WILLIAM T. ROBINSON
The ancestors of Colonel William Thomas Robinson of Mokelumne Hill, Calaveras County, California, came from England to New England. His great-grandfather, John L. Robinson, of Virginia, was a captain in the Revolutionary army under General Washington and afterward settled in Kentucky, where he was a friend and companion of Daniel Boone and was with him on many a desperate fight with the Indians. His son, John L. Robinson, the father of Colonel Robinson, was born at Lexington, Kentucky, in 1788, and was married at St. Louis, Missouri, to Miss Elizabeth Bryan, who was a daughter of Dr. Jack Bryan and an aunt of Hon. William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic nominee for the presidency in 1896 and 1900. Colonel William T. Robinson was born at Fredericktown, Madison County, Missouri, September 7, 1839, one of ten children of John L. and Elizabeth (Bryan) Robinson, born in Missouri.
In 1849 the family crossed the plains to California. Colonel Robinson, who was only ten years old at the time, remembers that the whole family had the gold fever and that one of his brothers, who was only fourteen years old, quietly outfitted himself with crackers and sugar and started on ahead of the others, filled with an ambition to reach the gold fields first. The party was made up of Madison County people and numbered one hundred and twenty-five men, women and children. The Sioux Indians gave them much anxiety and at one time a party of them formed in front of the emigrant train and demanded tribute. They were given flour and sugar and the emigrants were permitted to go on. Emigrants who set out for California in 1849 loaded themselves down with provisions to such an extent that they were obliged to throw them away and they were left to decay or to be utilized by people who needed them more. Buffalo were numerous on the plains, large herds of them were seen frequently, and the emigrants were in some danger of being trampled down by them if the animals should happen to be stampeded in their direction. After a hard journey of seven months, the Robinson’s arrived, September 7, 1849, at Potter’s ranch on Deer Creek, near the site of the present city of Chico. The family located at Sacramento City, but was driven out by the flood which came soon afterward and went to Plumas on the Feather River, where they settled on land which afterward became known as Plumas ranch. There Mr. Robinson died in 1851, aged sixty-three years, and his wife died two weeks later, aged fifty-five years, and there two of their daughters also died. The farm consisted of a section of land upon which some improvements had been made by this time, and the family, kept together by Jesse B. Robinson, the eldest son, remained there for a time. Jesse B. Robinson, now aged eight-two years, lives at Upper Lake, Lake County, California.
Soon after the arrival of the Robinson’s in California, Colonel Robinson and his brother next older leased a placer mining claim at Mormon Island, on the American River, and in two months cleaned up two thousand dollars. They were lucky enough one day to get seven hundred dollars. In 1850 they went to the present site of Nevada City, where they took out about an ounce of gold a day each. They returned home before the death of their parents and at the request of the latter went back to Missouri to complete their education at Arcadia, that state, making the trip by way of the Isthmus of Panama. They remained at school until 1855, when Colonel Robinson was fifteen and his brother seventeen, and then started to cross the plains alone with pack animals. At the Platte River they were overtaken by their brother, Frank, who was returning from a trip east, and after they reached to Humboldt River they were followed for several days by a party of Indians, but saved their scalps by sleeping in the dark a mile or two away from the fire by which they had cooked their supper, night after night, until the pursuit was abandoned. As they boys had guns and the Indians had no weapons of longer range than bows and arrows the latter did not dare venture too near in the daytime.
At Soda Springs, on Bear River, they met Captain Grant of the Hudson Bay Company, who told them to go to a certain point where they would find one Adams and his two sons in charge of a store, where they could procure supplies; but when they arrived there they found that the three men had been killed by Indians and they had to subsist on fish until they reached the trading post of Sam Black further on. There they got provisions and went on by way of Donner Lake and Downieville, and when they arrived at Plumas ranch they found it still in charge of one of their brothers. Colonel Robinson and his brother John took up land adjoining Plumas ranch and started a wood yard and sold wood to passing steamers and mined from time to time with varying results, as opportunity presented. Later John returned to Missouri and in November, 1859, Colonel Robinson went to Old Mexico to operate the Nacacharama silver mine in Sonora, in which he had became a stockholder. Eventually he sold his interest in this property and bought another mine, which he operated on the Mexican plan and in a year and a half had a profit of eight thousand dollars. While in Mexico he acquired a good knowledge of that country and its resources and of the habits and customs of various tribes of Indians. This knowledge he embodied in a book of one hundred and ninety-two pages entitled Sonora, which was copyrighted and published in 1861 and came to be recognized as an authority on the subjects treated. While he was yet in Sonora a party of Californians, of whom his friend Judge David S. Terry was one, passed through there en route to Texas to join the Confederate Army. He quickly disposed of his interests there and joined them at Mazatlan. They traveled by way of Durango and Monterey to Texas, and from there they went on to Tennessee, where Colonel Robinson joined Company B, Eighth Regiment, Texas Cavalry, popularly known as the Texas Rangers, attached to Bragg’s Army, which was at that time retreating from Stone River to Chattanooga.
