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Johnson’s Ranch
Submitted By: XNGH Jason Thorn Date: May 08, 2010, 06:36:19 PM Views: 36239

Originally published in the Hewgag Monitor by Tom Barry in May, 1995


   While technically out of the purview of this series of articles on the history of E Clampus Vitus because most of this happened before ECV came to California, we will now take a look at one of the most famous locations in early California, namely Johnson’s Ranch, which is located only a few miles (as the crow flies) from our May party site, Hammon Grove.

   We begin our story with John Sutter, who came to the Central Valley in 1839, setting up a fort in what is now Sacramento, and with his huge Spanish Land Grant, establishing the beginnings of a vast empire of cattle ranching, farming and related businesses. He was not the first non-Mexican in the area and was certainly not the only one with vast land holdings. He was, however, the one most usually associated with the eventual “discovery” of gold and the resulting Gold Rush of 1849, which was to cause his ruin.

   Much evidence exists that gold was discovered in California many times before James W. Marshall, a Sutter employee building a saw mill on the American River, picked that fateful nugget from the tailrace. Sometime in 1844, Don Pablo Gutierrez, a worker for John Bidwell, manager of Sutter’s Hock (upper) Farm, picked up some gold on the banks of the Bear River, where Gutierrez would apply for, and be granted, a large rancho (22,197 acres) in December, 1844. He had confided in John Bidwell of the gold and convinced him to help in the gold mining. They went to Sutter’s Fort for supplies and a lot more could have come of the discovery had the rebellion of the Californios (native Californians of Mexican ancestry) against the Mexican Governor Michaeltorena of California had not come to a boil. Sutter had aligned himself with the Governor, and Gutierrez was dispatched by Sutter to relay messages with information of the rebellion in the north. Don Pablo made one safe trip, but in January, 1845, while on a second trip to Monterey for Sutter, he was captured and killed by rebels in the area of present-day Gilroy. Sutter, as administrator of the Gutierrez estate, sold the land at auction to William Johnson, a sailor from Boston. Johnson was familiar with the area, having run a cargo lighter on the Sacramento River for a while. With a partner, Sebastian Keyser, Johnson made the successful bid for the Gutierrez property. Price? $150! (about 2/3 of a CENT per acre!)

   The southern boundary of Johnson’s Ranch, as it would be known from then on, was the Bear River. The Truckee River Route of the California Trail (over what would be known later as Donner Pass) traveled down the Bear River, and Johnson’s Ranch was the first inhabited area the early emigrants would come to in California. Johnson and Keyser set about establishing a business to serve the emigrants’ needs for supplies, fresh animal stock and up to date news.

   The location had been visited earlier (1833) by John Work and other trappers from Fort Vancouver. Caleb Greenwood, another famous old mountain man, came through the area with the Elisha Stevens group (Stevens, Murphy, Townsend Party) in 1844. After acquiring the Ranch in 1845, Johnson and Keyser, with the labor of local Indians, set up a few rudimentary buildings and went into business. Both men were at that time bachelors, but Johnson was reputed to have a couple of Indian “wives.” Johnson built a two room cabin of adobe and wood in 1846, just upstream from the point where the California Trail came to the Bear River. Keyser’s cabin was located just downstream from the crossing.

   John C. Frémont and Kit Carson camped at Johnson’s Ranch on March 25, 1846, and returned there to pause during the “Bear Flag Rebellion” while returning from the Sutter Buttes to join Americans who were in the process of overthrowing Mexican authority.

   The army of General Stephen Watts Kearney spent a day at the ranch in June, 1847, in preparation for departure to Fort Leavenworth following the Mexican War. Frémont was with this group, too, as he was on his way to be court-martialed for disobedience to General Kearney.

   Perhaps the most important thing for which the Johnson Ranch is remembered is that it was there that the five women and two men survivors of the “Forlorn Hope” group from the snowed-in Donner Party arrived (after 33 grueling days which saw 7 of their number die) on Jan. 17, 1847, seeking aid for the remainder of their ill-fated wagon train. Johnson and Keyser sent word to Sutter’s Fort, and the call went out for volunteers to form a rescue mission. Sutter, along with Alcalde John Sinclair, offered supplies and $3 a day to men who would undertake this dangerous task. Seven men were recruited and they made their way from Johnson’s place, taking 15 days to reach the trapped emigrants at Truckee Lake (now Donner Lake).

   One of the rescued survivors was Mary Murphy, whose mother died while she was being taken to safety. She stayed several days at the ranch to recuperate, and Johnson proposed marriage to the young girl. In June, 1847, they were married by Alcalde Sinclair.

