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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

About Johnson's Ranch

As hurried plans to rescue the snow-bound Donner Party took shape in early 1847, Johnson’s Ranch was designated as the base of operations. The location was perfect: Situated below the snowline near the Bear River, the rough and tumble settlement in the path of an established emigrant wagon trail was the logical site for rescue teams to begin their ascent of the Sierra.

The settlement itself wasn’t much—just two small adobe structures, some fences, a few livestock, and wheat fields on 22,000 acres owned by William Johnson and his partner, Sebastian Keyser. The pair had bought the property at auction in the spring of 1845, following the death of Pablo Gutierrez, who had received the acreage as a Mexican land grant. William Johnson, a sailor, came west from Boston aboard the ship Alciope around 1840, sailing and trading about the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) before arriving in the Sacramento Valley in 1842. Austrian-born Sebastian Keyser was a trapper who had traveled overland to California in 1838. In 1844 he received a provisional 17,000-acre Mexican land grant near the northeast edge of the Sacramento Valley, but a year later settled on the Bear River as half-owner of Johnson’s spread.

In January 1847, Donner Party member William Eddy—who had set out with a small group of fellow members to find help—stumbled into the ranch on foot, bringing shocking news to the valley that the rest of his wagon company was trapped at a small alpine lake—starving, freezing, and dying. As it happened, a few families of the 1846 immigration were living at Johnson’s Ranch, waiting out the winter before moving on to find permanent homes elsewhere. One of them was a few members of the larger Thomas Rhoads family: twenty-year-old Elizabeth Rhoads, her brother John, his wife, and their young, recently-widowed Aunt Christina. This family, along with other immigrants living at the ranch, helped make backpacks and other equipment for the rescue teams and prepared beef jerky from the five or six cattle Johnson butchered, as sustenance for the rescuers and trapped immigrants. John Rhoads volunteered for the First Relief rescue team.

The first group of Donner Party survivors arrived at the ranch late February/early March. William Johnson, probably then in his forties, married one of the young women: teenaged Mary Murphy, whose mother perished in the mountains. The marriage was not a happy one. Within six months of their June 1847 wedding Mary left him, subsequently marrying again the following year to Frenchman Charles Covillaud, a merchant who founded a town he named Marysville in her honor.

Sebastian Keyser, aged 36, had already wed Elizabeth Rhoads on December 12, 1846. Their union was stormy at first, but the couple reconciled on September 6, 1847, lived at Johnson’s Ranch for another two years, and had a child.

In 1849, William Johnson sold his share in the ranch to four partners and moved to Hawaii, where he remained for the rest of his life. Sebastian Keyser also sold out in 1849 to some of Johnson’s buyers, who had quickly re-organized and re-sold interests to new partner-investors. Afterward, Keyser operated a ferry on the Cosumnes River, where he drowned in 1850.

For those immigrants who descended the Sierra on the Overland Emigrant Trail, Johnson’s Ranch was the first outpost of civilization they encountered. The place is mentioned in many pioneer diaries…not always kindly. During the Gold Rush in 1849, part of the ranch was set aside for a government reserve named Camp Far West, and in 1866 the town of Wheatland was laid out on a portion of the original Pablo Gutierrez land grant.

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