The life history of Mr. Robert Sheldon Thornton reads more like a narration based on fiction, than the actual events of a most useful and instructive career of one of San Mateo county’s leading citizens.
Mr. Thornton was one of the earliest settlers in the county and took an active and unselfish part in the upbuilding of the community, assuming the role of democratic leader for a considerable period.
When 33 years old reached San Francisco, in the year 1852. He did not take the long route around the Horn but came by way of Panama. He crossed the Isthmus via the Chagres River; braved and survived the dangers of yellow fever—although he was himself stricken with the disease—and after interminable delays, he set sail again on the Pacific side of the Isthmus, and in time reached San Francisco. He landed with 50 cents in his pocket, but full of confidence and enthusiasm. As luck would have it, while in search for his brother, the first man he saw was a friend whom he had outfitted the year previous for California with three hundred dollars. This man whose name was Charlie Ford, luckily was able to reimburse Mr. Thornton and thereby pay off his earlier indebtedness. Later, fully recovered from the yellow fever, Mr. Thornton set about establishing himself firmly in California.
Before we follow Mr. Thornton in his admirable career in California, let us hark back to his earlier days in the east, before he was influenced to try his fortune with the other Argonauts in the golden west.
His father was Deacon Eaton Thornton, a well-to-do farmer of Johnston county, R.I. Robert Sheldon Thornton was born October 31, 1819, just seven years after the war of 1812 against Great Britain. Today Mr. Thorton, although ninety-seven years of age enjoys excellent health.
He was one of a family of eight, consisting of three boys and five girls. The girls received an excellent education, but the boys were expected to get out and meet the world at an early age, and shift for themselves. Robert Sheldon proved no exception to this rule and was soon sent to work in a blacksmith and carriage-maker’s shop. He enjoyed this work and very soon demonstrated to his employer that he was a workman of no mean ability.
He soon went into business for himself; and was from 1844 to 1851 doing a general blacksmithing business and building carriages of all kinds in North Scituate. These years were the formative period in Mr. Thornton’s life, and although he worked hard, there were pleasant hours of relaxation spent upon the water; for North Scituate in those early days was an important shipping center as well as harbor and rendevous for whaling vessels. It was then that Mr. Thornton learned to sail a boat, and this knowledge stood him in good stead in his early days in California, as his first job here was on board a vessel plying up and down the bay of San Francisco.
In 1827 he was married in Rhode Island to a farmer’s daughter. There were two children by this union and both died within a year of their birth and were later followed by their mother who passed away with quick consumption. A second marriage in 1849 in North Scituate, R. I., was more fortunate. The second wife lived to a ripe old age; and only on July 27, 1912 passed away. She is survived by one daughter, Mrs. Josephine Lindsey who is now living with Mr. Thorton; and is his companion in his declining years.
In his younger days in North Scituate, Mr. Thornton was a leader in many ways among the young men of that period. He was the director of the North Scituate band, and now has stored away among his most precious possessions the E flat bugle which he played. But honors did not come singly, and when only eighteen years old he received from Governor King of Rhode Island his commission as Captain of a military company, which he led for a long time, in the town of Gloucester.
In 1851 he turned his face toward California and entered the second period of his life. It was not long after he arrived in California that he directed his attention to the acquirement of land from the Government. In 1853 he settled on 160 acres of government land located about six mile south of where the Cliff House now stands. The first blacksmith shop in this locality was started by him. He worked industriously at this trade, combined with carriage-making, and was soon able from the proceeds thereof to acquire more land, so that it was not many years before he was the possessor of more that five hundred acres of the choicest land in that vicinity. In after years Mr. Thornton sold at various time parcels of this land when the increase of it value warranted a sale. Nevertheless at the present day he still holds 160 acres, his home and a number of lots—all valued at a very high figure.
Before Mr. Thornton had resided in the state many years he began to attain an enviable political prominence. Following in the steps of David Ccok[sic], the first supervisor of San Mateo County, he was in the fall of 1858 also elected supervisor, which office he held for five years. As he became more prominent in politics he was elected county chairman of the Democratic Committee, and held this office for a long time. His object in assuming this last office was to hold the democratic party together, which he was a prominent factor in doing. He was also nominated several times by the democrats for state senator, but as the county was overwhelmingly republican, he never attained the satisfaction of holding this office.
Had Mr. Thornton taken further part in San Mateo County activities than the part he assumed in the famous case of the United States Government versus Laguna Merced Rancho, in which he was the representative of thirty property holders whose titles were in peril of being lost—his name would go down in the annuls of the county in grateful remembrance. Each of the thirty litigants had valid claims to 160 acres of land apiece; and as these claims were in dispute, they made Mr. Thornton their attorney. The case was tried in the district court and later in the Supreme Court. After six years they won their case. The decision was handed down by Judge Field who was appointed by Abraham Lincoln. By the decision which was unanimous, the thirty legatees together with Mr. Thornton, secured patents to their land. Judge Field who was a friend of Mr. Thornton, personally congratulated him upon his victory.
When the government made a systematic survey of this land, Mr. Thornton assisted in the surveying work, and the sectionizing of the land in the neighborhood of Colma for settlers.
Although Mr. Thornton never joined any fraternal societies, he has always shown a willingness to assist financially various organizations and associations as well as religious orders, no matter what their creed, when the demand made upon him was just. He has always contributed generously to churches and benevolent organizations.
Having lived a well ordered and useful life, and outlived most of his early associates, Mr. Thornton has, in keeping with the well ordered and methodical habits acquired in his busy life—already laid his plans for the disposal of his large estate. He owns a private burial ground in North Scituate where it is his desire to be laid to rest with the members of his family who have gone before.
Transcribed by Karen L. Pratt
Source: History of San Mateo County by Philip W. Alexander & Charles P. Hamm page 190-192. Press of Burlingame Publishing Co., Burlingame, CA. 1916.
© 2004 Karen L. Pratt.
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