Sunday, December 27, 2015

On the trail with Nelson Wescoatt

Tombstone in the Marysville Cemetery shared by Nelson and Catherine Wescoatt.
Yesterday's post focused on two of the Wescoatt boys --- specifically the trek of Jonas and Riley Wescoatt and their families across the Great Plains from Chariton to California during 1853. But I didn't say much about their older brother, Nelson, who also made his way to California in 1853 and, as it turned out, led an extraordinarily eventful life, too.

Nelson was born during 1821 in Ohio, where his parents --- Joseph F. and Sarah Wescoatt --- lived briefly before settling in Indiana. During 1838, when he was about 17, he came with his family from Indiana to Keosauqua in Van Buren County, Iowa, where the father died during 1840.

As soon as Lucas County's neighbor to the east, Monroe, opened for settlement during the spring of 1843, Nelson was there. His marriage at age 23 to Mary Searcy on Aug. 1, 1844, was the first to occur in the new territory, at the time still under the jurisdiction of Wapello County. Sadly, Mary died three months later "of effects of fever." Her death reportedly also was a county first, a lamentable distinction.

Here's a brief account of her burial, found on Page 351 of The Western Historical Society's 1878 History of Monroe County, Iowa: "In those days there was no lumber to be had, and the question of how to construct a coffin for the occasion was a serious one. A black walnut tree was cut down and from it puncheons were hewed. From these a coffin was made, the place of nails being supplied with wooden pegs. This rude box was covered with velveteen, obtained at W.G. Clark's. The lone resting place of the first bride is still pointed out on the old Searcey place."

Mary (Searcy) Wescoatt's older brother, by the way, was Beverly Searcy --- also a Chariton pioneer and the builder of Lucas County's first courthouse.

Three years after his brief first marriage, in 1847, Nelson built Monroe County's first saw mill three miles west of Albia. He also farmed, apparently running quite a few cattle. William McDermott, the first settler in Lucas County's Cedar Township, purchased 35 head of cattle from him in 1848, paying $10-12 per head for cows, $4 per head for calves.

During 1849, Nelson, his brother, Jonas, and his brother-in-law, Beverly Searcy, all joined Buck Townsend at Chariton Point prior to the first Monday in November, when the first lots in the newly located city of Chariton were sold at public auction. It was during that auction that Nelson purchased for the brothers the lot on the northwest corner of the square where they began immediately to build a log cabin, reportedly Chariton's first.

By some accounts, there were two cabins on the lot --- one the Wescoatt store and the other, where the families of Nelson and Jonas lived together.

Once the building project was complete, Nelson returned to Albia and on Feb. 16, 1850, married as his second wife Catherine T. King, who accompanied him to their new home in Chariton.

On Jan. 24, 1850, Nelson was appointed Chariton's first postmaster, replacing William H. Moore, who had handled the mail on an interim basis since Dec. 26, 1849. The post office was located in the Wescoatt store and mail arrived once a week from Albia, by horseback in the afternoon. Chariton was the end of the line at that time --- outgoing mail was dispatched to Albia via the same carrier the next morning.

By April of 1850, Nelson --- a man of many talents --- had been named county surveyor; one of his first task to resurvey and replat Chariton because the initial plat, prepared during the fall of 1849 by Buck Townsend, had proved unsatisfactory.


In 1851, Nelson and Catherine decided to move along --- from Chariton to Garden Grove, in Decatur County, then just beginning to boom. Their first child, Oscar K., had been born in Chariton on Jan. 28 of that year.

Garden Grove, founded during April of 1846 by Brigham Young as a way station for Mormon pioneers heading west, now was transitioning as permanent settlers arrived to buy improved Mormon claims. This gave the new arrivals a head start and also offered the resources LDS pioneers needed to continue their journey west.

The new village of Garden Grove was located on high flat prairie a mile east of the original settlement, which had been purposely sited near woodland. The Decatur County seat of Leon had not yet been located, let alone settled.

Nelson sold his interest in the Wescoatt store in Chariton to Jonas, who also took over as postmaster effective May 1, 1851. In Garden Grove, Nelson and Catherine purchased a store that had been founded by Ozro N. Kellogg, one of the earliest permanent settlers. He had been named Garden Grove postmaster during January of 1851. Nelson received the appointment to succeed him on Oct. 9, 1851.

Earlier in 1851, Nelson had signed on as surveyor for a party of commissioners named by the Iowa Legislature to locate a state road that would commence at Bloomfield in Davis County, then continue west through Appanoose, Wayne, Decatur, Ringgold, Taylor, Page and Fremont counties to the Missouri River. The party left Garden Grove during September of 1851, returning with the job complete several weeks later as winter set in.

But the Wescoatts apparently remained in Garden Grove only until late summer, 1852, then moved on again. The appointment as Garden Grove postmaster went to Josiah Morgan during August of that year.

A daughter, Flora, was born in Iowa apparently in late 1852 or early 1853, but its not clear exactly where her parents were living at the time.


By late 1853, Nelson, Catherine and their children had arrived in California --- they apparently did not travel with Jonas and Riley and their families --- but the destination was the same: Marysville, in northern California's Yuba County, one of the largest and most strategically located Gold Rush cities. By 1853, Marysville had boomed from a tent city to a minor metropolis with brick buildings and 10,000 residents, its economy fueled by gold.

The Wescoatts prospered in Marysville. Nelson was elected city surveyor, then county surveyor, dabbled in mining and apparently engaged in a number of other business enterprises. When the 1860 federal census of Marysville was taken, he owned real estate valued at $10,000 and personal property valued at $1,000 --- a not inconsiderable amount for that time.

