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A Collection of Stories on the History and Achievements of Stanislaus County



Sol P. Elias

Modesto, Cal.







pg. 250




County Seat Wanderings



The travels of the county seat, the peregrinations of the official archives and the journeyings of the big strong box in which the people are wont to assume that the tax money is kept, of old Stanislaus, furnishes an interestingly romantic story.


Full of political intrigue, teeming with neighborhood rivalry, and permeated with selfish ambitions is the history of the numerous removals of the county's capital city. After four successive wanderings it completely encircled the county and finally found its resting place within a few miles of its original location.


At the first election held in this county, on June 10, 1854, after its organization by the legislature, at which the county's first officials were chosen, Adamsville was selected by the voters as the county seat. This settlement was located on land owned by Dr. Adams, one of the first medical practitioners on the plains, on the Tuolumne river, about six miles above its confluence with the San Joaquin, at a point south of the site of Modesto. It contained few houses and a very small population. It was evidently selected because of its central location rather than for any other merit or advantage. It was here that the first county officials assumed the functions of their offices and began the transaction of the county's business. As illustrating the primitive rudeness of the times, the first session of the county court, with the Hon. H. W. Wallis presiding, was held beneath the shade of a tall and towering old oak tree in the village, the subject of the suit being the possession of some stock and the decision being in favor of the plaintiff after a hard contest.


pg. 251


It was in Adamsville, also, that the court of sessions, composed of the county judge, H. W. Wallis, Major James Burney and Eli S. Marvin, whose functions were similar to those of the board of supervisors, held their first meeting, their initial official act being performed on July 3, 1854, on a petition for a public highway, the petition being granted.


A small one-story wooden building that previously may have served as a barn for cattle, constituted Stanislaus county's first courthouse, it having been pressed into use as the depository for the official archives and as offices for the officials who directed the county's destinies during the beginnings of its career. In this roughly constructed edifice, the treasurer's office was located. He had the custody and possession of the county's first big strong box – the county safe. It was an old iron box that resembled in size and appearance an old fashioned sailor's chest, with bands of iron around it. Of uncertain age and antiquity, in itself it was a relic of an ancient day. It accompanied the seat of justice in all its wanderings and came to Modesto with all the county's possessions upon the last removal of the county seat in 1871. Whether this old iron box whose history antedates the admission of California to the sisterhood of states is still in existence is unknown. Not a vestige now remains either of the first courthouse or of the city of Adamsville. This town passed out of existence long years ago. Its name is but an uncertain memory to the oldest settler.


At this period Stanislaus contained less than one thousand people. Social, political and industrial conditions were primitive. There was a thin and scattered fringe of population along the Tuolumne river from La Grange to the San Joaquin river. On the San Joaquin there were a few settlements. Along the Stanislaus river there lived a few settlers whose homes were separated by miles of untilled and unused land and whose means of communication were meager. Owing to the industry of the locality – mining – La Grange contained the largest number of people while Empire City was next in importance with possibly one hundred and fifty persons. The agriculture and the grazing – the chief industries of those not engaged in mining – were concentrated on the river bottoms. Here and there along the rivers, at fordable and ferriable spots, there were small and sparsely populated settlements.


pg. 252


A pristine wilderness was the county's vast interior – public land waiting pre-emption by emigrants; and as yet untouched by plow and untrod by man. In all its appearance and activities, Stanislaus, during the first months of its life, presented the picture of a community that illustrated the primitive beginnings of a virile civilization in the dawn of its infancy.


No sooner had the officers of the new county been inducted into their positions in Adamsville than there began the first political fight that the county witnessed – a contest in which the stakes were big for the times and in which all the schemes known to the political game were practiced in a manner that would have done justice to the manipulators of a later day. Empire City, ten miles to the east on the Tuolumne river, coveted the county seat. Its citizens, headed by Eli S. Marvin, the owner of most of the territory in and surrounding Empire and one of the members of the court of sessions, immediately laid their plans to capture the prize.


There is a delicate web of romance and interest that enmeshes the history of Empire and its founders. It was in the year 1850 that John G. Marvin, lawyer from Boston, graduate of the Cambridge University, and a brilliant scholar, first superintendent of public instruction of California, and quartermaster and commissary of the Indian war department under Major Savage of the western division of the army of the United States, at the head of a private company, not far from the site of the present town of Empire.


