The Hobbs Family as early settlers of California. Nancy Kelsey the First American Woman in California 1841, Sarah Jane Hobbs Lewis Stubblefield came on a 1853 Wagon train. Mahala Gann came with her parents in 1847 on the Hopper Wagon train. In 1846, John Wheeler Green, abt. four years old, the family crossed the plains as members of the ill-fated Donner Party, but left that group in, joining the Wheeler/Harlan Wagon train, thus escaping the fate which befell the Donner’s. From Olive C. Hobbs

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Wagon Train to California

Heroic Lass of 1844
from California's Sesquicentennial Wagon Train To Port of Stockton 1999

She was pretty, she was pert, and she was barely twelve years old in 1844 when a life already chock full of adventure turned tragedy and made her an unexpected heroine. Her name was America Kelsey.

Born on the frontier, she had never been to school, never learned to read and write. But she was bright, and if she was not "school smart," she surely was wise to the ways of living and surviving on the frontier.

America was born in St. Clair County, Missouri in 1832, the tenth and youngest child of frontiersman David Kelsey and his wife, Susan Cazzort. David Kelsey was born in Kentucky in 1793. He was a veteran of the War of 1812, who had served with the famous Kentucky Rifles.

In the winter of 1840-41, the call of California was heard up and down the Missouri frontier. The published letters of California immigrant Dr. John Marsh coupled with hard times, ignited a flare of enthusiasm that led perhaps 500 people to declare they were ready to pull up stakes and head west as soon as the grass greened up in the spring of 1841. When the time came to rendezvous for the trek, only about eighty drifted into camp, including the four oldest sons of David Kelsey, Americas brothers. They joined with a Jesuit missionary group led by Fr. Pierre DeSmett and guided by renown Mountain Man Thomas "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick.

This first attempt at wagon travel to California succeeded only as far as Utah. After DeSmett and Fitzpatrick left them to continue north, the California group suffered from lack of supplies and sufficient knowledge to blaze a new trail. The party split About half - mostly families - elected to pick up the more certain trail to the Oregon Territory. The remainder, today known as the Bidwell-Bartleson Party, abandoned their wagons and continued to California.

Sam Kelsey with his wife and five children and brother Isaac (also called Zediddiah)with his new bride headed for Oregon. Brothers Andrew and Ben stayed the course for California. Ben's wife Nancy and tiny daughter Martha Ann became historic figures by becoming the first white woman and child to migrate to California over the Sierras. Dauntless Nancy, carrying her child, stumbled out of the mountains into the Great Valley barefoot and faint from hunger to become a lasting heroine.

In 1843 father David Kelsey, wife Susan, little America, and the remainder of the family, joined the Applegate train and made the long trek to Oregon. The trip lasted six months and they arrived in winter. They wintered with Sam, where America had a warm bed and new cousins to meet.

When spring arrived in 1844, Ben and farmily took the Siskiyou trail to Sutter's Fort in search of California's touted opportunities. A search was not necessary for here he met William Gulnac who was disparately seeking people to settle on his new land grant,located about 40 miles south of Sutter's (present day Stockton). Gulnac promised Kelsey title to a farm of one square mile if he would settle on his new grant and remain there for one year. David immediately agreed.

Gulnac's partner was Charles Weber, a quiet member of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party and therefore a family friend. Weber had been trying since he arrived in California in '41 to acquire a land grant, but lacked Mexican citizenship to qualify. Therefore he recruited Gulnac to apply for the grant that was subsequently awarded. Gulnac was already a citizen and was Weber's associate in several endeavors in San Jose. There was a big proviso that went with the grant-since it was the maximum legal size, it had to include more than one settler. Weber and Gulnac were forced to search for eleven other families or individuals to settle on their grant in order to prove title. Pickings were poor in 1844 and Gulnac traveled to Sutter's in hopes of finding new over-landers fresh from the trail to entice into settling on their rancho, called Campo de los Franceses (French Camp). This led to his fateful meeting with David Kelsey.

When Kelsey first arrived in the area of present day Stockton in August of 1844, there was a flurry of activi on the grant. Later testimony at Weber's land title hearings indicated there were at least four houses near McLeods Lake (named for Alexander McLeod, leader of the first Hudson's Bay trappers to visit the delta), with two individuals in temporary residence.Corrals were constructed, fruit trees planted as well as a small patch of wheat. There were horses and cattle and some vaqueros on site. David Kelsey had a man named Kelly who worked with him in building his cabin at French Camp, the site of his promised square mile.

By autumn, however, it was quiet. Only James Williams and Thomas Lindsay remained at McLeod's Lake, occupying two cabins and tending the stock. The Kelsey family was now also on it's own and apparently consisted of only Kelsey and his wife, and daughter America.

