Monday, July 15, 2013

A tale of two uncles

When I first became interested in family history (at the age of 13!), one of the first stories I heard was that of my great-grandfather, Alfred John Johnson. I was fascinated by him because I can actually remember him (I was 7 when he died). The story was that he was the youngest of three brothers who had been left orphaned in Arkansas after the civil war. Their father had not come home from the war, and their mother died soon thereafter. They were brought by an uncle to California. The uncle treated them cruelly, and so they essentially ran away from home and became cowboys and later ranchers in Modoc county. That was about the extent of the story as far as my grandfather remembered it. He wasn’t sure of the uncle’s name, or even if it was a paternal or maternal uncle.

One time when my great-grandfather was visiting my grandparents, who lived in Susanville, my grandmother got him a history of Lassen county from the library to read since he was interested in the old West. There was a prominent character in the history named W T. C. Elliott, known as “Rough” Elliott. My great-grandfather said, “Well, that’s my uncle—my mother’s brother.” He proceeded to tell a story about how he and his brothers had heard that this uncle had been arrested for murder down in Bishop, CA; that he, being the youngest of the brothers, was the one deputized to ride horseback from Modoc county down to bishop to see if he could help; that when he got there, he found his uncle had been exonerated and released, and he didn’t know where he had gone. My grandfather said he thought Grandpa Johnson would have mentioned if that was the uncle who had brought him to California, so he thought it probably wasn’t.

My grandfather had a cousin who he thought might know more. Unfortunately my grandmother didn’t get along with this cousin, so they got my grandfather’s sister, who did get along with the cousin, to write and ask. The response came back that it was actually the boys’ father’s brother, William Johnson, who had brought them to California. The cousin provided a bit more information—the uncle lived around Merced. So this set me off on an effort to find out more.

I went to the 1870 census of Merced county, and there I found them—the uncle, W. T. B. Johnson; his wife and some children; and the three brothers. So now I knew I was on the right track. I discovered that William Johnson was quite a prominent early settler in the area, in the town of Plainsburg. I found a photograph of him in a historical library in Stockton, CA:

I eventually learned that he had actually made three trips to California—the first in 1849, during the gold rush; then he went back to Arkansas and brought his father and several of his siblings out in 1852; then he went back to collect these three nephews after their parents died in 1869. I learned also that while he had settled in Merced, when he brought his parents and family out in 1852 they had settled in San Bernardino. So I wrote to the historical society there, inquiring about any information they might have. Very shortly I received a letter from an 84-year-old woman named Marguerite Stanley. She was, she said, the granddaughter of William T. Barry Johnson, and the woman at this historical society had given her my letter. She knew that her grandfather had brought these three orphaned boys to California—and she figured I must be the son or grandson of one of them.

So we had a great time swapping stories. The version of the story from her side of the family was rather different. Remember from my side the uncle had been cruel and the boys had run away from him as soon as they could. But Marguerite’s story was that her grandmother had always spoken of these three boys whom she had taken in in response to their mother’s dying request. She had then contacted the uncle in California, who came to get them. The uncle was a widower, and when he came back to Arkansas he fell in love with this young woman who had cared for his nephews, and they were married. She came with him and the nephews back to California. She had loved and cared for these boys as if they were her own—and then one day they just disappeared, and she never heard from them again. Marguerite went on to tell several stories of how generous and kind her grandfather had been.

How to reconcile the two versions? Well, we sort of concluded that the boys had essentially been without a father most of their lives, since they were just very young when he went off to war. Now having a “father figure” was perhaps a little more discipline and expectation than they were used to! At any rate, not long after this, Marguerite came and visited me, and we both a little teary at the idea that this family rift from 100 years ago had now been healed! I’ve since learned a lot more about Uncle William, and have been in touch with many of his descendants.

