Early Three Rivers Settlers

By Joe Docter

Lorin Berryman’s excellent little book on Terminus Reservoir does not overlook the early white explorations below the Terminus area, although he does pass up a couple of interesting lost mines legends. We may well assume that many early settlers, such ass Hale Tharp, the Merthens, and Henry Meyer of the Yokohl country had experience prospecting and mining in the Mother Lode country. It would be reasonable to assume that the early white prospectors visited the Kaweah, despite the reputation for hostility of the Indians.

We know that the trapper, Jedediah Strong Smith, and his party came up the river as far as Lemon Cove area in 1827. In 1833 another party of trappers led by Ewing Young and with Kit Carson as a member came to the Kaweah. One of Kit’s biographers said that Kit, who came back to the valley with Col. John C. Fremont in 1844, thought the valley would be a fine place to settle but his wife was reluctant to leave her home base in Toas, N.M., where her family lived, especially since Kit was seldom home.

In the 1850 the army sent its brilliant engineering officers, Lt. George Derby, to the valley to look for a suitable site for a fort for the protection of the missions on the coast from Indian raids, who lived to steal horses from fine herds the Spanish had developed.

Darby took a dim view of most of present Tulare County except for that great are of fine oak trees along the River Frances, as he called the Kaweah from one of its Spanish names. This was the year that the John Wood party was massacred at the Wood cabin near the Venice hills by the Indian, who believed that they were defending territory given them by a treaty never ratified by Congress.

That year, before the Wood massacre, the John Hudgins party, of which Wood was a member, came through the valley, creating a crude road under an agreement with a group of merchants in Los Angeles who wanted to improve the route to the mines. Indians who lived up the river had had little opportunity to see white men, although an old informant could remember his people talking about two white coyotes, a reference to white men, “killing a tree,” by which they meant chopping it down.

The Wukchumnis, Padwishis and Wakachis who inhabited the upper Kaweah river had little experience with war, although legends of the Paiutes in Owens valley related how warlike people from the west crossed the mountains and made was on them. The Paiutes thought the Yokuts were bad guys and the Yokuts that the Paiutes were the evil ones.

While Hale Tharp was the first settlers in the Three Rivers area, the first white settler on the river below is, as Berryman says, “open to question.” While most historians tend to believe that the John Wood party made the first attempt at settlement, there were said to be others along the river, possible only passing through when the Wood tragedy occurred. The Hudgins party had bridged the Kaweah near the Wood cabin, but the Indians burned it.

By fall 1852 Nat Vise had led a party of settlers to Visalia which included some of the Hudgins people. By 1857 Visalia was a thriving little burg. In 1856, after spate of Indian troubles, the Indians were rounded up and placed on reservations on Tule river, below Reedley and at Fort Tejon, but this didn’t keep Indians from drifting back to their former homes, including those at Hospital Rock and Horse Creek.

The kindness of Hale Tharp toward the Indians and the wisdom of their leaders, Chappo or Ho’nush, contributed to the lack of violence on the Kaweah after 1865, although there were always isolated stories of shooting of Indians by whites for several years.

Settlers who came to the Three Rivers area after Tharp are not well documented. One family was, and possible the second to settle as the late Robert Barton told us, that of Hopkins Work, who lived in adobe on the east side of the South Fork near where it comes into the main river. They were associated with the Indians and at one time were reported to have been involved in trouble with them.

Like many pioneer families, the Works raised hogs and there were indications that they took them as far into the mountains as Mineral King in the 1860’s probably by way of the trail which Robert Lovelace built by way of Oriole Lake. Work was usually identified with the nickname that persons with that last name usually acquire, Pleasant.

Lovelace is said to have lived near Hammond in the 1860’s and raised cattle, with Mineral King as his summer range. Another settler in that area was Dan Clotfelter on what is now the Bear Ranch. He was the first keeper of the toll station at the bridge on the Mineral King road, which was completed in 1879.

Early settlers on the South Fork were Ira Blossom and his wife’s brother, if memory serves us right, William O. Clough. They were there in the 1860’s in time witness the high water of both 1862 and 1868. Clough was a teamster and a prospector. He discovered Clough’s cave.

Known to be a religious person, Clough often preached in teamsters’ camps on the Mineral King road. With his long hair and beard which he never trimmed because he believed them to his source of strength and that he would not die if he did not cut them, he was often the butt of curde humor of the day. One old teamster told us that on one occasion they released the brake on a wagon which he was using as a makeshift pulpit. Another time they set his coattails afire as he preached near a campfire.

In his later years he remained in Mineral King in the fall to close the gates on the various dams the Mt. Whitney Power company built on various tributaries of the river above Mineral King in order to conserve water for power production well into the dry season.

Billy lost his life in 1917. He failed to come out of the mountains and in the spring the sheriff sent a search party up to look for him. One of that party was the late Al Griggs of Exeter who told us that nothing was found of Billy but his shoes on the Franklin lake trail, but Bob Barton, whose father ran cattle in Mineral King, said that other parts of his clothing, including a shirt, were found. It was believed he died in a snowstorm after he closed the gate at Franklin lake and was returning to Mineral King.

After the drought of 1864, Joe Homer, who was running cattle with John Broder along the Kaweah north of Farmersville, took a few drought surviving cattle into the Big Oak Flat country above Horse Creek. Joe died in 1885 and his widow moved with her sons down to the river where she ran an inn for teamsters on the Mineral King road before she acquired property on Dry Creek and ultimately moved to Arroyo Grande. Her son, Tom, became homesick and moved back to Dry Creek ranch where he and his wife, Tillie Mehrten, lived into old age.

-Joe Doctor was a well known and beloved columnist for the Exeter Sun for more than 50 years. He covered everything from sports to hard news. His historical column also presented some of the best insights into local history.

-This column is not a new article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Foothills Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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