The epic 1843 journey to California of the Williams brothers, my pioneer ancestors, has always fascinated me. Why, I have asked, did the four siblings leave their “safe” Missouri homes to undertake such a hazardous trip?
Since there is no recorded explanation of their motives, I have been left to speculate and weigh the circumstances of the time.
Often, we associate migration with a flight from difficulties, such as financial hardships. This was true for many of our Kern County neighbors, who fled poverty and hardships during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl.
But, in reality, the decision to migrate often required investments of both courage and money. The journey required buying tents, guns, food, clothing, wagons, tools and livestock. The outlay often exceeded the cost of buying a good farm in newly opened Iowa or Wisconsin.
The ultimate answer to why California’s pioneers decided to leave the safety of their Midwest or East Coast homes and risk death to settle the West will never be known. However, my research has given me an understanding of the pioneers’ strength and courage.
In "The Williams Brothers," a book written primarily for my family but that will soon be available to be read at Beale Memorial Library and for purchase at the Kern County Museum, I borrow from public reports, pioneers’ journals and personal letters to piece together the journey. It is a story of triumphs and failures, celebrations and disappointments, and many personal sacrifices made by the Williams brothers and those who accompanied them on a journey that had its roots with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s exploration of a route to the Pacific Ocean in 1803.
No doubt Lewis and Clark’s stop at Cape Girardeau, Mo., in the summer of 1803 inspired members of the Williams family to look West. It also inspired Joseph Walker, a mountain man and Missouri neighbor of the Williams family, to journey to California in 1833. Walker Pass in Kern County bears Joseph Walker’s name.
The promise of free land in the West does not explain the fever to give up secure and producing farms to take a chance on the unknown — to travel 2,000 miles into an uncertain future. California and Oregon were not even part of the United States in 1840, but since 1810 were the northern territories of the Republic of Mexico. The gut feeling that something better existed somewhere toward the western sea filled the Mississippi Valley during the 1830s and 1840s.
In his 1932 book, “Mark Twain’s America,” historian Bernard De Voto explained, “The immigration was underway. Its great days were just around the turn of spring — and an April restlessness, a stirring in the blood, a wind beyond the oaks’ opening spoke of the prairies, the great desert, and the western sea. The common man fled westward. The thirsty lands swallowed him insatiably. There is no comprehending the frenzy of the American folk migration. God’s gadfly had stung us mad.”
Joining my ancestors on their journey was Pierson Reading, a New Jersey native who luckily kept a painstakingly detailed journal of the trip. Upon reaching California, Reading received a nearly 27,000-acre Mexican land grant along the Sacramento River, and participated in numerous military campaigns that eventually created a California free of Mexico’s rule.
In his journal, Pierson describes the 1843 wagon train of struggling pioneers, as they encountered Indian tribes, forded swollen rivers, forced exhausted and bleeding oxen through narrow rocky gorges, and left the wagons of women and children behind for months in a snowy mountain pass, as the men pushed ahead to find help.
I wrote my book, “The Williams Brothers,” from the perspective of the great-great-grandson of James Williams, born in Missouri in 1814. My mother, Leah Williams Lemucchi, was James' great-granddaughter.
The Missouri farm boys ended up in Santa Cruz — as far west as they could go. They built their new homes on the cliffs above the sea. One can only imagine the thoughts that swirled through their minds as they sat on the edge of the cliffs and gazed upon the ocean’s horizon.
The Williamses and others on the wagon train married, and their children fanned out across California. Many members of the Hitchcock-Patterson Williams family, for example, continue to reside in Kern County. They are now into their seventh generation.
The exploits of the Williams brothers should not be forgotten in that they were members of the second overland party to California in 1843. The Chiles-Bidwell party opened a route earlier along the South Platte River, over South Pass and into Fort Hall.
They proved that hearty people, well-supplied and organized, could successfully make the trip to California. Their efforts and adventures are heroic and historic. They occupy an historical niche in the overland migration to the West.
My grandmother, who lived to 102 years, kept the story alive through the time I was old enough to understand and begin my own research. In the 1980s, we had a wonderful family reunion in Santa Cruz and remodeled the Williams family gravesites in the Evergreen Cemetery using granite rock. Two Williams brothers married two Patterson sisters on the first party to come across the Sierras by wagon train in 1894. All of them lived in Santa Cruz.
We had the dedication at the cemetery. The pioneers’ letters were read to family members gathered at Williams Landing, on the shores of the Pacific. Like our ancestors before us, we perched ourselves on the bluffs and gazed hopefully across the ocean’s horizon.
Attorney Timothy Lemucchi is a fourth-generation Californian, born and raised in Bakersfield. He lives on the banks of the historic Kern River with his family. He frequently writes about criminal and civil justice issues. His first history book, “Luigi’s — 100 Years: Then and Now,” was about his Italian grandparents and the family’s more than 100-year-old east Bakersfield restaurant.