Two additional children were born in California. Henry, born soon after their arrival, died of "cholera infantum" on May  26, 1856, at the age of 15 months. William H., born during 1857, survived.

In 1861, however, little Flora Wescoatt died and was buried with Henry in the Marysville Cemetery.

Wife and mother, Catherine, followed her children to the grave on May 20, 1865, at the age of 34, and was buried near them. This left Nelson on his own with two sons, William quite young, but he seems not to have been in a hurry to remarry and what sort of provision he made for his sons isn't known.

About 1862, with Marysville as his home base, Nelson had begun ranging widely through the gold  and silver fields to work as a surveyor and engineer, most notably at Virginia City, Nevada, making more money as a professional and an investor that he would have had he decided to dig for gold or silver himself. He apparently made --- and lost --- several fortunes during the next 30 years.

Although he returned to live in Marysville during 1868, hanging out his shingle as a mining engineer and surveyor, that didn't last long. His profession took him to Nevada, where among other distinctions he was elected to the state legislature and helped to write laws governing mine safety and address other issues; then to Colorado; then to Oregon; then to Washington; then finally as he entered his early 70s, back to California.

During November of 1889, smitten by a younger widow --- Jenny Webber --- he married for a third time while in Sonoma County, California, where his son Oscar, now with a family of his own, had settled. But this didn't work out, and they soon separated. He continued to roam, she settled down with her daughter from a previous marriage on the small ranch Nelson had purchased as a retirement home.

As the 1890s advanced, Nelson --- now in his 70s --- attempted to reconcile with Jenny, but she declined to do what he wanted her to do, they formalized their separation with a written agreeement and he went off to live with Oscar and his family at Bellevue in Sonoma County leaving Jenny in possession of the ranch, considerable funds --- and some $1,200 worth of diamonds that had been part of the wooing process.

Younger son William, who had settled in Los Angeles with his wife, Kitty, and was working as a court stenographer, came to a harsh end on Nov. 23, 1890. According to a report of his inquest, published in The Los Angeles Herald of Nov. 25, his death was caused by prolonged addiction to a deadly mix of whiskey and morphine. His widow testified that he had been consuming up to three small bottles of whiskey a day and injecting morphine two or three times daily --- but not eating ---during the final days of his life.

Nelson was living in Nevada at the time of William's death, but financed his funeral and burial in a Los Angeles cemetery.


Nelson, although now retired and living with his son, Oscar, seemed to be in reasonably good health when he dropped dead of a heart attack on Sept. 7, 1896, in Bellevue, at the age of 75. He had come a long way from that log cabin store on the northwest corner of the Chariton square. Three brief obituaries tell his story in slightly differing ways.

The shortest appeared in The Engineering and Mining Journal of Sept. 19, 1896:

NELSON WESCOATT died at Bellevue, September 7th, aged 75 years. He came to the Pacific coast in the year 1850 (actually, 1853) and first settled at Marysville, Cal. Removing to Nevada, he made a reputation as a mining expert. After serving several years in the Nevada State Senate, he amassed a large fortune in mines in Colorado and other states.

His most extensive obituary was published in The San Francisco Chronicle of Sept. 8, 1896:

Death of Nelson Wescoatt Near Santa Rosa
Well-Known Miner of Early Days --- He Had Operated in Many States.

SANTA ROSA, Sept. 7 --- Nelson Wescoatt, a well-known pioneer, died at the home of his son, Oscar Wescoatt, at Bellevue, very suddenly this morning. Apparently he was well until about two minutes before he died. Death was due to heart failure.

Wescoatt was a native of Ohio. He came to California in 1853, settling first at Marysville, where he remained nine years. He was a mining engineer. From Marysville he went to Virginia City, Nev., where he engaged in mining, being very successful. While in Nevada he was elected a member of the State Senate. From Nevada he went to Colorado and operated a number of mines successfully. Then he went to Oregon and later to Washington, and finally returned to California.

For the past few years he resided with his son at Bellevue. But one child survives him, his son, Oscar. He was 75 years old and a prominent Mason, being a member of Santa Rosa Lodge, No. 57, F. and A.M.

Funeral services will be held at the home of his son at 2 o'clock tomorrow, after which the remains will be brought to the Masonic Temple here. They will remain there until Wednesday, when they will be taken to Marysville to be interred by those of his wife.

Mr. Wescoatt has three brothers living --- Riley, who lives in Ohio (actually Nebraska), Joseph, who lives in New York; and Jonas, who lives near this city.

A third obituary, from The San Francisco Call of Sept. 8, although shorter, does a better job of capturing something of Nelson's character:

Death of Nelson Wescoatt, Mining Expert, Law-Maker and Philanthropist

SANTA ROSA, Sept. 7 --- Nelson Wescoatt, the well-known mining expert, died this morning at the residence of his son, John (actually Oscar) Wescoatt, near Bellevue.

Wescoatt was a native of Ohio, aged 75 years, and came to this state in 1853. In 1862 he went to Virginia City, where he made and lost several fortunes. He was at one time a State Senator in Nevada, and was the author of some of the mining laws now on the statute books of that state. He was considered an authority on mining topics, and his advice was often sought by the most prominent mining men of the West. Of a warm-hearted and generous nature, he assisted is friends whenever asked, and he gave away more money than it falls to the lot of the average man to possess in a lifetime. He possessed valuable mining property in Candelaria, Nev., at the time of his death. He leaves surviving three brothers and a son.

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