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The Big Oak Flat Road (1955) by Irene D. Paden and Margaret E. Schlichtmann

Chapter I

Surely a road never had a more definite starting point than did the old freight route to the Southern Mines and Yosemite. It began at the loading levee in Stockton where the river boats dropped their cargo; began in full vigor and pride of achievement from the first year of its existence and from the first hundred yards of its journey. To ascertain why there should be river boats or a levee, or why, indeed, there should be a Stockton we must go back more than a century.

It is likely that the first white visitor to the fertile lower San Joaquin Valley was Lieutenant José Joaquin Moraga, commanding a small group of men from the Expedition of Juan Bautista de Anza. They saw the river, which Anza had named Rio de San Francisco, and actually camped near the site of Stockton. This was in 1776. Later his son, Ensign Gabriel Moraga, began a more or less systematic exploration of the unknown waterways of California. While on the expedition of 1805 he found and named El Rio de los Reyes (Kings River) and it is believed that he named the San Joaquin at that time as he is known to have done so before the explorations of the succeeding year. It was bestowed in memory of Saint Joachim who is honored by the Catholic Church as the father of the Virgin Mary. Moraga, naturally, used the Spanish version of the name which was also his father’s.1

A few years passed and Jedediah Smith, the first American to come overland from the United States to California, arrived, late in 1826, at Mission San Gabriel with his party of trappers and his Bible. Travelling northward, he finally made camp on the Stanislaus River and, leaving his trappers there to wait for him, set out in May for the east over one of the Indian trails. He immediately returned and, in 1828, trekked north the length of California and Oregon. On the Umpqua River the party was attacked by Indians and all killed but Smith and three others who then made their way to Fort Vancouver on the Columbia where they were befriended by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Smith’s journal, found in Maurice S. Sullivan’s “Travels of Jedediah Smith,” tells us that Smith then continued his journey eastward. The next year the Hudson’s Bay Company’s French trappers branched out toward California to find the beaver country of which the men had told them.2

At this time the San Joaquin Valley was peppered with Indian villages containing fifty to one hundred dwellings each. Most of the inhabitants appear to have been contented with their easy existence but one tribe, in pursuance of a grudge against the missions, had the unpleasant habit of leading raids into their holdings and running off to the mountains large herds of cattle and horses. In 1829 the Spanish forces from San Jose and San Francisco followed them into their own territory, east of the San Joaquin, prepared to corner the Indians and administer a much-needed lesson in manners. Twice the Siyakumna entrenched themselves and, under their wily chief Estanislao, managed to hold their position although badly cut up. The white soldiers, this time under the command of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, finally ran out of ammunition. The Indians then disappeared under cover of darkness. This happened on the river now called Stanislaus in memory of the grim-faced brown leader. Their village was at the place now called Knight’s Ferry.

Three years later the Ewing Young Expedition went north through the central river valleys and reported the many villages of which, they said, the most hostile were near the Calaveras River. There was no soil cultivation. The Indians lived on dried fish and on the products of the country. There were no white inhabitants, they stated positively, in either the valley of the San Joaquin or of the Sacramento River nor on any of their tributaries. The Expedition returned south on the following year, 1833, and found the villages practically wiped out by an epidemic of some type of intermittent fever and with many of the dead lying unburied.3

In this same year another party of experienced pathfinders swept their eyes over the almost limitless vista of the great central valley. They were the mountain men under the leadership of Joseph Reddeford Walker. They came over the mountains from the east and headed for the coast.’ It was an important expedition but not particularly so to the future city of Stockton.

Quite different was the arrival in the San Joaquin Valley of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party in 1841—the first settlers to cross the central Sierra Nevada. The deserts and rugged mountains had caused them terrible privations and they were hurrying as best they could to reach the succor of the settlements. They crossed the river, passing almost within eye-span of the future Stockton, and with them traveled its founder-to-be, Charles Marie Weber.5

Weber’s birthplace was that trouble-filled country which became Bavaria6 and he spent his first winter in California happily speaking German with the genial proprietor of Fort Sutter.7

John August Sutter’s domain, a spreading grant from the Mexican Government which he called New Helvetia, and whose headquarters the Americans termed Fort Sutter, was on the navigable Sacramento. The new arrival decided to emulate Sutter’s procedure and to obtain a similar grant. Weber’s mind, far more acute and business-like than that of Sutter, was filled with plans. Without doubt he recalled the vista of flat land, mountain-bounded to the east and west, that he had seen when crossing the great sister stream, the San Joaquin. If nothing better offered, this had possibilities.

