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.

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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.

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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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The more I travel throughout the west, the more I can trick myself into believing that there were actually very few Americans that actually settled this vast and vacant space.  That few just moved around quite a bit.  It seems that everywhere I go, I run into an historic figure that I know from some place two, three, five, eight hundred miles distant.

Wheels are made for rollin', and mules are made to pack…*

Exhibit A:  John Bidwell, founder of my hometown in the middle of the northern Sacramento Valley.  Destined to become a member of the 39th Congress, he came across the arid west crossing the Sierra in 1841 with the consequential Bidwell – Bartleson Party, which included Ben and Nancy Kelsey.  A while back, while touring along the Sonoma Coast, I saw a familiar photo of Mr. Bidwell.  Seems he was hired by John Sutter to deconstruct Fort Ross, salvage the redwood to be repurposed at Sutter’s Mill along the American River – certainly a great distance from Chico.  I had no idea.

Mud can make you prisoner, and the plains can bake you dry…

Exhibit B:  Jean Baptist (Pomp) Charbonneau, son of Sacagawea.  As an infant he crossed the northern stretches of what would become our nation with Lewis and Clark.  Adopted by William Clark, he travelled to Europe, there to rub elbows with a German prince and the like.  Returning to the states in 1829, he worked as a guide reciting Shakespeare around campfires.  “Pompy” died at age 61 having been thrown from a horse into a river near Danner, Oregon as he sought fortune in the Idaho Mines.  Charbonneau research led me to the factoid that he spent about thirteen years running a way station on the North Fork of the American about walking distance from my house in Rocklin.

Home is made for comin' from, for dreams of goin' to…

Exhibit C:  William Canfield, a survivor of the Whitman massacre on eastern Washington’s Columbia Plateau in 1847.  A blacksmith back then, he hid in the rafters of his flaming shop until the avenging Cayuse figured all the white folks were dead.  Canfield snuck away (one or two others survived, as well) ending up in the Seattle or Portland area where he caught a steamer to San Francisco, later making his way up the Petaluma River; thence to now-nearby-to-me Sebastopol where he is buried in a cemetery bearing his name.

I was born under a wandrin' star.

In truth, there were many strong and hearty folks who wandered from place to place finally coming to this land, setting roots and creating the foundation for one of the world’s most culturally diverse and economically powerful entities ever.  Many of the heralded pioneers were men.  But far too many of our courageous pioneers were unheralded women.
* lyrics by Alan J Lerner

© 2016
Church of the Open Road Press

3 comments:

  1. Wow. Makes you realize that our generation (and subsequent ones) really do have it easy.

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    1. A big fear of mine - and of my traveling buddy, John - is that in a generation or two, the stories of people like Mrs. Kelsey will be lost to history as will what we have to learn from their courage, strength and passions. God I hope this doesn't happen! That's why the occasional post I write is about individuals who otherwise might be forgotten.

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  2. Thanks for the posting.
    Mason Kelsey

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