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Biographical Sketch of William Campbell (1793-1885) of Santa Clara, California

by Phil Norfleet

William Campbell was born on 12 November 1793 in Fayette County, Kentucky. He was the eldest son of the David Campbell (1772-1836) of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, and was the brother of Margaret Campbell (1803-1872), who married Reverend Abraham Norfleet (1802-1870) of Callaway and Cole Counties, Missouri.

William Campbell fought in the War of 1812 as a private in the 1st Regiment of Kentucky Mounted Militia, in the company commanded by Captain Alney McLean.

After the war, William, like his father, operated a tannery in the town of Greenville, Muhlenberg County, Kentucky for many years. In 1839, he migrated to Saline County, Missouri where he acquired a farm and resided thereon for almost seven years. In 1846, he sold his Missouri farm and migrated to California, where he died on 02 December 1885.

A photograph of William, when an old man in California, is shown on the right.

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Section 1 – Wives of William Campbell

William Campbell had a total of four wives during his lifetime. He had three children by his first wife; seven children by his second wife and no children by his third and fourth wives. A brief sketch of each wife is presented below.

Sarah McNary - 1st Wife of William Campbell

Sarah McNary was born in Columbia, South Carolina on 5 September 1799. She was the daughter of William McNary and Ann Campbell. William McNary was born in Scotland about the year 1757 and immigrated to America before the Revolutionary War. In 1790, he married Ann Campbell in Fayette County, Virginia (now Kentucky); and in 1812, the couple relocated to Muhlenberg County. [1] Ann Campbell was the daughter of Black Davidís brother, Alexander Campbell.  Sarah McNary married William Campbell (1793-1885) on 24 September 1816; together they had three children - all daughters.  On 10 November 1821, during the birth of their last child (unnamed), Sarah experienced serious complications and the infant died that same day. Sarah herself succumbed shortly thereafter, dying on 16 November 1821.

Agnes Hancock - 2nd Wife of William Campbell

Agnes Hancock was born in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky on 6 September 1800. She was the daughter of Benjamin Hancock ((1758-1827) and Priscilla Franklin ((1760-1834). She and William were married in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky on 24 September, 1822. A total of seven children were born to them. It was Agnes who accompanied William on the long and difficult trip to California in 1846. She survived the trip; but, unfortunately, she was much weakened by the hardships experienced on the journey, and died of typhoid, on 26 November 1846, a few weeks after her arrival in Santa Clara. By special permission of the Padre, Suarez del Real, she was buried on the grounds of the Santa Clara Mission in an unmarked grave.

Keziah McCutcheon - 3rd Wife of William Campbell

I have found very little information with respect to the last two wives of William Campbell. He married both ladies in California. William married Keziah McCutcheon on 5 July 1849.  William’s nephew, David Lee Campbell, son of David McCord Campbell and Jane Campbell of Adams County, Illinois, had a very low opinion of this lady – see the 1851 letter to his father. William Campbell must have held almost the same opinion; he divorced Keziah on 22 January 1855.  William had no children by Keziah, his third wife.

Louisa Cain Sherwood - 4th Wife of William Campbell

On 21 July 1857, William married his fourth and last wife, Louisa Cain Sherwood, the widow of Samuel Sherwood of Baltimore, who had died on 07 August 1841. Louisa's maiden name was Cain and she had married Sherwood on 13 May 1829.  William Campbell died on 02 December 1885.  Nine days later, his widow, Louisa, filed a Claim for Bounty Land.  This claim is a valuable genealogical source as it delineates the marriage dates and the death/divorce dates for William's three previous wives.  Louisa Sherwood Campbell died on 04 March 1898. William Campbell had no children by his fourth and last wife.


Section 2 - Military Service

William Campbell was a veteran of the War of 1812.  On 14 April 1871, he filed a "Declaration of Soldier for Pension" at Porterville, Tulare County, California.  In that sworn declaration, William stated that he had enlisted at Greenville, Kentucky on 01 September 1812.  He served as a private in Captain Alney McLain's Company of the First Regiment of Kentucky Mounted Militia, under the overall command of LTC Samuel Caldwell and Major Joseph Winlock.    William further stated that he was honorably discharged from military service at Bushreau (?), Indiana.   His enlistment period ended on 30 October 1812.  In all, he served for a period of two months.  William was ultimately granted a Federal Pension at the rate of $8.00 per month until the time of his death in 1885.  [Also see Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Kentucky, Soldiers of the War of 1812 (published 1891), page 1.]

William Campbell also performed military service in California during the Mexican War.  On 11 December 1885, nine days after William Campbell 's death, his widow, Louisa Sherwood Campbell, filed a claim for bounty land based upon his military service during the Mexican War.  Her sworn claim indicated that William Campbell had served as a private in the Mounted Regiment of California Riflemen commanded by Captain C. M. Weber.  He enlisted at San Jose, California and served for a period of two months, from 04 December 1846 to 04 February 1847.


Section 3 - Emigration to Saline County, Missouri

After making a reconnaissance trip to Illinois and Missouri during the Winter of 1838/39, William Campbell decided to take his family and remove to Saline County, Missouri. On 6 January 1839, he wrote a letter to his sister Jane Campbell (wife of James McCord Campbell) where he talks about his decision to relocate to Missouri. This letter is reproduced in its entirety in the Letters Page, Document 5 of this web site. The migration from Kentucky was effected in the spring of 1839. There he acquired a farm, which he successfully worked for a period of seven years.