He took up residence in the Mexican pueblo of San Jose, one of three in Alta California8 and applied for Mexican citizenship which was the first step in acquiring a grant. Here he discovered that time was important. Land was being apportioned rapidly. Under Spanish rule only a few grants had been assigned. W. W. Robinson, in his book, Land in California, sums it as in the neighborhood of twenty-five. The Mexican period began in 1822; popular pressure resulted in the secularization of the missions in 1833 and the release of their enormous holdings for distribution to individuals. The period of the ranchos had begun. By the time of the Bear Flag episode in ’46 the Mexican governors had given away, freely and apparently gladly, over 500 grants. Even three years earlier, when Weber applied for Mexican citizenship, it was apparent that suitable unoccupied land could not last forever. So he formed a partnership with one William Gulnac, who had married a Mexican girl and had already attained the necessary citizenship.

William, now called by the Spanish equivalent, Guillermo, made application for and received eleven square leagues of land, or nearly 50,000 acres. The grant lay near the junction of the San Joaquin with its small tributary, Calaveras River.

Meanwhile the Hudson’s Bay Company’s French trappers had set up a base of operations on a location very slightly higher than its surroundings and a few miles south of the same junction. There is a modern town on the site named, logically, French Camp. Every year during the trapping season the camp became populous; the Indians who prepared the pelts moved in and, for a time, there might be as many as three or four hundred souls.9 Gulnac’s grant included miles of waterways along which the Hudson’s Bay men laid their traps. It was given the name Rancho del Campo de los Franceses, or Ranch of the French Camp. Gulnac received it in January of 1844, and it was understood that Weber was to be a full partner.

Not many of the native Californians asked for grants so far from the coastal communities. Most of the ranchos along the Sacramento, Feather and other inland rivers were held by men of non-Latin origin. An exception was El Rancho del Rio Estanislaus (including modern Knight’s Ferry),10 granted to Francisco Rico and Jose Antonio Castro on December 29, 1843—just a few days before Gulnac received his grant; but, for the most part, the Mexican Californians did not care to trust themselves to the mercies of the Sierra foothill Indians. So it happened that this rich river bottom land, now counted as fertile as any in the state, was still unclaimed.

Weber did not stumble ignorantly into a dangerous situation. He felt that he could cope with it. While at Fort Sutter he had met a tall and personable individual, José Jesús (pronounced Hosáy Hasoóse), chief of the Siyakumna tribe and successor to Estanislao. The name was reminiscent of his early upbringing at the mission but he had fallen from grace and was now extremely unrepentant and a leader of the “Horsethief Indians.” He hated the Mexican Californians and his tribe was dreaded for unprovoked raids on outlying ranchos but Weber felt that he might be persuaded to act reasonably in the case of a man of other nationality.

Springtime was flood season in the tule lands of the San Joaquin Valley so there may have been good reason why Guillermo Gulnac could not settle on the grant at once. We are told that it was summer when he arrived and that he was accompanied by his son, Jose, and the well-known pioneer, Peter Lassen. Weber was involved in several types of business in San Jose and in the management of a cattle ranch nearby, so remained behind.11

The short account given in Mason’s History of Amador County best fits the facts evidenced by old documents in California History: The three men arrived at the French Camp only to find that the trappers had left for the season. Gulnac was uneasy about the Indians and continued on with Lassen who was headed north. On the Consumnes River they bivouacked in a rude hut to be closer to Fort Sutter and John Sutter gave a swivel gun to Gulnac for protection.

