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What makes Napa - the city - so great today is its position as a fulcrum between its valuable ties to the wine industry of our county and the San Francisco business environment and its connections north, south, east and west, around the world. This importance was also prevalent before Napa County became known as “Wine Country.”
So, who would you think is the first most famous personality to not only visit Napa but also figure so significantly in its earliest history and notoriety? Although very tempting, you should step outside the box by not limiting your thinking process to the first Caucasian settlers like George C. Yount. Our mystery celebrity preceded Yount!
Nope! You should not be focusing on the American Indian Natives or even the Spaniard or Mexican rulers of the Alta California lands, although they played a significant role in establishing the fame of our mystery celebrity.
Don’t even look to our wine industry! He was here way before the knowledge that Napa County could possibly produce wines on a par with the great and old European family establishments who have been producing classic wines for centuries.
I’ll give you another little hint: The year was 1829 making him only 20 years old when this Missourian first visited the Napa area.
Still don’t have it? Okay, here’s another hint: He was close friends with the family of former Governor of Missouri, Lilburn Boggs who later became a permanent resident of the city of Napa. Interestingly enough, while then Missouri’s governor, Boggs was the man who ordered the Mormons out of Missouri because of their different way of life and the conflicts of that lifestyle with the mainstream of the times.
The then leader of the Mormons, Joseph Smith, because of the Governor’s expulsion orders, “prophesied“ that the Governor would die from an act of violence within about a year’s time. Smith reportedly proceeded to hire a man known as Orin Porter Rockwell to “accomplish” his prophecy. Although the attacker of Boggs failed in his attempt, he did cause serious long term physical harm to the ex-Governor.
Another Mormon of the times was Sam Brannan, creator of Calistoga, the northern most town in Napa County, and a leader ,who in 1846, brought a group of 240 of the expelled Mormons to San Francisco by ship via the Cape. Brannan was once considered the heir-apparent to Joseph Smith’s leadership of the Mormon faith. But, we’ll discuss Sam later.
Don’t have it yet? A final hint: The mystery man’s family was long term friends of the family of ex-Missourian Governor Lilburn Boggs. Boggs was married to the granddaughter of the famous frontiersman, Daniel Boone who was then residing in Missouri. The family of our mystery celebrity had purchased land from the Daniel Boone family and it is where he was raised. The families of the Boone’s, Boggs' and our mystery celebrity were all friends and entwined.
Although many historians write glowing remarks about this mystery celebrity, they fail to report on the international political environment at that point in time and how the politics of the period influenced subsequent actions, including those of our mystery celebrity. Let me give you just the major highlights:
Our mystery celebrity met, in Missouri, one Lieutenant John C. Fremont in 1842 and was hired by him to guide his Washington D.C. sponsored “survey party” into the west several times. During these illegal excursions into Alta California, and I say “illegal,“ because the survey party did not request nor did they obtain passports to be in the area as required by the Mexican Government who clearly and undisputedly controlled the area at the time.The Indian tribes were indigenous but were being “manipulated” by first the Mexicans, then the Spaniards, then back to the Mexicans, but the Indians were basically ”in control” of their daily life.
The Mexicans had kicked out the Spaniards but were stretched thin and vulnerable to outside powers conquering their western land holdings, including Alta California. They had much internal strife which weakened their resolve to hold on to these north western lands. In attempt to control access to their lands, the Mexican government required all foreign visitors to the area to seek and be issued a “Passport” to enter and remain in the Alta California. Two Caucasians were given the power to issue these passports and they were John Sutter (located near Sacramento) and John Marsh (near Mt. Diablo).
The British were sailing off the Pacific shore with great interest in the western land and its bountiful natural resources while the French were busy in the Louisiana Territory. And, both were in dispute with each other.
The Russians, because of their growing financial difficulties, were actually dis-interested in the western states except for the food items that could be grown to be provided to the employees and their families of the Russian American Company and its lucrative fur/skin industry in Alaska.
