Remarks at Book Signing in Cambria for On the Banks of SanSimeon Creek: Pioneers of San Simeon
by Clark Colahan (Central Coast Books, 2011)
I’m glad you’ve all come to learn about part of the history we share, rooted here on the Central Coast. You’ve heard plenty about the content of the book. So, what I would like to do now is tell you what it has felt like to gather the information and make sense of it, what has been the experience of not only learning, but also necessarily giving a shape to all of this history.
There was a moment about seven years ago when the spring rains, if I can put it that way, poured into my life. A seed that had been lying dormant in my mind since childhood germinated. This May, in this garden, it blossoms.
It was a splendid morning on the Central Coast, sunny, but not too breezy. By myself I walked along the sand from Pico Creek to San Simeon Harbor. When I arrived at the village, I felt drawn to go into the Sebastian Store. Immediately old images began to peak out around the corners of my memory.
I had grown up under a large oil painting of my great, great grandfather, Dr. Eleutheros Americus Clark, whose Greek and Latin name means ‘Free American’ and who, I had been told, homesteaded in the area. I remembered a family trip as a child in a Hearst Ranch jeep up a steep hill overlooking a creek to our ancestral cemetery – somewhere near San Simeon. I recalled that E.A. Clark, for whom I had been named, was said in my family to have been the customs collector at San Simeon Harbor, and was struck by the coincidence that the man who ran the whaling station seemed to have the same last name. Then I saw a book on local history, the skies opened, and the spring rains descended on me, renewing old life.
Since then it has been stubborn but fascinating puzzle solving and long listening to the voices of my dead. First the interlocking crosswords, searching for the information and seeing if it fits. Not long after that visit to San Simeon, my aunt Pauline Colahan died in her nineties. To begin with, she had a keen mind, but in addition, since she never married, she had both an enduring love of her childhood family and ample time. Her greatly beloved grandmother, Anna Clark Colahan, had grown up on San Simeon Creek. She had been widowed young and so was pretty much in the same situation in life as Pauline, to whom she gave and told a wealth of information about her ancestry. By chance I inherited all that just when I began to search for the story of the San Simeon homestead. Then, with astonishing serendipity, Barbara Pinkham Jones turned up, whom I had been looking for with complete failure. She had the missing diaries E.A. Clark had kept while homesteading, and also one by E.A.’s son-in-law, Chester Webster Pinkham.
Here’s a typical problem that came up in assimilating and making sense of all this information. E.A. was said to be the first teacher on the north coast of the county. Good, but who was ‘Miss S.M. Clark,’ who shows up in the records of the San Luis Obispo school board as the second teacher? Geneva Hamilton thought she was E.A.’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Sarah Minerva, but I came to suspect she was E.A.’s unmarried sister, Sarah Mariah. Eventually I found a letter to the sister that confirmed that she was a professional teacher and had in 1861 left a teaching job in a high school in San Jose to move to San Simeon Creek, clearly to take the job here.
Another example. An inherited document stated that E.A. had been on the executive committee, responsible for conducting trials, of the famous Vigilance Committee of 1858. He was a self-taught lawyer and served for a while in 1861 as District Attorney. The document also contains the pencil-written draft of a long, well-reasoned account he wrote about the actions of the committee, published in the 1880’s in the San Jose Mercury. The question, how accurate was it? Was it a whitewash? Much research and talking with county historians later, I concluded that it was pretty accurate and honest, though Walter Murray, the San Luis Obispo politician who started the committee probably before E.A. arrived from Santa Clara County to settle, hid some things from him.
As I said earlier, in addition to puzzle solving, I listened long to voices. I wish there were time to read you the words of one of the most surprising ones, belonging to Aunt Lydia Helen Washburn, of Raynham, MA. Imperious and patrician but high-principled, from a family that was close friends with presidents Lincoln and Grant, she had four nephews in congress, three of them later state governors and the other a famous ambassador to France that saved the Germans who were in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. She most definitely did not approve of her namesake niece being dragged into the howling wilderness of San Luis Obispo County by a husband who was, as she thought, abandoning his medical career to become a farmer. But then, one of her nephews had held a peace conference to prevent the civil war, to no avail of course, and the criticism of Lincoln, the problems recruiting men for the Union army, and in general the prospect of the Union being destroyed were all getting on her nerves. But I’ll have to let you get to know Aunt Lydia on your own, so that there will be time for us to have short conversations with two members of the clan who pioneered on San Simeon Creek.