From another source come a few more data: Lassen and Jose were seen at this hut prior to April 23, 1844, by one, W. L. Wiggins, who wrote to Thomas O. Larkin (U. S. consul to Mexican California) on that date claiming that Lassen had stolen his horse and that Sutter had then augmented the offence by sneering at him. He said that Lassen “. . . was on the eve of departing and going to his farm up on the Sacramento. . . ."12

When Weber discovered that Gulnac had not fulfilled the terms of the grant by continuing to live there he obtained a passport to visit Fort Sutter. He hoped to settle the Indian problem by making a treaty with José Jesús. A runner was sent to bring in the chief and the two men met with ceremony, making a friendship pact which they kept faithfully as long as they lived. When Weber left his grant to command a company of volunteers in the revolt against the rule from Mexico City, José Jesús with a group of his braves went along to show their willingness to act as reinforcements. When José Jesús, many years later, was wounded in a rousing good fight Weber paid his hospital bill.

Tradition in Stockton suggests that José Jesús recommended the site where Weber later built his home, facing a large navigable slough east of the main river and now called Stockton Channel. If so the wily chief was responsible for locating the headquarters of the new rancho practically next to the village of the Yachekos of whom he was not fond.13

The first settlers to arrive were Thomas Lindsay of the Workman-Rowland Party of 1841 and his companion, James Williams, of the Chiles-Walker Party of 1843. They built a shelter of slender poles cut from the clustering oak trees and thatched it with tules. It stood on Lindsay Point, at the west end of present Lindsay Street projecting into an enlargement of the slough which had been christened McLeod Lake for the leader of one of the fur trapping parties. By August several other similar buildings had mushroomed on the tule-fringed bank.

At the same time Gulnac offered a parcel of land to one, David Kelsey, if he and his family would agree to live on it for a year.14 As a potent reminder for the Indians to treat them with respect Gulnac gave Kelsey the “swivel,” or small cannon, which Captain Sutter had presented to him. Every evening as the red sun sank into the marshes, the Kelsey family solemnly fired the tiny cannon over the flats to impress the invisible, but always portentous Indians.

All went well until Kelsey made a trip to San Jose and contracted smallpox. He completed the journey home and, as he began to feel ill, the entire family started for Sutter’s Fort to get help. They arrived at Lindsay’s on the point and could go no farther. The men moved away and left them the house for shelter. David Kelsey died there and the eleven-year-old daughter, America, nursed her mother and brother through the horrible disease. As they improved it became evident that the mother would be blind. Two men, happening on the scene after the worst was over, conquered their dread sufficiently to bury Kelsey at what is now the southwest corner of El Dorado and Fremont Streets. One of them, George F. Wyman, in due time married America.15 Willard J. Buzzell wed an indefinitely described sister, Frances.16

If the founder of Stockton had hoped to trade with the men of Hudson’s Bay Company he was destined for disappointment. The company felt that the California expedition had better be discontinued. The supply of beaver was diminishing and no longer justified so great a trek. Trouble with Mexico threatened and the English wished to watch from a distance without danger of premature involvement. Indeed the mere approach of permanent settlers caused the nomadic fur trappers to retreat.17 In 1845 Ermatinger, the leader of the last party, supposedly cached some of their weapons and broke camp apparently intending to return but they never came back.

Miss Henrietta Reynolds of Stockton was told by her uncle, James Andrew Reynolds, that he and two of his brothers were playing one day in 1856 near their home in “Sand Plains” as the country around French Camp was called during that period. A man beckoned to them. It was Mr. Noble, the first settler, who told them that if they would dig under a certain oak on a nearby knoll they would find the weapons. They did so and turned up some muskets and swords in scabbords which they divided among themselves. As they grew older they became aware that the weapons were not what trappers might have been expected to use. A perfect answer has yet to be divulged. The knoll was leveled and is part of a school yard. The oak is gone. But some of the weapons were placed by Miss Reynolds in the Haggin Memorial Museum in Stockton and may be seen there.

Sometime after 1845 Gulnac, who had preferred the life in the settlements and had spent most of his time there, sold out to his more optimistic partner and returned to the coast.18 In 1847 Weber arrived to stay.