Now back to the other uncle, William “Rough” Elliott. He’s always been one of my favorite ancestors. I mentioned that we first learned about him when my great-grandfather read stories of him in a history of Lassen county. Turns out Uncle Rough, as I call him, had a pretty colorful life here on the frontier. He also came in 1849 or 1850, and actually lived first in Rough and Ready, a gold rush era community in Nevada county, about ten miles from where I now life—that’s allegedly where he got the nickname “Rough.” He wasn’t in Rough and Ready too long, though there is a brief mention of him in the little history of the town that was published a number of years ago. He then headed for Honey Lake Valley, the Susanville, Calif., area, where he ranched for a number of years. Here’s a photograph of him:

How I got this photo is an interesting story in itself. My grandfather had a friend who was a grandson of Isaac Roop, the founder of Susanville. After my great-grandfather had revealed that Rough Elliott was his uncle, my grandfather mentioned it to his friend, who said, “Oh, he was a good friend of my grandfather’s. We have a photo of him!”

One of the things interesting about Elliott was his involvement in a rather notorious lynching that took place over in Carson Valley in the 1860s—the hanging of Lucky Bill Thorrington. This is a very dramatic episode that still causes controversy. Some are convinced that Lucky Bill himself was a murderer, and got what was coming to him; others are equally convinced that he was framed, and that he was really kind of a folk hero, sort of a Robin Hood character who often robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. Rough Elliott was closely involved in the capture and hanging of Lucky Bill, so he looks like a villain or a hero depending on what you think of Lucky Bill. One common theme in this story is that Rough Elliott was quite a glib talker—very persuasive, a good orator, altogether a smooth and polished speaker who could talk his way into or out of just about anything.

But of course I was interested in the story of the murder accusation, and so I set out to see what I could learn. I first found a brief mention of it in a San Francisco newspaper from 1888. Having narrowed down the date, I spent hours looking through microfilm of the Inyo Register, the newspaper in Bishop in that time. I found a full account of the alleged murder, and extensive coverage of the trial. It seems the dead man was the uncle of Rough’s estranged wife. Rough claimed that he had killed him in self defense, but nobody in Inyo county bought that. The dead man was an old and respected settler, and Rough was regarded with a great deal of suspicion (and the stories about Lucky Bill kept coming up!) Rough was convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged.

Then I found that his case actually went to the California Supreme Court. It overturned his conviction on what would be called a technicality, though the court’s decision made it clear that they thought the citizens in Inyo county and the inflammatory press coverage made it impossible for him to have gotten a fair trial there. So they ordered a new trial, with a change of venue. The trial was moved to Bakersfield, and it ended in a hung jury. A third trial also ended in a hung jury, and Rough was released and not tried again—not quite the “exoneration” my great-grandfather had claimed, but at least he avoided the noose!

A few years ago I found the entire transcript of the first trial in the California State Archives, which was lots of fun to read. I also found in the file a letter from Rough’s attorney which mentions that my great-grandfather was presently in Inyo county trying to assist his uncle.

A couple of other interesting things. First, I mentioned that Rough Elliott was a polished and accomplished speaker. I learned some years ago, much to my surprise, that his grandson was a prominent figure in the 7th Day Adventist Church, and in fact taught speech and preaching at their seminary near Napa, CA!

Some years ago I got into a conversation with Tony Waters, a friend who teaches sociology at California State University, Chico, about Rough Elliott. Tony was very interested in his trial (he teaches criminology), and actually ended up using Rough Elliott as a case study in a book he wrote about murder!

A couple of years ago I was contacted by a woman in Massachusetts who was doing genealogy and whose husband, it turns out, is a great-grandson of Rough Elliott. They knew a little about him, but not much. They were out in California for a family wedding last Labor Day, and invited us to meet them at Lake Tahoe and have lunch. We had a grand time talking about old Rough!—though when I told my sister I was having lunch with Rough Elliott’s great-grandson, she asked me if I was going to take a gun for protection!  (I didn’t.)

1 comment:

  1. Welcome to Geneabloggers!!

    I also had an ancestor who was in California for the Gold Rush. He later lived in Yuba (I believe) County, and died in Trinity County. His family most lived in Illinois. He was a real adventurer. I have not stopped writing about him in my blog since I joined Geneabloggers about nine months ago. I can't believe what has been found on him. I'm still not finished blogging about him.


    Grant Davis