The head of navigation, in 1851, it was made an army supply station, the supplies being transported from San Francisco by way of the San Joaquin and Tuolumne rivers to Empire and from this point conveyed overland to the various forts in the mountains. In this year it has been said that the town was a thriving village, that contained three stores, one three-story hotel of twenty-four rooms, two boarding houses, a blacksmith shop for shoeing government stock, a shop for the repair of harness, saddles and wagons, two corrals where the vaqueros broke and trained the mules, and that the hillside was dotted with tents, that wild flowers covered the plains beyond, that the grassy oak-shaded banks of the river were lively with men receiving and discharging freight and passengers, and that the population of the city numbered no less than two thousand people.



pg. 253


The floods of 1852-53 played havoc with the town that John Marvin had built. When he and his brother, Eli S. Marvin, merchant from Michigan, who arrived in San Francisco in 1853 with his wife, reached Empire in that year, they found that the flood waters had washed away almost every vestige of life and activity from the town. The busy throng had departed and the buildings had been moved to other places. Eli Marvin immediately secured a pre-emption claim and erected on it a large building, which he and his wife managed as a “Traveler's Home,” ans which was then the only human habitation from the Stanislaus river twelve miles north to Hill's ferry, twenty miles south on the San Joaquin river. In those days, such was the primitive condition of the country that elk, deer and antelope roamed the plains in abundance, while the dismal bark of the coyote and the growl of the grizzly bear were not infrequently heard. Empire soon acquired a small population again by virtue of the fact that it was the head of navigation on the Tuolumne river, but it was never restored to its former prestige. Illness overtook the founders of Empire in a few years, John Marvin succumbing to consumption in the Sandwich Islands – whither he had gone for the restoration of his health – in 1858, being buried by his brothers of the Masonic order to whom he left all his personal effects. The same malady claimed Eli S. Marvin who died in 1860 and was buried near his home beneath the shade of a grand old oak tree that he had selected as his last resting place, leaving a widow and two infant daughters, together with an adopted girl, to mourn his departure. The widow Marvin subsequently became the wife of Dr. T. E. Tynan, who thirty years later, after the death of his wife and his remarriage, became the center of the most romantic litigation that ever occurred in this county, in a suit preferred by his step-daughter, during the progress of which the doctor mysteriously disappeared and remained incognito for several years in an eastern city, where he attended lectures at a university.


pg. 254


The county seat remained at Adamsville but a few months. The property interests of Eli S. Marvin of Empire were pitted against those of Dr. Adams in the desire to possess the capital city with all the honor, prestige and financial gain that accompany the possession. It was a contest of individual influence and private interests. The officers had not yet became familiar with the duties of their respective positions than the agitation commenced for the removal of Empire. In response to this agitation an election was held in November, 1854. At this election, Empire emerged the victorious contestant and accordingly the county seat accompanied by the big strong box – the old fashioned sailor's chest wherein the treasurer stored the tax money – moved up the Tuolumne river ten miles to Empire.


This, the county's first electoral campaign, resulted in a lively fight in which two neighborhoods vied with each other for the highest honor that city could possess. It created much antagonism among the parties interested, which was carried over into the next election of the year following in which La Grange wrested the county seat honors from Empire, the Adamsville electors voting to deprive Empire of the prestige it had stolen from their settlement. The tradition is that money was freely used during the campaign and that after the result was announced many mortgages held by the parties most directly interested were cancelled (sic) on the records. The courthouse at Empire was similar to the one at Adamsville; a small one-story wooden building that may have previously been utilized as a residence. In this rude and primitive structure the first meeting of the first board of supervisors of Stanislaus county was held on May 7, 1855.


