San Simeon Creek Pioneers in Their Own Voices
by Clark Colahan
There were two sisters and a brother, born in Ohio at the height of the Classical Revival of the 1820’s and given some Greek and Latin names in the spirit of the time. The eldest was Sarah Mariah Clark, who became a school teacher by profession. Her sister was Lovina Fidelia Clark, an expressive and articulate writer of letters, someone clearly well educated, wife of a homesteader. Their little brother was Eleutheros Americus Clark, who became a homesteader, a fruit rancher, a doctor, a dentist, a lawyer, a teacher, a county supervisor, a tax assessor, a superintendent of public schools, a prolific newspaper editorial writer, and whose first and middle names mean “Free American.” As some of the very earliest pioneers at San Simeon Creek, they were truly free—free to make use of every ounce of talent, education, and courage they possessed.
How did they get there? Their parents were struggling shopkeepers in White Pigeon, Michigan, who both died when their three children were still fairly young. But their paternal grandfather was a judge in Eden Co., Ohio, where he had been a pioneer settler and prominent public office holder. He took them in, educated them, and filled them with the conviction that they would triumph over life’s problems, just as he had saved them from what had seemed a tragic fate in life.
Eleutheros Americus, or E.A. as he was generally known (except among his family where his nickname was “Old Crooked Jaw”), studied medicine for two years in Indiana, though without finishing the MD degree, then practiced a while in Michigan. He married Lydia Helen Washburn, from a political clan of national prominence, and they had two daughters, Sarah Minerva (not to be confused with her aunt Sarah Mariah) and Olive, When Gold Fever swept the country in ’49, it was inevitable that someone as determined to succeed as EA would soon go to California.
Leaving his two sisters, his wife and two daughters behind he made the trip by steamer to Nicaragua, which he crossed by mule and lake steamer, then again by ship to San Francisco. After a few months in the gold fields in Sierra County, he bought a farm and settled down to working it at Evergreen. Before long he helped found the Republican party in Santa Clara County, ran unsuccessfully for office, and began a lifelong friendship with a young J.J. Owen, who would become the distinguished publisher of the San Jose Mercury newspaper.
After two years E.A. wanted all the women in his family, who were back in Michigan, to join him, so he simply sent them gold, along with a long letter containing highly detailed instructions about taking the same route he had followed, complete with tips on renting the mules, taking opium for sea sickness, clothing, dealing with strange men, and a sea of other practical considerations. He was confident that with the benefit of his prior experience, they had what it took to make the trip on their own. They did.
Shortly after arriving in Evergreen, Lovina met a neighbor there, a farmer, a widower named Harrison Dart. Apparently, they were both eager to be married. Frontier life was easier for both men and women when they formed a team and within two or three months they did. It was one of their descendants that Louisiana Clayton married as part of her destiny to found the San Luis Obispo Historical Society.
Sarah Mariah Clark, whose health was not strong, never married. Instead, she began working as a teacher in San Jose at a high school.
The three siblings seemed well established in California, but EA was unable to get clear title to the land he had bought, due to claims resulting from a prior Mexican land grant. So in 1858, together with James and Sarah Mathers and some other relatives and friends, E.A.’s family moved to San Simeon Creek to homestead. Why there?
The previous year the U.S. government had surveyed the land in the county and ruled that the extent of the land granted for Rancho San Simeon, on the north side of San Simeon Creek, and Rancho Santa Rosa, to the south, was less than the large landowners claimed. That meant that there was a gap, unowned land between them, along the south side of San Simeon Creek. The Land Commission decided to put it up for homesteading, and E.A., never timid and always well connected to Washington D.C. through his wife’s political family, learned of the opportunity early and seized it to be among the very first settlers.
Lovina and Harrison arrived two years later, in 1860, and writing in June of that year to her step-daughter Marcella Dart, Lovina alluded to this basic advantage of the homestead over the land at Evergreen: “This County is better watered and more productive than Santa Clara, really. Your Father has a very good place here, or will have when he gets it fenced out and improved. The land belongs to the government. There is no danger of being driven off by Spanish grants.” I should add that the letters written by Lovina are the one part of my documentation that is not new. They belonged to Margaret Skinner, a descendant of Lovina’s, and were printed thirty years ago in five or six editions of the California Central Coast Genealogical Society Bulletin.
