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 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.

Where to Begin?

It’s difficult to know where to jump in to the family history, but as I intend to focus—at least initially—on the family of my maternal grandmother (Marjorie Cain Hoffman Meckfessel aka Nana Marge, 1904-1998), William John Clarke (1820-1894) seems a likely choice.

William John Clarke
William John Clarke

William John Clarke was my grandmother’s step-grandfather. He’s an ancestor I’ve been aware of for many years thanks to the fact that he kept a diary while journeying west by wagon train in 1849, and that the notebook somehow survived. The small, leather-bound journal was discovered in 1931 by a man who had purchased a ranch in Colusa County that had been owned by Maggie and Warfield Powers, Maggie (Margaret Jane Clarke, 1869-1930) being one of WJ Clarke’s daughters. When this man came across the journal in an old trunk, rotting in a barn on the property, he was kind enough to pass it on to a friend of the Clarke family. It was eventually given to my grandmother.

The original diary from 1849
The original diary from 1849

The original diary from 1849
The original diary from 1849

In the 1980’s the journal was borrowed by some of my mother’s cousins who were interested in family history. They copied it, typed it up, had it bound, and handed out copies to the family. I admit that after giving it a quick look and finding much of it rather dry reading, I let it sit on my bookshelf for many years before I read through the entire diary. When I finally sat down and read it, I found it fascinating, especially since it did not end with his arrival in California at the gold diggings, but had information about his activities after he arrived. I’ll be sharing a lot of information on his various adventures and undertakings, but meanwhile I’ll just say that he is a key ancestor who was attracted to the land in Yolo and Colusa Counties and was one of the early farmers in that area.

Reprinted version of the 1849 diary
Reprinted version of the 1849 diary

I have to stop and give a shout out to the industrious and talented women who in addition to making the journal available to us, also conducted extensive research on WJ Clarke, for which I’m very grateful, and they did it when family history sleuthing required much in the way of letter-writing and wearing down of shoe-leather, before the internet! I’m going to credit them right now as I certainly stand on their shoulders: Joyce Dawley and Marilyn Kelly Ornbaun, who are both great-granddaughters of Clarke.

Our ancestors’ stories are all the more fascinating when placed in the context of historical events. I find Clarke to be an interesting character as his personal history was influenced by events that occurred “across the pond” in Ireland and Scotland, while as an early comer to California he actively participated in the making of history including the gold rush, the building of the City of Sacramento, and influencing farming methods in the Central Valley. His story is anything but dull, from his early migrations, to the mysterious circumstances of his marriage to Catherine Foster Tenney (1842-1897), whose first daughter by a previous marriage, Elizabeth Tenney Clarke (1863-1933), was my grandmother’s mother—and whatever became of that first husband, anyway? Elizabeth, or Lizzie as she was called, laments the fact that she never knew what became of her real father in a letter she wrote to a cousin after her mother died in 1897. This letter also reveals some startling information about one of her siblings, Willie Clarke, information her mother had kept from her.