than canoes, skiffs, etc., and is not in fact navigable for commercial purposes.”*

Captain King built the Enterprise just downstream from Heald and Guerne’s lumber mill, which is to say a mile west of today’s Safeway store in Guerneville. He also built two barges to tow with his steamer; he had a contract with the mill to carry shingles and lumber to the mouth of the river, where presumably an ocean-going ship would connect to take the barges down to San Francisco. But before he began barging or making his quixotic run to Healdsburg, King wanted to show off a bit.

King took out an ad in the Flag announcing an “excursion” from Guerneville to Duncan’s Mills. “…The trip will afford one continuous panorama of the most beautiful and romantic scenery,” he burbled, as well as the chance to see lumbermen’s camps – which seems to me a bit like the SMART train trying to draw riders by promising scenic views into junky backyards and homeless encampments.

Alas, a cancellation notice quickly followed. “The excursion trip is postponed for a few days, owing to an unavoidable accident which will be soon remedied, when all will be right again.” As the summer and autumn of 1869 passed, King continued to tinker with his boat and just before Christmas the Flag reported that he was actually towing cargo. The excursion to Duncan’s Mill and back (with dancing on the barges in tow) supposedly happened Dec. 23-24, but nothing further appeared in the paper.

He failed to meet his goal of reaching Healdsburg before Christmas, but told the Flag he “intends next Summer to make regular trips – three times a week — from the month of the river to Healdsburg.” Besides working on his boat, “the Capt. has constructed a dam and lock, which gives the river a three foot rise above the dam,” reported the Flag. “He will open the lock and let the boat ride through to the sea on the accumulated waters.”

Then sometime after the New Year with the river around its winter peak, he made a run for Healdsburg. He sank two miles past Guerneville.

“The indomitable Captain has got her afloat again,” reported the Flag a few weeks later. King was aided by someone from the Mare Island Navy Yard as well as fifteen men clearing obstructions in the water. “Capt. King’s steamer, ‘Enterprise,’ will probably reach Healdsburg today. as she is now but a short distance below town,” the paper reported on March 24.

He didn’t. The ship ran aground again and this time could not be budged. It stayed wherever it was for months, maybe years.

In November of 1871 a visitor was told “…she twisted off her shaft and went to the bottom; and how the hulk now lies half-buried in the sand — a warning to any man so presumptuous as to attempt steamboat navigation on a river along which there is not yet enough traffic to have made even a decent bridle-path…”

Hannah Clayborn, who writes some about the steamboat in the “Roads, Ferries, and Bridges” chapter of her Healdsburg history page, suggests it got no farther than the Windsor area, but Dr. Shipley’s “Tales of Sonoma County” says King almost made it to the summer dam:

She struck hard aground and fast, the water went down and left the tug high and dry on the bar and it had to be abandoned until the next high water when the fall rains set in, at which time she was repaired, re-caulked, and with the crew who brought her up the river the spring before, they sailed, or rather steamed, down the muddy water back to the sea…

Why he risked – and ultimately, lost – his river hauling business at Guerneville is a mystery. What was so important about reaching Healdsburg by water? His steamer was so small he could not have carried much cargo aboard, and he certainly could not have gotten his barges through the channel. And even in the middle of the rainy season, Healdsburg was not cut off by road, or at least no more than other towns. A January, 1870 letter from a Healdsburger who went to Vallejo remarked, “the road to Santa Rosa was so so – very fair for our county; from thence to Petaluma it was too abominable to talk about to strangers.”

My guess is that King’s venture was bankrolled by Thomas W. Hudson, who owned considerable property on the southern end of Healdsburg. A one-term member of the state Assembly 1869-1871, the only bill he tried to get passed was to declare the Russian River navigable so state money could be spent on improvement. “This is intended to encourage and protect the indomitable enterprise of Capt. John M. King,” the Flag noted. Hannah Clayborn wrote, “…declaring the river navigable would have served Hudson’s interests, as he owned the west bank of the river and half of a ferry system throughout the 1860’s, a natural location for a proposed Healdsburg Wharf.”

There’s an odd little Believe-it-or-Not! twist to the sad tale of steamboat captain John M. King, and I’m not sure what to make of it. About two months after the (final) sinking, he wrote a letter to the Flag informing them he was now running a sawmill near Cloverdale, and would return to the Russian River soon and build a new ship which he would name the “Perseverance.” Alas, he wrote, Heald and Guerne were trying to break him and had attached the Enterprise for money owed. They had even attached his dog, Gipsey, “which I valued more than money.” The pooch was supposedly sold for $200. “This seems like a large sum. but I would not have taken twice that amount for it.”

The next week Tom Heald wrote the paper. “Heald and Guerne have not attached the boat as represented by King, and, as to his dog ‘Gipsie,’ I never as much as knew he had such a dog. Heald and Guerne do not wish to ‘break’ J. M. King, nor to ‘keep him broke,’ but suppose we will have the pleasure of seeing the ‘Perseverence’ when she comes along.”


* The 1976 case was Hitchings v. Del Rio Woods Recreation & Park District. One of the lawyers in the 1886 Wright v. Seymour suit was this journal’s favorite antihero, James Wyatt Oates.