But what about Lydia Helen Washburn Clark, E.A.’s wife? She came from an old, influential New England family. What did she, and they, think about her moving to what seemed, from the big ancestral farm house in Massachusetts, like the wilderness. To know that, we can turn to a letter written in1859 by her patrician Aunt Lydia Helen Washburn, for whom I assume she was named. It reflects the important and unsettling news regarding the failed attempt to establish land ownership in Evergreen.
She asks, too, why E.A. has stopped working as a doctor. That is, as a professional. Generally, in speaking of nearly everyone, her remarks here are condescending, even censorial and self-important at times, and one has the impression that the impending Civil War is getting on her nerves. Still, doubtless E.A.’s decision to move to a very remote rural area, with seemingly almost no opportunity for practicing law or medicine, would have appeared imprudent to his Washburn in-laws. And in fact, as his 1862 diary reflects vividly, E.A. did go through a period of grinding poverty.
Mrs. Lydia H. Clark
San Luis Obispo, California
Raynham April 12, 1859
My Dear Niece,
I received a letter from you in August, which your friend Mr. Brimblecome, had been keeping in his possession, for a long time, hoping to be able to present it in person; [It was common to ask travelers to deliver letters instead of using the mail] I answered this letter very soon, after receiving it, and hoped to have heard from you again, long before this time. I have heard from you through E.B. Washburn, by a letter that he had received from Mr. Clark, saying that you had been unfortunate in your title at San Jose, and that you had left it. So it is barely possible you might not have received my last letter. I hope good luck has followed you to your new place, and the experience of one poor title will prove a safeguard against being imposed upon with another and that you may yet have a plenty of the good things of this life, and may know what it is, and how to abound, as you probably have sometimes known what it was to want. E.B. spends his vacation in Raynham mostly, we enjoy having him very much. I wish you could see him, because I know you would like him. He is one of the kindest and best of men, ever ready to do a kindness to high or low. [History has proved this observation to be correct. E.B. was a friend of both Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant. Later he served as US ambassador to France for a decade, including the time of the Franco-Prussian war. His heroic humanitarian work to protect Germans trapped in Paris during the siege won him the gratitude of that nation, as well as being decorated by the Kaiser.] His brother, Charles, has gone back to San Francisco to try his luck with another purpose; he has not the business tact that his other brothers have, and never has succeeded in any of his plans, and his brothers have not confidence that he will now, but he enjoyed better health in Cal[ifornia] than he did anywhere else, and was very anxious to get back there. [In spite of Charles Washburn’s low rating by his aunt, he went on to become US ambassador to Paraguay, and the inventor of the Remmington typewriter. It was a very talented family]. I have not heard from Minerva for a long time. She was feeling very lonely when she last wrote and was sighing for a home with you. [Minerva was the sister of Lydia Helen Washburn Clark. She died soon after this letter was written, so she never was able to see her sister again. The separations produced by people going out west to homestead, and the very real possibility that family members might never see each other again, added to the drama of the decision to set out.] I hope you will write very soon. If you cannot write yourself, employ your husband. [Was my great, great grandmother illiterate? Given the brilliance of her clan, it’s not likely, though we have nothing in writing from her. Aunt Lydia, I think, probably refers to how busy she was as a frontier wife and mother.] I shall always feel interested in your welfare, and all information respecting you and yours will ever be gratefully received, by your Aunt L.H.W. In my last I returned ‘thank you’ for the locks of hair you sent me. I shall keep them as choice treasures and am happy at having seen so much of them. [And now here, in the PS, comes the Eastern horror at the primitiveness of life in rural California at the time.] I hope your children will have the benefits of school. Why did your husband give up the practice of medicine?
In November of that same year (1859) E.A.’s daughter Sarah Minerva wrote with news of her life to her aunt Sarah Mariah, who did not make the move to San Simeon until a year later. She stayed behind in San Jose at her teaching job in a secondary school, living in a boarding house. Sarah Minerva’s account, with a note added by E.A., makes clear just how hard everyone was working on the new Clark homestead.