After that the grant was his—sink or swim.

A paper in the hands of his descendants has come down to the present day, surviving in some miraculous fashion the floods and the fires that overwhelmed the early settlement. It fits nicely into the mosaic of the state’s history and seems to indicate that a movement was on foot to unite all persons of foreign blood, whether or not they had been naturalized Mexican citizens. The document was dated March 27, 1845, and set the time for meeting at San Jose on July 4th to which it was requested that delegates be sent. From this meeting it was hoped would come harmony and the advancement of the best interests of such foreigners. Meanwhile, the document suggested bluntly that they refrain from taking part in political maneuvers. It was signed by John “Marshe,” William “Gulnack.” Charles M. Weber and twenty more. One of its intentions, so Weber’s descendants feel, was to prevent others from emulating John August Sutter’s ill-advised campaign in support of Micheltorena and the government from Mexico City. Another was to circumvent, if within their power, England’s possible bid for possession.19

Charles Weber had learned, during his first four years in California, that there was a definite leaning to establish an American-governed section on the west coast similar to that of Texas. Thompson and West’s History of San Joaquin County, published in 1879, tells us that the boundaries had been tentatively mentioned as following the edge of San Francisco Bay and up the San Joaquin River, the Americans proposing to remain north and east of the line where but few of the Mexican Californians had located. If, in the unsettled condition of California, the division had been made the east bank of the San Joaquin would have been in the American portion.20

Needless to say the division did not come, but the idea may have had the effect of locating Stockton on the east bank of the river. During the trouble between the States and Mexico, Weber was an independent thinker. He was for Californians, both native-born, Mexican Californians and the permanent settlers from the States. He was against the rule from Mexico City. He went into such energetic action as seemed best to him heedless, as was his habit, of how it appeared to others. He commanded a company of volunteers. At the cessation of hostilities he was commended by his government; retired from service and proceeded shortly to the business of building a house on his Rancho del Campo de los Franceses.

A small peninsula projected from the east bank of what is now Stockton Channel and, about 1847, Weber erected a house on it of which a portion was adobe. Because of its situation on the slough most of the supplies and visitors came by boat. The Indians of the vicinity used rafts—long, narrow and pointed at both ends, cleverly fashioned of tules tied together. The Americans came in whaleboats or whatever they could command. A sailing vessel might take two weeks to come upstream from San Francisco.

Behind the rough, picturesque house a moat was dug. It ran the full width of the peninsula about where Center Street was later surveyed. A sturdy stockade supplemented the moat. Behind them the horses were safe. Although friendly the nearby Indians were apt to be opportunists.

This location became the nucleus of the city of Stockton and is still known as Weber’s Point.

The plan had been to construct a wharf and warehouse near Weber’s home but, when the boat arrived with the lumber, it was mistakenly unloaded across Stockton Channel. There was no easy way to re-deliver a disjointed warehouse over a wide waterway so it was erected where the lumber lay. Due to this accident building began early on the mainland instead of being temporarily constricted on the peninsula.

Lindsay and Williams also returned to the grant, but the Indians ran off all the stock belonging to Lindsay and he, himself, was killed. The little cluster of tule huts (all standing between present Main and Center Streets, Fourth and Wall), were burned. In November of 1847 there was only one wooden house in the settlement, then appropriately known as Tuleburgh. This was Buzzell’s Tavern, a resting place between Sutter’s Fort and San Jose, which stood where 28 West Weber Avenue now is. However there were possibly a dozen more settlers. While Nicholas Gann was camping on his way through the village, his wife gave birth to a son, William—probably the first child born of American parents in what is now San Joaquin County.21

Discovery of gold in the spring of 1848 again upset the balance of affairs in California. Men, only home a few months from the Mexican campaigns, set out again, this time for the Sierra Nevada and the golden river beds. Charles Weber trimmed his sails to the prevailing wind, collected his settlers and a number of Indians and set out for Sutter’s Mill, prospecting as they went and finding their first color on the Mokelumne River. They selected a spot near the mill and started mining operations on Weber’s Creek where Weber presently brought more recruits, including twenty-five of José Jesús braves. Several other prominent pioneers of California accumulated quick wealth by means of the assistance of friendly Indians; John Bidwell at Bidwell’s Bar, Pierson B. Reading at Clear Creek, James Savage in the Southern Mines, William Knight at Knight’s Ferry although the latter did not live to profit by it, and others.

