Reading Between the Lines: Remarkable California Stories from a Letter from Los Angeles, 19 November 1885

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It never ceases to amaze how a historical artifact, having surface content that is obvious on acquisition, can lead to wildly and widely ranging tangents on a little digging.  I’ve found this to be the case many times over and a prime example is today’s highlighted artifact, a letter written on this date in 1885 from the St. Charles Hotel in Los Angeles.

On first review, the letter looks unpromising as far as historical interest.  For one thing, neither the writer or recipient are named and the envelope is missing.  Secondly, the content doesn’t have a lot of overt substance.  The main point of note is when the writer, the son of the recipient, did mention that he’d arrived in Los Angeles the day before but wrote “I am trying to get something to do but have not succeeded.”

He added “I don’t know if I will as this place is like all others, a hundred to every place,” probably meaning lots of job seekers and not enough positions.  He continued that “I have been despondent . . . but I think if I get anything to do I will feel better.” so he “tried to pass the time off by going to places of amusement but am not satisfied anywhere and cannot enjoy myself.”

This letter from the Homestead’s collection was written by an unnamed man to his mother on 19 November 1885 from the St. Charles Hotel in Los Angeles.  His struggles to find work as a new arrival in the City of Angels seemed like the most interesting content until a little research into “the old lady” he mentioned visited revealed some remarkable elements of California history.

While Los Angeles has largely been viewed as a place of opportunity for immigrants of all kinds, there are times when it could be difficult for new arrivals to find a foothold.  The museum collection has a few other examples like this letter that reflect this.  At the time this missive was written, Los Angeles had just been connected by a direct transcontinental railroad link through the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe line to the east and the economy, lagging since the failure of the Temple and Workman bank and other causes near a decade prior, was soon to flower in the great Boom of the 1880s.

Whether the correspondent stuck around long enough to find a job and, perhaps, establish himself in Los Angeles or struck out for other parts or returned home (wherever that was), is not known.  But, where the tangents lead us to something of interest is his remark that “I stopped at Tehapia [Tehachapi] a couple of days and went to see the old lady.”  He added that “her husband’s name was Tom Dudley and he was from Kentucky, but as for him being any relation I don’t know.”

So, while the writer and his mother thought there might be a family tie to Dudley, that seemed to be in question and that, in itself, doesn’t really mean too much.  Except that a little pawing around found that Thomas Duren Dudley, born in 1824 in Kentucky, and who worked as a millwright and miner in Visalia and Tehachapi before his death in 1879 was, in the 1870 census, married to a woman named Lucy.

That, then, led to finding a marriage record from 1865 in Tulare County, where Visalia is situated, between Dudley and Lucy Kelsey.  After that, listings on Find-a-Grave came to the information that her name was Lucretia Applegate and that she was married to another Kentucky native, Samuel Kelsey, in Missouri, southwest of what later became Kansas City, in 1835.  Kelsey was charged with assault to commit murder a few years later, though the indictment was quashed on his motion.

Samuel Lucy Kelsey 1850 census
On 28 September 1850, three weeks after California was admitted to the Union, the brothers Benjamin and Samuel Kelsey, with their families, were enumerated at “Union Town,” now Arcata in northwestern California.  After nine years in California, the Kelseys had already been involved in the Bear Flag Revolt, Gold Rush digging, and horrible depredations against native peoples.  Samuel Kelsey’s wife was Lucretia (Lucy) Applegate and the two, married in Missouri in 1835, had nine children, six listed here, including three born in Missouri, one in Oregon and the other two in California.

In spring 1841, the first immigrant group to migrate west to the Pacific Coast, known as the Bidwell-Bartleson Party, left Sapling Grove in what is now Overland Park, Kansas.  A few men hoping to join that group, but arriving too late, took the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico and found the Rowland and Workman Expedition was in preparation to leave for California.  The Bidwell-Bartleson Party arrived near San Jose on 4 November 1841 and the Rowland and Workman Expedition made landfall near Los Angeles the day after, at least according to Workman.