After the battle of Chickamauga, where Colonel Robinson received a wound in the right hip, which disabled him for four months, the Confederate secretary of war ordered him to report to General Magruder, commanding the department of Texas, and he was given command of the Partisan Rangers with headquarters at Bastrop on the Brazos River. In December, 1863, he was ordered by the secretary of war to proceed to the frontier of Arizona and New Mexico and there organize a cavalry regiment for the Confederate service. At Chihuahua he learned that thirty-two Californians had come from San Francisco to Mazatlan and wanted to join the Confederates. He swore them into service and marched them to the Arizona border and thence to Chihuahua, where he met with the President of Mexico, who expressed sympathy for the Confederate cause and received him with great hospitality.
On January 21, 1864, Colonel Robinson and his thirty-two recruits from California fought a party of Indians at Sivello, near Del Norte, and were repulsed and he was wounded in the right side. His men retreated, his horse was shot under him and he fought so desperately on foot that he won the title of “the demon.” One of his men returned on a big mule to rescue him, and he mounted behind the soldier and the latter was shot dead as the mule dashed forward. Colonel Robinson held the dead soldier before him on the saddle, and as he urged his mule forward to rejoin his men he was shot in the side by the gun of an enemy hidden in the bushes, the muzzle of which almost touched him and the powder from which burned his flesh around the wound, and when he reached a place of safety he found that his overcoat had fourteen bullet holes in it! They escaped to the desert, but other troubles followed fast. Treatment for his wound was necessary and he remained with an escort of four men and sent the rest of his command to Fort Clark. Eighteen days after the fight at Sivello, he and his guard were captured by the Mexican imperial army, charged with being spies, and might have been punished as such but for the intervention of the Confederate consul at Monterey. The capture was a mercy to them, however, as they had previously been in an almost starving condition and Colonel Robinson had saved their lives by killing his horse, on which they had subsisted for fourteen days. It was not until thirty days after the battle that they reached Fort Duncan, Texas, and at that time Colonel Robinson was barely able to report for duty. In 1865 he surrendered to General Andrews at Shreveport, Louisiana, the last Confederate officer to lay down his arms, and received his parole of honor and transportation to St. Louis, Missouri, where he had relatives living.
At St. Louis he met Dr. Tweddle and was employed by him to go to New Brunswick and report on a copper mine there. After spending four months in New Brunswick he went to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, and accepted the superintendency of the mines of the Pittsburg & Sonora Mining Company in Sinaloa, Mexico. War in Mexico put a stop to mining for the time being, and he returned to California and thence to the Comstock in Nevada. Next the White Pine excitement claimed his attention until he was drawn into the Diamond-mine excitement, and was one of the twenty-one picked men sent out by the promoters of the Diamond-mine swindle to endure the hardships of a trip with pack mules through Colorado and New Mexico and into the Arizona desert. In 1883, while exploring between Rio Puerco and the Little Colorado River, in Arizona, he discovered a petrified forest and took several tons of petrified wood to San Francisco, specimens of which are on exhibition at the Academy of Sciences. Next he became the superintendent of the celebrated Mono mine, at Dry Canyon, Utah, which in eighteen months paid dividends amounting to six hundred thousand dollars and was sold for as much more.
Returning to California, he worked mines in this state and in Nevada, with more or less success. In 1879 he was one of the purchasers of the Esperanza or Boston mine, in Calaveras County, California, which he operated for some time. In April, 1892, he was elected the superintendent of the Alaska Coal Company, whose mines are on Kachamack Bay, Alaska. Within three months after his arrival there, he loaded the vessel by which he had gone out with fourteen hundred tons of coal, which was the first brought from Alaska to San Francisco. Since then he has been the superintendent of the Esperanza mine, the mines of the Hexter Gold Mining Company and the mines of the Emerson Gold Mining Company, with headquarters at Mokelumne Hill.
Colonel Robinson, as he is familiarly known, was promoted from a captaincy to the office of lieutenant colonel for desperate valor in the field of battle and those who know how faithfully he served the Confederate cause know how well he earned his honorable title. His whole command had been either killed or captured and he had been shot in the breast and left on the field for dead, but he recovered consciousness during the night and with great difficulty made his way to the headquarters of General Bragg, to whom he gave information which saved his army from defeat. In politics he is a Democrat, influential in party councils, and he is a prominent Mason.
He was married March 23, 1873, to Miss Pauline H. Conway, a daughter of Dr. Conway, of San Francisco, who like Colonel Robinson’s father was a “forty-niner,” and brought eleven children to the Golden State, but who also brought a slave girl named Melvina, who at the Doctor’s death chose to live with Mrs. Robinson and has since been a faithful servant in the Colonel’s family. Mr. and Mrs. Robinson have had six children, two of whom died in infancy. Their son Bryan, who died at the age of twenty years, June 7, 1900, was a young man of much promise and popularity. The surviving children are William Thomas, Jr., Mae Belle (Mrs. William Werle), and Ida, who is a member of her father’s household. Mrs. Robinson was born at Los Angeles, California, in 1852. The family has a pleasant home at Mokelumne Hill and is held in high esteem by a wide circle of acquaintances.
Transcribed by Gerald Iaquinta.
© 2010 Gerald Iaquinta.