When the Indians had learned how to prospect Weber sent them back to the Stanislaus River to see what they could dig out near the rancheria. The results were so impressive that Weber returned and organized a group which he called the Stockton Mining Company. With him, into the new diggings, went men whose names are well known: Dr. I. S. Isbel,22 John Murphy of Murphy’s Camp, Sullivan of Sullivan’s Creek, Woods of Woods Creek, Angel of Angel’s Camp and a motley crew of Indians.

As these were joined by newcomers and the Southern Mines grew in fame, Weber decided to devote his energies to furnishing supplies. He went back to Tuleburgh, dissolved the mining company and started a store on Weber Avenue west of El Dorado and about 100 feet west of the old What Cheer House.

In 1847 the founder had the tiny village surveyed by Jasper O’Farrell and laid out symmetrically but apparently no map or plan of this undertaking remains in existence.

Affairs now moved with frightening and unbelievable speed. The acquisition of California by the States at the end of the Mexican War terminated all talk of a separate republic. Some of the Mexican Californians were angry and uneasy; some thought it would be better in the long run to be a part of the United States than of Mexico, as long as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed the continued ownership of their land-grants. It was intended that all rights should be protected, but Weber’s was too great a prize to go unchallenged. The Rancho of the French Camp was in litigation for so many years that, when the Supreme Court of the United States finally decided in his favor, it was “A. Lincoln” who signed the patent.

Meanwhile the men of California, of whatever racial extraction, had their hands full. Here they were, just having exchanged allegiance from one nation to another, with no organized government and the gold stampede (which all recognized as a tremendous westward movement) in full swing. The amazing Constitutional Convention resulting in statehood for California was put under way, in August 1849, assisted by a few of the leading Mexican Californians. Highly influential General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo was a member of the Convention. It is true that he was handicapped by a limited knowledge of technical English expressions and thought for some hours that the “freeholders” in which all Americans seemed so interested were Mexican beans (frijoles), but laughed as heartily as the rest when his mistake was explained.

As the spring of 1849 walked up the mountain, the more adventurous spirits walked with her, sometimes making but sticky progress. These hardy gold-seekers most frequently came as far as Tuleburgh by boat and were all too likely to abandon the vessel just where she lay—in front of Weber’s front door. Finally, measures had to be taken to clear out the waterway.

William Redmond Ryan visited “Stocton” rather early in ’49 and wrote: “I counted eight tents, some spiral, others walled-in with canvass, one of which, about fifty feet long, served for a store. There were several bulrush huts, and one immense wooden house in course of erection, some sixty feet square, and promising two stories. It was intended for trading purposes, and had been long required by the proprietor, Mr. Weaver [undoubtedly Weber], whose business was very extensive, considering the appearance of the place, and who was the owner of the chief portion of the land about there. He was endeavoring to attract settlers to the spot, by offering them locations at nominal rents or land for nothing, provided they would build upon it. In this enterprise he had not as yet been very successful.” Ryan went on to say that the location was a low, flat plain near a swamp and that fever and ague rage in summer while, in the winter “. . . the fierce winds sweep with unbroken fury . . .” Fuel and fodder were scarce and he considered a residence there “miserable to the last degree.”23

James H. Carson, who had been in the mines in ’48, passed again through the town on May 1, 1849, which must have been a beautiful spring day. He was inspired to write: “. . . Stockton, that I had last seen graced only by Joe Buzzel’s log house with a tule roof, was now a vast linen city. The tall masts of barques, brigs and schooners were seen high pointed in the blue vault above—while the merry ‘yo ho!’ of the sailor could be heard, as box, bale and barrel were landed on the banks of the slough. A rush and whirl of noisy human beings were continually before the eye. The magic wand of gold had been shaken over a desolate place, and on it a vast city had arisen in the bidding.”24 It was, however, not as yet a comfortable city and the crossing of any street, although the sidewalks were spread with wet hay and brush,25 was attended with the danger of losing one’s boots. Men grew in the habit of walking bent double with fingers thrust through their boot straps to keep them from sucking off in the deep, sticky mud.26

