Robert Brownlee of Solano County

An account of Robert Brownlee's travels from when he landed in New York in 1836 to his death in Napa in 1897.


ROBERT BROWNLEE emigrated to America in the year 1836, and settled in the city of New York, where he sojourned four months, working at his trade of stone cutter. In September of that year he proceeded to North Carolina, and was employed for thirteen months in the capital of that State; at the expiration of which he moved to Arkansas, arriving in Little Rock on Christmas day, 1837. He there prosecuted his calling for four years, working on the Capitol and State Bank, when he embarked in the cultivation of land. In 1848 he retired from the occupation of farming, and commenced prospecting for lead, getting blown up during this employment. Mr. Brownlee was a resident of the State of Arkansas altogether thirteen years. In 1849 the world was set agog by the discovery of gold in California, and he was one of the many hardy sons of toil who crossed the plains, enduring all its hardships, hoping occasionally against hope, and putting aside any knowledge of fear; laboring incessantly to buoy up those who were bordering on despair, allaying the woes of the suffering and cheering the despondent. In this year, after a journey occupying six months and a half, coming by way of Santa Fe, this band crossed the Colorado river in the latter end of August and entered California, the land of promise, on the first day of September, 1849. For days before this event, water with them had been scarce, the canteens which they wore slung over their shoulders being nearly empty; at last, however, pools of water were discovered, and he, riding at the head of the cavalcade, was the first to lave his parched throat with the wearily looked for liquid. Dipping his pan deep into the pool, to procure the water in its coolest state, he found it on drinking to be potently charged with alkali; to resort to the first rude method of counteraction, namely, the eating of quantities of fat pork, was the work of a moment, and he recovered; not so two of the others, who, even when cautioned, recklessly partook of the beverage, both dying in great suffering on the evening of the same day. They were buried by their comrades, while one of the number, gifted above his fellows with the power of speech, offered up a prayer at their graves, which, for impressive eloquence, Mr. B. asserts he has never heard equaled. From the oldest to the youngest there was not a dry cheek. Let us now follow the fortunes of Mr. Brownlee. He arrived in Mariposa county in the first rains. He labored in the mines for six days, in the first hour and a half of which he dug up eighty dollars worth of ore, his only implements being his jack-knife and tin pan. This was in October, 1849. With this sum he entered into partnership with John W. Clarke of Vermont, who had also been moderately lucky, purchased a team of six pack-mules, and commenced what is known as a “packing” business, between Stockton and Ajuafria, two towns, one hundred miles apart. The first trip took these two pioneers some six weeks to accomplish. The roads were so bad from the excessive rains that the hardships endured were sufficient to deter men of less perseverance; always at their destination, however, such matters were treated lightly, for, after all, their business prospered, and miners would pay a dollar and a quarter per pound for tea and flour, while other necessaries commanded as high a price. Mr. Brownlee thus describes some of his experiences on this eventful first trip. On leaving the Stanislaus River, an eight-mule team, drawing a boiler, was come up with, but such was the deplorable state of the roads that mules, boiler and truck had sunk into the mud, nothing being left to view but the heads of three mules and the highest point of the boiler. Here was a fix! What was to be done? Quick of resources, desperation lending wit to native acumen, the teamsters incontinently drove their animals on to the boiler, from which perch they daintily picked their steps on to the backs of their less fortunate brethren, one after the other, until once more terra firma was regained. There were four of these adventurers – James McVicar, Mr. B., his partner, and a negro. During a blinding snow storm they proceeded onwards; and arrived at Dry Creek, where each mule had to be repacked, the cargo having shifted, on account of the many slips and falls which the quadrupeds had sustained. On relieving them of their burdens and placing the sacks of flour on the clay, the first two tiers sank out of sight, causing no inconsiderable damage. There was not the wherewithal to build a fire whereby food might be prepared, so they supped on flour, mixed with water, and raw fat pork; cold and hungry, they lay on the saddle blankets, striving to wheedle the gentle goddess – the four of them – Mr. Brownlee next to the negro. During the night the snow and sleet ceased, and a hard frost set in, making the cold intense. The water in a pair of long boots, the property of the darkey, froze to a solid mass, which was not perceived until he had tried to put them on; but, whether on account of the size of his feet or the frigidity and rigidity of the ice, they would not be coaxed into their proper resting place till thawed by the water of a convenient stream. The morning, however, lent a brighter aspect to the state of things, for daylight showed where fuel was to be obtained, a hearty meal was made of coffee and flapjacks, which they enjoyed, for, on the principle of hunger being the best sauce, McV. would, now and again, observe, “Eh, man, Bob, but aren’t they good!” On the following day the Tuolumne River was gained, in another snow storm, they camping in a “wash” of the river. This night a splendid fire was built. Three large trees, which were lying in the bed of the now dry stream, were piled over with brush and set alight, while the banks gave shelter from the driving sleet and snow; and comparative comfort, with a certain amount of satisfaction, was being taken out of the burning mass of timber, some forty feet in length. Of a sudden, without the slightest warning, their gigantic hearth was seen to float away; the water rose with incredible speed, so that they were wet to their waists while securing their packs. At length all was made snug, and the quartette, climbing up to the fork of a tree, out of the reach of the now rushing stream, in the driving snow, philosophically awaited the dawn of day. Of such were the hardships endured on this memorable journey.

