Charles David Weber

Charles David Weber

Charles David Weber was born in Steinwenden, Germany in 1814. He emigrated to the United States in 1836 and for the next few years lived in Texas. On 9th May, 1841, he arrived at Sapling Grove to join the party led by John Bidwell. This was to be the first ever wagon train taking people from the Missouri River to California. Bidwell later admitted that the party included no one who had ever been to California: "Our ignorance of the route was complete. We knew that California lay west, and that was the extent of our knowledge." So when Bidwell heard a group of missionaries, led by Pierre-Jean De Smet, and guided by the experienced Tom Fitzpatrick, were also intending to travel to Fort Hall, it was decided to wait until they arrived at Sapling Grove.

Fitzpatrick agreed to take Bidwell's party to Fort Hall. Bidwell later claimed that was a most important factor in the the party's survival: "it was well we did (wait for Fitzpatrick), for other wise probably not one of us would ever have reached California, because of our inexperience". The combined party left Sapling Grove on 12th May, 1841. As Frank McLynn pointed out: "The missionaries' four carts formed the vanguard, each drawn by two mules hitched in tandem. The main party consisted of eight wagons drawn either by mules or horses. In the rear were the slowest-moving vehicles - six wagons drawn by oxen." They followed the Sante Fe Trail for two days before branching off on a faint path created by fur traders who had already made the journey to Fort Laramie.

On 16th May, 1841, De Smet wrote in his journal: "I hope that the journey will end well; it has begun badly. One of our wagons was burned on the steamboat; a horse ran away and was never found; a second fell ill, which I was obliged to exchange for another at a loss. Some of the mules took fright and ran off, leaving their wagons; others, with wagons, have been stalled in the mud. We have faced perilous situations in crossing steep declivities, deep ravines, marshes and rivers."

The journey became even more difficult after crossing the Kansas River. The long grass interspersed with trees, resulted in most of the families abandoned the heavy furniture they were trying to transport in their wagons. Father Nicolas Point wrote that the "terrain between Westport and the Platte is one of those endless undulations which bear a perfect resemblance to those of the sea when it is agitated by a storm." Point also recorded that on a single day the party killed a dozen rattlesnakes with their whips without leaving the trail.

On 4th June, one of the party, Nicholas Dawson, went out hunting alone and was captured by a group of Cheyenne braves. They removed his clothes and stole his mule, rifle and handgun. Dawson was then released and chased back to the wagon train. Tom Fitzpatrick went out to meet the Cheyenne and after negotiating the return of the mule and rifle, they smoked a peace pipe together.

Nine days later the wagon train experienced its first death. As John Bidwell explained: "A young man by the name of Shotwell, while in the act of taking a gun out of the wagon, drew up the muzzle towards him in such a manner that it went off and shot him in the heart. He lived about an hour and died in full possession of his senses."

On 22nd June the travellers reached Fort Laramie in Wyoming. The Methodist preacher, Joseph Williams, was shocked when he saw that the mountain men had Native American "wives". He also recorded that he disapproved of Fitzpatrick's attitude towards religion: "Our leader, Fitzpatrick, is a wicked worldly man, and is much opposed to missionaries going among the Indians. He has some intelligence, but is deistical in his principles."

The wagon train left the fort two days later. They travelled along the south bank of the North Platte River until they reached the dreaded North Fork crossing. It was too deep for fording so so they had a great deal of difficulty reaching the other side. However, the pioneers got across with the loss of just one drowned mule.

In July the travellers had difficulty finding enough buffalo to kill. The difficult terrain meant that the wagon train was travelling at a slower pace. The journey from Fort Laramie to Soda Springs in Idaho, took forty-eight days to cover the 560 miles, an average of twelve miles a day. There was a short pause at Soda Springs for hunting.

On 11th August the two groups went their separate ways. Pierre-Jean De Smet and Tom Fitzpatrick heading north to Fort Hall, whereas the John Bidwell party continued on the route to California. Only thirty-three people elected to go with Bidwell. Fitzpatrick tried to convince Bidwell to abandon his trip to California and proceed instead to Oregon. Smet later recorded: "They started purely with the design of seeking their fortune in California... and pursued their enterprise with the constancy which is characteristic of Americans."

Bidwell sent four men to Fort Hall to seek advice on how to get to California. Frank McLynn, the author of Wagons West: The Epic Story of America's Overland Trails (2002) has pointed out: "The best intelligence available from Fort Hall was that the California-bound emigrants should go north of the Salt Lake before swinging due west, but should not proceed too far north for fear of running into a maze of rugged canyons, precipices and gulches; on the other hand, if they went too far south, they were likely to end by dying of thirst in the trackless desert."

