Go west, young man – and woman

Most of my paternal ancestors lived for hundred of years in the Hudson River valley of NY State, from Putnam County in the south, extending up to Albany in the north. One lady from my Brewster line did something quite different – she followed her husband to the California gold rush of the 1850s.

My 3rd great grandfather was William J. Brewster (1792-1878) of Cold Spring, Putnam County, NY. William was a successful farmer and landowner. One of his younger sisters was Melissa, also known as Milly, who was born about 1808. Melissa married Casper H. Mason, sometime before 1835. His middle initial stands for a name so unusual that it’s spelled in different ways in different places – Hellogues, Helloques, or Hallecus, to name just a few. In the 1840 United States census, the Mason family appeared living in the Queens/Western Long Island area. By the 1850 census, Melissa is back in Cold Spring, living with her 16 year-old daughter Josephine – but her husband Casper is not listed with them.

It appears that Casper was by this time in California, or perhaps en route, joining thousands of people hoping to become wealthy when gold was discovered there in 1848. As with most of the forty niners, Casper’s family remained at home for a period before joining him. There is a C. H. Mason in the 1852 California state census for the town of Klamath, who was born in NY and of the correct age, who could very well be Casper, and his occupation is listed as miner. Klamath was a brand new town in 1852, located north of San Francisco where gold was found at the mouth of the Klamath River.

By 1860, Melissa and her daughter Josephine had joined Casper in Petaluma, California. Josephine brought her husband James Bennett Southard, also from Cold Spring. Like many living in the boom towns of California at that time, Southard wasn’t prospecting for gold. Instead he worked in the profession that he had trained for in New York State – the law. His newspaper obituary of 1890 said that he came to California about 1858, first working as an attorney, then as a district court judge for 8 years, and as an assistant district attorney for several years. At one point in the 1880s, he practiced law in Tombstone, Arizona – another boom town that had just appeared almost out of nowhere when silver was discovered.

Casper H. Mason may not have been very successful mining for gold, as by the early 1860s he had moved on to other ways of making a living. He and his family settled in San Francisco, where he worked initially as a watchman in the city’s downtown customs building. By the 1870 census, he’s listed as a custom house clerk, and in city directories of the 1880s, his profession is mining secretary for the Gould and Curry Mining Company.

To continue the tradition of the Masons and Southards finding livelihoods in California that didn’t require a pick and shovel, James Bennett Southard had a grandson with the same name. The younger J. B. was born in 1878 in San Francisco. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 1901, he chose the acting profession. He started in regional theaters in California and Oregon, eventually making his way to New York City – his 1917 draft registration card for the First World War lists his place of work as Broadway’s Broadhurst Theater. By the teens and the 1920s, he called himself Bennett Southard, and performed in silent movies such as the melodramatic Second Hand Rose, and a psychological thriller called The Cowardly Way. He also continued to act on stage through the 20s and 30s in the United States and England. One absolutely awful sounding play, called The Invisible Empire, was a melodrama in which Southard played a Bolshevik villain, while the hero of the day was a member of the KKK who rescued the movie’s fair damsel.

Sources

  1. Early Days in Klamath, by Walter Van Dyke, Museum of the City of San Francisco
  2. The United States Custom House in San Francisco, An Illustrated History, US Customs and Border Protection
  3. Daily Alta California 6 July 1890, obituary for James Bennett Southard
  4. Tombstone Arizona History, Tombstoneweb.com, 2020
  5. Ku Klux Kulture: American and the Klan in the 1920s by Felix Harcourt, 2017
  6. IMDB, Bennett Southard, 2020
  7. IMDB, The Cowardly Way, 2020

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