San Simeon, Nov. 5, 1859
I have been looking for a letter from you but have not got one and I thought I would write again. I have got some news to write this time. Aunt Lovina has got a baby. It is a little girl; it is four weeks old. Aunt Lovina is able too sit up part of the time but is getting along very well, but slow. We have named the baby Mary for the present. It is a smart baby; it has got so it notices things a little. Aunt Lovina says that she will write to you when she gets well enough. We are all as well as usual. We have got part of our wheat threshed and have stacked the rest and have got part of our corn picked and are digging potatoes now. Olive and I have not time to study. Carlan’s folks are as well as usual. Carlan is Justice of the Peace. Uncle James’ folks are as well as usual. We had a shower of rain here last night and night before last. The cattle are very bad about jumping the fences and somebody has to sleep in the field. We can raise chickens all the year. In about a Month we will have green grass, and there are flowers here yet. The elephants were in San Luis, but we did not go. Did you go and see them when they were in San Jose? Arthur thinks the baby is pretty nice. Olive says that you must come down to see the baby. Margaret says that you must answer her letter. Now if you don’t answer this letter I will not write to you again. I have not got time to write any more. I am a going to send this letter by Chester Pinkham. Goodbye.
Your affectionate niece,
Sarah Minerva Clark
I received your letter a few days ago and should have written you a letter myself, but I really have not time. We are busy nearly night and day. I thought by this time I should have had some Money to send you but I have not yet. I can’t tell how soon I will have [it] to send but I think in the course of a Month or so. Perhaps it is as well that I can’t send it to you now, for we are all cluttered up yet in our house and you could not take any comfort now if you were here. [Harrison] Dart is going to build a house as soon as we get our crop secured, which will take 3 or 4 weeks yet. – What we get this year, is at the cost of eternal vigilance. – It is which and together between us and the cattle. But I have not time to write any more now.
But in addition to the farming, E.A. was making use of his wife’s family connections to bring in some extra income—through the federal government. He wrote to E.B. Washburn, a congressman at the time, asking for work. Here’s the answer he received. It’s on the letterhead of the Presidential Campaign of 1860 Republican Executive Congressional Committee.
We are all very much engrossed in the elections just now. Our folks feel entirely certain of Lincoln’s election. All that the opposition hope for is to throw the election into the house. There is an attempted fusion of the broken fragments of the opposition factions, but it will affect nothing. You may have seen I am voted for the fifth time. That will close my public career. Ten years in congress is long enough. My duty is now to my family. Brother C.C.W. was not a candidate for reelection. [He became a civil war general, later an explorer who named Old Faithful geyser, a state governor, and founder of the company that became General Mills.] He may be a candidate for the U.S. Senate. We dare hope nothing from your state. [California voted Democratic in this period]. I see that my brother Charles is doing his best.I sent you yesterday a bundle of different kinds of speeches, and I hope they may reach you before the election. I shall always be very glad to hear from you. Give my kindest regards to Cousin Lydia and believe me very truly your friend,
E.B. Washburne, ILL.
Since my arrival here I have conferred with my brother E.B.W. in regard to your appointment as collector of Monterey and he is not only willing but anxious to cooperate with us in getting you this office. I think we shall be able to effect it without much difficulty. You had better send on your papers as soon as possible if you have not done so already.
Yours truly, C.C. Washburn
Family tradition says that he did get the job as customs collector, but At San Simeon harbor, not at Monterey. Now another perspective on 1860, not that of men in Washington DC, but of a frontier mother. Here’s a Letter from Lovina to her step-daughter, written at San Simeon on June 2nd, 1860.
We received your very welcome letter several weeks ago. I should have answered it before this time, but my health has been very poor this spring, and when I have had to write I have not often felt able to do so. I have also put off writing for another reason. I was hoping your Father would get time to write some to you in this letter, but he is so very busy putting in his spring crops that he thinks he will wait until the next time.
Arthur is quite well, you would probably like to know who he looks like. He is five years old, quite small of his age, has black eyes and rather dark complexion. Your father says he is the very picture of his Grandfather Dart.
Little Mary Elenor, as we call her, is nearly eight Months old. She is a very lively, playful baby, a good deal larger than Arthur was at her age.
This is a very new county where we are living now. There are no artists near us, but we intend to have all of our daguerreotypes taken the first opportunity and then we will send you a copy of them.
We have been living where we are now nearly two years. There were but a few American families in the county when we came here, but it is settling up very fast. We live within three miles of the Pacific Ocean, right among the hills. The mountains are on one side of us, the ocean on the other. The scenery is very different here from what you have been accustomed to, living as you have always lived since your recollection on or near those large prairies which you have in Illinois.
The climate is very different from what it is where you are. We have a good deal of rain here during the winter, but no snow except on the tops of the mountains and there it remains but a short time.