The newcomers passing through on their way to the mines might have supplied themselves with necessities for the rugged life they faced. Again they might have arrived empty-handed. Such an opportunity for business comes but once in several generations. Stores and hotels sprang up in tents. The United States Hotel, owned by one Tyseen, had its beginnings in a tent in 1849 and was Stockton’s first public house.27 The Rev. James Corwin, a Methodist, held services by the fall of 1849. The first Presbyterian Church built in California was dedicated on May 5, 1850. It was financed by public subscription headed by Rev. James Woods.28 The town grew until Weber decided to enlarge its boundaries. In 1849 Major Richard P. Hammond re-surveyed it in a one mile square of which the boundary streets were Flora on the north, Aurora on the cast, Twigg on the south with Bragg and Tule Streets on the west.29 The newly laid out town was named for Commodore Robert I. Stockton whom Weber had met and admired during the time he was away with the troops.

Weber did not forget French Camp. He had the same man survey the old trappers’ headquarters, giving it the title “Castoria” in honor of the beaver—sometimes termed “castor.” The name was practically never used.30 In 1850 the first stage line started business between Stockton and Mokelumne Hill; the first newspaper, the Stockton Times, printed on foolscap, appeared March 16th of that year, and in November of the same year, Charles Weber married Ellen, the daughter of Martin Murphy of the Stevens, Murphy, Townsend Party of 1844. She was a personality in her own right and was one of the first two women to reach the settlements of California by way of the canyon of the Truckee River, later used by railroad and highway. The impressive white mansion built for the bride was constructed of lumber brought around the Horn and of native adobe. The second house was erected near the old one. Here the founder lived for the rest of his life; the house, outlasting him by a year, was destroyed by fire in 1881. It was replaced and both the new house and two heavily timbered rooms from the dwelling used by Weber and his vacqueros have been moved outside the city and are in constant use by his descendants.

Supplies of all kinds came up the river and everything was stacked on the loading levee—seemingly in confused heaps, but sooner or later they were sorted out and went trundling off to their destinations. Pack trains had begun to be surplanted by freight wagons as early as 1849 and, due to the flatness of the country for miles around, the latter achieved a quick popularity. By 1851 it is estimated that 500 wagons and 1500 pack animals were shuttling back and forth along the freight route to the Southern Mines.31 Efficient stage lines were running and a mail contract had been let. Goods for the mines went out the “miner’s road,” where tents, open camps and cooking fires made a lively scene for about two miles. It is now Miner Avenue.

Of course the town was flooded every few years. In January of 1862 the worst flood in its history inundated the growing community. For a month the Alta California in distant San Francisco headlined, day by day, the progress of the destroying waters and chronicled the fact that Charles Weber’s house, constructed partially of adobe, was settling and crumbling. In spite of the founder’s efforts through the years to promote an effective flood control at his own expense,32 he could not cope with the excessive growth of the community.

In 1862 Weber had another survey made—this time by Duncan Beaumont. It was two miles square. The boundary streets were North, East, South and Tule Streets. North is now Harding Way; East is Wilson Way; South is Charter Way. Tule was Edison and was the boundary because at that time the land west of it was marsh. Later the city filled in to complete the full two miles and Pershing Avenue became the west boundary.

Space for parks, sites for churches and schools were always given freely. Anything which he considered for the good of the city could be had from Charles Weber, but the responsibility was great and the load too heavy. His health failed. He grew crotchety; misunderstandings arose and he became unpopular in a city that had outgrown the personal touch.

Between floods the place burned up with a regularity worthy of a better cause. Hard times came along in 1854 and occasionally afterward;33 but neither fire nor flood nor pestilence, which struck violently now and then, were able permanently to retard progress in this strategically located center. It has always been a land of opportunity.

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