First is the eloquent Lovina Fidelia Clark, E.A.’s other sister; she married Harrison Dart, a neighbor of EA’s in San Jose she had probably never met before, just a couple of months after getting off the boat from Nicaragua to San Francisco. It’s the same Dart family that Louisiana Clayton Dart married into; Louisiana, of course,became one of the leading founders of the San Luis Obispo Historical Society. Both articulate and emotional, Lovina’s full letters give substance and shape to the thoughts of a young wife and mother in a strange new land. Her family feeling was intense. Her letters hold all the pathos of her only gradually realizing that she will die of tuberculosis.
In a letter of hers from San Simeon, dated June 2, 1860, she reports to her step-daughter:
ArThursday is quite well, you would probably like to know who he looks like. He is five years old, quite small of his age, has black eyes and rather dark complexion. Your father says he is the very picture of his Grandfather Dart. Little Mary Elenor, as we call her, is nearly eight months old. She is a very lively, playful baby, a good deal larger than ArThursday was at her age…. This is a very new county where we are living now. There are no artists near us, but we intend to have all of our daguerreotypes taken the first opportunity and then we will send you a copy of them…. We have been living where we are now nearly two years. There were but a few American families in the county when we came here, but it is settling up very fast. We live within three miles of the Pacific Ocean, right aMondayg the hills. The mountains are on one side of us, the ocean on the other. The scenery is very different here from what you have been accustomed to, living as you have always lived since your recollection on or near those large prairies which you have in Illinois….
Six months later she writes:
Three or four months have passed away since we received your last letter, and I will sit down to answer it. Why I have not answered it before I can hardly tell. I suppose that ‘Procrastination,’ ‘that great thief of time,’ has had something to do with it. I have very poor health most of the time, my two little children to take care of and my housework to do, with only the help of a little girl, a niece of mine who lives with us, and I am very apt to neglect doing things which are not absolutely necessary to be done. But do not cherish the idea for one moment that you are forgotten by us because you do not hear from us as often as you should. We are all enjoying good health at the present time. Your father has had a hard time this past summer and fall in taking care of and securing his crop. This is a stock raising county and we are surrounded by persons owning hundreds of herd of cattle. We had a poor fence owing to the scarcity of timber, and your father had to sleep out nearly every night for six weeks, which nearly used him up, besides losing a great deal of our crop, but he is splitting rails now and making preparation to have a good fence, and I am in hopes he will have easier times the coming season than he has had for the two years past. I was very glad to hear that you was taking music lessons. I am extremely fond of both vocal and instrumental music. I hope you will take great pains to improve in both singing and playing. I brought a Melodeon to California but sold it when we left San Jose.
In December of 1862 she turns for a while to the cheerful note of flowers, but the worries about the Civil War quickly come back:
I planted those flower seeds that you sent me this spring. The pinks and sweet-williams are growing finely. They will blossom next season. The larkspurs are in full bloom now. I do not know the name of those pink flowers that resemble the wild sweet-williams that grew in Michigan where I lived. Please let me know what you call them. Those small silver-colored seeds did not come up. I was sorry, for I thought they were portulacas. I have just one plant of the other kind of seeds. It has not blossomed yet. I do not know what it is from the looks of the plant. Besides the flowers you sent me I have morning glories, four-o’clocks, velvet marigolds, sweet peas, hollyhocks, wall flowers, and one variety of chrysanthemums. I would like some lady-slipper seeds, plants that live through the winter, as we’ll have so little frost. I have some wild flowers growing in the garden that are very pretty. I will send some seeds when they get ripe.