Skipping ahead six months now, Lovina again writes to her daughter.
San Simeon, Jan. 13, 1861
I have very poor health most of the time, my two little children to take care of and my housework to do, with only the help of a little girl, a niece of mine who lives with us, [ Olive Clark? With her chronic ill health, Lovina needed live-in help, and in writing the previous year to his other sister E.A. had mentioned how short on space his family was in their cabin.] and I am very apt to neglect doing things which are not absolutely necessary to be done. But do not cherish the idea for one moment that you are forgotten by us because you do not hear from us as often as you should. We are all enjoying good health at the present time. Your father has had a hard time this past summer and fall in taking care of and securing his crop. This is a stock raising county and we are surrounded by persons owning hundreds of herd of cattle. We had a poor fence owing to the scarcity of timber, and your father had to sleep out nearly every night for six weeks, which nearly used him up, besides losing a great deal of our crop, but he is splitting rails now and making preparation to have a good fence, and I am in hopes he will have easier times the coming season than he has had for the two years past. I was very glad to hear that you was taking music lessons. I am extremely fond of both vocal and instrumental music. I hope you will take great pains to improve in both singing and playing. I brought a Melodeon to California but sold it when we left San Jose. [A melodeon was a small reed organ.] Your father in former days cared but very little about music, but as he grows older he seems to have more taste for it, and now he appears to like it very much. If you have any opportunity I wish you would send me some flower seeds. I don’t see many of the old fashioned flowers I used to see in the States.
Lovina’s sister Sarah Mariah moved from San Jose to San Simeon, almost certainly in 1860. It appears that she gave up a teaching position in order to teach at the San Simeon school, replacing E.A., while he took a position teaching at the Mission School here in San Luis Obispo. We have a letter written in 1861 in which a former student of hers brings her up to date on what has been happening at the school since she left.
We go now to 1862. We shall see in E.A.’s diary for December of that year that E.A, in addition to homesteading and doctoring, was working as an attorney, serving as acting District Attorney, making tax assessments, teaching school, and building a chimney. But let’s look first at an excerpt from Lovina’s next letter to her step-daughter, written that same month. It brings home the worries of Union supporters in California.
San Simeon, Dec. 9th 1862
I planted those flower seeds that you sent me this spring. What disturbing times we are having in the United States at the present time. California has been highly favored so far, but I am afraid we are likely to have trouble here soon. This state is settled by people from every state in the Union. It is natural that persons born and educated in the Southern states should sympathize with the South; while there was no particular call for action they contented themselves by merely expressing their opinion in favor of the Southern Confederacy, but now the government are making preparations for drafting this state, they are coming out in open rebellion wherever they are strong enough to do so. In this county the secessionists are the majority. They are holding secret meetings in San Luis Obispo. They say they will go into the mountains and fight guerilla fashion before they will be drafted into the federal army. Whether they put their threats into execution remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, back on the ranch as it comes to life in E.A.’s 1862 diary, the range of farming tasks that E.A. did during these homesteading years is striking, and shows both that he felt he couldn’t sit back and gamble on putting in only one crop, and just how much self-confidence he had to undertake all sorts of work.
H.F. Foote, writing a biographical sketch later in San Jose, focuses on E.A.’s fruit growing and states that he planted “the first successful orchard in the northwestern part of the county.”
E.A.’s diaries contain entries reflecting that activity and recording—typical of his usual practice of staying up on developments in whatever field he was working in—that he kept in touch with horticultural experts on fruit. Years later, his two sons, Charles Quincy and William Washburn, moved to San Diego County and worked in a famous peach nursery owned and run by a Mr. Chapin, who, if it is the same person, shows up in letters as an old family friend.
Here are some sample diary entries that illustrate graphically the variety of farm tasks E.A. undertook (in addition to coal mining and house building):
Wed. January 29 Killed pig.
Thurs. March 6—Grafted a few small quince trees and dug cow out of landslide in the afternoon.
Fri. March 7—Sowed wheat in the forenoon.
Sat. March 22—Trimmed young apple trees.
Mon. March 24—Trimmed grape vines.
Thurs. March 27—Hoed raspberries and currants.
Thurs. April 17—In the forenoon went up to Letcher’s and got my Irish Angus. In the afternoon put up 4 panels of the creek fence.
Wed. April 23—In the forenoon helped Chet plant sorghum.
Tues. May 6—Planted beans in the afternoon.