The Steamboat “Enterprise.” — This boat now being built at Heald’s Mill by Capt. John M. King, will be launched next Saturday the 15th. The machinery is all aboard now and the boat will be completed within two or three weeks, when she will make an excursion to Duncan’s Mill on the Coast, going down one day and returning the next. As many of our citizens will want to join the excursion the Flag will give timely notice of the day set for it to come off. The livery stables will run stages down to the landing twelve miles from Healdsburg. Capt. King has been running a barge on the river, drawing from fourteen to twenty-six inches, according to the load. He has made six round trips from Heald’s Mill, carrying, in the aggregate, 200,000 shingles and 20,000 feet of lumber, besides considerable farm and dairy produce. He has built another barge drawing only twelve inches when loaded. He is now building the “Enterprise” to tow these barges. The boat is 50 feet long; 10 foot beam on the bottom and 14½ on deck; Engine 15 horsepower; draught 12 inches; depth of hull 44 inches; dip of paddles (stern wheel) 10 inches. She is built in a superior manner and fitted up with a cabin and all necessary conveniences for carrying passengers. Capt. King having a contract for carrying the lumber from Heald & Guern’s Mill the regular trips of the boat will be between that point and the Coast. In the season of high water the Captain expects to run to Healdsburg. This would give us cheap freight between Healdsburg and San Francisco while the mud road to Petaluma was at its worst. We hope Capt. King’s enterprise in building the “Enterprise” will be richly rewarded.

– Russian River Flag, May 13 1869

Particular attention is likewise invited to the advertisement of Capt. John King, of the new steamboat “Enterprise.” He proposes an excursion which will give every one an opportunity to enjoy the delightful scenery along the navigable portion of Russian River, and also to visit the coast on the first steamboat ever built or run on this river. We hope the Captain may have an encouraging benefit on this occasion. His pioneering energy should be well rewarded. It is twelve miles we believe to the Mill from which the excursion starts.

– Russian River Flag, May 20 1869

Read Capt. King’s advertisement carefully once more and decide whether you can afford to lose the trip. — We learn from Capt. King, and you will learn from our correspondent “Visitor,” that the excursion is postponed for a few days. Be ready for another announcement.

– Russian River Flag, June 3 1869

Letter from “Big Bottom.” Big Bottom, May 29th, 1869.

Mr. Editor: The most important event of th« day to the people of Lower Russian River, is the successful launching of the steamboat “Enterprise” built at Heald’s Mill by Capt. J. M. King. The scene was witnessed by many of the citizens — ladies and gentlemen — who met there on the occasion. The little boat sat on the water beautifully, and promises all that her sanguine friends could have anticipated of her. The excursion trip is postponed for a few days, owing to an unavoidable accident which will be soon remedied, when all will be right again. When ready, due notice will be given to all. – Visitor

– Russian River Flag, June 10 1869

The steamer Enterprise, Capt. John King, has steam up again and is running. It will make a trial trip to the mouth of the river this week. The Capt. has constructed a dam and lock, which gives the river a three foot rise above the dam. He will open the lock and let the boat ride through to the sea on the accumulated waters. — Capt. King says that three locks would be sufficient to make the Russian River navigable to Healdsburg the whole year; also that we may expect to see his boat up here the first Fall rains.

– Russian River Flag, August 12 1869

We visited the steamer Enterprise, lying one mile below the mill. Capt. King is quite confident that he will visit Healdsburg by steam before Christmas. Says he intends next Summer to make regular trips – three times a week — from the month of the river to Healdsburg. Next Saturday he intends making his first trip to the mouth of the river.

– Russian River Flag, August 26 1869

Capt. King of the steamer Enterprise was in town last week having some repairing done to the machinery of his boat, which will soon be skimming over the waters of Russian River.

– Russian River Flag, September 2 1869

A Success. – The new steamer Enterprise recently constructed by Captain King for navigating the Russian River, made her trial trip on the 23d ult., and we are glad to learn, proved a success. Her speed was some ten miles an hour.

– Petaluma Argus, October 7 1869

The Steamer Enterprise. — We are pleased to learn from Mr. J. W. Bagley that Capt. King’s boat, the Enterprise, is now successfully running on Russian River. She left Heald & Guern’s Mill on the 16th with several passengers for Duncan’s Mill, with barges in tow loaded with charcoal. On her next trip she will carry hoop poles and several thousand Christmas trees for San Francisco. At last, after several unsuccessful attempts, Russian River is navigated by a live steamboat, and we hope, when the river rises, to see the little vessel throw out her bow lines and stern lines and spring lines to the Healdsburg wharf! Captain King is entitled to great praise for his indomitable pluck and perseverance under difficulties and we hope his “Enterprise” may prove a great success. Since the above was in type we are informed that the boat will leave Heald & Guern’s Mill today at 12 o’clock on a pleasure excursion to Duncan’s Mill and return at noon tomorrow. Fare down and back, $2.50. Two barges fitted up for dancing will be in tow.

– Russian River Flag, December 23 1869

Mr. Hudson’s bill declaring Russian River navigable and providing for its improvement, has passed the Assembly. This is intended to encourage and protect the indomitable enterprise of Capt. John M. King, who has built a steamboat to navigate Russian River, and it will no doubt become a law. It will be of great benefit to our county.