The county seat, with the hall of justice and the big iron box of the treasurer remained at Empire scarcely a year before the ever restless people of the young county demanded another change. Over on the extreme edge of the county was populous La Grange, a mining camp, which owing to the discovery of rich placer mines and the consequent rapid influx of people had assumed considerable importance. Its enterprising citizens sensed the value of the possession of the county seat and of the big iron box. Again the foundations of the county seat became unsettled. La Grange desired the seat of justice.


pg. 255


The issue was determined at an election on the 20th of December, 1855. La Grange received five hundred and fifty-eight votes and Empire one hundred and thirty-nine. The voice of the people had declared for La Grange and in accordance with an order made by the board of supervisors on December 31, 1855, the seat of justice, the archives of the county and the strong iron box resumed their wanderings and journeyed along the line of march in January, 1856, twenty-five miles further up the Tuolumne river. Here it was thought that the rugged mountains would effectually check their further migration. A frame building was purchased from John Meyers for $1,700. This constituted the third court house and jail of the county. The old iron box was lodged in what was thought to be its last resting place.


Through the efforts of Miner Walden, who was then assemblyman from the county, Knight's Ferry and the country surrounding it was annexed to Stanislaus during the session of 1860. It was said at the time that this absorption of territory from San Joaquin was due to the desire of the citizens of Stanislaus to secure wealthy domain for taxation purposes, the financial condition of Stanislaus being such that it was on the verge of the repudiation of its debt. It has also been alleged that Mr. Walden was elected to the legislature to procure the annexation of Knight's Ferry. At the session in 1861 Mr. Walden secured the passage of an enabling bill permitting the electors to vote on the question of the removal of the county seat from La Grange to Knight's Ferry.


This county seat removal proposition was submitted to a vote at the general state election in 1861. As the campaign progressed the rivalry of the two cities increased in violence and much bitterness of feeling developed. It was a rare political game that the politicians of the old day were playing, with the county seat the buffet of their efforts. On the day of the election old Stanislaus was thoroughly awake to the fact that a contest was in progress. All day the battle raged with an intensity that has never been excelled in any other county election. Knight's Ferry won the prize by the slender majority of twenty-nine votes, the result being Knight's Ferry 422, La Grange 393.


Again the seat of justice, accompanied by the officials and archives, together with the old faithful box, resumed their wanderings and traveled twenty miles northward and across the county and halted among the busy miners on the Stanislaus river.


pg. 256


Here indeed was to be the abiding place of the old box that had safely held the official money since the county's birth. It was handed over to the sheriff for his use and another of more imposing appearance furnished to the treasurer. This new safe was a five hundred pounder, but it lacked the elements of romance and the peripatetic reputation of the older one. In Knight's Ferry a courthouse and jail, fully in accord with the aristocratic pretentions of the new safe and in harmony with the ideas of the town folk, was purchased. The fourth courthouse of the county resembled a row of one-story stores and was located on the main street.


There was a story current among the old timers that the scheme to annex the Knights' Ferry country originated in the desire on part of the citizens of that community, not so much to add taxable wealth to this county, but to render that town eligible to county seat possibilities and to sell certain properties to Stanislaus for official purposes. The politicians, observing in the plan an opportunity to acquire valuable territory for this county, readily acquiesced.


To Miner Walden, Stanislaus' leading politician and a man of wonderful political resource and acumen, as well as influence with the legislature, was delegated the task of carrying the plan forward, to consummation. Whether or not this story had any foundation, the writer is not prepared to state, but it is the fact that it was bandied about in early days and was credited by many.


For ten years the foundations of the county seat remained settled. Knight's Ferry possessed the big strong box of the treasurer and enjoyed all the emoluments and prestige that flowed from the residence of the county officials and from the transaction of the official business in the town. During this period the county witnessed a phenomenal growth. The plains became settled. Important settlements sprang up in the interior of the county. The Southern Pacific railroad built its line through the San Joaquin valley. Modesto came into being in 1870 in the midst of a rich and comparatively thickly populated area of grain growing territory and absorbed the old time settlements of Paradise and Tuolumne City. In 1871 Modesto became a claimant for the county seat honor.


pg. 257


Miner Walden, again in the assembly, procured the passage of an act submitting the question to the voters.


Modesto did not win the prize without contest. Its citizens presented a petition to the legislature urging the passage of the enabling act. The citizens of Knight's Ferry opposed with a numerously signed remonstrance. When the matter came up for hearing in the legislative committee the Knight's Ferry protest could not be found among the files. The names had been detached from it and added to Modesto's petition. The representative of Knight's Ferry found to his chagrin that his neighbors were on the record in favor of the county seat removal. The politicians of the olden days were versed in the devious arts of statesmanship.