Fri. June 20—In the morning went to Leffingwell’s and got two shoes set on Blue Jack. Then dug potatoes till noon. In the afternoon went to Lockwood’s and made bargain with him to work on coal claim and fence for meat, $1 per day. Sat. June 21 Fixed saddle and put in an ax handle in the forenoon.
Many of these tasks were done cooperatively with other farmers, in the best frontier tradition. Migrating to a new area with extended family members and friends who would expect to follow that custom was the accepted practice of pioneers, including the famous Daniel Boone. Boone and his ‘clan’ were all part of this tradition of mutual support in facing challenging and often dangerous situations in remote areas.
It’s clear that E.A. and Lydia Helen were no exceptions. Some examples.
Thurs. February 6—Went to Uncle James’ after syringe and gave Willie an enema. Willie some better. Chet and I ground grist on the hand mill. [It was a hand mill, since Cambria, and flour mills, wouldn’t get started for some time yet.].
Mon. April 7—Plowed in place of Chet, who went to Chase’s to record his claim. [The federal homesteading law went into effect in 1862] Tues. April 15 Chopped house logs for the house for the coal claim. Cal [i.e., Carolan Mathers] and Adam [Leffingwell] hauled logs. Jones [Bolivar Jones], Riley [Franklin Riley] and I chopped. Chet [i.e., Chester Pinkham] and Mr. Leffingwell prospected. They took out four sacks of coal when the lead ran out. In the evening I hunted for Mrs. Woodie’s child.
If we should have forgotten the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder about close-knit pioneer family life, we are reminded by this diary of how the work of supplying the family with food was combined with recreation whenever possible:
Wed. May 28—Went to Pujol’s rodeo [Domingo Pujol, wealthy lawyer from Spain who bought Rancho San Simeon], and to the pine woods strawberrying.
Tues. June 10—In the afternoon Helen and I went trout fishing. Caught only six.
Wed. June 11—Willie [his son William Washburn Clark] and I went trout fishing in the afternoon. Caught 32.
Still, in spite of such idyllic moments, the stress of not having adequate money can often be felt lurking behind E.A.’s hectic list of activities. One telling detail is recorded in his entry for January 30, 1862—”Went to Letcher’s on foot. Borrowed 18 pounds salt.” The two best ways for making extra money that E.A. found in 1862 were lawyering and teaching school. Legal terms are sprinkled liberally throughout the diary, and although there is no record that he ever attended law school or that he had a license to practice, it is abundantly clear that he was accustomed to teaching himself new skills and enhance old ones through reading. Clearly, on the frontier nothing beyond a reasonable competence was expected of those who made possible the functioning of the courts. The first two entries of the year show the connection between his painful financial situation and his energetic response through a can-do, self-taught effort:
Wed. January 1—Mr. Dunn presented bill, $8.92. Read in Van Santvoord’s Pleadings. Subject, ‘demurrer’.
Thurs. January 2—Read Van Santvoord’s Pleadings. Subject, ‘issue’. In a very uneasy state of mind in regard to my private pecuniary affairs.
E.A. is remembered in Cambria as the first teacher in the area. Records are very incomplete, but not long after arriving in the county he appears to have taught his own and his neighbors’ children, for a while in or near his cabin—hence the name “Home School” for the later school district on San Simeon Creek—and also in a log school.
As I mentioned, he also taught in the considerably larger school held in the Old Mission here in San Luis Obispo—during the year ending October 31, 1861 and again in 1862, as this diary documents. In both locations, many of his pupils were Spanish-speaking, and the pedagogical practice in the county during these years was to stress translating from Spanish to English. It is documented that other teachers in the San Luis Obispo Mission school during the early years following the arrival of the American government knew and used Spanish—not surprising given that English speakers were in the minority—so he, too, very likely had a reasonable command of the language.
In his search for professional employment, E.A. made the most of his networking skills, and this was a practice he would continue throughout his life. It would not have been hard to establish contacts, as his command of the corresponding professional register of English would have been a most useful calling card. These acquaintances were also advantageous in his making a little profitable work for himself by acting as sales agent for companies located outside the county, and buying and selling paper Money (discounted in this Civil War era) for ‘hard currency.’
And just as he was perfectly aware of the value of having friends in the right places, so, too, there was an immediate and practical consideration: he often needed a place to spend the night on his frequent trips to San Luis Obispo and Los Osos.