Among the travelers on the Bidwell-Bartleson Party were four Kelsey brothers, including Samuel and his wife Lucy and their small children.  At Soda Springs in modern Idaho, some of the group split off and took what became the Oregon Trail to that new area of settlement.  This splinter group included Samuel and his brother David and their families, while siblings Andrew and Benjamin went on to California and lived for awhile at the ranch and fort of John A. Sutter, famed for his mill site where the Gold Rush broke out in 1849.

The four Kelsey brothers reunited in Oregon in 1843 and drove cattle down to California, with Sam and his family along to relocate there.  They lived at the Sonoma ranch owned by notable Californio Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, but a few years later, when John C. Frémont made an advance on Vallejo as the Mexican-American War was about to be fought in California and the infamous Bear Flag Revolt took place, the Kelseys were participants in the plot (Ben’s wife, Nancy, is said to have made the famed Bear Flag used in the incident.)

Not long after, in 1847, Vallejo sold cattle and allowed the use of his land near what is now Clear Lake, where recent wildfires have done much damage, to a quartet of men, including two of Samuel’s brothers.  One of them, Andrew, and another man stayed in the area to manage their herds, but their treatment of the Pomo Indians led to the natives besieging the adobe house where Andrew Kelsey and the other man lived (this is now the community of Kelseyville.)

Smauel Kelsey 1860 census gamblers
By the time Samuel Kelsey was enumerated in Visalia in the 1860 census, it appears he was remarried (his wife was listed as Mary, born in Missouri, whereas his first wife, Lucy Applegate was from Kentucky.)  Note that he and three of his sons were listed as gamblers, but that two other minor children were living with him, not with their mother.

While Benjamin and Samuel Kelsey came to their brother’s rescue, matters worsened due to the continued harsh treatment of the Pomo, including expeditions to the Sierra Nevada Mountains when the Gold Rush broke out.  On one such trip, in 1849, the Kelseys, including Samuel, decided to leave a group of Pomo in the gold fields after a malaria epidemic erupted.  The disease, a terrible winter, and depredations by other people, led to nearly all the Indians dying in the mountains.

At the end of 1849, the Pomo at the Kelsey headquarters back at Clear Lake, heard that all but the young and strong were to be taken to Sacramento so they wouldn’t have to be cared for. Upset at the poor treatment they received in the preceding couple of years, they killed Andrew Kelsey and his partner.  In February 1850, Benjamin and Samuel returned to the area to exact revenge for their brother’s death.

Samuel led one posse, known as the Sonoma Raiders, of up to fifty men from Yountville and burned native villages and killed any Indians they found all the way to Sonoma, though this was a good deal south of where their brother was killed.  Once in Sonoma, Samuel’s group announced they would kill every Indian in the area, but a local rancher swore out a complaint and he and his compatriots were arrested and jailed at Benicia.

Meanwhile, an army company led by Lieutenant George Stoneman, later a Civil War general for the Union Army and then a orange grower near San Gabriel and a California governor, went to punish the Indians at Clear Lake for the death of Andrew Kelsey and his partner.  The result was the infamous Bloody Island Massacre of May 1850, with a large number of natives, mostly women and children, killed by soldiers in another regiment, not Stoneman’s.

Thomas Lucy Dudley 1870 census
In 1870, Lucy was recorded at Soquel, near Santa Cruz, with her second husband, Thomas Dudley, a native of Kentucky who she married five years prior, and with four of her grandchildren.

Samuel, meanwhile, escaped punishment for his role with the Sonoma Raiders and wound up with Lucy and their six children (ages four to fifteen) in September 1850, when the federal census was conducted in the area, in “Union Town,” which is now Arcata on the coast in Humboldt County.  More depredations against natives, this time the Wiyot, ensued, but Samuel wound up losing his property there a little more than a decade later when his financial situation deteriorated.  In 1860, Samuel was in Visalia with a wife named Mary and five children.  Notably, he and three of his sons were recorded as having the occupation as “gambler!”  It is reported that he and Lucy divorced.

