Between Two Contending Forces

 

In my last entry I speculated whether events other than the deaths of two of his adult children drove my great- great-grandfather, William John Clarke, to take his own life in October of 1894. A comment from my brother-in-law about the financial panic of 1893 jogged my memory and sent me scurrying back to review Rulers & Rebels, A People’s History of Early California, 1769-1901 by Laurence Shoup. I recently read this book with particular interest in how historical events may have affected my ancestors who farmed north of Sacramento. After more careful review, and getting my dates straight—bingo! Not only was there a panic in 1893—the biggest depression the country had ever faced up until that time—but a railroad strike occurred in the summer of 1894 which had dire effects on the farmers in California who were unable to get their crops to market, or even acquire sacks to harvest the wheat in.

 

The 1870 census states that William John Clarke’s real estate was worth $124,440 and his personal estate was worth $20,000, so he was quite well off. Although there was also a financial panic and a railroad strike in the mid 1870s, he seems to have weathered those crises. But by the fall of 1894, when he took his life, he may have been wiped out by one-two punch of the depression in 1893 followed by not being able to get his wheat and other crops to market during the summer of 1894. As supporting evidence I offer a line from a letter written by Clarke’s stepdaughter (my great grandmother), Lizzie (Tenney) Clarke Cain, after her stepfather’s death. She states that William John Clarke was once well-to-do but the land was mortgaged and “it all went for bad debt”. I have also been able to read the probate proceedings that occurred after Clarke’s death on the Ancestry.com website. Clarke’s widow, Catherine (Foster) Tenney Clarke, was left only with their home and some personal belongings. It is true that everything else was sold off or repossessed.

 

The Pullman Strike of 1894 affected the entire country, but was particularly brutal in California. The strike began when the American Railroad Union called for a nation-wide strike against the Pullman Company in Chicago, where workers were being subjected to horrible conditions. It was not a strike against all railroads, only the Pullman Company. All trains were to be allowed passage with the exception of those carrying Pullman cars. Southern Pacific in California reacted by unnecessarily placing Pullman cars on every train, including mail trains, whether they needed them or not.

 

The strike was largely supported by the populace initially, because it was largely recognized that the railroads had a monopoly while both state and federal governments looked the other way. When Eugene Debs, the leader of the American Railroad Union was testifying before Congress during the strike, he was asked if he believed in government ownership of the railroads. He replied,

“Yes sir; I believe that Government ownership of railroads is decidedly better than railroad ownership of the Government.”

However, as the strike went on and became more violent, and neither side would compromise, public support began to wane.

 

The governor had called up the National Guard, sending them to Sacramento to guard the Southern Pacific Railroad yard. Hundreds of strikers were also in the area and things were quite tense. The Woodland Daily Democrat ran an editorial on July 2, 1984, that summed up the situation:

 

It is an anomaly in civilized society in having some of the characteristics of organized warfare in presence of the reign of law and peace. That is the condition that confronts the people of California today.

The opposing forces are the Southern Pacific Company on one side and its employes [sic], swayed and influenced by a powerful labor union, on the other. In such a conflict it is to be presumed that both sides are prepared to make some sacrifices that will involve losses to both of a very serious character. Both seem to fear that if any concessions are made looking to a settlement, precedents will be established that will in the future operate to the disadvantage of whichever party makes the concession.

The corporation contends that the success of the strikers will mean that henceforth the most trifling differences between labor and capital will be arbitrarily settled by the interference of labor organizations, and that every employer in the country will be made a party to any trouble that may exist between every other employer and his help.

On the other hand the labor organizations insist that this is a boycott against Pullman and not a strike against the Southern Pacific, as they have no grievance against that company, and that if Pullman triumps[sic] they will be crushed and labor may as well surrender unconditionally to aggregated capital and organized monopoly, all the rights for which it is now contending.

Between these two contending forces, and in no way responsible for the actions of either, stands the public, the inoffending people, whose losses are infinitely more than the combined losses of both parties to the irrepressible conflict. Business is at a standstill; freight and passenger traffic are blocked; grain cannot be harvested, because the farmer can get no sacks; thousands of tons of fruit are rotting, because transportation is denied; and all this is occurring at a time when the people are least able to withstand the effects of such a disaster. They have not recovered from the effects of the recent panic, and it would be impossible to imagine a greater misfortune to California interests than that these labor troubles should have occurred at this time.

 

The information I’ve read about William John Clarke’s suicide stated that he was despondent over the deaths of two of his adult children. It’s true he shot himself on the grave of his son Willie. You can’t say he didn’t have a flair for the dramatic. But Willie had been dead for four years. And Celia, his youngest daughter, had died almost a year previously. I can’t say that sadness around the deaths of his children didn’t play into his decision to end his life. But it just didn’t add up for me. In investigating the historical events of the time I found what I submit is a more believable reason for his suicide. The Pullman Strike of 1984 was indeed a disaster for my great-great-grandfather. I believe he was crushed between two contending forces.

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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.