The wagon train had difficulty finding water to drink. The water they found in the Great Salt Lake area was brackish and had a bad smell of sulphur. The only way the liquid was drinkable was when it was brewed into strong coffee. Even the horses would only drink it in this way. Food was also a problem and on 5th September they decided to kill an ox and to abandon the wagon it was pulling.

The next stage of their journey involved crossing the Nevada desert. After two days they reached Rabbit Hole Spring. Following the trails created by Native Americans they eventually arrived at Mountain Spring near Pilot Peak. It was here that two more wagons were abandoned and the oxen pulling the loads were killed and eaten. For the next three days, the six remaining wagons moved south, across Silver Zone Pass and the Goshute Valley.

On the 15th September the decision was taken to abandon the wagons at the foot of the Pequop Mountains. As Frank McLynn has pointed out: "The reasoning was clear: they could get on faster, could negotiate rough and hilly country more easily, and would they have meat on the hoof in the form of the oxen, now surplus to pulling requirements. Naturally, they would no longer be able to claim that they were the first wagon train to reach California, but by now survival was the issue. Equipment and supplies were unloaded and packed on the backs of mules and oxen. Unused to loads, the oxen become skittish and bucked the packs off." One of the party wrote that: "Bidwell and Kelsey were to miss the wagons most, for their team were oxen, and an ox is not easy to pack or to stay packed."

After passing some hot springs at the foot of Ruby Mountains on 21st September, they came to Mary's River (later renamed the Humboldt River). One traveller called it "the meanest, muddiest, filthiest, stream imaginable". They followed its south fork northwards to the Humboldt Sink, a marshy area, where the river disappeared into the desert. They were only able to kill the odd antelope or jackrabbit. They were now so short of food they began to kill the pack animals. They met a party of Shoshone who gave them food that reminded them of toffee apples. However, the pioneers lost their appetite for this food when they discovered it was a mixture of honey and crushed up locusts, crickets and grasshoppers.

On 18th October the Bidwell party reached the Walker River at the eastern foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Over the next few days they lost four animals while crossing the mountains. On 22nd October the pioneers killed the last of their oxen. One of the party, Josiah Belden, claimed that for the last twenty days he lived on nothing but acorns. They eventually reached the summit close to Sonora Pass and were close to starvation when they found the Stanislaus River in California. By the end of the month they reached the San Joaquin Valley. A member of the Miwok tribe told them Marsh's Fort was close-by.

Of the 69 people in Bidwell's party who set out from Sapling Grove, only 33 people reached Marsh's Fort on 4th November. However, the party became the first emigrants to travel overland from Missouri to the Pacific coast. Cheyenne Dawson wrote: "We had expected to find civilization, with big fields, fine houses, churches, schools, etc. Instead, we found houses resembling unburnt brick kilns, with no floors, no chimneys, and with the openings for doors and windows closed by shutters instead of glass."

Weber went to work for John Sutter. As the author of The Big Oak Flat Road (1955) has pointed out: "John August Sutter’s domain, a spreading grant from the Mexican Government which he called New Helvetia, and whose headquarters the Americans termed Fort Sutter, was on the navigable Sacramento. The new arrival decided to emulate Sutter’s procedure and to obtain a similar grant. Weber’s mind, far more acute and business-like than that of Sutter, was filled with plans. Without doubt he recalled the vista of flat land, mountain-bounded to the east and west, that he had seen when crossing the great sister stream, the San Joaquin. If nothing better offered, this had possibilities."

In 1842, Weber moved to San José and became a business partner of William Gulnac (1801-1851). They set up a corn-mill, ran a bakery and a smithy, mined for salt, made shoes and soap, and kept cattle and horses. Gulnac owned the Rancho Campo de los Franceses in San Joaquin County on the Calaveras River but sold it to Weber in 1845.

On the outbreak of the Mexican War Weber persuaded a number of local people to settle on his land for protection. He then accepted the position of Captain in the Cavalry of the United States. After the war he laid out a town on his land that he called Stockton, in honour of Commodore Robert F. Stockton. It was the first town in California not to have a name not of Spanish or Native American origin.

Henry William Brands, the author of The Age of Gold (2002) has pointed out: "Stockton had pretensions but little substance. The streets were quagmires, the buildings flimsy and miserable". However, Stockton grew rapidly as a miners’ supply point during the California Gold Rush. According to Brands, it became the "gateway to the southern mines."