What’s more, as an isolated country homesteader he missed intellectual stimulation. Still these friendly attachments were doubtless usually sincere. Having been raised in the home of a judge and having attended medical school, he must also have enjoyed the conversation of the well educated. Such men (and while in San Luis Obispo County his only women friends appear to have been relatives) could also be converted at need into fellow entrepreneurs.
The formation of a coal mining cooperative with his neighbors, acquaintances and relatives is an excellent example. As a forceful illustration of these motivations put into practice, one need only consider E.A.’s friendship with the famous judge William L. Beebee, at whose house a few miles south of San Luis Obispo he spent a startling amount of time—a total of 40 days and nights in 1862. It is remarkable that E.A. stayed with him as frequently as he did, especially since going to the ranch would have added eighteen miles to his roundtrip from the north. But E.A. had many projects requiring personal contacts in the county seat, and, being from a family of merchants, lawyers and judges—and Beebee was all three—he would have found the company of his intelligent and ambitious peer agreeable as well as useful.
Lovina’s next letter, written about nine months after the previous one, brings home her and her husband’s sadness at the death of a newborn child of theirs and of a beloved relative who was serving in the Union army, and the excitement of possibly striking it rich with mineral finds. But what stands out for me is her frustration at the lack of religious services and instruction in the San Simeon Creek area.
September. 13, 1863
We do not enjoy any religious privileges at all here. I have not heard but one sermon preached in five years. My uncle and aunt [James and Sarah Mathers] opened a Sabbath School about two years ago. Arthur attends. That is all he knows about religious services on the Sabbath day.
The people here do not keep the Sabbath very strict. Most of them look upon it as a day for visiting and receiving visitors, but that is a custom I have never fallen in with yet, and do not intend to. Your father does not make a profession of religion, but has regard enough for my feelings—as well as he loves company—not to invite visitors on Sunday.
In Lovina’s last letter, written in 1864 a few months before her death, she faces the realization that she is dying of tuberculosis. Her religious faith supports her as she calmly considers what will be best for her husband and children. She clings, however, to the hope that Harrison will be able to escape from want, made worse by the drought in 1863-64, through his mining investments of labor and money.
Your father thinks it is the asthma that I have. I was some with it when I was young, but I think it is the consumption. God only knows and he can prepare me for whatever afflictions He may have in store for us. Marcella, if I should die, I know not what your father will do with the children, but if they ever come under your care I want you to teach them to be Christians. That is more important than any and everything else. Teach them to grow up in the fear and love of God. I have but one brother and one sister. My brother has a large family, my sister is older than I am, has poor health, and lives with my brother. They will take care of my children without a doubt while your father remains in California, but in case I am not getting well I think he will go back to the states after he settles up his business here. I think so, but I do not know for certain. He has never been very well contented here.
Your father is away from home at work in the mine between here and town. We have had no rain this winter – not scarcely a bit from November until last week & then not enough so we can even plough the garden. The drought will make a finish of the farmers in this part of California. We received a letter from your Uncle George in January. He says your Uncle Emory has been in Rosecran’s army for the last two years, but he was wounded in the battle of Chicamauga &
taken prisoner, & has not been heard from since. Poor fellow. What has been is fate.
Compassionate for the sufferings of others to the end, Lovina died three months after writing this letter. Dr. Clark did care for her two surviving children; when they were added to his own children, and his sister Sarah Mariah, he was hard pressed to support them all.
Lovina’s burial site is unknown, but the most probable location is the burial plot for the extended family at the top of the hill on E.A.’s land. There remained several grave markers there when I visited it as a boy in the 1950’s. At this time the place is still identifiable by the tombstone of Aunt Sarah Mathers, but that, too, may disappear soon. It has fallen and cracked down the middle, and there is nothing to protect it.
E.A.’s 1866 diary, whose first month is strongly colored by the writer’s overwhelming grief at the recent death of his wife, is a reminder of the prevalence of disease among the settlers, especially among women and children, who were more cooped up at home than men. E.A. had a strong constitution throughout his life, doubtless in part due to his highly active temperament and vigorous exercise. We have seen that Lovina died of tuberculosis; the health of her sister, Sarah Mariah, and her sister-in-law, Lydia Helen, had been chronically weak well before setting out for California. It is very possible that all three of them brought tuberculosis with them, which they would then have transmitted to their children.