The little family would expect to face hostile Indians, thieves, disease, and mosquitoes in enormous swarms. Their only neighbors would be the two cattle herders at McLeods Lake, several miles to the north. This was the only white occupation in the enLire San Joaquin Valley at that tirhe. Sutter had given Guinac a swivel cannon and he passed it on to Kelsey. Each night Kelsey would charge the piece and fire an evening salute to warn any marauding Indians that he was armed.

Late in the fall supplies ran short The family was existing on wheat gruel (his seed for his first planned crop?), game, and tea made from herbs gathered along French Camp Slough. Kelsey therefore buried his cannon, packed up his valuables and his family, and traveled to San Jose for supplies. It is not known how long the Kelseys stayed in San Jose, but they would have to return before winter rains raised the San Joaquin River and made it impossible to ford.

While in San Jose, Kelsey visited a sick Indian. The reason for this visit is a puzzle. Kelsey was too new to the area to have a close acquaintance in far off San Jose. Further, the Kelseys were noted for their prejudices agaihst Indians.
One sensible speculation is that he was referred to the Indian as a possible
employee to take back to the grant.

This short meeting had dire consequences, for soon after return to French Camp, Kelsey took ill, presumably with the malady that Infected the Indian. Susan Kelsey had spent her life on the frontier and was used to dealing with ordinary illness without outside aid, but something made her quickly realize this was something home remedies could not handie. She loaded David and little America into the wagon and started for Sutter's Fort to find a doctor. When they reached Lindsay's cabin at McLeod's Lake,he urged them to spend the nlght. He said Williams would soon return and was good at doctoring. Williams had some medicine he thought would probably be the cure. Williams arrived and dosed his patient. According to later testimony, by morning the nature of David Kelsey's illness became obvious-small pox! Ths was the dreaded killer disease of the Valley, having already decimated the Indian population. Sutter had warned he would kill anyone who brought the disease to his settiement. Lindsay and Wililams immediately took off, separating themselves from the highly contagious disease. Lindsay's parting advice is said to have been that they shouldn't try to bury Kelsey should he die, but rather drag him out to where the coyotes could dispose of the body. As Kelsey grew weaker, wife Susan fell ill and was qulckiy blinded by the disease.

America, now only twelve, became nurse, cook, and protector of her parents. There was little anyone could have done, let alone a child. Kelsey died three weeks after his first syrnptoms. America was not strong enough to move or bury him. She could still tend her mother, but now she was also becoming ill. The plight and despair of that little girl can't really be imagined, nor can we appreciate the anguish of her mother. Dead father unburied, blind mother, and a stricken child alone in the wildeness: this was the fate of the first white family to settle in San Joaquin Valley.

Some cowboys traveling between San Jose and Sutter's Fort happened by and found the destitute family. One of them had the gumption to ignore the danger and rescue America and her mother. He buried David, nursed mother and daughter until they were well enough to travel, and then he took them out of the foggy San Joaquin Valley to safe haven in Monterey.

After a few weeks, James Williams and Thomas Lindsay returned to their cabins at McLeod Lake. Lindsay stayed with the stock and Williams went to Sutter's for supplies. A short time later, riders on their way from San Jose to Sutter's, found Lindsay's cabin burned and his arrow-riddled body floating in McLeod Lake. They buried him close by Kelsey near where the Stockton City Hall now stands.

Susan never recovered her sight and so moved to Oregon to the home of one of America's brothers. America, the brave little nurse, would have to stay with relatives in California or join her mother in Oregon. Which to do?

Suddenly a third option was offered. Her rescuer returned and asked her hand in marriage and she accepted. And so, on June 2, 1846, America Kelsey and her rescuer, George Wyman, were married at Sutters Fort by Captain John Sutter. The bride was fourteen and the groom twenty-seven.

Spunky America lived a long and happy life. She and George took root in Half Moon Bay, California - the second English speaking family to settle there - and reared a family of seven boys and two girls. They were married 47 years before George died in 1893, aged 74. America survived him by eighteen years.

A San Mateo County historian interviewed her in 1883 and noted "She is not favorably impressed [with] the present state of things,and would like to see the times of thirty-five years ago, when beans and beef alone made the bill of fare."

She died in 1916 at the age of 83. A niece remembered "Aunt America could not read or write, but she eamed her own living..." and noted America was still cooking her meat on the stove grate. A pioneer to the end!


Blogger Catholic Mom x 4 said...

This is very fascinating. My daughter is portraying America Kelsey as her character for a Sutter's Fort educational field trip. Your blog has helped her fill in the blanks. Thank you!

November 11, 2008 at 9:42 AM  

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