Where the Heck is Sisson?

My grandmother, Marjorie Cain, attended Chico State Teachers College in the 1920s, graduating in 1925. I’ve been researching various details of her life for a historical fiction novel I am writing which borrows liberally from her life and times. Last November I spent some time at the California State University, Chico (CSUC) library delving into what campus life was like in the 1920s. That’s when I discovered that Chico State Teachers College, as it was known during my grandmother’s era (formerly Chico Normal School—the name changed in 1921), had a summer camp where students could attend a 6-week session. The camp was located in the town of Sisson. The only problem was, where the heck was Sisson? Did it still exist?

The idea of Chico Normal School holding a summer session was first raised in 1916, but WWI caused a delay to the plan. In 1918 a location for the summer camp was sought somewhere in the Sacramento River canyon, and the town of Sisson was chosen. At that time it was common for people to escape the heat of the valley by summering at higher elevations. Locating the camp at Sisson benefited both the town and the college. The first summer session was held in 1920.

Mt. Shasta as seen from the town of Mount Shasta.

It turns out that Sisson is the former name for the town of Mount Shasta. When Molly and I recently learned that the headwaters of the Sacramento River (ok, one of the headwaters) is also located in Mount Shasta, we decided we must plan a stopover on our annual road trip to the Pacific Northwest. Excited about this confluence of our shared obsessions with California and family history, and the headwaters of California rivers, we continued our research on the exact locations of the camp and the source of the Sacramento River. The searches led us to one and the same place: Mount Shasta City Park.

The summer camp (which is now the city park) was situated near the railroad and Big Springs, from which the Sacramento River flows. Drought or no drought, the cold, crystal clear water continues to pour right out of the foot of Mt. Shasta. During our visit to the park we saw people drive in with jars and jugs to capture the water, which is pure enough to drink right out of the springs.


Big Springs, source of the Sacramento River
Big Springs, source of the Sacramento River
Big Springs
Big Springs


Construction of the camp continued for a number of years. Most of the buildings used by the summer camp were in place by 1927. These included bathrooms, a power house, a dormitory which housed 40 students, a manual training building, a laundry, a kitchen and dining room, an art building, more dormitories, a lodge, an administration building, a hospital, and a home for the Dean of Women. I had been wondering if any infrastructure remained from the camp, which ran from 1920 until 1942. The Mount Shasta Recreation and Parks District website, which describes the current-day 26 acre city park, states that “the park facilities include picnic areas, playgrounds, and five public buildings.” What they neglect to mention is that the buildings were constructed for the CSTC summer camp in the 1920s.

It seemed to me that the history of the summer camp was under-appreciated, as there was nothing about it at the Mount Shasta Museum—although one of the volunteers did find a 3-page article in a binder that had some of the history—and there was no signage or information in the park that mentioned the history of the buildings. Too bad.


The CSTC course catalogue for academic year 1922-23 includes the following rather effusive description of summer school:

The summer student can not do better than to attend the Mount Shasta Summer Session. The camp is located conveniently, near the village of Sisson, in a beautiful grove of cedars, pines, firs and oaks. The famous spring of “Muirs Woods” gushes ice cold water from beneath the lava rock, furnishing the water supply of the camp.

The natural scenery surrounding the grounds can not be surpassed. To the north and east, but a few yards from the camp, one hits the trail that ascends 14,380 feet to the crest of the sublime Mount Shasta. To the west rises Mount Eddy. These two mountains are snowcapped the year around. Among other points of interest which are easily accessible by pack animal or by auto are Castle Lake, McCloud River, Castle Crags, and Crater Lake (Oregon). Week-end trips are made by students to these points, chaperoned by members of faculty.

Social life in the camp is quite ideal. The housing is provided for by means of dormitories and tents. A cafeteria on the grounds provides plenty of appetizing and wholesome food at moderate prices.

The Lodge furnishes a place for amusements, such as dances, musicals, plays, and all general recreational parties.

There are half-day sessions conducted during the forenoons, leaving afternoons free for study and recreation.

A summer spent at the Mount Shasta Summer Session cannot but prove one of delight and profit.

By all accounts that we’ve read or been told, the students had an absolute blast at these camps. I only regret I was born too late to attend, and it’s one more thing I wish I had talked to my grandmother about when I had the opportunity.

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.

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.

The Grangers, Then and Now

Recently an issue which has been occasionally popping up in my newspaper as well as my family research was on the front page of the Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, CA): The resurgence of the Grange.

