A Trip Back in Time: Plumas County, California

My family’s history is closely intertwined with the early history of California. Three of my four grandparents were born in California, as well as three of my eight great-grandparents. I know of at least four ancestral family groups or individuals who came to California by wagon train, for gold or for land, or perhaps just in search of new opportunities. I find myself more and more fascinated by these pioneering families, and not just those whose blood lines I carry, but others I keep uncovering who are more distantly related by marriage. Although I fear I may have snoozed through more than one California history lesson in my school days, it all seems terribly intriguing now. I want to delve into their stories and get a picture of what their lives were like both before and after their emigrations. Perhaps that is what history buffs have in common, the desire to understand what people’s lives were like during a particular era that has passed. It’s also why we need to be aware that our own histories are also important. Believe it or not, people in the future will want to know what our lives were like. As a budding genealogist I feel fortunate that my family has been in Northern California for generations, mainly because it’s so easy to travel to the areas where they lived. Ancestry.com is a great source of information up to a point, but to get down to the nitty gritty, fill in some of the details and flesh out the stories, it’s best to visit the county where one’s ancestors lived. County courthouses, museums and archives provide a wealth of information in the form of official records—birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, divorces, property deeds, etc.—as well as photos, historical publications that can’t be found anywhere else, and the collected reminiscences of old timers. How grateful I am to the letter writers, the letter savers, the journal keepers, and the interviewers for leaving a wealth of information to sift through. Recently when my wife and I got one of our frequent urges for a little road trip, I suggested Plumas County as a destination. We had back-packed in that area a few years ago but that was before I had any awareness of the historical connections my family has there. My maternal grandparents (and great-grandparents and great-great grandparents) were primarily farmers in the northern end of the Central Valley, in Yolo, Colusa, and Sutter Counties. I’ve only recently become aware that Catherine and William Clarke, my great-grandparents, drove their cattle up to Plumas County for summer pasture every year back in the later 1800’s. My great-grandmother drove a wagon, probably filled with supplies and some assortment of their seven children—at least those too young to help with the cattle drive. They spent summers up in the mountains, as did many other Central Valley families. As roads to the area became more developed, hotels were established and tourism began to flourish in the area, families came to escape the heat of the Valley as well as illnesses such as malaria, diphtheria, and cholera. By the 1870’s entire communities were camping together each summer, coming from such Valley towns as Gridley, Chico, and Red Bluff. As I was putting together the facts and family relationships using Ancestry.com, I could not help but notice that two of William and Catherine Clarke’s offspring married into the Stover family. I could see that the Stovers were early arrivals to an area called Big Meadows in Plumas County. It was my desire to dig deeper into the story behind these marriages and the Stover family that put us on the road to Quincy recently. The Clarkes and the Stovers were both cattle ranchers, but while the Clarkes made their primary residence in Colusa County and thus retreated back to the valley come fall, the Stovers were permanent residents of Plumas County. This county sits at the far northern reach of the Sierra Nevada, while Lassen Peak, which is the southernmost peak of the Cascade Range, sits just to the north. A portion of present day Lassen Volcanic National Park is located within the northwest boundaries of Plumas County. It was and is a stunning area of forested mountains, expansive alpine meadows, and creeks which feed into the Feather River. It is the Spanish name for the river, Rio de Plumas, that gives the county its name. Many miners were attracted to this area during the California gold rush, and although the Stovers did initially come west seeking gold, they eventually settled in this area for the purpose of cattle ranching and dairying.

Our trip to Plumas County was a fruitful one. I had made an appointment with Scott Lawson, the archivist at the county museum in Quincy, and by the time I arrived he had pulled out all the information he could find on the Stovers and the Clarkes. The Stover name continues to be well-known in the area, and there is a Stover Mountain, Stover Creek, and even a strip mall in the town of Chester called the Stover Creek Center. I waded through historical tomes, newspaper clippings, transcribed oral histories, and photographs—scanning them all using an app on my iPhone. Talk about striking gold! We also visited a small museum that was part of the public library in Chester, and found many more photos and information about the Stovers in particular, and life in Plumas County during the 19th and early 20th century in general. Unfortunately, the archivist was not in but I did get her phone number. I also learned that my great-grand-aunt, Catherine May (Clarke) Stover was the first librarian when the Chester library was first built in 1929, the same building that is in use today.

We left Plumas County well-satisfied with our visit, laden with maps, books, historical and tourist information as well as all the documents I had scanned. We only spent three days there but in addition to our family history treasure hunt we took three lovely hikes, drank some good locally-brewed beer, had several delicious meals, and met many friendly, helpful folks. A return visit is certainly in our future as there seems to be so much more to explore.

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