– Russian River Flag, February 17 1870

The Enterprise. – Some weeks since Capt. King attempted to make a passage to Healdsburg with the “Enterprise,” but a little above Heald and Guern’s mill the pilot backed the boat upon a snag and sank her. This occasioned delay and considerable expense, but the indomitable Captain has got her afloat again and with the experienced help of his friend Capt. Parker, of the Mare Island Navy Yard, he will make the first voyage to Healdsburg as soon as some obstructions can be removed from the river, which he is now engaged in doing, with a force of fifteen men. The boat is now above the mouth of Mark West creek about ten miles below Healdsburg. The captain has bought new sixty horse power engines for her and he will keep her here when she comes up until they are put in.

– Russian River Flag, March 10 1870

Capt. King’s steamer, “Enterprise,” will probably reach Healdsburg today. as she is now but a short distance below town.

– Russian River Flag, March 24 1870

The Russian River Boat.

We have learned with considerable regret that Capt. King’s boat the “Enterprise.” is, for the present, a failure. The Captain has met with many serious difficulties in his undertaking, the chief of which lately, seem to have been the summary manner in which some of his creditors have secured their claims, whether rightfully or not we have no knowledge, and of course have nothing to say upon that head, though we had hoped that the Captain’s energy and perseverance would be rewarded. At his request we publish the following letter:

Eds. Flag: — I take this opportunity of thanking you for the many favors you have done me during the time I have been endeavoring to prove that Russian River is navigable. Although I differ very widely from you in politics, yet as long as I can use a hammer and cold chisel you may consider me one of your subscribers. Messrs. Heald & Guern have attached my boat, but that will not prevent me from making a living, as some friends have engaged me to run the Perseverance Saw mill, which is located thirteen miles above Cloverdale. They also attached my dog, “Gipsey,” which I valued more than money. They sold the dog for $200. This seems like a large sum. but I would not have taken twice that amount for it. They may break me, but they cannot keep me broke. The first of August, I will commence building another steamboat, at the mouth of Russian River, to be called the “Perseverance.” Again thanking you for past favors I ask that you do me one more by publishing this letter. Respectfully, yours,

John M. King.

– Russian River Flag, May 5 1870   

A Card From Mr. Heald.

Eds Flag: — If I may be permitted the space in your paper to correct some errors in the card of John M. King, in your issue of May 5th, I will be thankful for the favor, as it seems to throw the blame of the failure of his boat where it does not belong. I think, however, the fact of his trying some four weeks to get the boat to Healdsburg over the shoals, with the river falling every day, without any probability of a rise till next December, and only making twelve miles, should convince any one that the “Enterprise for the present is a failure,” and Heald and Guerne not wholly answerable tor it, if they had lately attached the boat; but the facts are, that Heald and Guerne have not attached the boat as represented by King, and, as to his dog “Gipsie,” I never as much as knew he had such a dog. Heald and Guerne do not wish to “break” J. M. King, nor to “keep him broke,” but suppose we will have the pleasure of seeing the “Perseverence” when she comes along.

Thos. T. Heald. May 8th. 1870.

– Russian River Flag, May 12 1870 

IN THE REDWOODS.
Life among the Lumbermen – How the Redwoods are Cut and Hauled, etc.
[Correspondence to the Bulletin.]
Stumptown, Sonoma Co., Nov. 20th

…Two or three hours I listened to these heavy stories, and to my hosts narrative of his financial shipwreck through a rash steamboat venture up Russian river with one King; how she twisted off her shaft and went to the bottom; and how the hulk now lies half-buried in the sand — a warning to any man so presumptuous as to attempt steamboat navigation on a river along which there is not yet enough traffic to have made even a decent bridle-path…

– Russian River Flag, November 30 1871

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wildwest1880

2½ TALES FROM OUR WILD WEST DAYS

Yay, sesquicentennial! So what was Sonoma county really like in 1868? If a movie was made of Santa Rosa in those days, would it have the flavor of the sweet little town in “The Music Man” or the sort of rough place seen in “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral?”

I recently visited the Midwest and while waiting at the St. Louis airport I met a very nice Dutch family (Jan, if you’re reading this, please get in touch; I lost your business card). They found it novel to meet someone from the West Coast, then became excited when they learned I was a local historian – to them, this place called Santa Rosa was somewhere between Deadwood and Dodge City.

Jan used to follow the Wild West festival circuit around Europe (yep, that’s really a thing). He even had a custom-made Indian costume which he said was authentic down to the eagle feathers. (NOTE: the feathers were probably imitations, as it’s illegal to sell them in the U.S.)

He peppered me with questions: Does our history museum have any guns of famous outlaws? (Uh, I doubt it.) Was Billy the Kid ever here? (No.) Jesse James? (No.) Wild Bill Hickok? (No.) Buffalo Bill? (Yes, but only with his circus.) Was there an army fort? (No.) Did Indians go on the warpath? (Oh, please.) Were there gunfighter shootouts? (No.) Were there lynchings? (Sure, the last being in 1920 – which gave him such pause that he asked me to write down the year to make sure he understood correctly.)

