By Leo L. McCoy.
Peter Lassen was born at Copenhagen, Denmark, August 7, 1800. In early life he learned the blacksmith trade. In 1829 he went to Boston, Massachusetts. A few months later he went to Keatsville, Missouri, where for some years he worked at farming and blacksmithing. In 1838 he formed a military company. In 1839 he left Keatsville, in company with twelve others, for Oregon. They went the northern route, by Fort Hall, the Snake River country and upper Columbia. In the fall the party reached The Dalles, on the Columbia River in Oregon and went down the river to Fort Vancouver, then a port of the Hudson Bay Fur company. Thence Mr. Lassen with a few of his company went up the Willamette river to a place now called Oregon City, where they spent the winter.
The next spring, 1840, Mr. Lassen determined to go to California, and by water. He found an English vessel, The Lespana, ready to sail. The ship intended to touch at California. Lassen with a few of his original party took passage and after a stormy trip finally reached Bodega bay, a Russian port. After several weeks of delay and trouble they finally reached Yerba Buena, now San Francisco. Lassen went to San Jose where he spent the winter of 1840-41 working at his trade. In the spring of 1841 he went to Santa Cruz, bought a tract of land and built a sawmill. After cutting about fifty thousand feet of lumber, he traded his land and sawmill to Captain Graham for about one hundred mules, which he intended to drive to Missouri, but could not secure satisfactory help, so in the fall of 1842 drove his mules up to Sutter’s Fort, now Sacramento, and ranched them while he went to work at his trade for General Sutter.
In the summer of 1843, while working for General Sutter, in company with John Bidwell, who was also in the employ of General Sutter, and a man named John Burheim, he pursued a party of emigrants or trappers on their way to Oregon. Overtaking them at Red Bluff they recovered some stolen animals. Lassen was much pleased with the country and selected a tract of land on Deer creek and the Sacramento river and applied to Governor Micheltorena for a grant. He obtained his grant of five Spanish leagues. The league is an old Spanish land measurement of 4,438 acres. He named his grant Bosquejo Rancho, which means “a wooded place.”
Lassen started back to his grant in December, 1843, with one lone white man as companion, but was delayed by winter floods, as there were no bridges or flying machines in those days, and did not reach his place until February, 1844. General Bidwell has written that this was the first grant actually settled and held north of Sacramento.
Lassen laid out a town on Deer creek, which he named Benton City, in honor of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, of Missouri. Here he erected several buildings, part or all being built of adobe. He had a blacksmith shop, grist mill and store.
In the spring of 1846 General John C. Fremont, who was a son-in-law of Senator Benton above referred to, with about fifty men camped three weeks with Lassen, thence started on for Oregon. In April, eight days after Fremont left for Oregon, Lieutenant Gillespie arrived at Lassen’s with important dispatches for Fremont. Peter Lassen, Sam Neil and another man or two went with Gillespie and overtook Fremont near Klamath Lake, Oregon. Fremont by hasty marches returned to California and made his first camp at the Marysville Buttes.
In 1847 Lassen in company with Commodore Stockton, returned to Missouri by the southern route, to secure emigrants to come out and settle his great ranch. Under date of May10, 1848, he secured a charter from the grand lodge of Missouri for a Masonic Lodge, named Western Star Lodge, to be established at “Benton City, upper California,” Worshipful Master Sarchel Woods, Senior Warden Lucien E. Stewart, Junior Warden Peter Lassen. This charter antedates by five months and twenty-nine days, any other charter granted in California. Lassen returned with this charter to his ranch at Benton City, fall of 1848. Coming in over what was later known as “The Lassen Trail” which touched the Sacramento Valley, exactly at the northeast corner of his ranch, Benton City was near the present town of Vina, Tehama county, California. Gold excitement in 1849 so changed the population of Benton City that Western Star Lodge in 1851 was changed to Shasta where it still rests. Masons have erected a fireproof addition to the lodge room, where now rests the original charter and other ancient relics and records.
In 1846 Peter Lassen gave one league of his land to Daniel Sill, whereon Mr. Sill remained to his death. This deed, dated June 30, 1847, conveys all the Lassen grant north of Deer creek, the consideration shown by the deed being, “That said Daniel Sill will help said Peter Lassen finish a cabin and put a roof on that he is building south of Deer Creek.”
I have before me a letter written by John Wilson, April 12, 1850. This letter was written to Thomas Shackelford, a particular friend and prominent lawyer at Glasgow, Missouri. Mr. Wilson writes: “On arriving at Lassen’s last fall (1849) I found Uncle Peter Lassen with one of the best and finest ranches in California, containing about 18,000 acres, of as fine land as ever laid out of doors. He put at me to buy an interest, finally myself and a Mr. Palmer of Oregon bought a two-thirds of the whole. We were to pay him $15,000 each, in five years from the first day of January, 1850, and nothing before nor any interest.” Considering the conditions of this deal, it was less than two dollars per acre. Though not quite so good a deal as Lassen gave Daniel Sill for helping to “put a roof on a cabin that Lassen was building south of Deer Creek,” this purchase of Wilson and Palmer later became the well known Wilson ranch near Nord, Butte county.