In the spring of the year 1850, the subject of our memoir established a store, having a mule team in connection therewith. The former combined all the mining luxuries of a boarding-house, ten-pin alley and card-room, as well as the agency for Adams’ Express. At the time when the first snow fell, Mr. B. found himself with a large accumulation of staple goods for which there would be a ready market; he therefore turned out his animals to pasture on what was known as the Texine ranch, when on one day he was informed that a force of Indians had been seen driving them off. This was a cause of the hastening of another Mariposa war. On the receipt of this intelligence Major Burney, then Sheriff of the county, raised a company of twenty-two volunteers started in pursuit, and overtaking the Indians engaged them for three or four hours, when they fled leaving behind them partially eaten portions of the beasts which had been cooked between the time of their capture and the conflict. At this juncture the war had assumed proportions which were likely to develop. The Major, therefore, appealed to Governor Burnett at San Jose for aid, when he dispatched Neely Johnson to organize three companies of militia in Mariposa county, Mr. Brownlee being suttler of the battalion, and as such he found himself possessed of a large amount of scrip, paid to him by the force, which he wished to have recognized by the officers of the State. To gain this was the object of his first visit to Vallejo in 1851, on which occasion he remained only two months, returning to Mariposa county, and thereafter visited Sacramento in 1852 on the same errand, after which he once more went back to Mariposa, wound up his affairs and started to return to Scotland, but having missed the steamer from San Francisco to Panama, he remained for three weeks in Vallejo. On the 1st day of March, 1852, Mr. Brownlee sailed from San Francisco, visiting en route Arkansas and Kentucky, where he meet his wife, went to Scotland, but in two months from his arrival, having visited a few of the most noteworthy places in his native land, once more turned towards the United States and landed in New York, where he was married soon after his arrival. In October, 1852, we fine Mr. Brownlee on his second voyage to California, on this occasion accompanied by his bride and his brother, his wife and son, traversing the route, not by the plains as he had done three years before, but by the more pleasant and swifter one of Panama, arriving in San Francisco in the end of November, and having pleasant recollections of Vallejo, immediately thereafter proceeded thither, where both families located in December, 1852. Early in the next year he commenced farming and a dairy business on a small scale, purchased a tract of fifty acres of land two miles north of the town limits, which he afterwards exchanged with General John B. Frisbie, in 1857 for his present place, now in Napa county, but which was then in that of Solano. Since his arrival, up to the present time, Mr. Brownlee has been inseparably connected with Vallejo and its associations, and though he does not reside in the county, he is still spoken of by all as the most reliable source of information in regard to the doings in early days. His residence is a magnificent two-storied building, having rooms of fine proportions, situated about fourteen miles from Vallejo; he farms over 1,100 acres of land, 650 being in Solano county, while this season he has under wheat and barley no less than 1,100 acres. The line of railroad to Sacramento from South Vallejo passes his gate, while there is an averagely good road to his dwelling. A more genial companion, a better citizen or hospitable host does not exist than Robert Brownlee. He was born at Bunkle, in the parish of Cambusnethen, in the county of Lanark, Scotland, in 1813, married Annie Lamont October 24, 1852, born in Tamhorn, in the Carse O’Gowrie, Perthshire, Scotland, in 1834, by whom he has Robert A., born October 14, 1853, (the first white boy born in Vallejo); Mary J., born August 1, 1855; Margaret R., born June 4, 1857; Gracie A., born July 10, 1862; George, born February 23, 1864; William, born November 25, 1866, died March 17, 1868; and Frederick J., born August 19, 1870.