There never really was a “Wild West” here, I explained; Sonoma county was mostly settled by farmers from Missouri, and as a result the people in Santa Rosa and the rest of the county acted pretty much like, well, Missouri farmers. Yeah, it was unusual that Santa Rosa cheered for the Confederacy to win the Civil War and anti-Chinese racism was virulent, but there was never exceptional violence or lawlessness in Sonoma county during the latter 19th century. Then reflecting on our conversations during my long flight back to California, I regretted portraying that our history was ever so clear cut.

First, Sonoma county indeed had the sort of Old West outlaws that so intrigued my friend from Holland – he even might have heard of the poetically-inclined “Black Bart” who robbed three stage coaches here. B.B. gets all the press, but there was also the Cloverdale-based Houx Gang in 1871 and just a bit further north there was the cattle rustling and stage robbing Buck English Gang in the mid-1870s (and yes, Jan, his gun is in a museum). This pattern of stick-em-ups continued through the next decade with Dick Fellows and others whose names were never known.

As per Missouri: Sure, Santa Rosa’s love of Dixie came from Missouri families often having deep ties to the Old South – but it was simplistic to say those Missouri immigrants hung on to all their Midwestern values once they were here. Even a deeply-rooted belief in civility can be degraded when someone is dropped into a frontier situation, where there are loose rules for conduct and weak institutions. All of the tales told below show the result; there are acts of impetuous behavior which never would have been tolerated back in their hometowns – including person-on-person violence and community vigilantism.

Historian Frederick Jackson Turner discussed this across several essays about the unique problems of the American frontier. When people are “unchecked by restraints of an old social order,” it didn’t matter if the frontier was the Carolinas during the 1730s, Missouri in the 1810s or California in the 1850s. The pattern was the same: American pioneers were quick to take the law into their own hands instead of waiting for the legal system to preserve order. “If the thing was one proper to be done, then the most immediate, rough and ready, effective way was the best way.” That often meant lynching or pulling out a pistol.

Turner also pointed out that “a crime was more an offense against the victim than a violation of the law” and an insult or show of disrespect could swiftly lead to violence. Add the presence of firearms and a confrontation which might never have gone beyond shouting or bloody noses can become deadly. And that brings us to the first tale from our Wild West days.

This is the “half” tale, which means I’m only summarizing it because you should read the whole story in John Schubert/Valerie Munthe’s Hidden History of Sonoma County. It’s a gripping yarn and well told by them; the book also has a chapter that reveals the history of Houx Gang (I once tried to figure out their doings, but there was so much confusing info I gave up). All together, “Hidden History” is easily the best book on Sonoma county history published in ages. My only quibbles are the lack of footnotes/endnotes, and the title grossly overpromises – a full “hidden history” would fill bookcases. As of this writing, it’s even on sale at the Santa Rosa Costco.

In 1867, Charles Henley killed James Rowland. The two farmers lived about a half-mile apart near Windsor, and there was bad blood between them because Henley’s pigs kept getting loose. Rowland corralled some of those hogs and Henley went over to fetch them, carrying a shotgun; there was a confrontation inside the pig pen and Rowland was shot dead at close range. The animals would mutilate his body until it was later discovered.

Later that night Henley visited a friend, confessed to the shooting and sought advice. The friend urged Henley to ride over to Windsor and surrender to the authorities, though he was hesitant because “they are all Odd Fellows,” as was Rowland. Henley also asked the friend not to tell his hired hand because he was likewise a I.O.O.F. member, but the man had overheard Henley’s confession anyway. Henley turned himself in the next morning and later that day, members of the Windsor Odd Fellows Lodge showed up to claim the body. Lodge members wore their badge of mourning for thirty days.

Henley was taken to the county jail to await trial. Exactly thirty days after the killing, Santa Rosa’s night watchman was surprised by four masked men. “Keep quiet,” he was told, “there are 150 of us, well-armed, and we have come to take a certain man out of jail.” The watchman was held captive and soon joined by the jailer. Another of the masked vigilantes encountered a policeman on patrol and held the officer at gunpoint.

The jailer was forced to open Henley’s cell and the prisoner was bound and gagged before being carried away. His body was found hanging about a mile west of town in what’s now the Roseland district.

There was an outcry over the lynching in both the local press and the big San Francisco newspapers, with a reward of $2,000 offered for information on the identity of the mob. Any suggestion that the masked men were Odd Fellows was met with fierce denial and the pursuit of the guilty was soon forgotten.

Then just a few days after the lynching there was another killing in Santa Rosa.

Around midnight on the night of June 20, 1867, Byrd Brumfield used his pocket knife to slash John Strong to death at Griffin’s Saloon. The number of wounds varied between 7-16, depending on who was telling the story. Although witnesses testified that Strong was running for the door at the time, the Coroner’s Jury ruled that Brumfield had killed him in self defense. Testimony also revealed Strong had a six-shooter that he may (or may not) have attempted to draw, but the verdict seemed to come down to the jury being told that nobody liked Strong  and Brumfield was a good guy.*

Between the slashing and the lynching, we can all probably agree 1867 was a pretty violent year in Santa Rosa (and remember, that was the year just before the one which we are about to sesquicentennial-ly celebrate). Still, the Sonoma Democrat boasted after Brumfield was acquitted, “to the credit of our town, that this is the first man ever killed in Santa Rosa. Few California towns can say as much.” That of course was technically true, as Henley had been just strung up outside of city limits and when Michael Ryan had buried the point of a pickaxe in his poor wife’s head two years earlier, his murder victim was not male.

