The Miner-Turned-Farmer Takes a Wife

I’ve gotten bogged down in telling William John Clarke’s story like a Conestoga wagon mired in the mud. I’ve got to move this thing forward because I have so many other tales to tell, including a recent family history road trip to Plumas County, California, where I learned so much more about the Clarke family’s interconnection with the Stovers, a pioneering family who ranched near what is now Chester beginning in 1859.

Truth be told, the next part of Clarke’s story is a bit of a mystery to me, one (or several) I’m dying to unravel.

The facts I know are that Clarke got married on July 5, 1867, at age 47 to Catherine Foster Tenney, age 25. It was his first marriage, her second. At this time Catherine had one child, aged 4, by her previous husband, Willard Tenney, and was seven months pregnant with a second child. The four-year-old was Elizabeth. “Lizzie”, as Screen Shot 2015-05-24 at 6.36.43 PMshe was called, was my Nana Marge’s mother, i.e. my great-grandmother. Here’s how the record of William and Catherine’s marriage license in Alameda County appears (see last line–and you can click on image to enlarge):

The boy who was born two months after Catherine’s marriage to Clarke was William Dougal Clarke, or “Willie” as he was known. He was always passed off as Clarke’s son. But I have evidence to the contrary in the form of a letter written in 1897 by Lizzie Tenney Clarke to a cousin on her mother’s side back in Illinois. This letter was written one month after her mother’s (Catherine Foster Tenney Clarke) death. The tone of this letter is distressed, and Lizzie voices longing for connection with her mother’s side of the family.

 My mother never even told me that Willie was my brother. He always felt nearer and dearer to me, than any of the rest, if I do say it my self…I never can forgive my mother for not telling me things she ought to have told me…

So, it certainly sounds like Willie—who died tragically in a hunting accident at age 23, a young married man with a pregnant wife, Anna Louisa Stover—was not Clarke’s son at all but was likely Willard Tenney’s progeny. From all accounts Clarke appeared to dote on “his” son, in any case.

Catherine Foster was born in Ireland, northern Ireland specifically, and not so far from where Clarke was born and raised.

Unsolved Mystery #1: Did their families have any connection back in Ireland?

By 1848 Catherine had emigrated to the US with her parents and siblings, as a brother was born in Illinois that year (Catherine’s mother was also married twice, once to Edward Little and then to James Foster, and had children with each). The 1850 census finds the family living in Rock Island County, Illinois, where Clarke also lived for 10 years prior to striking out for California. Given the difference in their ages Catherine would have been a child of 7 at the time he left Illinois for California at age 29, but I wonder if their families knew each other? I suspect they must have but I can only speculate at this point. One of Catherine’s half-sisters, Elizabeth Little, married William John Clarke’s brother, Noble Clarke, but so far I don’t have the date or location, only that they eventually lived in Yolo County near William and Catherine.

Unsolved Mystery #2: What, if any, was the connection between the Little/Fosters and the Clarkes in Rock Island County, Illinois?

Catherine’s first marriage occurred in Illinois on September 27, 1861 to Willard Tenney, whose family can be traced back to the Yorkshire district of England from whence they traveled to New England in 1638, to escape “religious persecution”. (They were apparently much aggrieved that King Charles had ordered that “no hindrance should be thrown in the way of those who wished to dance or shoot at the butts [a target] on Sunday afternoons.” Hmm.) By the 1800’s some of the Tenneys had ended up in Illinois via New Hampshire and earlier, Rowley, Massachusetts. Records indicate that Catherine and Willard and their infant daughter Lizzie came to California via wagon train in 1864. I hope to eventually discover which route they traveled and where they first settled. The next piece of information I have is documentation of Catherine’s marriage to Clarke in 1867. What happened during those three missing years? How did Catherine Foster Tenney and Clarke meet? Inquiring minds want to know.

Unsolved Mystery #3: What happened to Willard E. Tenney?

He just seems to disappear from all records. It seems clear from some of Lizzie’s letters to her cousin Eddie in Illinois that her mother was not widowed, but had left her father, whom she says she never remembers seeing (i.e. she was too young at the time of the divorce to retain any memory of him).

 Do you ever hear of any of my fathers people. Don’t you know, I just get to thinking of him. Sometimes knowing how terrible he felt, when mama left him for another. I don’t see how she could do it, for she told me he was just as good and kind to her as he could be. The other one [William John Clarke], was not, but it best not to talk of the past, when it is so unpleasant. But you have no idea how I feel when I think of poor old father. I never knew whether he died or was killed or what became of him. My how I would like to have had him with me in his old days.