History of Solano County…. – San Francisco, Cal. - Wood, Alley & Co., East Oakland, pub 1879, pp 338-341

We copy from the Gazette the following letter from Robert Brownlee

San Felipie, Sept. 16, 1849
Dear Brother - I embrace these few moments in writing you a few lines.  Providing you ever should get them it will let you know that I am in good health - never better.  Three pints of coffee at one meal, with bread and meat in proportion looks as if I enjoyed myself after passing the great Desert.  From Tusson to this encampment, distance 400 miles, has been very hard on our teams.  The road has been very sandy - some days without finding any grass, and oftentimes 24 hours without water.  From the Pineo village down the Gila to the junction of the Colorado is very bad grazing.  Coming along there our company broke up by chace, as every mess would try and do the best in finding grass for the teams, and it so happened that McVicars wagon and mess, which is composed of J. McHenry, R. Drew, S. Brownfield, W. Garetty, and their two black boys, and my worthy companion, J. Clark (who by the by is in fine health) has been traveling in company.  As for the other boys, I have not seen them in three weeks, but I have understood they left their wagons and packed.  We are looking for them up every day.  As this is the first good encampment we may lay by two days.  It pains me to announce the death of Dr. W. Fagan.  Fifty miles this side of Tusson he had been complaining, for a few days rode in the wagon, and as we had neither grass nor water, we were compelled to made (sp) a long drive to obtain both as man and beast stood in need of them.  That night, August 22nd, he was taken with a bleeding at the nose and mouth, which reduced him very fast, and a quarter to 9 o‚clock next morning he died with his hand in mine without a struggle.  He appeared sensible but said nothing nor made any request.  Every attention possible was rendered hi, as we had in our company Dr. Fort from Washington, Arkansas, who did everything in his power for his relief.  We, in our destitute condition interred him under a large Muskite tree, and secured the remains of one as kind, obliging, and of as promising talents as ever started on this journey.  The impression made on me that day over the grave when Mr. Thibault was putting up a prayer to the Giver of all goodness, will never be forgotten by me, and I think by more present.  Tears were rolling down the cheeks of some who I believe never shed a tear before.  The shock was severe as we all had so very fine health, to think we had buried one companion, and another about to depart.  Mr. Thibaults black boy died the day after in the same encampment.  As the train after burying Mr. Fagan were compelled to leave, I stayed and helped to inter Jordon about 100 yards from the former.  From this Mr. Keatt‚s and Hunt‚s wagons started and reached water and grass next morning.
From the Pimeo village we laid in 13 bushels of corn and wheat which enabled us to get through the desert so well.  Our teams are very tired.  We, that is, Clark and myself work six mules with a light wagon, carrying about three hundred pounds load.  After resting a few days in recruit, we can go as fast as the pack mules.  No set of men were ever so provident as we have been - that is, have suffered in no way - got nothing stolen - crossed the Colorado a steam like the Arkansas in a wagon bed when others along with us were loosing packs and mules, and on man sunk 4 times when we reached him in time to save his life.  One and a half miles about the mouth of the Gila for three days we were every minute expecting an attach from the Yaumas Indians about 75 strong, armed with bows and arrows, spears and knives.  Our train consisted of 4 wagons and 17 men.  We closely guarded our stock and property, and showed the horse-eaters that we were as ready to fight as they were to attack.  I can assure you we were in a tight place.  They were as stout, ablebodied men as I ever saw or more so, and as straight as a rush.
Thomas, as we are pretty much in advance of the main emigration we know but little of the suffering of them behind, but the bare idea makes my blood chill - some of foot, others with broken down mules, without provisions are bound to perish.  We met 40 United States soldiers under the command of Major Emory, who meets them at the mouth of the Gila to run the line from that point to San Diego.  They told us that the Independence train had suffered as some of them had reached Monterey, and reported they were caught in the mountains of snow and lost every thing, and that the men were eating one another.  Government started a train of provisions and money to aid them.  We think we are within 700 miles of San Francisco, 80 of San Diego where I intend sending this.  Clark and myself would ship from there, but the chance is bad, and the monthly steamer is always crowded.


19th Century U.S. Newspapers: Arkansas State Democrat, Little Rock, AR, Friday, November 30, 1849; Issue 29; Col C

Back to Biography index