Washington D.C. was developing its “Manifest Destiny” philosophy where it believed it was right for the Americans to control the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The Americans, hearing and reading all the stories about the abundance of resources out west and the assurances of the great American “Destiny,” packed up, and in mass wagon trains, penetrated into the American Indian and Mexican lands. There is no doubt that these wagon trains would cause the American Indians and Mexicans to use force to cease the invasion of these foreigners, the Americans.
Our celebrity figure was often the subject of Lieutenant Fremont’s reports back to Washington D.C. and he mentioned the feats of the mystery celebrity in such glowing terms that one might think the Lieutenant was the Publicist for our mystery celebrity. These stories were often blown out of proportion creating a false sense of the “good deeds” of our mystery celebrity.
However, review of the works of many historians show that our mystery celebrity was merciless in not only chasing and corralling the indigenous Indians but also in frequently massacring them; man, woman and child. Remember, during this timeframe, the Indian was indigenous to the area, i.e., owned the land, but could not stop the Mexican government from controlling its use and access. Thus, the true invader was the American Government via the Fremont Survey Party and other such transgressions into Alta California and not the American Indian or the “Californios” as resident Mexicans were called in Alta California. Separating fact from fiction and fable about this frontiersman is probably a lifelong single mission for a historical writer.
On one occasion, in 1843, our mystery celebrity guided the Lieutenant’s survey party into the Napa/Sonoma area. The Mexican government heard about this illegal entry and sought out the Lieutenant to find out what his intentions were in Alta California. The Lieutenant explained that he was “just surveying the area.” The Mexican government ordered his party out of the area and Fremont promised he would go to Oregon and other lands out of the Mexican jurisdiction. But, Fremont doubled back out of sight of the Mexican authorities.
This was about the time of the start up of the “Bear Flag Revolt of 1846’ which was the first, but ill-fated attempt, to take Alta California from the Mexican land holdings. Fremont and our mystery celebrity knew that Mexican messengers were on their way to the Napa area with some sort of secret instructions. Our mystery celebrity asked the Lieutenant what to do about “prisoners of war” and received the response from the Lieutenant that there were no provisions for prisoners. So what did our mystery celebrity do? He assassinated three very prominent Mexican citizens - two Haro brothers and a Berryessa - as they landed at a dock along the shores of what is now San Quetin Prison. (Originally I had reference a Napa River which I subseqently found was erroneous information) Within a few days American forces arrived, disbanded the “Revolter’s” and claimed California as part of the U.S.A. This was just one event of the U.S - Mexican War of 1846-48 which the Americans won and California, along with some other states, became the property of the U.S.
Many historians write about the exploits of our mystery celebrity in very glowing terms but in actuality, he was a dangerous man who would do what ever was necessary to expeditiously accomplish the task at hand. Historians write about his care for the American Indian which they claimed is proved by his marriages to Indian women, his knowledge of their languages and seeking roles in the administration of Indian affairs. This writer does not yet accept this interpretation. It should be noted that our mystery celebrity and the Fremont party were the invaders of foreign owned land and its residents had the right to protect their homeland; not the opposite as so many writers jump to conclude.
I would like to see a psychologist interpretation of the events surrounding the actions of our mystery celebrity. Why? Because our celebrity gained such undocumented and unsupported notoriety as to his alleged “noble and heroic feats,” he was thus held in the very highest esteem in government circles in Washington D.C. who didn‘t understand, or didn‘t want to delve into the real facts, because of the mood swing to the “Manifest Destiny“ concept of why American could justify its expansionism tactics.
Our mystery celebrity frequently was in need of financial support and because he knew the area, and indeed many of the Indian languages, the government gave him jobs in administering Indian affairs based on his credentials as established by others who had their own missions. In his earlier escapades in the western area he is known to have chased out and murdered Indians from California to the Washington border. In his later life, our mystery celebrity very ably and forcibly marched Indian tribes from the natural lands to isolated and desolated new homelands under Washington D.C. orders.
A hero not, in my opinion, but a well known celebrity he was! He was uneducated and thus easily fit the subtle needs of the Washingtonians who were bent on expansion to the Pacific Ocean. He was the one and only Kit Carson!