As the campaign progressed the argument became bitter. Against the removal it was contended that the county seat had been removed too many times already, that Modesto was unsuitable, a mere bleak settlement on the plains, devoid of trees and vegetation and subject to terrific windstorms, that it was not the center of population and that a new county would soon be created, that the removal was premature in that the county was already supplied with a courthouse, that a change would necessitate a huge expense for new buildings, and that the real center had not yet been ascertained. For the removal it was contended that it was in the line of destiny and that Modesto was the real center of the county. Inasmuch as the railroad authorities had offered to donate a site for a courthouse and the citizens had agreed to pay the cost of a habitation for the officials until a new one could be built, after the old courthouse had been sold at Knight's Ferry, there would be very little expense for a new one.


The 6th day of September, 1871, determined the fate of the county seat. All of the center of the county was in favor of the removal as well as were the citizens of the West Side, while the large crews of men who were working on the building of the railroad voted for Modesto. In the heat of the campaign the proposition was advanced in favor of Knight's Ferry to divide the county by its obliteration and the cession of a part of it to San Joaquin and Merced counties. This was never taken seriously. To add interest, Oakdale became a contender. The vote resulted as follows: Modesto, 893; Knight's Ferry, 340; Oakdale, 79; Waterford, 12; La Grange, 3; Graysonville, 2.


pg. 258


It was thus decreed by a majority of 455 votes that the records and the archives of the county, together with the three iron boxes and the seat of justice, should beat back down the Stanislaus river, cross the county again and locate at Modesto, on the Tuolumne river, within five or six miles of the spot from which the first move had been made nearly sixteen years previously.


Early in October, 1871, the furniture, records and the rest of the paraphernalia of the county officers were transported from Knight's Ferry to Modesto, three wagon loads being required for the purpose. County Clerk L. B. Walthall, Treasurer G. W. Toombs and Deputy Sheriff May superintended the removal. The trip was accomplished without mishap. The board of supervisors secured the Major Burney building on the corner of Eighth and I streets as the temporary court house. Most of the officers obtained quarters in this structure, which was a one-story frame edifice, and which was subsequently removed to Thirteenth street near the church and used as a residence for a number of years. A brick vault was constructed for the safe deposit of the records. The sheriff's office was located in a small building near the court house, as were several of the other offices. Subsequently the board of supervisors ordered the removal of the records to Eastin & Light's hall on the corner of Tenth and I streets, which had been fitted up as the clerk's office and the court room. The sheriff's office was down stairs beneath the court room.


The present court house, the fifth that the county has possessed, was erected in 1872-3 on the block donated for the purpose by the Contact and Finance Company in 1871. Its cost completed and furnished was $60,000. A. A. Bennet of San Francisco was the architect and Robinson Bros. of Stockton the contractors. In the early days it was surrounded by a huge and unsightly fence. The ceremony of laying its cornerstone was performed on Monday, the 6th day of October, 1872, under the direction of Stanislaus Lodge No. 206, F. & A. M. of Modesto, in the presence of a large concourse of people in the court house square. Hon. A. Hewel, the orator of the day, delivered a short address in which he reviewed the history, growth and prosperity of the county.


pg. 259


Hon. T. T. Hamlin, president of the day, in a brief and appropriate address, in the name of the county invited the Masonic fraternity to perform the ceremony of the laying of the corner stone in accordance with the accustomed usages of the order. Past Grand Master N. Green Curtis of San Francisco officiated as grand master. The ceremony, peculiar to the order, was then performed.


The casket placed in the cavity of the stone contained the names of the president, vice president and cabinet of the United States, state, county and district officials, a brief but succinct history of the county, a printed copy of the great register of 1871 containing the names of all the voters in the county, a copy of previous weeks' issue of the Stanislaus County News, copies of the constitution and by-laws of Stanislaus Lodge, F. & A. M. and Wildey Lodge, Modesto, I. O. O. F., a list of names of members of the Masonic Lodge, gold and silver coin, bank notes and greenbacks.






Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.

Source: Elias, Sol P., Stories of Stanislaus – A Collection of Stories on the History & Achievements of Stanislaus County.  Modesto, CA. 1924.

© 2012 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.



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