Bennett Valley Grange Hall, Santa Rosa, CA
Bennett Valley Grange Hall, Santa Rosa, CA

The very word grange brings up good memories from my childhood. As a kid I remember occasionally attending social events held in grange halls in Sonoma County, the nearest of which was the Bennett Valley Grange. Dances were held there regularly as well as other social events and meetings. This morning I read that Bennett Valley is the oldest continuously operating grange hall in the entire nation, founded in 1873.

The topic of the Grangers, or the Patrons of Husbandry, has also come up in the family research I’ve been doing. A letter written in 1874 by Sarah (Little) Love, an Irish immigrant to and resident of Illinois, and half-sister to my great grandmother, Catherine (Foster) Clarke, mentions the growing Grange movement. Both Catherine and Sarah were married to farmers, and their letters frequently addressed topics that were important to their farming families.

Sarah writes:

As for the Granger’s [sic] they are doing very well and I think in a year every farmer will join them, if they know what is for their good. Eddie [Sarah’s son] went last Monday to one of three meetings and said they had a very good and large gathering. I think we shall join them.

This little snippet about the Grangers caught my attention and piqued my interest about the organization. I found several good sources of information. My favorite was a book written in 1874 by Ezra Slocum entitled The Patrons of Husbandry on the Pacific Coast. It is a rather amazing history of farming in general as well as a detailed history of the Grange in California. Slocum was a professor of agriculture at UC Davis and was involved in many of the early meetings.

Another book that has shed much light on the plight of the farmers is Rulers & Rebels, a People’s History of Early California, 1769-1901 by Laurence H. Shoup, a professor at UC Berkeley. Published in 2010, it is a Howard Zinn-styled history of the state in terms of capitalism vs. labor, class and race. Shoup describes the absolute monopoly the railroad barons had on transportation. By the late 1860s the owners of the Central Railroad—Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins—were creating a vast monopoly which included owning or controlling the docks in San Francisco, the granaries where the farmers’ wheat crop was stored until it was shipped, the steam ships, and of course, the railroads. By the early 1870s the farmers could not turn a profit on their wheat crops (the primary crop grown in California at the time) due to the extortionate storage and shipping fees. Even the price of the sacks required to ship the wheat was controlled by this monopoly, and you might imagine that the prices were not set to benefit the farmers. This scenario was being played out all over the nation. The Patrons of Husbandry, which had begun in England, got started in the U.S. in 1867, and was in essence farmers organizing against policies that were ruining them.

By the mid-1870s, the California Grange had succeeded in building their own storage silos, formed their own bank, hired an agent to work on their behalf to ship their crops to England, and formed various cooperative arrangements that saved money on sacks and implements. They encouraged a bigger manufacturing presence in the state so that they did not have to rely on goods made out-of-state, which were, of course, transported by the railroads, driving prices up. On a state-by-state basis the Grangers were eventually able to increase regulation of the railroads, but it was not until the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 that federal regulations were passed. All in all, the Grangers had a very positive effect on the economics of farming.

The Grange movement also had the goal of reducing the isolation of farming families by hosting social events and assisting farmers in keeping abreast of new techniques by hosting workshops and maintaining agricultural libraries. The Grangers were involved in getting Rural Mail Delivery put into place on a national scale so that farmers could receive mail at their homes rather than having to go in to town or pay private delivery companies. Women held equal places with the men in the Grange halls and were able to hold office, present policy papers, and take part in every aspect of the organization. Thus the Grange became the heart of many farming communities.

Lately I’ve been reading that the Grange has had a recent resurgence in Sonoma County. The Sebastopol Grange is one of many that has become very active with a new generation of young farmers. A visit to their website reveals that “The Grange isn’t just for farmers! Come to the Grange if you’re a supporter of local food and sustainability or a farmer or an eater…” In addition to the Farmer’s Guild meetings, events such as a Fermentation Workshop, and a film and discussion on permaculture were offered. I was heartened to learn that the Grange continues to hold a place in rural communities.

There is trouble on the horizon, however, as it turns out that these Granges have been operating apart from the National Grange under a reorganized California State Grange. Many small farmers in California and Oregon particularly feel the National organization has become too closely intertwined with industrial farming. The National Grange has sided with Monsanto, a chemical company which produces genetically modified seeds which it sells to farmers while prohibiting seed saving, requiring farmers to buy new seed every year. The National Grange is also strongly in favor of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) while the California State Grange was a primary force in trying to get a ban of GMOs on the California ballot. The national organization has filed several lawsuits against the California State Grange resulting in the state organization severing all ties with the national in 2013. Now the National Grange is threatening to take over the assets of the local granges, including the Grange Halls, and threatening to sue the reorganized California Grange for using the word “Grange” in the name. It’s a sad state of affairs that the organization that once stood for the small, family farmer against the monopolies of huge corporations has now gone to the dark side, aligning itself with giant agribusiness and corporate farming. At the same time I’m greatly heartened by the local efforts to organize around sustainable food and land issues in northern California and other regions, and hope that they will be allowed to continue in the true spirit of the original Granger movement.

