William John Clarke’s Tragic End

College City residence of William John and Catherine (Foster) Clarke, built in 1879.
College City residence of William John and Catherine (Foster) Clarke, built in 1879.

My ancestors certainly experienced the death of loved ones far more frequently than we do today. Life expectancy was much lower in the 1800s. Diseases that were common in California’s Central Valley included malaria, typhoid and tuberculosis. Life on a ranch provided plenty of opportunities for accidents and injuries, and medical care was not always readily available.

In my post of October 1, 2015, I listed the seven children of William John Clarke and Catherine (Foster) Tenney Clarke. Although all of the Clarke children survived infancy, three eventually preceded their parents in death.

 

George W. David Clarke

The last child to be born was the first to die, and is therefore the one about whom the least is known. He didn’t have enough time on this earth to create much of a record. He was born May 10, 1879 and died of typhoid on February 16, 1887, three months shy of his eighth birthday.

 

William “Willie” Dougal Clarke

Three years after William John Clarke’s youngest son died, his eldest son died as a result of a hunting accident. Willie Clarke was born September 14, 1867. In the fall of 1888 he married Anna “Annie” Louisa Stover, age 22. Annie Stover was the daughter of Mary Ann (Rose) and Reuben H. Stover. The Stovers were well-known dairy and cattle ranchers in Big Meadows, Plumas County, CA. Don’t bother trying to find Big Meadows on a map now, as it is under Lake Almanor which was created by damming the North Fork of the Feather River in 1914. Back in the 1800s it was cattle country, and the Clarke family also ran cattle up there during the summer months. (I wrote about the Clarke-Stover connections and a bit about Plumas County in my post of June 4, 2015.)

In December of 1890 Willie and a young neighbor were returning from hunting when Willie’s loaded rifle fell through the slats of the wagon and discharged, hitting Willie who bled to death. Upon hearing the news of his death, Willie’s wife Annie gave premature birth to twins who died shortly thereafter and were buried under the rose arbor at William and Catherine Clarke’s College City home, compounding the tragedy of young Willie’s death.

 

Celia Violet Clarke

The third child to die was Celia, the second-to-youngest. She was born April 18, 1876, and died January 12, 1894, three months prior to her 18th birthday. She had been ill with consumption (tuberculosis) for a couple of years prior to her death, and died of that disease.

 

WJ Clarke’s Death

It is said that it was despondency over the deaths of his children, particularly Willie and Celia, that drove William John Clarke to commit suicide. On October 28, 1894, he shot himself on his son Willie’s grave in the College City cemetery. He was 74 years old.

I can’t help but wonder if there weren’t other factors weighing on Clarke. Many of his lands were mortgaged at the time of his death, and when everything was sold and debts were paid there was very little left. The History of Colusa County by Will S. Green, published in 1880, states that Clarke owned, besides his residence in College City, a farm of 640 acres in Colusa County, 2,063 acres of land in Yolo County, and a dairy ranch of 1,000 acres in Plumas County where the family spent their summers. There must have been some downturn of fortune in the fourteen years between the publication of that volume and Clarke’s death.

 

In any case, it was a sad end to a man who contributed much to the county of Colusa in its early days.

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