It isn't often I come across a story told by a woman in old newspapers. But last week I got lucky. In September 1900, an enterprising reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle got the idea to interview several women who had crossed the plains before 1850.
One of them was 74-year-old Mrs. F.A. Van Winkle, of Colusa, who had married Dr. Robert Semple in Benicia in 1847 in the first wedding held in that town.
"We came to California the same year (1846) as the ill-fated Donner party. It started about a month ahead of us, but it kept taking imaginary short cuts and hurrying until it met with frightful disaster. My father, who was captain of our train, led his party of about eighty people across trackless plains and mountains for five months, simply with the sun and the stars as guides and came west almost as straight as the crow flies."
Van Winkle said she desperately wanted to come to California after reading about its beautiful flowers blooming in winter, great herds of cattle in lovely fields and such a beneficial climate.
"Father had moved to San Francisco, now called Benicia, and had started a boarding-house. Dr. (Robert) Semple, who was a native of Kentucky, owned nearly all the land where the town is now. In those days that was thought to be the coming city. The present San Francisco was but an insignificant group of tents ... bearing the name of Yerba Buena."
In the fall of 1847, Frances Ann Cooper and Semple, a widower, married in the dining room of her father's boardinghouse.
"There were two other women in town at the time, besides mother and my sisters, and they and about twenty sailors were at my wedding.
"The sailors were as proud as could be and came all dressed in white suits. We gave them a supper affair and they all enjoyed it. The wedding was set for 9 o'clock, but it was a stormy and rainy night, and very dark. Ex-Governor Boggs of Missouri was to come visit (from) Napa to perform the ceremony. We waited until 10 o'clock, and were just despairing of seeing him that night, when he arrived. He had ridden horseback all the way through mud and water."
When the Gold Rush started, the couple's lives changed.
"In 1848 and 1849 Dr. Semple was the only man left in Benicia, and mother, my sister and I the only women. All the others had gone to the mines."
The Semples moved to Colusa, where Robert Semple owned land. There, Frances Anne learned about the Spanish vaqueros who stole and sold American Indian children.
"I bought one Indian girl from a Spaniard for $100, but soon after that another Indian girl and two boys came to my house of their own accord and explained that they had no home and wanted to work. The four of them did all my work, washing, ironing, cooking and housecleaning."
She added that after more Americans settled in the country the enslavement of American Indians stopped.
Days Gone By appears on Sundays. Contact Nilda Rego at firstname.lastname@example.org.