Lizzie never knew what happened to her father, nor do we. I find this very puzzling in light of all the records that are available to us now. He does not show up in census information, no death certificate, nothing on Find A Grave (a wonderful website for finding where people are buried). I haven’t given up, however. Still searching.

Our story ends today with William John Clarke and his bride, Catherine (Foster) Tenney Clarke settled on their ranch in Yolo County where they proceed to produce five more children in addition to Lizzie and Willie.

 William John Clarke
William John Clarke
Catherine Foster Tenney Clarke
Catherine Foster Tenney                         Clarke
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Day 47 of William John Clarke’s Westward Journey

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The following is an excerpt from the diary kept by WJ Clarke as he traveled by wagon train from Illinois to the California gold diggings in 1849. One hundred and sixty-six years ago today…

May 12, 1849

Started on the west of Crab Creek. I was much surprised to see the remains of what is called the Bluff Ruins. The bluffs here bears the most picturesque appearance of anything I ever saw. They rise like large cities above the flat to the height of from twenty-five to four hundred feet. They are all shapes, some form a cone and others of every description. We today crossed the beds of several dry creeks, from four to twenty rods wide. Passed several emigrants wagons left on the way. We are now in sight of Chimney Rock, one-fourth to one-half mile from our camp.

Day 46 of William John Clarke’s Westward Journey

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The following is an excerpt from the diary kept by WJ Clarke as he traveled by wagon train from Illinois to the California gold diggings in 1849. One hundred and sixty-six years ago today…

May 11, 1849

Rolled out as usual and afternoon we camped on Bluff Creek. Last night all well and in good heart. We took one of our horses out of the team and two drove her. At 10 o’clock, met two Indians belonging to the Shawnee tribe, one of them could speak good English and boasts that their tribe never killed a white man. He sold 300 bushels of corn to emigrants, the last he sold at six dollars per bushel. On the west side of the road is the grave of Margaret Lynch, was killed by wagon wheel running over her. Lived four hours after. Roads sandy and heavy, camped on Crab Creek making today 25 miles.

Day 45 of William John Clarke’s Westward Journey

The following is an excerpt from the diary kept by WJ Clarke as he traveled by wagon train from Illinois to the California gold diggings in 1849. One hundred and sixty-six years ago today…

May 10, 1849

Being camped last night on Camp Creek rolled out this morning at 7 o’clock. All well with the exception of Cernel Finch has a slight attack of fever. Drove 13 miles and again nooned on the north bank of the Platte. Crossed the Sand Bluffs which is about one mile long but very heavy wheeling as we was stopping to noon there was two men belonging to the Missouri company which got a little behind of their teams, was surrounded by Indians and their only salvation was to take the river and come to us. The river is about 3/4 of a mile wide at this place. After dinner we passed the lone tree on the north bank of the Platte about three miles and a half from our dinner camp. Crossed Castle Creek at Castle Bluffs at three o’clock PM. Passed the grave of a California emigrant what belonged to Dr. Wells company. He died of cholera. The name of decedent, Snacletor, Adams County, Illinois. There was three Indians forded the Platte River and hailed our train, an old chief and two young men, they are friendly to white and had several recommendations from California emigrants [something indecipherable]. They are more genteel in their manners then the Pawnees. Crossed Bluff Creek and camped. The two men that crossed the river when surrounded by the Indians returned again. Made it today twenty-six miles.

California: The Dream Realized

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Our William Clarke arrived in California on July 11, 1849 after a journey of 107 days. I have lately been reading accounts of journey by wagon train and it seems like horrifying things happened frequently: In Catherine Sager’s account of her family’s journey West by covered wagon when she was a young girl (Across The Plains in 1844), she recounts how her leg was crushed when she was thrown under the wagon, her father and her mother died of ill-defined diseases halfway through the journey, her sister’s dress caught on fire and she nearly burned to death, and her brother’s powder horn blew up, badly burning him. Many pioneers died of illness—mainly cholera as well as scurvy—there were drownings during the many river crossings, and horrendous injuries occurred with little medical assistance available. I suppose I assumed that every journey west was one of hardship and tragedy. The hardship was probably fairly universal, but Clarke’s journey does not read as being terribly fraught nor tragic. The more striking theme is the amount of tedious travel, and the sheer hard work required. They had to both hunt for food and negotiate buying supplies when they were available. Wagons got stuck in mud and sand and had to be pulled out. River crossings sometimes required wagons to be unloaded and repacked. There were wild animals and occasionally hostile Indians to fend off. In fact, I believe there were only two deaths in Clarke’s party which occurred during a skirmish with Indians.

I will continue to post occasional excerpts from Clarke’s journal over the next three months (May, June, and July) on their corresponding dates 166 years after the original events. Meanwhile, let’s continue on with Clarke’s adventures in California.

