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"If you wish to try your luck sell your farm, take it in stock, load up the children & come along, it is not far, the Road is not steep nor the Rivers not deep. If you don't like it you can return & be better off than you are now & a good deal wiser. You will then know the truth there is such a place as California...."

James McReynolds to his cousin in 1853.


In 1853, an intrepid band of immigrants left their close-knit neighborhood in the state of Missouri, and took a five month adventure which led them to a new life, 2000 miles away in Sonoma County, California. For many on this trip, it was the single most important event which shaped the remainder of their lives. It was a gamble which separated them from the predestined fate of the life they were leading, and a chance to arrive somewhere not completely expected. However, as an ultimate irony to this pioneering way of life, their very own zeal in seeking out and cultivating the ever-receding frontier, also transformed it into the familiar places which they were always attempting to escape.

The 125 members of this particular immigration were a collection of families and friends making up a significant portion of the village of Pleasant Gap in Bates County. They came well prepared and self-sufficient to contend with any difficulty that their new unsettled home might confront them with. Their 31 wagons, filled with the supplies and tools which it was in their experience necessary to sustain life in a wilderness, were each drawn by 4 to 6 oxen depending on the load. There was also a "chest of money" in one of the wagons to buy land with. For the most part, the wagons were too full to ride in except for the drivers, and most of the members of the band walked the distance, along with a thousand head of cattle, a similar amount of sheep, several fine horses, milk cows, and one would assume, a small menagerie of chickens, ducks, dogs and cats -- all that was necessary to seed a successful life with their experience.

The chief organizers of this specific immigration, the Cockrill family, had members from four generations making the trip. Indeed, it was their belief that California would be a success which must have convinced the others to follow them on such an arduous trip. But this was also a family which did not like to stay in any one place for too long, and it had only been about 14 years since they had come as a whole family to Missouri from Kentucky. As such, their stay in Sonoma County was relatively short as well -- though a number of family members, largely females, stayed behind and married into other families. The Cockrill name dissolved into extinction into such Sonoma families as the Coulters, Hoags, Claypools, and Fulkersons (which in turn, dissolved into other families themselves), a portion of the family continued to move elsewhere, though with a somewhat more attenuated family cohesion and shorter distances than had been exhibited in the 1853 immigration.

Much of the chief impetus behind this group's desire to cash it all in and try somewhere else so far away at this particular time, lies of course in the small gold nuggets which James Marshall discovered in John Sutter's millrace a few years before. This event appealed to the Cockrills' desire for constant movement in search of something better, and particularly attracted a few of their sturdier members.

Thirty-six year old, James Anderson Cockrill, freshly widowed, left his daughter and son with his parents, to look for a new beginning in the gold fields, in this wild scheme for sudden wealth, he was joined by his brother-in-law, Henry Beaver, who was the same age, and an itinerate man-of-all-trades -- a house-builder, blacksmith, well-digger, and brick-maker. Another brother-in-law, who was forty-two (an "old man" for the times) and a veteran of the Black Hawk Indian War of 1832, whom everyone called "Colonel": William Boyd Hagans, joined James and Henry along with his son, twenty year old Oscar. It is also possible that some of their neighbors in Pleasant Gap also came with them. It is believed that this small band may have joined up with the significant Hudspeth-Myers party of 1849, who had scratched out the "Hudspeth Cutoff" -- which later became a much travelled "shortcut" along the California-Oregon trail.

Despite this sparsity of records, it appears however, that this first group of "Forty-Niner" Cockrills had a certain amount of rare success in the gold fields. At least they were successful enough where they could travel back to Missouri and return to California at least a couple of times. Most had returned (though it appears by separate routes) to Pleasant Gap within a year or so and then shortly left again. James Cockrill for instance, returned in 1851, took a new wife, and returned with her to California along with his very lonely daughter, Lucinda Ellender . His son had died while he was in the gold fields. It appears that he also brought along his sister, Lucinda, Colonel Hagans' wife, and their younger children. Hagan's and his son had already established a ranch near Sacramento and were developing another one near Petaluma. They met the 1851 party on the trail during the trip back, and the travelers stayed at Hagans' Sacramento ranch before their next course of action.

Colonel Hagans was also in desperate need of beef cattle (to replace the hide-tough and small cattle which the Spaniards had introduced as a source of leather rather than food) to make his ranches flourish supplying meat to miners. James therefore, had brought a herd of cattle with him (supposedly bought with the gold they dug out of California rivers the year before). A large number of sheep were also to be brought out but had to be returned when they became unmanageable .