Brumfield apparently decided that a pocket knife was no longer adequate for his needs. The following year he had an argument with Captain L. A. Norton and both men drew their guns. Brumfield fired four times before Norton’s sidearm left his holster and the Mexican War vet was wounded in the left hand. A jury again ruled Brumfield merely acted in self-defense.

In his youth Byrd had worked on the big Brumfield family farm, somewhere in the Russian River valley. By the 1870 census he appears at age 32 with the profession of “sporting man,” by which we can assume means he was a professional gambler. By 1875 he found himself blacklisted by all saloon owners around Healdsburg; we don’t know if that was because he was a card shark or just a violent alcoholic.

“Byrd’s on a big drunk today,” Harry Truitt warned those sitting in front of a Healdsburg Hotel on an afternoon that November. Brumfield was more than just liquored up – he was looking for a fight.

“There’s been a big poker game in town,” Byrd told a friend. “I’m going to play poker in this town,” adding he had been kept out of the bars long enough.

“They don’t treat me right in this town,” he told another, who asked, “Who don’t treat you right?”

“These Zane boys; they’ve got rich now and don’t notice a common man. I knew them when they didn’t have a cent: then they treated me all right. I’m going into Will Zane’s saloon today or die; and I’ll get away with it if I go in.”

Byrd held some sort of grudge against Willis Zane; six months earlier, Brumfield had borrowed Zane’s revolver only to turn it on the owner and attempt to kill him (or so the “special reporter” for the Sonoma Democrat wrote). Zane was warned that Byrd was drinking and telling people he intended to show up at the bar. “I’ll let them know that I’m not dead yet, but don’t care a damn how soon,” said the drunken Brumfield.

Shortly before sunset, Byrd staggered into Zane’s saloon. Willis told him twice to get out. Byrd didn’t say a word, but moved towards Willis (it was unclear whether his gun was drawn or his hand was still reaching under his coat). Zane drew his pistol from a pocket and shot three times. Byrd Brumfield was dead.

The Coroner’s Jury acquitted Zane, declaring it was justifiable homicide, but much of the testimony was a mirror image of the 1867 inquest – only this time, nobody liked Brumfield and Zane was the good guy.

The takeaway from the story is not that Byrd Brumfield was a bad guy (which is pretty indisputable); it’s how every time he had a beef with someone, he expected that other person to be armed. And he was right.

Scholars like to point out communities in the Wild West had strict no-gun laws, requiring those entering town to check firearms with a peace officer – remember the plot of “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” While that’s true, our local newspapers also show there were multiple “shooting affrays” every year in Sonoma county, although rarely did the incidents end in a death or even injury.

It’s doubtful anyone ever walked the mean streets of Healdsburg or Santa Rosa with a gun holstered on his hip (other than lawmen), but all those affray items reveal too many people were certainly packing under that Victorian garb. Often they were the Usual Suspects (see Male: young, drunkenness of) but others would probably be surprising. Captain Lewis A. Norton, the man Brumfield shot in the hand, was not a cocky ne’er-do-well; he was a middle-aged Healdsburg lawyer and local Democratic party bigwig, a former Justice of the Peace who ran for county judge the year before he was shot, then state senate a year after.

And sometimes the shooters were even women.


J. G. Hill of Forestville, better known as “Sock” Hill, while on his way to church at Forestville last Sunday evening, was fired at twice by Miss Georgia Travis. The first shot passed close to his left ear and through the rim of his hat, the second shot missing him entirely. Miss Travis was arrested Monday morning, on a charge of assault with intent to commit murder…

That little item appeared in the Healdsburg Enterprise and other local papers in September 1879. (The item right below it, incidentally, was another shooting affray, describing a 21 year-old Lakeport bartender killing a patron who was told to leave but went for his gun instead.)

Details emerged a few days later: Sock – whose real name was Joshua – along with two young women, were walking to a Sunday night church service, as was Georgia. As they passed Faudre’s Chair Factory (there’s a reference sure to excite Forestville historians), Georgia drew her “bull-dog” pistol and began shooting at him. After firing both shots, she handed the gun over to a man who intervened. Sock and his women friends sat through the entire service (!) then went to Santa Rosa to file a complaint. He said Georgia had been threatening to kill him for over a year and he was afraid. The Grand Jury dropped the charges for lack of evidence, and it was never explained why she wanted the 42 year-old man dead. All she ever said was that she had been “slandered” by him.

Another month passed and there was a meeting of the Forestville Blue Ribbon Club, part of a very popular nationwide evangelical temperance movement. Although it was a night of heavy rain, 60-70 still turned out including women and children. Sock Hill attended as did Georgia Travis and her brothers, Wirt and John.

John was seated two rows behind Hill, and Wirt was the same distance in front. John reached over and punched Hill in the face. Sock Hill jumped up and confronted John Travis, drawing his gun. Wirt Travis then shot Hill point blank in the base of his skull. Amazingly, he would remain conscious until he died about fifteen hours later.