Here is a letter written in his journal with no date but appears to be written while he is trying his hand at mining:

My Dear friend I once more take my pen in hand to inform you of how gold digging goes. I have now mined about 40 days but have not got my pile as yet. Nor don’t know [how] soon I shall get it as it is much more difficult to find than I anticipated but those great tales we hear off at home ain’t all gospel nor yet the epistles of inspired men. I have worked harder since I came here than I ever did at home or anywhere else and have about as good success as any of the diggers and I have never had more than sixty dollars in one day and that seldom.

Clarke left the mines after about six months due to illness. He went to Sacramento and there he went to work as a carpenter (he had been a cabinet maker in Illinois). He worked on the first brick building in Sacramento, called the Anchor House, for which he earned $20 per day. The Anchor House was a hotel built by George Zins, a German who had come to California with John Fremont in 1846. The location of this building was Front and M Streets.

In October of 1850 Clarke partnered with John Guron Stewart, an emigrant from the Isle of Whithorn, Scotland, for the purpose of starting a horse packing business. Apparently they figured out that selling supplies to miners would be more lucrative than mining. They were right, as they cleared $10,000 their first year.

Perhaps the most significant event that came out of their packing enterprise was Clarke’s discovery of the fertile land in Yolo County. Clarke and Stewart passed through this area on an aborted trip up to Oregon, where reports were emerging of gold washing up on the shores with every ocean wave. Deep snow around Shasta and the realization that the reports were bogus resulted in them turning around, but Clarke was so impressed with the area that he decided to settle there. He and Stewart bought a ranch just outside Knights Landing and began farming, stock raising, and making Spanish saddles. Clarke made the wooden frames while Stewart did the leather work, and as this item was quite in demand they sold all they could make.

Clarke was reportedly instrumental in demonstrating that northern Yolo County, which had been considered worthless land, was indeed suitable for farming. From these humble beginnings as well as the efforts of other ancestors who journeyed west and settled in this area around the same time, came the roots of my family’s generations of farming in Yolo, Colusa and Sutter Counties.

I’ve often wondered why Clarke left Illinois. A possible clue is contained in one of his diary entries, when he describes the Carson Valley: “…it is a beautiful place. The clover is here some three feet long and thick. If I had such land in Illinois I would stay there.” Perhaps he wasn’t able to find good land in Illinois. Perhaps it was always his intention to become a farmer in California after trying his hand at mining. I do not know.

Still to come: The farmer takes a wife and raises a family, while other branches of the family also settle in the area.

Sources:
*The Diary of William John Clarke, 1849 (both transcribed version and the original)
*Additional material in the back of the transcribed diary as compiled by Marilyn Kelly Ornbaum
*Sacramento, An Illustrated History 1839 to 1874, From Sutters Fort to Capitol City, by Thor Severson

May 1: Journeying West with William John Clarke

The following is an excerpt of William John Clarke’s diary. This was day 36 of their journey, and they were traveling through Nebraska. They had left Council Bluffs, Iowa (at that time known as Kanesville) some ten days prior.

As usual rolled out and drove twenty-five miles of the most unpleasant road I ever saw. We had to wrap our handkerchiefs over our eyes. Johnathan Emes and me started on horseback after some antelopes at which time we lost our road and got into the sand mounds where we rode for six or seven hours without success. We first took a south west direction rode god knows how far and almost discouraged turned to the right and left but still our hope was blighted. After wandering about between hope and despair but still I did not like to give up the chase, rode up to the top of a sand hill and while there was as it were flung from one danger to another, for there I was surrounded by about eight or ten large wolves which seemed as though they would have liked to taste Irish blood. I was in a desert and depended altogether on my eyes and a rifle and only four bullets which I did not like to waste with wolves, as I had not yet got dinner and depended altogether on my eye and rifle which I knew if it ered it was the first time in my life. We at last took as it were, a north easterly direction which brought us to the Loup Fork of the Platt River which I knew as soon as I saw although it was twenty-five or thirty miles from our way which we left to our right and at four o’clock struck the road at which time our team was twenty miles ahead. We rode onto almost discouraged again. Johnathan was thoroughly fatigued and hungry, was for lying down on the road, but hope seemed to grow brighter with me for about six miles ahead I saw a light. I knew that in all it must be our camp. I encouraged Johnathan and whipped the horse until I arrived in camp.Our camp was all in consult what to do wheather to depart or go in search of us. Some of them was going to leave. One was James Gilmore of which I not expect it of his hand, but there are still some merciful men. Out of sixty-three men only three was willing to leave us. When we came to camp one of our men had killed a fine buffalo cow. Camped on Wood River. Made to on my race about eighty miles. Teams made about thirty four.