Samuel headed south when the Civil War erupted and he moved to the mining area of Bear and Holcomb valleys above San Bernardino.  In August 1861, Union supporter Henry M. Willis wrote Major James H. Carleton, commander of an Army force at Los Angeles, about secessionist activity and mentioned a meeting was held at Kelsey’s store in Holcomb Valley followed by another in San Bernardino.  Willis wrote:

This man Kelsey is enterprising, cautious, and brave, and instills with the subtlety of the devil treason into the minds of the youth of the country who have the slightest sympathy with the South, and infuses into them his own ardor.  I watch him close.

Two others mentioned in Willis’ letter were Mrs. [Elijah] Bettis, whose father was William W. Rubottom, a partner later with F. P. F. Temple, a Union supporter, in building a cut-off road from Los Angeles to San Bernardino that went through the Temples’ ranch at La Merced and through William Workman’s portion of Rancho La Puente, and John Rains, whose 1862 death has been covered in this blog previously.  While Mrs. Bettis “combines all the qualities which make a woman the most dangerous of enemies and one of the best of friends,” Rains was dismissed as “lacking all the qualities of the rest and having but money and the reputation of being wealthy.”

Lucy Dudley 1880 census Tehachipa
In the 1880 census at Tehachapi, Lucy Dudley lived with her daughter Ellen Kelsey.  Their unnamed visitor five years later mentioned both in the letter written from the St. Charles Hotel in Los Angeles.

In February 1862, San Bernardino County Judge Alley D. Boren and two other men wrote Carleton that Kelsey was the captain of local secessionists and reported on his alleged activity with fellow Confederate supporters who came from other areas of the state to plot.  An affidavit by H.G. Whitlock at that time identified Kelsey as a leader of secessionists and stated in court that he admitted to being such and was handing out commissions “under authority of the Southern Confederacy.”

Among ten leading figures in the movement, including the Bettises, former San Gabriel resident John Evertsen (the sole enumerator of the area in the 1850 federal census), and a justice of the peace named Beard (possibly former Los Angeles Marshal Alviron S. Beard, who left office on charges of embezzlement of tax monies and bigamy), was Kelsey.

Carleton responded that, if those claiming Kelsey’s role as a secessionist leader were doing so without personal animus, sinister ends and solely on the merits of the situation, “then arrest and hold securely until further orders the said Samuel Kelsey.”  If there was an attempt to file a writ of habeus corpus for Kelsey alleging improper arrest and jailing, it was to be noted that the order was made by Carleton as local commanding officer of Union forces.  Nothing more is known about Kelsey’s situation until after the war ended.

The second page of the 1885 letter.

Kelsey died prior to 1870, while Lucy then married Thomas Dudley in March 1865 at Visalia, where he was a farmer, as noted above.  They resided in 1870 at Soquel, just south of Santa Cruz, with several of her grandchildren.  Within six years, the couple moved to Tehachapi, where Thomas was working as a millwright and then a miner before he died in 1879.  Lucy Dudley remained in Kern County until her death in 1905 at age 86, having lived a remarkable life as an early overland immigrant to California and her years with a husband whose life of conflict and violence was also amazing.

When the unnamed writer of our letter visited Tehachapi, he stayed with the widow Lucy Dudley, mentioning “she is living with her daughter [Ellen Kelsey] now and I think the daughter owns the house.”  He added “I never was treated by strangers any better than I was by them and the old lady begged me to come back [at] Christmas if I stayed here at this place [Los Angeles.]”

SV 3131 St Charles And Grand Central Hotels LA 2006.280.1.1
This detail of a stereoscopic photograph in the Homestead’s collection shows the west side of Main Street from near the Temple Block.  At the left is the Baker Block, formerly the site of Abel Stearns’ adobe home, El Palacio, where the 101 Freeway runs now.  The two-story structure, the Pico Building, was the home of the bank of Hellman, Temple and Company (including F.P.F. Temple and William Workman as partners of Isaias W. Hellman) from 1868 to 1871.  Finally, the St. Charles Hotel, formerly the Bella Union, is at the right, consisting of an adobe first floor, and later brick additions above it.  The photo was taken perhaps a couple of years before the letter highlighted in this post was written.

At the time this letter was acquired, the idea was that the author’s struggles to find work as a new arrival in Los Angeles was the main point of interest.  After some investigating, however, it turned out that there were tangential matters that became far more noteworthy, as can often be the case.



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