Panic ensued. John Travis apparently fired his own gun and Wirt shot again, wounding a bystander in the leg as he fled the room along with the dozens of other attendees. In court testimony there would be the usual claims and counterclaims – Hill fired his gun, John did not, John socked Hill because he turned around “made a face at me,” Wirt claimed he shot Hill because he believed his brother’s life was in danger, &c.

Wirt was found guilty of manslaughter and sent to San Quentin. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty for his brother John. “One of the most exciting trials ever had in Sonoma county,” sighed the Sonoma Democrat, having stretched the sensationalist coverage over two issues.

So there you are, Jan; I was mistaken to tell you at the airport that we were just a bunch of boring ol’ Missouri farmers. There absolutely was a true gun culture here in Sonoma county, and our communities – with somewhat of an exception for Petaluma – were very much gun-toting “Wild West” towns. Here I’ve only describe some of our frontier-type violence over a dozen years, but there could be dozens of essays like this to document all our uncivil behavior in the latter 19th century.

And don’t presume the pistol-packin’ days ended with the Gaslight Era. As documented here earlier, it was common to carry a “bicycle revolver” at least through the 1910s. There was also a dramatic four-way shootout in 1907 that managed to avoid hurting anyone seriously because no one knew how to aim.

A final note: Lest anyone rush to claim that crimes were deterred in those 50+ years of locals carrying concealed weapons, let it be known that I’ve never found an incident where a good guy with a gun stopped a bad guy with a gun. Instead, it’s a miserable chronicle of holdup men using them to scare victims, fools and drunkards wielding these deadly toys at times of heated emotions, plus a hearty portion of gun owners shooting themselves by accident. Just tragedies with a dose of farce.

 

* Later that year Byrd’s sister, Jane, married an Alfred Strong, who is listed in the 1860 census as a farmer living in the Brumfield family home. I cannot find any family connection between him and John Strong. Byrd was living with the Alfred Strongs in the 1870 census.

 

Quick Work.—Santa Rosa might be called a fast place in some respects. This week a man was killed, buried, and the perpetrator examined and discharged, all in less than twenty-four hours. We may remark, to the credit of our town, that this is the first man ever killed in Santa Rosa. Few California towns can say as much.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 22 1867

 

Disgraceful. —We regret to see in the San Francisco Police Gazette a disgusting wood cut, purporting to represent Byrd Brumfield in the act of killing John Strong in Santa Rosa on the night of the 20th of June. The Gazette was grossly deceived by its informant in regard to the relations of the parties, circumstances of the killing, and burial of Strong. The latter, we learn, was buried under directions of a relative, had a good coffin, and was decently interred.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 6 1867

 

Testimony in the Case of the People vs Brumfield

[inquest]

– Sonoma Democrat, October 26 1867

 

Death of Byrd Brumfield.

[inquest]

– Russian River Flag, November 18 1875
– Sonoma Democrat, November 20 1875

 

From Forestvllle. Our regular correspondent writes us November 11th, as follows; “Forestvllle against the world. We have said this before and have occasion to reiterate it now. Saturday night last, 8th Inst., was one of our dark limes, and we were pained to witness such scenes as then occurred in our usually quiet village. As our tempetauce club was about to be called to order its peace and quiet was disturbed and the lives of women and children endangered by two brothers, Wirt and John Travis, who assaulted and shot to death J. G. Hill. The meeting was of course broken up for the evening, and the Society will hereafter convene at the Christian Church instead of the hall. Mr. Hill’s funeral took place at 2 o’clock on Monday, and the high esteem in which he was held by the community was manifested in the unusually large number of persons who attended the obsequies, over three hundred persons escorting his remains to the grave. He was a kind hearted man; one who was always ready to help the needy and to accommodate his neighbors. During an acquaintance of twelve years your correspondent always found him correct in his dealings, and his neighbors generally deplore his untimely death.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 15 1879

 

People Vs. Wirt Travis

[testimony]

– Sonoma Democrat, March 20 and 27 1880

 

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barlowmesstent

THE UNTOLD ESCAPES OF THE BARLOW BOYS

It was like clockwork: In June the Barlow boys arrived, then a few weeks later came reports of runaways. But after the 1911 season, it appeared the escape attempts stopped. What happened? Boys were still trying to get away, all right – but the Santa Rosa newspapers just stopped reporting about it.

(For those just tuning in: In the early Twentieth Century, California courts usually sentenced boys who committed minor crimes or were deemed incorrigible to spend the rest of their youth at institutions not unlike a modern prison halfway house. One of these places, the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society of San Francisco, struck a deal with the Barlow family of Sebastopol; during summers the boys would camp on the ranch and pick berries and fruit for low pay. Soon other farmers were asking for orphans and it wasn’t long before the Aid Society and similar institutions were sending up hundreds of boys – some as young as seven – to work in West County fields and canneries every year. For more background, see “SEBASTOPOL’S CHILD LABOR CAMPS“.)

We know the escapes continued thanks to the archives of the Petaluma Argus-Courier, which just came online this week via newspapers.com. It’s a huuuuge deal that this trove is simply available, but that it’s also searchable with great accuracy is enough to make genealogists and historians purr and mew.