   Sebastian Keyser had been married, in late 1846, to Elizabeth Rhoads, whose two brothers, Daniel and John, were involved with the rescue of the Donner Party. The rescuers included the old mountain man Caleb Greenwood (80 years old), and John Turner, one of the Vancouver fur trappers from the 1833 group to pass through the Bear River area.

   William Johnson was a crude man, given to bouts of drunkenness, and Mary soon became aware that she had made a serious mistake by marrying him. Through her married sister and a brother, both working on the nearby Cordua Ranch, she had met the ranch superintendent, Charles Covillaud, a much more refined and gentlemanly prospect, and she left Johnson’s Ranch on November 20, 1847. She was able to get her marriage to Johnson annulled. On Christmas Day of 1847, she and Covillaud were married at Sutter’s Fort. By January of 1850, Charles had become very successful in business, and was engaged in the establishment of a new city on the Feather River, which he named Marysville, after his young wife.

   But what of Johnson and Keyser? Both soon saw an opportunity to sell their land at a good profit, because of the Gold Rush. Johnson, in March, 1849, and then Keyser, in November of the same year, sold their respective halves of the ranch to groups of men. Johnson received $9000 for his part and Keyser got $6000. A nice return on a $150 investment held for only four years! Johnson was to eventually return to Hawaii, where he died. Keyser, with his wife, Elizabeth (Rhoads), moved to Cosumne, near Sloughhouse, to operate a ferry for William Daylor, but high waters and a broken cable carried him to his death a few months later, during the winter of 1849-50.

   Johnson’s Ranch was now to be the location of the town of Kearney, according to the new owners, Eugene Gillespie and Henry Robinson. Lots were laid out, but soon a tangled morass of legal proceedings involving the sale of portions of the ranch to various speculators and investors, and the opening of the interior river travel through to Marysville, caused Kearney to lose its luster as a good location for a town. The naming of Marysville as county seat for Yuba County did not help either. But Johnson’s Ranch was to have a bit more life left, as a base for military operations against the Indians, who were feeling the pressures of the constant and ever-growing emigration of miners.

   Hope for the future was held out for the area when Camp Far West was established about one and a half miles up the Bear River in 1849. Established to protect the ever-increasing numbers of Americans in the area, the post was destined to exist for only three years, and the soldiers there were to suffer many hardships. Many desertions would take place from Camp Far West. This was partly due to the temptations of the gold fields. A soldier’s pay was only about $16 a month, and miners could make that much in a day, or perhaps only a few hours. Diseases, like scurvy, and the loss of cattle and supplies to Indians were some of the problems reported to the War Department. Soon, the disheartened soldiers at Camp Far West were so ineffective at their mission that the reports of the day often mentioned Indian trouble. Several Indians were killed by miners in skirmishes on Deer Creek (Nevada City) in May of 1850, and the Commander of Camp Far West, Captain Hannibal Day, claimed he had “not the force nor the ability to send ten bayonets a mile from camp.” Several people were killed in a brief battle with Indians at Johnson’s Ranch in November, 1850, including Lt. Col. L. H. McKinney. Capt. Francisco de Allison, Frémont’s guide, was among the many wounded. 1850 was the period of the greatest conflict with Indians.

   Johnson’s Ranch lapsed into a slow, steady decline. This was due to the new crossing of the river, west of the old one, used by the Nevada (City) to Sacramento stage line, beginning in 1850. The adobe buildings began to deteriorate back into the soil from which they were built. Later, at the turn of the century, huge dredges would rip much of the gravel from the Yuba and Bear Rivers in the area in the search for gold. Floods were frequent because of the silting of the river beds; the Bear River channel moved (meandered) a mile south, and the site of the buildings at Johnson’s Crossing became lost to general knowledge.

   In 1984, Jack Steed and his son, Richard, visited the site of Camp Far West. Becoming intrigued with the possibility of locating the actual site of Johnson’s Crossing and the buildings established there, they explored the area. Enlisting the aid of old maps, local historians and metal detectors, they were finally able to pinpoint the actual location of the “ranch.” Their conclusions went against the generally accepted history, but close examination of the evidence by experts, including some from the Oregon - California Trails Association, were to prove them correct. Jack Steed’s excellent book on the search is sure to please any history buff, especially one interested in early California trails. The Donner Party Rescue Site - Johnson’s Ranch on Bear River is must reading and is the source for this article.

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