The Clarke Family Takes Root and Expands

The next decade or so after their marriage in 1867 finds William and Catherine Clarke—or Will and Katie, as they were known—building their family, their farming and ranching enterprises, and their community involvement in Yolo County. At the time of their marriage, Catherine’s daughter from her previous marriage, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Tenney (my great-grandmother), was four. Two months after the wedding a son, William Dougal Clarke was born (recall that Lizzie as an adult wrote in a letter that she had learned that brother Willie was in fact her full brother, not her stepbrother as everyone had been led to believe, i.e. he was not the son of WJ Clarke but of Catherine’s first husband, Willard Tenney). Two years later a daughter, Margaret Jane, was born (1869). In 1871 another daughter, Catherine May, followed by a son, Noble Foster, in 1873. Two more children came along, Celia Violet in 1876 and George W. David in 1879. Twelve years after their marriage the Clarkes had seven children.

Although William and Catherine Clarke have plenty of descendants living today, these descendants all came from three of their seven children: My great grandmother Lizzie bore nine children, all of whom lived into adulthood; Margaret bore three sons, two of whom lived into adulthood; and Foster Noble produced a son and two daughters, all living into adulthood.

A tragic event occurred just five months prior to William’s marriage to Katie. William’s partner Jack Stewart was killed in a bar fight in the Knight’s Landing Union Hotel, stabbed to death by Charles A. Brown, who was convicted and sentenced to six years in state prison. Clarke subsequently bought out Stewart’s heirs—siblings still living in Scotland whom I’m sure had no use for wheat fields in California—for Stewart’s shares in the ranch. In 1870 the 60 acres that had been Stewart’s share were purchased by Katie (Foster) Clarke’s brother, James Washington Foster—the only one of her siblings to be born in the U.S. (Illinois) after her family emigrated from Ireland.

William and Katie Clarke each had siblings who settled nearby—remember that both the Clarkes and the Fosters immigrated initially from Ireland and came to California by way of Illinois, although I don’t yet know if the two families knew each other prior to their lives in California. Perhaps not, as a letter from one of William Clarke’s cousins who remained in Illinois asks William about his bride, “Where did you find her?”

One of the things I’ve found to be common in my own family history, and is probably common to many families in early California, is the intermarrying of families, i.e. two brothers from one family marrying sisters from another, or cousins marrying sisters, etc. This situation sometimes creates confusion, especially around names when the tendency for kids to be named after aunts, uncles and grandparents is added into the equation. Katie Clarke’s mother was Margaret, and she had a sister also named Margaret. William Clarke also has a sister Margaret, and he and Katie named their daughter Margaret. Katie’s brother James Foster married a woman named…wait for it…Margaret.

Noble Clarke, brother of William John Clark
Noble Clarke, brother of William John Clark

In any case, by the 1870s William had two siblings living in the Yolo/Colusa Counties area, his brother Noble and his sister Margaret. Katie Clarke also had two siblings in the area, her half-sister Elizabeth Little, who married William’s brother Noble, and her brother James Worthington Foster, a Civil War veteran who is shown to be living with Will and Katie Clarke in the 1870 census.

The pattern of my family’s immigration followed that of many other families: Siblings following siblings across the ocean and across the continent. By the 1870s both William and Katie have relatives who remained in Ireland as well as relatives who remained in Illinois—parents, siblings and cousins. Fortunately, some correspondence between the family groups has survived into the present day and sheds light on family events. Letters from a cousin of William’s inform him that his mother had died, and then his father. Letters from Katie’s half-sister Sarah in Illinois comment on the floods and loss of crops that the Clarkes endured over the years. In 1874 she writes,

“I do not see how you can live out there with so much water around you. I think it must be very unhealthy and then [to] lose so much wheat. I do not think that pays very well.”

In spite of Sarah’s misgivings about the area, it seemed to suit Will and Katie Clarke and they lived out their lives in Yolo and Colusa Counties.

A Broader View of the West

Too often I fear our vision of the history of the West is very narrow in focus, unmoored from what was happening in the rest of the country and the world. Our take on the “old West,” calcified from fourth grade history lessons, is limited to wagon trains, pick-axes and the Donner party. Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose offers a much broader view.

This book, published in 1971, had somehow escaped my attention for all these years. I recently heard a claim made that it is one of the best novels ever written. I have got to read this book, I thought. I sauntered up the five blocks to our neighborhood public library and checked out a copy.