There are a few possible reasons why the Petaluma paper informed their readers about the runaways while the Santa Rosa papers blacked out the news. Rarely were escapees nabbed around Santa Rosa; usually they were caught in the countryside or en route to San Francisco, so it was more likely the boys would be seen close to Petaluma or Marin. There also might have been editorial bias in keeping quiet about bad news; the use of child labor was a fast-growing part of the West County economy – in 1912 the boys picked 407 tons of berries and fruit, up from 125 tons just five years earlier, showing farmers were lining up to get in on this sweet deal for ultra-cheap juvenile labor. And to be fair, it must be noted that in 1913 the Press Democrat did offer a paragraph on seven runaways being captured and even mentioned the Barlow ranch by name.


(RIGHT: Mess tent for boys working on the Barlow ranch, date unknown. Photograph courtesy Western Sonoma County Historical Society)

But there was one related story which the local press couldn’t ignore because it made all the Bay Area papers: The 1913 theft of summer earnings by the boys of the Armitage Orphanage – and that the robber was the orphanage’s superintendent.

While it was was rarely mentioned which orphanages and charities were shoving their kids down the Sebastopol berry picking pipeline every June, it comes as a shock to find this outfit was among them. The [Episcopal] Bishop Armitage Orphanage was a pet charity of the San Francisco swells who funded it via lawn parties, balls, country club polo matches and other high society soirees (“Tableaux Vivants to Show Masterpieces – Famous Art Works Will be Staged by Members of the Board” – San Francisco Chronicle, March 16, 1910).

That orphanage certainly didn’t need any income from the boys; the stolen $3,000 was petty change to its society matron directors and to their credit, they promised to reimburse the children. Well-funded does not mean well-run, however. While the 150 boys were working in the orchards and fields, the orphanage was being closed and their buildings sold, so at the end of summer the Armitage inmates were split up other institutions. The superintendent who disappeared with their money was known as Robert Ellis, although that was not his real name for some reason – and the directors were aware of that. He had been superintendent for a couple of years, the board having raced through four managers in six months before him. There seems to be a quite the scandal unreported there, although the society sections did not speak of such unpleasantries.

On related news, the Press Democrat recently presented a couple of items about the orphanage at Lytton Springs operated by the Salvation Army. The property near Healdsburg is now on the market with an asking price of $24 million.

One PD article nostalgically waxes about Lytton success stories – a pair of brothers who built a successful contracting business and a man who became an important Santa Rosa lawyer. Healdsburg High School welcomed the Lytton kids, according to the PD writer, because the Salvation Army encouraged them to play band instruments and the boys were strong and scrappy from all their farm work.

That’s a very rosy view. The situation may have changed later but in their earlier days  Lytton youths were allowed to attend Healdsburg High only if supervisors ruled the child had “capacity for high school training;” per a 1909 article about Lytton, only about 5 percent of their residents were permitted to continue schooling beyond 8th grade. Otherwise, the kid had no choice but to work on the Salvation Army’s commercial farm. As I wrote earlier in “THE CHILDREN OF LYTTON:” The cruelest aspect of the “orphanages” was that wards of the system lost nearly all chance of an education beyond readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic. While Santa Rosa High School was then offering typewriting classes and teaching other office skills which were in growing demand, Lytton and other Aid Homes were preparing kids for a 19th century future.

While the institutions could have done more to keep their kids in classrooms, a century ago state law didn’t require it. The Jones-Hughes Act of 1903 made it compulsory for every child in California to attend school between ages 8 and 15, but offered a grabbag of loopholes allowing families to opt out of schooling altogether – children who lived over two miles by road from the nearest school could be claimed as exempt, for example. Those exemptions were removed in 1919 and the compulsory age raised to 16, but that still didn’t mean a child would make it to high school. According to a report that year from the state’s Dept. of Education, most of the students who were to be added to the attendance rosters hadn’t yet finished elementary school by age sixteen.

There were many institutions far, far worse than Lytton, but it wasn’t free of controversy. In November, 1913 the Oakland Enquirer published a series of investigative articles “berating the management of the institution for alleged cruel treatment of children at the institution,” according to a mention of the articles in the Santa Rosa Republican. Unfortunately, not much more can be said about that reporting because the paper is not online and the only known surviving editions from that year are at UC/Berkeley. The Republican added the main incident was “punishment meted out to two boys who stole horses and got away from the institution.”

Sonoma County District Attorney Clarence Lea thought the charges were credible enough to have the grand jury investigate. Oakland Enquirer reporter Fred Williams was summoned, and the mother of the boys also testified, which suggests the pair were at Lytton not for being orphans but having been sentenced there by a court for delinquency.

Jurors visited Lytton and found it was overcrowded, but the children were well cared for and no “unmerited punishments were inflicted.” The grand jury report concluded with praise for the institution, which deserved “support and commendation.” The jury foreman wrote, “in view of the splendid work that is being accomplished at the institution we feel that minor criticisms which might be made would be uncalled for.”

Not so fast, there, mee bucko. Their report did not mention the jury interviewed the boys making the charges although it’s implied (“we investigated all cases called to our attention”). Nor did it explain what the Oakland Enquirer reporter had to say; that was a significant newspaper with a reputation for muckraking – it’s doubtful they would run a series based only on wild yarns from a pair of malcontent kids who apparently had been in trouble with the law.

