Monday, December 12, 2016
NANCY KELSEY – THE UNHERALDED BEAR FLAG WOMAN
Part of the Pinnacles, Carrizo Plain,
Central Coast Range Tour
On a tour of the central portion of California’s Coast Range, I ran into a wanderer. An unsung, historic one.
Turning left off of CA 166 onto Cottonwood Canyon Road just west of Cuyama, history-geography-trail-guide John recounts the story of Nancy Kelsey, the first American woman to cross the plains and the Sierra into California in 1841.
Married at age 17 to Benjamin Kelsey she endured the hardships of the continental crossing, carrying a baby in her arms, because she said, the hardships of the journey would surely be less than those of a life without the man she loved.
The man she loved would turn out to be a prolific killer of the native population. On CA 20 just west of Clear Lake, a historic marker tells of the Bloody Island encounter. Ben Kelsey had a hand in that. On the southwestern shores of that lake one finds the little berg of Kelseyville. Named for him. But there’s a Kelsey in El Dorado County between Placerville and Georgetown also named for him. In Eureka, history tells us the Kelseys were turned away because area fathers enjoyed productive and compatible relations with the natives and they didn’t need Ben and his ilk to “fix” anything.
Between traveling into both Mexico and Oregon territory, the Kelseys found themselves in Monterey during that pivotal time in which Americans wrested control of California from the Mexican government. There, Nancy Kelsey (some say, perhaps with others) was tapped to create the new republic’s first Bear Flag. Arguably, she was the Betsy Ross of our state.
Ben died in 1888 and Nancy moved to the remote parts of Santa Barbara County we were exploring this day.
A few miles south on Cottonwood Canyon Road, a derelict firewagon tells us we've arrived at the Sleepy Creek Ranch...
...a wonderful off-the-grid B&B run by archaeologist Bonnie Goller.
She graciously allows us to visit Mrs. Kelsey’s final resting place on a shaded bank over-looking a dry arroyo. Not a bad place to spend eternity, I’m thinking.
Upon our return to the ranch house, Ms. Goller shares a bit of the research she has conducted into the life of her nearby resident. We find that Nancy Kelsey actually lived two canyons over in (you guessed it) Kelsey Canyon. She gave birth to eight children, many who were prolific in that regard themselves.
Curiously, etched into a concrete slab next to Nancy’s grave is the surname Clanton. It seems one of Kelsey’s daughters married a brother of son of Ike Clanton, the gunslinger killed at the OK Corral in Tombstone in the famous dustup involving Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Small world.
But the true greatness of Nancy Kelsey's life and legacy - like most women - had much less to do with whom she married than who she was.
Her adventures are briefly recounted on a plaque placed near her grave by the Oregon-California Trials Association.
(Grab a tissue then click the photo to enlarge, please.)
Nancy Kelsey died in 1896, asking only that she be buried in a "real coffin, not something scrapped up with old boards." Fittingly, she rests in the most sublime of places with Bonnie Goller caring for both her and her legacy.
A few websites provide insight into her remarkable life: http://cherylannestapp.com/pioneer-women-nancy-kelsey/
Details on the Sleepy Creek Ranch – book and evening or two!: http://www.sleepycreekranch.com/
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