In this context of anxiety and emotional exhaustion, his fascination with the Spiritscope, the more dignified precursor of the 20th-century Ouija board, is not surprising. It was widely used throughout the U.S. at the time, as the famous case of Mary Todd Lincoln reminds us.
Spiritualism, in the sense of group efforts to contact the spirits of the dead, brought with it the comfort of joining with others who shared the same beliefs—or at least hopes. It sought to counteract the desperation in the face of death that had arrived with the growing acceptance of a materialistic, scientific worldview at odds with the assurances of traditional religious faith. It has been accurately called an American religion, invented in an effort to reconcile scientific, empirical experimentation in the form of attempting to receive signals from the dead, with the traditional belief in a heaven for those who have lived virtuous lives.
E.A. later became a longtime member of the International Society of Psychics, and his third wife turned out to be a professional medium. For that time it was an almost inevitable interest in someone like Dr. Clark, who as a scientist hated superstition but felt that scientific discoveries—invariably useful and helpful—would confirm comforting, universal aspirations.
Why did E.A. move away from San Luis Obispo County? Unquestionably he was moved by the gloom of a home where more and more members of the family were being buried on the hill behind the cabin. He articulates the feeling in the entry for February 19: “Came home. Although I love my children, yet the attractions of home are nearly gone, except for my poor children.”
Then again on April 8 he falls prey to anxiety, lamenting: “I shall go crazy pretty soon if my mind does not improve. I must be dyspeptic. When will my troubles have an end? Poor Olive and Lydia.” Even the Spiritscope, which we can see as a reflection of his deep thoughts and emotions, points him toward a new life in urban San Jose.
On February 13 he reports: “The communications of last week in reference to persons in San Jose were repeated.” There clearly was a period of indecision, however. He had invested much in establishing himself in the county as a professional, still had many relatives and friends there, and he was building a bigger house on the homestead.
In March he bought and took possession of an Angus cow, but then on April 6 he wrote to Slocum and Owen in San Jose. Both were connected to the newspaper business, and it’s very probable he wanted to keep open the possibility of working for a newspaper. In the end, optimism and the promise of city life triumphed, where he could use his education and professional skills to earn a good living and hold public offices. And doubtless the thought crossed his mind that there he more easily could find a compatible, well-educated woman and so remarry. All of this, he had reason to believe, would be even more within his reach in a city where he already had many old friends.
A few entries from the 1866 diary:
Wed. January 10—Quite a pleasant day. I took Olive and Lydia to Aunt Sarah’s and I went to Leffingwell’s. I borrowed Davis’ Divine Revelations and third volume of Harmonia. In the evening went to Cal’s. I engaged Leffingwell to make a Spiritscope. Clouded up in the evening.
Sat. January 13—Rained a little this morning. Wind southeast. Chet and I went and worked on School House road. Commenced raining about 2 o’clock and rained hard till after dark. Oh! For consolation or lethe! If spiritualism is not true, then indeed am I most miserable. O! that I knew!
Wed. January 24—Chet and Minerva went to the port. Olive went to Aunt Sarah’s. I pulled a tooth for Sam Smith. We sat at table in evening. I sat after the rest and tried some mental tests, but the answers were not correct to but one or two.
Fri. April 20—I[n] town assessing and examining witnesses in case of People vs. Hernandez. In the evening went to Beebee’s. About 9 ½ o’clock Cal came after me, as Olive was very much worse, and I came home during the night and found Olive very bad. [Olive died shortly after this entry.]
Both before and after his marriage to Sarah Minerva Clark on September 12, 1865, Chester Webster Pinkham frequently helped do the work on E.A.’s farm, as the diaries show in laborious detail. When E.A. returned to live in San Jose, Chet and Minerva seem to have moved into E.A.’s new house and took care of both running the farm and of the children. At that time there was Willie, William Washburn Clark, aged 13; Charlie, Charles Quincy Clark, aged nine Anna Clark, aged 11, and Lydia Helen Clark, aged six and who would die in 1869 of curvature of the spine. Sarah Mariah apparently moved into a house of her own nearby at this time.
Chet’s affection for his ill wife shines clearly in the diary. He takes her on rides and to visit neighbors; the doctor comes to the house often. For her part, Minerva, though she would die three months after the last entry in the diary, has not given up. The shopping list at the end of the entries, in a faint hand and perhaps written out for Chet to buy in San Luis Obispo, shows that she was not only sewing but even making fruit cake.