More interesting is a mention at the end of the jury report that the superintendent and his wife together earned only $14 a week, and no one there was paid more than $400 a year. Those earnings are on the low side for unskilled labor at the time, but not unreasonable. But from a Press Democrat article the previous year, we know that Lytton annually spent about $3,400 on salaries. Now project the numbers: Lytton must have operated with only eight paid staffers, twelve max – to run a 400+ acre commercial farm AND care for about 250 kids full time.

“Mother Bourne,” the beloved figurehead of Lytton may indeed have been worthy of sainthood, but the institution was clearly dependent upon the children to keep the wheels turning. And barely supervising so many kids – most there because they were deemed to be “unmanageable” – is surely an invitation to bullying or even worse forms of abuse.

But as the Santa Rosa papers seemed wanting to tell readers only good news about the Barlow boys, the grand jury wanted to see Lytton as a shining example of noble work. Look how well we are treating these troubled and troublesome youths, our ancestors seemed determined to boast. We have plucked them from nothing and given them something.

 

TWO BOYS MADE ESCAPE

Two boys whose names are given as Butts and Landingan by Superintendent Turner, escaped from the Barlow berry fields above Sebastopol on Monday afternoon at an early hour and later Deputy Sheriff R. L. Rasmussen was notified.

He kept a close watch on all departing trains and the steamer Petaluma but the youngsters have not yet come to this city.

A watchman was in this city on Monday evening investigating. Both the lads are wearing blue overalls. They are from the Boys and Girls Aid Society which is now at Barlow’s picking berries.

They have only been there two days and during that time the two boys have been trying to get away. They are thought to be in this county yet.

– Petaluma Argus-Courier, June 18, 1912
TWO MORE BOYS MAKE ESCAPE

The local police were notified on Wednesday night that two boys had escaped from the berry pickers’ camp at the Barlow ranch near Sebastopol and the officers are keeping a watch for them and examined the outgoing trains and steamers Wednesday night and Thursday morning.

The boys are Harry Herman, aged 18, and Chas. Sargent, age 17, both of San Francisco. The former is 5 feet four inches in height and the latter slightly shorter. Both wore straw hats, blue overalls and dark coats. The former wore a yellow khaki shirt and the latter a light colored soft shirt. Herman is slightly stooped and walks with swinging gait and has dark brown hair and dark eyes.

Sargent is of dark complexion with light brown hair. Both wore heavy shoes. For some reason the custodians of the boys, are unusually anxious to capture these escapes, so it is probably that they are detained fore [sic] more than the ordinary wrong doing.

– Petaluma Argus-Courier, July 11, 1912
THREE BOYS RAN AWAY

Several officers of the Boys and Girls Aid Society were in this city on Sunday morning looking for three runaway boys who made their escape on Saturday evening from Barlow’s station where the girls and boys were picking berries. The officers remained here for a short time and then went to Sausalito where they captured the three runaways who were taken to Barlow’s on the next train.

– Petaluma Argus-Courier, June 23, 1913

 

HERE AFTER RUNAWAYS

Special Police Officer T. Connolly of San Francisco who is connected with the Boys and Girls Aid Society was in this city on Wednesday seeking Allen Luhra, Joe Fahey, Abe Bernard, Sam Telaxney and Charles Griffin, who escaped from Barlow’s station during the present week. The last four named left on Tuesday afternoon, while younger Luhra left on Monday.

Chief of Police Flohr has been notified of the disappearance of the boys and has been given a good description of them so if they are in this city they are likely to be captured in a short time.

– Petaluma Argus-Courier, July 16, 1913

 

 MANY OF THE BERRY BOYS ARE FOUND AND RETURNED

The Sheriff’s office received word on Thursday that four of the boys who escaped from the berry picking camp on the Barlow ranch had been captured by the Aid Society’s officers, and had been returned to camp. Four boys were found in Forestville, and three in Green Valley. Thursday Mrs. Dick Isaacs telephoned the Sheriff’s office that four of the boys were on a place back of their ranch. Superintendent Turner was notified and went after the boys.

– Press Democrat, July 18, 1913
DECAMPS WITH COIN OF BERRY PICKERS

Thirteen days before the Armitage Orphanage was to pass out of existence and his term of office expire, the superintendent, known in San Mateo as Robert Ellis, disappeared, and is accused of having taken with him about $3,000 belonging to the boys in the institution. Detectives are searching for the former superintendent, but have found no substantial clews.

The orphanage will pass out of existence on October 23, when the property will be taken over by Antoine Borel and Ellis’ employment would have expired on that date. He disappeared last Friday, but the loss of the money was not discovered until yesterday by Mrs. William G. Hitchcock, treasurer of the orphanage.

The money represents the earnings of 114 boys who picked berries at Sebastopol last summer, and was given to the superintendent for keeping. It is said that the boys will not lose by the theft, as the directors will make good the deficit.

Ellis has been superintendent of the orphanage for two years. He went to San Mateo well recommended, and although it was known that Robert Ellis was not his true name the directors made no objection to the masquerading. He is the son of an Episcopal minister in Philadelphia and is married, but separated from his wife.

– Santa Rosa Republican, October 16, 1913

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