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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California: The Dream Realized

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Our William Clarke arrived in California on July 11, 1849 after a journey of 107 days. I have lately been reading accounts of journey by wagon train and it seems like horrifying things happened frequently: In Catherine Sager’s account of her family’s journey West by covered wagon when she was a young girl (Across The Plains in 1844), she recounts how her leg was crushed when she was thrown under the wagon, her father and her mother died of ill-defined diseases halfway through the journey, her sister’s dress caught on fire and she nearly burned to death, and her brother’s powder horn blew up, badly burning him. Many pioneers died of illness—mainly cholera as well as scurvy—there were drownings during the many river crossings, and horrendous injuries occurred with little medical assistance available. I suppose I assumed that every journey west was one of hardship and tragedy. The hardship was probably fairly universal, but Clarke’s journey does not read as being terribly fraught nor tragic. The more striking theme is the amount of tedious travel, and the sheer hard work required. They had to both hunt for food and negotiate buying supplies when they were available. Wagons got stuck in mud and sand and had to be pulled out. River crossings sometimes required wagons to be unloaded and repacked. There were wild animals and occasionally hostile Indians to fend off. In fact, I believe there were only two deaths in Clarke’s party which occurred during a skirmish with Indians.

I will continue to post occasional excerpts from Clarke’s journal over the next three months (May, June, and July) on their corresponding dates 166 years after the original events. Meanwhile, let’s continue on with Clarke’s adventures in California.

Here is a letter written in his journal with no date but appears to be written while he is trying his hand at mining:

My Dear friend I once more take my pen in hand to inform you of how gold digging goes. I have now mined about 40 days but have not got my pile as yet. Nor don’t know [how] soon I shall get it as it is much more difficult to find than I anticipated but those great tales we hear off at home ain’t all gospel nor yet the epistles of inspired men. I have worked harder since I came here than I ever did at home or anywhere else and have about as good success as any of the diggers and I have never had more than sixty dollars in one day and that seldom.

Clarke left the mines after about six months due to illness. He went to Sacramento and there he went to work as a carpenter (he had been a cabinet maker in Illinois). He worked on the first brick building in Sacramento, called the Anchor House, for which he earned $20 per day. The Anchor House was a hotel built by George Zins, a German who had come to California with John Fremont in 1846. The location of this building was Front and M Streets.

In October of 1850 Clarke partnered with John Guron Stewart, an emigrant from the Isle of Whithorn, Scotland, for the purpose of starting a horse packing business. Apparently they figured out that selling supplies to miners would be more lucrative than mining. They were right, as they cleared $10,000 their first year.

Perhaps the most significant event that came out of their packing enterprise was Clarke’s discovery of the fertile land in Yolo County. Clarke and Stewart passed through this area on an aborted trip up to Oregon, where reports were emerging of gold washing up on the shores with every ocean wave. Deep snow around Shasta and the realization that the reports were bogus resulted in them turning around, but Clarke was so impressed with the area that he decided to settle there. He and Stewart bought a ranch just outside Knights Landing and began farming, stock raising, and making Spanish saddles. Clarke made the wooden frames while Stewart did the leather work, and as this item was quite in demand they sold all they could make.

Clarke was reportedly instrumental in demonstrating that northern Yolo County, which had been considered worthless land, was indeed suitable for farming. From these humble beginnings as well as the efforts of other ancestors who journeyed west and settled in this area around the same time, came the roots of my family’s generations of farming in Yolo, Colusa and Sutter Counties.

I’ve often wondered why Clarke left Illinois. A possible clue is contained in one of his diary entries, when he describes the Carson Valley: “…it is a beautiful place. The clover is here some three feet long and thick. If I had such land in Illinois I would stay there.” Perhaps he wasn’t able to find good land in Illinois. Perhaps it was always his intention to become a farmer in California after trying his hand at mining. I do not know.

Still to come: The farmer takes a wife and raises a family, while other branches of the family also settle in the area.

Sources:
*The Diary of William John Clarke, 1849 (both transcribed version and the original)
*Additional material in the back of the transcribed diary as compiled by Marilyn Kelly Ornbaum
*Sacramento, An Illustrated History 1839 to 1874, From Sutters Fort to Capitol City, by Thor Severson