I loved this book. I enjoyed every moment I spent reading it. This was certainly one of those synchronous instances of a book showing up at just the perfect time in my life. There are rich layers of storytelling here, and some wonderful writing. It would have been an engaging read at any point, but I found its overlap with my own current interests in both my family’s history and California history very compelling. History comes alive when we begin to understand what people’s lives were like during a bygone era, and Stegner’s novel paints a captivating picture of life in the developing West using fictional and non-fictional persons and events.

The narrator is a disabled man, a retired professor, who is researching his grandmother and writing about her life—as am I researching and writing about my ancestors. He is living in Grass Valley, a mining town in the Sierra Nevada foothills. This is the town my cousins grew up in and where I spent time as a kid. This part of the book is set in the late 1960s, which is when my cousins and I would have been riding our bikes and roaming over the grounds of the old Empire Mine before it was made into a State Historic Park. The book references a fictional Zodiac Mine, which was apparently based on another major mine in the area, the North Star Mine. And, for the correlation trifecta, his grandparents’ history is all wrapped up in the history of the West in the 1800s, as his East-Coast-grandmother (a semi-fictional character based on Mary Hallock Foote) married a mining engineer and subsequently spent most of her life in the unsettled West. The title of the book, Angle of Repose, refers to the maximum slant of an incline without loose materials sliding down—a term used in mining, and a reference, no doubt, to the dynamics of his grandparents’ marriage.

Stegner reminds us that those who journeyed west were not just young men with gold dust in their eyes staking a claim on some stream in the Sierra, but professionals—people with education and intellect and skills. Engineers. Geologists. Artists. Writers. And every kind of speculator. I’ve read that gambling was the number one form of entertainment in the West, but it was not limited to games of chance. Fortunes were made and lost through shaky land deals involving outright lying and cheating, but investors also gambled that a railroad would come through, a canal would be built, a mine would pay off. Often these dreams never materialized. In the book, the narrator’s grandparents spend much time in dusty frontier towns awaiting just such improvements only to be disappointed time and again, after which they would move on to the next uncivilized spot. Stegner asks,

Who were those glittering people intent on raiding the continent for money or for scientific knowledge?

The old West has, of course, been much romanticized over time. As I research my ancestors’ participation in the “early” history of California, it is not lost on me that this land has a history that predates white settlers by millennia, and that California’s history for the past several centuries is based on theft. Spain took the land from the indigenous people and the Mexicans, the Mexicans eventually took it back, and the white settlers, backed by the United States government and the credo of manifest destiny, took it from Mexico and whatever indigenous peoples had survived disease and enslavement by the Spanish Missions up until that point. The settlement of the West was all about the appropriation of resources. These included minerals—the main topic of Stegner’s novel—but also land, forests, quarries, and, that priceless commodity, water.

Historical fiction is my favorite genre because I get to learn while being entertained. This book does not disappoint on either score, and I now have some new jumping off points for further study on the machinations involved in incorporating the West into the United States. For example, Stegner’s novel referenced the Public Land Commission, which was formed in 1851 after California became a state. The Commission existed for only five years and was mainly a way to steal land from the Mexicans, as far as I can tell, because it forced the Californios (Mexican inhabitants of California) to defend their land grants through an expensive process. Many could not afford to participate in the legal maneuvering required, and so lost their land.

The Public Land Commission commissioned a report entitled the Public Domain. This is a fascinating document—available online—of over 500 pages. The title page has the following lengthy title: The Public Domain. Its history, with statistics, with references to the national domain, colonization, acquirement of territory, the survey, disposition, and several methods of sale and disposition of the public domain of the United States, with sketch of legislative history of the land states and territories, and references to the land systems of the colonies, and also that of several foreign governments. The report is a codification of public land laws and essentially covers every treaty and legislative act used to acquire and manage (i.e. settle) land in the public domain in the US, as well as descriptions of public land systems used in Canada, Brazil, Mexico and Australia. It is quite an amazing document.

Wallace Stegner’s writing has whet my appetite for further delvings into the many forces that shaped the settlement of the West. The West’s history is comprised of far more than the gold rush. The events that brought so many settlers west did not occur in a vacuum but were influenced by issues of slavery, the Civil War, the Mexican-American war, and the Homestead Act of 1862, among other things. Stegner subtly weaves the politics and current events of the period of western migration into what is ultimately a well-written novel about human relationships and the intricate workings of a marriage—definitely worth the read.


History Geek links:

The report on the Public Domain can be found here: https://archive.org/stream/publicdomainits00goog#page/n6/mode/2up


Here’s a link to a lengthy but interesting article about the Homestead Act and how it played out in different states over the years (right up until the 1970’s in Alaska). It was featured in Prologue magazine, a quarterly publication of the National Archives:



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.