In the fall of 1849 Lassen took ox teams and wagons and went to Sacramento for supplies. He seems to have sold that outfit and went to San Francisco where he was induced to buy a stern wheel steamboat, named Lady Washington, for which he seems to have paid an enormous price. This steamboat venture proved very disastrous to him. He loaded the boat with merchandise and started up the Sacramento river. After about five or six months of hard work he landed at the mouth of Deer creek, spring of 1850. His was the first steamboat to plough the waters of the upper Sacramento river.
Peter Lassen was essentially a pioneer. He loved the solitudes of nature, the evergreens of the mountains, the quiet valleys, far from the haunts of civilization. He had a generous soul and seemed to have little natural business ability, so when he felt his great ranch slipping away from him he fondly looked to the mountains for some “sequestered sylvan shade” where he could commune with nature in all its wildness and simplicity. He seemed to better understand the mountains, the rocks and the rushing streams and even the wild Indians, than civilization. In 1850 Lassen made a trip to Indian Valley, Plumas county. In 1851 he spent the summer there, built him a hut and raised some vegetables. In 1852 he sold the remainder of his ranch about 10,000 acres to Henry Gerke, and moved to Indian Valley. Fall of 1855 he moved to Honey Lake valley and settled on “a squatter’s claim” about three miles south of Susanville. In the spring of 1859, Lassen with two prospectors, Wyatt and Clapper, went out in northwestern Nevada to hunt for the “Harding Mine,” which was supposed to be about one hundred miles a little north of east from Susanville, on the old Lassen Trail. Harding had reported that he found pure silver near the Black Rock Springs in 1849.
On the night of April 25, 1859, Lassen, Wyatt and Clapper were camped near the mouth of Black Rock canyon, about one hundred yards from a cliff of projecting rocks. Just at daylight the following morning they were fired upon from the cliff of rocks near by and Clapper was killed in his bed. Lassen and Wyatt sprang upon their feet and Lassen said to Wyatt, “I will watch for the Indians, while you gather up the things.” The Indians fired upon them again and Lassen fell. He spoke but once, saying, “They have killed me.” When Wyatt saw Lassen fall he dropped everything but his rifle, ran to his horse and without saddle or bridle hastened to Honey Lake Valley.
Friends hurried out and buried Lassen and Clapper where they were killed. In November, 1859, John Tutt, Joe Kitts and Antone Storff went to Black Rock and brought Lassen’s remains to Honey Lake valley. On November 27, 1859, his body was buried with Masonic honors under the great yellow pine tree where he camped the first night he stayed in the valley and where he was making his home. In 1862 a monument was erected over his grave by the Masons. It was really a very fine piece of work bearing a number of Masonic emblems. The work was done by a man named Thompson.
When I first visited Lassen’s grave about fifty-five years ago, the inscriptions on the monument were quite legible, even to the Masonic emblems. The old monument was cut from the volcanic stone of that vicinity, which by its compound is porous and looks very much like sandstone. “The frosts of many winters” have caused its disintegration and much of the stone has crumbled away. When I was last there, 1928, little if any of the Masonic emblems could be traced.
The Northern Counties Association, with some financial assistance from friends of the pioneer spirit, erected a beautiful monument of highly polished grey and black marble, near the old one, which still stands. The new shaft was dedicated with most impressive Masonic ceremony, September 20, 1917.
Many things have been named in honor of the pioneer, Peter Lassen. Mt. Lassen or Lassen Buttes, the only real live volcano in the United States, was named for him in the early days and Lassen Volcanic National Park, the growing wonder of the west, was named for the Lassen volcano. In April, 1864, a new mountain county was organized from the eastern parts of Plumas and Shasta counties, named Lassen county. Lassen county has Lassen Masonic Lodges, Lassen Creek, Lassen street and the Lassen monument. Tehama county has several things bearing the name Lassen. The first post office in what is now the territory of Tehama county, was Lassens, Butte county, established October 7, 1851. This place is now marked by the Masonic monument. The second post office was Tehama, Colusa county, established November 29, 1851; the third, Red Bluff, Shasta county, was established October 17, 1853. Tehama county was organized in May, 1856, from parts of the three counties named above.
Transcribed 2-13-10 Marilyn R. Pankey.
Source: Wooldridge, J.W. Major History of the Sacramento Valley California, Vol. 2 Page 79-83. Pioneer Historical Publishing Co. Chicago 1931.
© 2010 Marilyn R. Pankey.