Notes from Home: Secessionists

Over the weekend, while bombs were bursting in air, I found myself reading for distraction. I know I’m not the only one trying to ignore the stress of all the fireworks, which have been going on in my neighborhood since before Memorial Day. I know I’m not the only one trying not to be a wet blanket on the young people’s expressions of some kind of agency during this lockdown. But I’ve about had it with the fireworks.

So I found an old book I love, a collection of writings about the Central Valley, beginning with Native Californians’ myths and stories, through the early explorers, the miners, farmers and town developers to the Fresno Poets of the 1970s. California Heartland: Writing from the Great Central Valley was also edited by two men I love, Gerald Haslam and Jim Houston, who truly grandfathered Valley literature into a valid body of work. I have the first edition published in 1978, its pages yellowed and often thumbed, but, I have to admit, not thoroughly read. So I began to read it as if for the first time.

I started with the selection from William Henry Brewer’s Up and Down California, 1860-1864. Brewer was exploring the new state, making observations about this nearly undeveloped place for the first California Geological Survey team. The selection covers the team’s journey from north of Firebaugh (April 6, 1861) south to Fort Tejon (May 5, 1861) via Fresno and Visalia. In sharp contrast to all the other settlements and dry landscape described by Brewer, our part of the valley shone:

“Visalia is a little growing place, most beautifully situated on the plain in an extensive grove of majestic oaks. These trees are the charm of the place. Ample streams from the mountains, led in ditches wherever wanted, furnish water for irrigating. We have stopped here two days to allow our animals to rest and get inspiration for our trip ahead.”

And the trip ahead proved to be as daunting as Brewer was imagining. When they left Visalia April 13, there was still water in the Tule River (“easily forded,” he wrote), but the plains were very barren, “a desolate waste—I should call it a desert….almost destitute of vegetation.” At Deer Creek and White River there was only one house at each. Between those streams and Kern River they rode 35 miles in one day, having to ride another 10 miles downstream to find a place to cross.

“The soil became worse—a sandy plain without grass, in places very alkaline—a few desert or saline shrubs growing in spots, elsewhere the soil bare—no water, no feed… Night came on, and still we found neither grass nor river ford.

“Long after dark, when we began to get discouraged and to fear we would have to stop without water or feed for ourselves or animals, we heard some dogs bark. Soon we saw a light and soon afterward struck a cabin… Here in a cabin lived a man, wife, and several children, all ragged, dirty, ignorant—not one could read or write—and Secessionists, of course.”

It was the “of course” that caught my attention. Before California was admitted to the Union as a free state in 1850, settlers from slave states had arrived, hoping to swing the territory in that direction. Before Brewer’s team crossed the San Joaquin above Firebaugh, Secession was well underway. On April 12, 1861, the day before they left Visalia, Southern forces had fired on Fort Sumpter, starting the War Between the States. By the time Brewer’s team encountered the folks in the cabin, four more states had seceded from the Union and Lincoln was forming the Union Army, though it’s unlikely either party knew about it when the explorers camped that night on the banks of the Kern.

Sometimes I think the Rebels still live and thrive here, south of the invisible Mason-Dixon line, the 36.5 parallel. Our regional love for biscuits and gravy predates the arrival of the Dust Bowl immigrants. Maybe it’s their spirit shooting off all the illegal fireworks.

Trudy Wischemann is a rural advocate who writes. You can send her your fireworks solutions c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit and leave a comment there.

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

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