Anna, entering adolescence, must have worked very hard caring for her two younger siblings, especially after the birth of Minerva’s second son, Frederick Eleutheros, in March. More help was provided by friends who lived nearby, as the diary contains frequent references to people coming over to the house.
This challenging time for Anna, working so hard for the family as it faced hardship together, shaped her character. An exceptionally strong love of her relatives, and their story, was a constant in her life.
Barbara Pinkham Jones, who lives in San Diego County, was told that at some point after the death of Minerva, Chet left his two sons, Chester Alpheus and Frederick, in the care of someone in the family, probably his sister Anna Pinkham, and became a prospector. At that same time. E.A.’s and Lovina’s children seem to have moved to San Jose to rejoin him, though that date is unclear, too, since the homestead didn’t sell until 1874.
When the two Pinkham boys were about four and six, Chet had them sent to him in the mining town of Pioche, NV. Later they moved to Toquerville and Silver Reefe, UT. E.A. did not approve of this upbringing, under which the boys were not getting enough formal education, and Barbara Pinkham says “there were words” between the two men on the subject. In 1879 or ‘80, Chester Alpheus and Frederick were sent to San Francisco by E.A., who paid for them to live in a boarding house and attend school.
Chet, and for a while with a partner named Ben Parker, prospected and mined in Arizona and then northern Mexico. Barbara writes the he “was killed near Hermosillo, Mexico, July 24, 1884 by an Indian arrow while hauling silver ore from northern Mexico to Tombstone, AZ. His team brought the body into Tombstone with no silver but a couple of gold nuggets in his holster.”
A few typical entries from Chester Pinkham’s 1868 diary.
Tues. January 21—Pulled down the old fence. Had the tooth ache. Went over and found Doc Shau[g] in the pines. He pulled my tooth. They are viewing the road from S.R. to San Simeon Bay. Very cold.
Fri. March 13—Went up to Mr. Coffee’s. Found them very sick. Mrs. Coffee’s baby died about Sundown. Doc Shaug was here.
Sat. March 14—Went up to Mr. Coffee. Showed them where to dig the grave. Rained today.
Sun. March 15—Willie went to the store. Went up to Mr. Coffee’s. Buried their baby today.
Mon. March 16—Minerva had a fine boy at half past one this morning. Went up to Mr. Coffee’s.
Sat. April 24—I went up to the bay to get some things on the steamer for S[arah] M[ariah] Clark. Staid thare all night.
Sun. April 26—The steamer got in three o’clock— no things. Got home Sundown.
Mon. April 27—Plowed in the vineaiyard.
Sat. June 27—Branded calfs and went in a swimming this forenoon. Went to a school meeting and was elected trustee, and went to the store this afternoon.
Putting it all together then, I go back to my childhood memories. As a child I was awed by a large oil painting of Dr. Clark that long presided over my parents’ living room, and they took me, courtesy of a Hearst Ranch Jeep, to see the beautiful hilltop site of the family burial ground overlooking San Simeon Creek. E.A.’s long 1852 letter home about how to make the trip to California had been revered by my Aunt Pauline, who went to the trouble of having it copyrighted.
Yet with the detailed knowledge I later gained there came sadness, and I almost turned away from learning more about those years homesteading at San Simeon. The man for whom I was named had later found success—a professional career and recognition as a public servant and essayist, but only after an emotional ordeal. Women close to him—his wife, two daughters, and a sister—had died and been buried on that hill during the exhausting period of homesteading.
But finally, it has been the diaries and letters themselves that have won me over. I think they open a rare window. not only on my family history but on the daily tasks, opportunities, choices, and sorrows of pioneer life on the north coast. And in addition to the lesson of frontier self-reliance and neighborly cooperation that immediately stands out, another important truth emerges as regards E.A. and his family: My great aunt Lillie Colahan, who was still living in San Francisco when I last saw her there fifty years ago, recalled that her grandfather, who was E.A. Clark, used to say, “There’s always a reason.”
Is that significant? Yes, I think it is. When I had located, carefully unwrapped, read, and inwardly digested these letters and diaries, I found that they do, to a surprising extent, reflect that same analytic, logical habit of mind visible in his motto. As he explained at length in a later essay called “The Power of an Idea,” he believed optimistically that the human mind is capable of dissecting and solving nearly every kind of problem. That belief, energetically and courageously adhered to, took them all through the trials that marked their time living on San Simeon Creek.