This Article was published in the Martinez News-Gazette on 7/16/2017
In order to tell the story of Aaron and his family’s journey to California we had to rely solely on William Rice’s account and information.
When last we wrote, William and his family were about to leave Missouri for California on April 28, 1859. He had heard from Major John Seawell and ex-Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs (slave owners, formerly of Missouri) about the fertile lands of California. William brought with them 890 head of cattle, 6 wagons, 24 oxen, 1 ambulance for his family, 30 horses and mules, along with 17 hired hands and of course Aaron’s entire family. (The U.S. Census of 1860 confirms that William’s “six favorite negroes” were indeed Aaron, his wife Charlotte, their two sons, Nathaniel and Louis, and Aaron’s parents, Robert and Dilcy Rice.)
From Wikipedia, “The California Trail was an emigrant trail of about 3,000 miles (4,800 km) across the western half of the North American continent from Missouri River towns to what is now the state of California. After it was established, the first half of the California Trail followed the same corridor of networked river valley trails as the Oregon Trail and the Mormon Trail, namely the valleys of the Platte, North Platte and Sweetwater rivers to Wyoming. In the present states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah, the California and Oregon trails split into several different trails or cutoffs.”
From several sources, we found mention that William seemed well prepared for the journey. However, like many other Southerners with traditional attitudes and lifestyles of slavery, he over purchased rifles and ammunition to ward off attacks and left behind more important supplies needed for the trip. (We highly recommend reading Wikipedia’s “California Trail” well written description for understanding the harrowing pioneer experience.)
From W. A. Slocum & Co., History of Contra Costa published 1882, “During the first part of their journey our voyagers began to make the acquaintance of the unfriendly elements, high waters and muddy trails being their companions. Near Lawrence, Kansas, some of the cattle were stolen; on the North Platte, the cattle commenced to die; they continued to drop off throughout the distance.”
William’s southern hospitality was a bit naïve when it came to the “Yankee” pioneers as well. Slocum continues, “At the last‐named place, five men from Michigan, travel‐stained, foot‐sore and weary, were added to the band by Mr. Rice, under contract. Time was given them to recuperate, and such is the gratitude of human nature, so soon as these ingrates had recruited, they stole away and have not been seen since. …Mr. Rice assisted several people to cross the plains, with the promise of payment in California, but he has never seen the borrowers nor their money since.”
Despite misfortune, there was also a bit of good luck as Slocum continues, “After the Thousand Springs valley was left, the journey was pleasant though arduous. The following curious circumstance Mr. Rice relates as having happened on the 6th July. The day was particularly hot as they entered Ice valley, a small vale coated with thick, luxuriant grass. On digging down about a foot, a layer of pure ice was found, some five inches in thickness, a beneficent provision of nature that was quickly garnered and stored for several days in blankets.”
William reached Sacramento by the Honey Lake Route (an alternative to the Donner Pass Route for crossing the Sierra Mountain Range) with far less than he started with.
Since California was in a drought and winter was coming, he had left behind his cattle with his eldest son, Archibald, in Willow Creek (located in the Trinity/Shasta/Cascade Region of California near the Oregon border). Slocum states, “…it would be expedient to leave all cattle on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, which, after branding was done, those remaining (one hundred and ninety head and two valuable mules had died on the plains) were driven to Willow creek.”
Slocum adds, “…While there, Mrs. Rice, their son Thomas, and two of the hired men, were prostrated from sickness, which caused a detention of twelve days,” most likely from cholera. From Wikipedia, “The preferred camping spots for travelers on the trails north and south of the muddy Platte River were along one of the many fresh water streams draining into the Platte or the occasional fresh water spring found along the way. These preferred camping spots became sources of cholera infections during the third cholera pandemic (1852–1860). Many thousands of people used the same camping spots whose water supplies became contaminated by human wastes.”
Slocum continues, “… Here he parted with several of his hired men. Our hero now started to cross the mountains. …With but four wagons and the “family coach,” some cattle, and a man or two, the difficulty of climbing the Sierras was surmounted; the descent on the western side was soon made, and the declining hours of the month of September found them in the valley of the Sacramento.”
By late 1859, William reached Napa. According to Turalu Reed Brady’s book, Lakewood: A History of Walnut Creek’s Unique Neighborhood, “The Rice’s first bought a farm at Napa and the family stayed there while William looked for a permanent home for both his stock and his family.”
While his family resided in the house of Major John Seawell, he rented land for a small farm from Gov. Boggs. Before he can begin his search, Gov. Boggs dies on March 19, 1860, allowing William to purchase the land along with three slaves from Gov. Boggs’s widow. When William finally leaves, he takes Nathaniel with him and rents Aaron plus her former slaves back to her to work the remainder of her property.
During William’s search for a permanent home, Slocum states, “His Son, Archibald, who, it may be recollected, was left at Willow creek with the cattle …and moved them to Honey Lake, where they remained until the month of May. …Mr. Rice …quickly proceeded to Honey Lake, arriving during the last days of April, where he found his stock much reduced in quality and quantity; …In August they were all transferred to Fresno county, to a pasturage that had been selected for them.”
Meanwhile, San Francisco was experiencing the powerful oration from the famous, highly sought after, abolitionist and Unitarian minister, Rev. Thomas Starr-King, who had just arrived to make it his home in April of 1860. While John Grider, an African American veteran of the Bear Flag Revolt (one of only a handful) and a recently freed slave was living in Napa. Both were about to play a substantial part in changing Aaron and his family’s lives forever…
Special thanks to The National Oregon/California Trail Center & Wyoming State Historical Society for the generous use of their photographs in illustrating the Rice's story.
The National Oregon/California Trail Center
Address: 320 North 4th Street, P.O. Box 323 | Montpelier, Idaho 83254
Toll Free: (866) 847-3800
Wyoming State Historical Society
For more information on our project, please visit our website MartinezCemetery.org. Do you have a Potter’s Field resident story to tell? We welcome any pictures or information on anyone or anything regarding Potter’s Field. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at (925) 335-9396.
Judie & Joseph Palmer are two of the founding members of the Potter’s Field Restoration Project and its Martinez Cemetery Committee for the Martinez Historical Society. Joseph is also a MHS Board Director, chairman of the committee and webmaster of its website. Both have a passion for discovery, history, genealogy, anthropology and archaeology.