What disturbing times we are having in the United States at the present time. California has been highly favored so far, but I am afraid we are likely to have trouble here soon. This state is settled by people from every state in the Union. It is natural that persons born and educated in the Southern states should sympathize with the South; while there was no particular call for action they contented themselves by merely expressing their opinion in favor of the Southern Confederacy, but now the government are making preparations for drafting this state, they are coming out in open rebellion wherever they are strong enough to do so. In this county the secessionists are the majority. They are holding secret meetings in San Luis Obispo. They say they will go into the mountains and fight guerilla fashion before they will be drafted into the federal army. Whether they put their threats into execution remains to be seen.
In 1863 Lovina has fastened her hopes on striking it rich in a mine, which the Clark clan and their neighbors worked hard on til the vein petered out, but with even stronger feeling she complains about the lack of religious services on San Simeon Creek. Cambria, of course, doesn’t exist at this time.
There is quite an excitement in this part of the country now about mines. Your father has held a claim in a coal mine for more than a year, but the company that own it is too poor to buy the proper machinery to open it, & they have let it to a company in San Francisco that have capital to go on & work it. The coal that they found (it was only a small quantity) was pronounced the best in the state. … I feel encouraged sometimes & think perhaps we have not lived in this “out-of-way” part of the country & suffered privations & hardships five years for nothing; time alone will tell. ArThursday wants to know, if we get rich, if you will come and live with us. . . We do not enjoy any religious privileges at all here. I have not heard but one serMonday preached in five years. My uncle and aunt opened a Sabbath School about two years ago. ArThursday attends. That is all he knows about religious services on the Sabbath day.
Lovina’s last letter, written a few months before her death in 1864, is naturally somber, but also downright noble in her uncomplaining concern for others. She says in part:
San Simeon, March 20th 1864
Dear Daughter Marcella,
Four months have passed away since you pen[n]ed your last letter, and this is the first move I have made toward answering it. When it reached us it found me sick. I was recovering from an attack of bleeding from the lungs. I have had several in the past few years, but this was the worst one I have ever had; it lasted five days. Since then I have had a steady cough and I am failing in health and strength very fast. I have put off writing hoping I would be better, but hope is getting to be a stranger to me. Your father thinks it is the asthma that I have. I was some with it when I was young, but I think it is the consumption. God only knows and he can prepare me for whatever afflictions He may have in store for us. Marcella, if I should die, I know not what your father will do with the children, but if they ever come under your care I want you to teach them to be Christians. That is more important than any and everything else. Teach them to grow up in the fear and love of God. I have but one brother and one sister. My brother has a large family, my sister is older than I am, has poor health, and lives with my brother. They will take care of my children without a doubt while your father remains in California, but in case I am not getting well I think he will go back to the states after he settles up his business here.
The other voice we’ll listen in on is that of Eleutheros Americus. His personality is rational, practical, goal-driven, especially when putting a brave face on. His motto is, “There’s always a reason.” But in the privacy of his diaries, where he can unburden himself, he gives way to grief for a while following the death of his wife, Helen. His inner life overflows before our eyes, in a way that is poignant, almost embarrassing. He felt guilty that he had been away from home on business too often. He was overwhelmed by the seemingly insoluble problem of caring for his children. He even turned to the hope that there was some scientific fact in séances and spiritualism. Let’s stand by him in his sorrow for just a moment.
Thursday January 4 Chet and I finished stoning well. Dart went down to locate a lead of M[olibdi]die. For some reason inexplicable I feel excessively melancholy. My great loss is upon me in terrible distinctness. My God! What am I to do !
Friday January 5 Chet and I leveled the dirt around the well. He then hauled wood and I went up creek and chopped some. Life seems to me underable [i.e., unbearable]! Everything reminds me so vividly of my lost one! Oh my God! My punishment is terrible!
Saturday January 6 It commenced raining in the night about 12 o'clock and rained moderately till morning. At home choring. I am constantly reading and thinking of the proofs of spiritualism. How much I would give to know the truth in regard to it! Oh! Helen, can't you tell me !?