James probably came to Sonoma County to examine the land near Colonel Hagans' Petaluma property, and he soon homesteaded property of his own near Santa Rosa Creek. This land was part of the old Spanish land grant and at this time was awaiting a Supreme Court decision on if the ancestral holdings were still valid after the Mexican war. James had promised Julio Carrillo, the inheritor of the major portion of the Rancho Cabeza de Santa Rosa, money if the courts and later, the California Land Commission, declared that Carrillo indeed had clear title to the land. With the assumption that this decision would occur shortly, James planted a garden, quickly built a lean-to for his family, and started planning a return trip to Pleasant Gap to bring out the rest of the Cockrill family. As fate would have it, during a trip to Napa to gather provisions for this return, James contacted smallpox and died suddenly.

Colonel Hagans took on James' responsibility. His wife and children who James had just brought out, were still living in a tent waiting for the completion of a house for their Petaluma ranch. Hagans returned to Pleasant Gap and teamed up with James' brother, Larkin Davenport Cockrill, who had been the first teacher of the area as well as a county judge. Together they organized the group of 125 people to leave Pleasant Gap and rendezvous on April 28, 1853 at the trail's "stepping-off" place into the Great Plains on the edge of Bates County, the now extinct town of West Point, an "outfitting" station at the beginning of the trail.

It was a somewhat uneventful trip in that no one of this group died on the trail. There was a skirmish with Native Americans who had taken some of the cattle which were then recovered by four members of the train. There were also a couple of "trail" divorces, and a child born on the trail. In keeping with other poorly-documented family episodes, the only known record of the trip was a short diary kept by a young, lovelorn, semi-literate, hired-hand, William Zilhart, who took care of the livestock, scouted some, and perhaps kept this record as an account for later pay. As before, considering the literacy of several members of this trip, it is quite unfortunate that there is no other document left behind.

Right before the group reached their destination, they had in Zilhart's words, "a tall quarl" over something and the group broke up. Colonel Hagans probably returned to his ranch near Petaluma as soon as he could. His oldest son, Oscar, who was more than likely taking care of the Hagans family while his father was away, had died a few months before his father's return. The Hagans' youngest daughter, Mary Francis, who had come out in 1851, also appears to have died while the Colonel was gone or shortly after he returned. The rest of the 1853 party split up into at least two groups, one, more or less centered around Henry Beaver and Henry Harrison Cockrill, while the other group went with Larkin Cockrill.

Henry Beaver and members of his faction, settled in the area that James Cockrill had "squatted" upon. James' widow, Mary (who had quickly remarried an itinerate preacher, Dr. James M. Case), daughter, Ellender, and their son, Walter Creath Cockrill, who had been born there in 1852, were still living on this property. The short-lived town of Franklin had since been organized next to this property. Henry bought James' former land holdings from his widow and her new husband, as well as bought the pieces of James' original 160 acre homestead which Mary Case had already sold. Shortly thereafter, the Cases moved to Yolo County, leaving the fourteen year old Ellender behind, as Jeremiah Claypool's wife. Eventually, the Claypools had ten children (seven of which were females). Rachel Guttridge, who had been divorced on the trail and was the daughter, of another one Henry's brother-in-laws, William B. Cockrill, married the co-owner of Franklin's mercantile store, S. T. Coulter, a year after she arrived. Together they had eight children (five of which were females). Harrison Cockrill had a wife, three daughters (one of which was born on the trail) and two sons which he brought across the plains and bought land in the vicinity of Beaver. Harrison, died of small pox in 1857, and his oldest daughter, Amanda, married into another Kentucky-born family, the Fulkersons -- who had arrived in Santa Rosa from Iowa the year after the Cockrills had settled there. Amanda's mother and siblings eventually left Santa Rosa in the early 1880's, and homesteaded property along the Arroyo Seco in Monterey County. Amanda's brother's and sisters, then married into other pioneering families with rich histories in that area.

In the meantime, Henry Beaver, started building a house on the property which James Cockrill had first settled. It was to be the first brick residence in the area. Henry made the bricks from material that he found in nearby Santa Rosa Creek. He also started a well-digging, brick-making, blacksmith shop business in Franklin. However, the town of Franklin was quickly eclipsed by Santa Rosa, which was centered around the old Carrillo adobe. Santa Rosa existed largely on paper for the most part during its first years, but it suddenly became the County seat even though it lacked public buildings. Many of the buildings of Franklin, were then moved by hand to where the new town was supposed to be. Henry Beaver also moved James Cockrill's lean-to over from the Franklin side of his property and attached it to his new, Missouri-style, brick home. Henry's in-laws, Anderson and Rebecca Cockrill, who were in their mid-seventies during the 1853 trip, were also probably living with his family at this time.

