Charles Graves Starkweather: Stockton Rancher

Charles Graves Starkweather

Charles Graves Starkweather was born on 20 March 1819 in the family home in Northampton, near where his father and grandfather had lived and died before him.  He was the oldest of the seven children of Haynes Kingsley Starkweather and Lucina Almina (Merrick) Starkweather, formerly of Wilbraham.

Charles joined the California gold rush in 1849, leaving with a group of men, largely from western Massachusetts, called the Holyoke Northampton Overland Mining Co.  On the day of their departure from Northampton, Monday, February 5th, townspeople held a farewell gathering for the men at which Rev. E. Y. Swift, pastor of the First Congregational Church gave the address.

From Northampton, the company took the train to New York where they boarded the S. L. Crowell for the journey to the village of Chagres in the country we now call Panama.  They rowed and poled their shallow boats up the Chagres River to Gorgona, where they disembarked and then hiked with fifty pound packs the 28 miles to the Pacific coast.  There, like so many others, they were stranded, waiting for passage to San Francisco.  Eventually, a group of the stranded Americans pooled their money and purchased and supplied a vessel, the Copiapo, to take them to California, where they arrived on 8 August 1849 – a journey of six months. (This is the same ship that brought Nathaniel Dudley Goodell to California.) Charles wrote from San Francisco on 14 August:

“The town is full of people, and full of goods, stowed anywhere, everywhere, on board vessels & piled in the streets. This is [the] dirtiest place in creation, so sandy and windy. The houses are very open & catch it all, consisting of mere tents or else a frame of a house covered with canvas, and one of these of the size of your front room would rent for three or four thousand the month, and some particular buildings for hotels or eating places are said to bring from eighty to a hundred thousand dollars per year, a pretty income.”

He left that city and went to the mining camps on the Yuba River, but was discouraged in his search for gold. He lived for awhile at the Globe Hotel in Sacramento, which was run by two friends from the Holyoke Northampton Mining Co., Richard Chenery and Marshall Hubbard. Starkweather reported that salmon, abundant in the Sacramento River, was served at nearly every meal, but that vegetables were scarce. He also reported that he was being treated by Dr. Harvey W. Harkness, formerly of Pelham, Mass.  “He has an office in the city and eats here [at the Globe Hotel],” and “Harkness attended me and all thought he did well, he appears well, and has made something considerable.  I suppose he spent last winter and summer in the mines.  He loves to speak of Northampton folks and to hear news from there.”

In 1851, Charles’ brother Alfred Starkweather (1826-1917) joined him in California and the two brothers bought and ran a ranch on the Calaveras River, north of Stockton.  They boarded animals and, over the years, cultivated a variety of crops, including tobacco, cotton, grains like barley, oats, and wheat, and vegetables such as onions and potatoes.

The following year, another brother, Haynes Kingsley Starkweather, Jr. (1822-1895), went to California with his wife, Martha (Phelps) Starkweather, and their son, William Starkweather (c.1849-c.1872). Haynes was a druggist in Northampton and soon established himself in that business on Hunter Street in Stockton.

After more than a decade of success in California, Charles Starkweather returned to Northampton, where he married Sophronia Merrick, of Wilbraham, and continued to farm the family homestead.  His brothers also returned to Massachusetts, but unlike them, Charles never went west, again.  He died on 26 June 1906.

A prolific letter-writer, Charles left an abundance of his correspondence.  One set of about forty letters is located at Historic Northampton and highlights the period from 1849-1851, featuring Charles’ journey and early experiences in California.  The other set is at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, which has letters of all three brothers spanning three decades.

Apostol, Jane, “Rendezvous in Stockton: Three Yankees Go West,” The Pacific Historian, Vol. 26: No. 1, 1982.

Boston Courier, 18 January 1849.

Boston Daily Atlas, 8 February 1849.

“Charles G. Starkweather,” Daily Hampshire Gazette, obituary, 26 June 1906.

“Charles Graves Starkweather Collection,” manuscript letters, Historic Northampton, Northampton, MA.

Daily Hampshire Gazette, 29 June 1906.

Lowell [MA] Daily Citizen and News, 1 June 1863.

New York Herald, 13 February 1849.

“Old Timers in Review,” Daily Hampshire Gazette, 2 August 1902.

Starkweather, Carlton Lee, A Brief Genealogical History of Robert Starkweather of Roxbury and Ipswich, Mass., Occoquan, VA, 1904.

Warner, Charles F., Representative Families of Northampton (MA), Bowie, MD:Heritage Books, Inc., 2002.



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