Sunday January 7 At home. It was cloudy most of the day. Wind SE. In the night strong SE wind and a little rain. The children went to church. In the evening I read some in EdMondayds’ first vol., although I have read it through once.
Monday January 8 Commenced raining hard about 8 o'clock AM and rained all the forenoon and till about 2 o'clock PM. What shall I do for peace and contentment. How little we prize blessings until they fly!
Tuesday January 9 Rainy in the morning, but did not rain much during the day. I cannot see that time has any healing on his wings for my wounded feelings.
Wednesday January 10 Quite a pleasant day. I took Olive and Lydia to Aunt Sarah's and I went to Leffingwell's. I borrowed Davis' Divine Revelations and third volume of HarMondayia. In the evening went to Cal's. I engaged Leffingwell to make a Spiritscope. Clouded up in the evening.
Thursday January 11 Commenced raining some time last night. And rained most of the forenoon in showers and a little in the afternoon. Creek running this morning. I must have been stupefied after H[elen]'s death. I seem to feel her loss more and more. I can't live with my present feelings long. Life is a burden. God help me!
With such cries for help the catharsis went on for a few weeks. But it would give you a false picture to leave you here. Most of his diary entries reflect his natural energy and can-do attitude. Later in life he wrote an optimistic essay called “The Power of an Idea,” about the capacity of the human mind to solve problems.
So let’s go back to a happier Mondayth, June of 1862.
Saturday June 7 San Simeon Coal Mining Co. met and adopted several resolutions and elected a foreman. I worked in the hole at the beach.
Sunday June 8 At home.
Monday June 9 Chet, Jake and I mowed
Tuesday June 10 Mowed in the forenoon. In the afternoon Helen and I went trout fishing. Caught only six.
Wednesday June 11 Mowed in the forenoon. At noon there was a little shower of rain and several little showers in the afternoon. Willie and I went trout fishing in the afternoon. Caught 32. A shower in the night.
Thursday June 12 Fished in the forenoon. Caught five. Mowed in the afternoon. Rained during the night.
Friday June 13 In the morning we fixed some of the upper pasture fence, and mowed the balance of the day.
Saturday June 14 Worked on the coal mine building a sea wall. Chet and Dart, Mr. and Adam Leffingwell, Riley and I worked. Found that some one had attempted to burn the cabin.
Sunday June 15 At home all day.
Monday June 16 In the forenoon hoed in the vineyard. In the afternoon went to Leffingwell’s and got a shoe set on Letcher’s gray horse.
Tuesday June 17 Went to San Luis and to Beebee’s. Found in town that I had been elected teacher of San Luis School district.
To walk, then, not just along the beach from Pico Creek to San Simeon Harbor, but in the sometimes overburdened but determined footsteps of Lovina, E.A. and Helen along the banks of San Simeon Creek, to learn the secret anxieties that gnawed at the heart, to smile with the joys of those who took the same ride as I’ve had on these family genes and way of seeing the world – all of this has taught me much about myself. Why for example I can be so doggedly persistent - not to stay downright stubborn - or the realization that my being driven to know the reason for things goes back before my German ancestry, just as the need to articulate that reason with feeling was in my make-up before my Irish blood. I think this self-revealing, articulate, undeniably eloquent family may similarly resume their teaching - with you all, here, within this same horizon of sea and mountains that cradled Lovina’s young family.
A niece of mine: Olive Clark? With her chronic ill health, Lovina needed live-in help, and in writing the previous year to his other sister E.A. had mentioned how short on space his family was in their cabin.
M[olibdi]die: This word could also be read as ‘mercury.’
Olive and Lydia: Two of E.A.s daughters.
Davis’ Divine Revelations: Andrew Jackson Davis wrote the prophetic The principles of nature, her divine revelations, and a voice to mankind, published in New York in 1847.
HarMondayia: Davis referred to his system of religious thought as HarMondayial Philosophy. The work referred to is probably Davis’ The HarMondayial philosophy : a compendium and digest of the works of Andrew Jackson Davis, of which there have been many editions.
Spiritscope: A device, later referred to as a table, used to attempt contact with the spirits of the dead.
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