In 1857, the new county seat of Santa Rosa, suffered a financial disaster with the County Treasurer losing all the county's tax revenues at the faro tables in Sacramento. As a result of this, and some bad financial decisions, Henry Beaver's ability to maintain his various businesses failed, and he was forced to give up his property and leave Santa Rosa. He settled in Santa Clara County for awhile, probably around Gilroy, to work for the large Miller and Lux cattle raising operation. His in-laws had traveled with him, and his father-in-law passed away in San Jose. The family then moved to Monterey and Henry homesteaded some land near Salinas, where his mother-in-law passed away. Henry did not stay in that county for long either, and probably moved before Harrison's children came to the area. Harrison's widow, Ruhamy, had remarried, and lived for a short period in San Jose and perhaps Los Gatos. After her husband abandoned her, she also homesteaded a piece of property in Arroyo Seco next to her children. Henry Beaver moved his family at least a few more times, and he and Lurana ended their years in what became Kings County. They were also near the conflicts between the Southern Pacific Railroad and homesteading farmers which had been going on for decades in the area. Eleven years after Henry passed away, his son Oscar, is killed in a shoot-out in Visalia by the notorious train robbers, Evans and Sontag.

Larkin Cockrill's faction of the 1853 wagon train, traveled a little further in Sonoma County, along the Estero Americano near Bodega Bay, and settled (or more likely "squatted") on land belonging to an old ship's doctor, Frederick Blume. Blume had married the widow of the original Spanish Land grant holder for the area. Larkin, who was something of a force only answerable to himself, became the first Justice of the Peace and school teacher for the town of Bloomfield that sprang up around him and the other members of the 1853 immigration who had remained with him.

Soon after their arrival in Bloomfield, Larkin's daughter, Olivia, married John McReynolds. John, along with several members of his family, had originally come to California during the Gold Rush. He then returned to aid in the immigration of the rest of the large McReynolds family. They had settled in the vicinity of Blume's property in the summer of 1852. John then quickly returned again to Missouri to become a member of the 1853 Cockrill-Hagan train. One could also speculate that John had returned East with Colonel Hagans as well as being responsible for Larkin's decision for settling in the same "neighborhood" as other McReynolds family members.

In 1855, Larkin's oldest daughter, Ellesif, married Stephen L. Fowler, who had also come to California with his brothers during the Gold Rush, and settled in nearby Valley Ford at about the same time that the Cockrills had arrived. Another of Larkins' daughters, Lurana married Obadiah Hoag, and had ten children. Hoag, who had come to California in 1857, appears to have had a number of other family members living in Bloomfield at an early date also. Later he had a significant public life in Sonoma County and his family ended living their last years in another Santa Rosa landmark home. William Zilhart, the diarist for the 1853 trip, opened up a blacksmith shop in Bloomfield. He had some previous history with the McReynolds family (perhaps he had been hired by John McReynolds as a animal wrangler for the trip). Zilhart eventually married Martha Ann Gaulden, who was 6 years old when she travelled across the Plains in 1853 with her single, widowed mother along with the rest of her siblings.

The town of Bloomfield eventually faded away, particularly after the railroad by-passed the town when it came into the area in the late 1870's. The survivors and descendants of the 1853 immigration who are not buried there, eventually left. All that remains in Bloomfield of the Cockrill family besides the tombstones, is a short street often misspelled on maps, which was eventually named after the family.

However fragmentary, our present information about the Cockrills and their neighbors might be, theirs is a tantalizing story common to many who had come to settle in 19th Century Sonoma County. At some point, it is a story that grabs one by the shirt collar and drags you into the whirlpool of California history. It is difficult not to look at any aspect of this family's history, without tripping over all those other individuals and events which changed the entire landscape of this area from elk and grizzly bear infested, oat grass, oak, and sequoia choked rocky hills and meadows, into bustling cattle ranches, wheat fields, potato farms, fruit orchards, and Victorian villages in the space of a generation. With the passing of that same restless generation, this pioneer culture virtually went extinct leaving behind not much more then the remains of well-weathered tombstones, a few street names, and the bedrock upon which a modern urban culture now thrives.



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This page created on 05/25/01 15:38. Updated 03/21/05 16:14.