Jaquelin Smith Holliday has argued that both Stockton and Sacramento were completely changed by the discovery of gold in California: "From a few wooden shanties and canvas-covered structures in the spring, both settlements grew rapidly during the summer of 1849. Then in the fall they felt the impact of the overlanders' needs for food, tents, boots, blankets, and everything else abandoned on the trials. In both cities warehouses, hotels, stores, restaurants and gambling halls were built of logs, canvas, sheet iron, bricks - whatever could be found, purchased or cannibalized."

In 1850 Weber married Helen Murphy (1822–1895) and moved to what became known as Weber Point. They had three children: Charles Martin Weber (1851–1912), Julia Helen Weber (1853–1935) and Thomas Jefferson Weber (1855–1892).

Charles David Weber died in 1881.

Primary Sources

(1) Irene Dakin Paden, The Big Oak Flat Road (1955)

John August Sutter’s domain, a spreading grant from the Mexican Government which he called New Helvetia, and whose headquarters the Americans termed Fort Sutter, was on the navigable Sacramento. The new arrival decided to emulate Sutter’s procedure and to obtain a similar grant. Weber’s mind, far more acute and business-like than that of Sutter, was filled with plans. Without doubt he recalled the vista of flat land, mountain-bounded to the east and west, that he had seen when crossing the great sister stream, the San Joaquin. If nothing better offered, this had possibilities.

He took up residence in the Mexican pueblo of San Jose, one of three in Alta California and applied for Mexican citizenship which was the first step in acquiring a grant. Here he discovered that time was important. Land was being apportioned rapidly. Under Spanish rule only a few grants had been assigned. W. W. Robinson, in his book, Land in California, sums it as in the neighborhood of twenty-five. The Mexican period began in 1822; popular pressure resulted in the secularization of the missions in 1833 and the release of their enormous holdings for distribution to individuals. The period of the ranchos had begun. By the time of the Bear Flag episode in ’46 the Mexican governors had given away, freely and apparently gladly, over 500 grants. Even three years earlier, when Weber applied for Mexican citizenship, it was apparent that suitable unoccupied land could not last forever. So he formed a partnership with one William Gulnac, who had married a Mexican girl and had already attained the necessary citizenship.

William, now called by the Spanish equivalent, Guillermo, made application for and received eleven square leagues of land, or nearly 50,000 acres. The grant lay near the junction of the San Joaquin with its small tributary, Calaveras River.

Meanwhile the Hudson’s Bay Company’s French trappers had set up a base of operations on a location very slightly higher than its surroundings and a few miles south of the same junction. There is a modern town on the site named, logically, French Camp. Every year during the trapping season the camp became populous; the Indians who prepared the pelts moved in and, for a time, there might be as many as three or four hundred souls.9 Gulnac’s grant included miles of waterways along which the Hudson’s Bay men laid their traps. It was given the name Rancho del Campo de los Franceses, or Ranch of the French Camp. Gulnac received it in January of 1844, and it was understood that Weber was to be a full partner.

Not many of the native Californians asked for grants so far from the coastal communities. Most of the ranchos along the Sacramento, Feather and other inland rivers were held by men of non-Latin origin. An exception was El Rancho del Rio Estanislaus (including modern Knight’s Ferry),10 granted to Francisco Rico and Jose Antonio Castro on December 29, 1843—just a few days before Gulnac received his grant; but, for the most part, the Mexican Californians did not care to trust themselves to the mercies of the Sierra foothill Indians. So it happened that this rich river bottom land, now counted as fertile as any in the state, was still unclaimed.

Weber did not stumble ignorantly into a dangerous situation. He felt that he could cope with it. While at Fort Sutter he had met a tall and personable individual, José Jesús (pronounced Hosáy Hasoóse), chief of the Siyakumna tribe and successor to Estanislao. The name was reminiscent of his early upbringing at the mission but he had fallen from grace and was now extremely unrepentant and a leader of the “Horsethief Indians.” He hated the Mexican Californians and his tribe was dreaded for unprovoked raids on outlying ranchos but Weber felt that he might be persuaded to act reasonably in the case of a man of other nationality.

Springtime was flood season in the tule lands of the San Joaquin Valley so there may have been good reason why Guillermo Gulnac could not settle on the grant at once. We are told that it was summer when he arrived and that he was accompanied by his son, Jose, and the well-known pioneer, Peter Lassen. Weber was involved in several types of business in San Jose and in the management of a cattle ranch nearby, so remained behind.