Section 4 - Emigration to California

Although he was a successful farmer in Missouri, in 1846 William and his wife Agnes decided to once again head West, this time to California. On 01 April 1846, the William and Agnes Campbell family (including their four sons and one daughter), two of William’s brothers (James and Thomas Campbell), and several other close friends and relatives arrived in Independence, Missouri. There they found a large gathering of about 250 wagons, which were in the process of being outfitted preparatory to making the trek to either Oregon or California. [2]

Historical Significance of the 1846 Migration

Table 1 sets forth the estimated population statistics of the American overland migration to Oregon, California and Utah during the entire 1840-1860 time frame. These statistics, compiled by historian John D. Unruh in the 1970’s, put the emigration of William Campbell and his fellow pioneers of 1846 into better perspective with respect to the westward migration of all Americans before the Civil War. [3]

The above table clearly indicates that 1846 was the first year that people began to immigrate to California in any great numbers. Prior to that time most of the westward migrants had headed to Oregon. Of course, the truly massive migration to California did not occur until the Gold Rush years of 1849-1850. The totals for 1851 reflect a precipitous decline in numbers of people traveling to California. The historian George R. Stewart attributed this decline to discouraging reports being brought back to the East by disappointed gold seekers; also liberalized Oregon land acquisition laws diverted many emigrants to that Territory. [4] By 1852 the numbers of people going to California had again risen, and indeed, were the largest annual figures for the entire 1840-1860 period.

Although the Mormons had sent out reconnaissance parties (including the "Mormon Battalion") along the Santa Fe and California Trails in 1846, the Mormon migration to the area around the Great Salt Lake, in Utah, did not begin until 1847. In all, over 40,000 people immigrated to Utah during the 1847-1860 time frame.

During only a twenty-year period before the Civil War, almost 300,000 people made the arduous, five-six month, 2,000 mile trek westward across the Great Plains. I find the size of this migration to be truly fantastic! This population movement compares favorably to that of the great seventeenth century English migration to the North American colonies, when only about 155,000 people made the somewhat less difficult, two-four month sea voyage across the Atlantic Ocean! [5]

The Historical Materials Concerning the Great Plains Migration

Professor Unruh, who performed an exhaustive study of the historical documents pertaining to the Great Plains Migrations from 1840-1860, has classified most of the materials into three categories:

1.  Trail Histories: These works, which may be scholarly or popular, trace the various routes used by the immigrants so that a tourist may approximate their routes by travel over modern day roads and highways. In my opinion, one of the best books re the 1846 journey is the one by George R. Stewart entitled The California Trail.

2.  Diaries and Journals: These works were prepared on a day to day basis by individual immigrants, and, in my opinion, represent the most accurate versions of the events that occurred on the trail. Many of these journals have been published; the ones most directly associated with the 1846 migration were those produced by Edwin Bryant and Jesse Quinn Thornton (see page 39).

3.  Reminiscent Accounts: These accounts were written in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century by former immigrants, who wrote their recollections either at the request of relatives or for their own amusement. The account given by David Campbell, which I have appended to this web site, falls within this category. Unfortunately, some of these, while they make good reading, are also prone to some exaggeration and inaccuracy. Memory of distant events can be very self-serving and as an immigrant of 1853, George B. Currey, put it during a lecture given in 1887:

" … every genuine old pioneer is in honor bound to have had the hardest time on the plains of any other person living or dead." [6]

I do not believe that David Campbell’s account significantly exaggerates the hardships experienced by the Campbell party during the 1846 crossing; however, the account does appear to contain several factual errors which I have annotated through the use of hyperlinked footnotes.

Bernard DeVoto

One additional historical work, which does not fall into any of the above three classifications is the book by the Harvard historian Bernard DeVoto: The Year of Decision 1846. This work of over 500 pages is devoted to the narrative of a single year of American history - 1846. In DeVoto’s opinion, 1846 was a turning point in American destiny; during which year the United States acquired Texas (by annexation), the Mexican territories (by conquest, including California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico) and Oregon (by treaty with Great Britain). In all, the United States acquired approximately one million square miles of additional territory. According to DeVoto, the internal political dispute over whether these new lands should be slave or free made the coming of the Civil War a virtual certainty. Since DeVoto devotes a considerable portion of his book to tracing the movements of the Russell/Boggs wagon train to which William Campbell belonged, his book has provided useful background information in the preparation of this chapter of my book.

William Campbell’s Decision to Emigrate

It is difficult to ascertain why William Campbell, a fifty-two year old man and the owner of a prosperous farm in Missouri, should abandon his home of seven years, pack up his wife and children and undertake a 2000 mile trek across the arid and Indian infested Great Plains, to establish a new home in the largely unknown land of California, which at that time was a province of Mexico. The year of his decision, 1846, was two years before the discovery of gold in California, hence the prospect of acquiring easy riches could not have been a factor. The most plausible reasons that I can come up with are the following:

1.  Although William Campbell enjoyed the ownership of a prosperous farm, he also had his four sons who were rapidly approaching adulthood to think about. While inheritance of the existing farm could perhaps adequately provide for one son, what about the other three? The price of good land in fully settled areas was usually quite high, requiring more money than most young people could afford to spend. Accordingly, a move into the frontier territories would give his sons a much better opportunity to acquire good farmland at low prices. This reason for emigration was compelling to almost all middle class farmers and planters in the United States during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, who had the welfare of their children to think about.

2.  In 1845 a man by the name of Lansford W. Hastings had published a guidebook entitled The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California. Hastings, a young man in his mid-twenties, was basically an unscrupulous land speculator who hoped to become a great land magnate in California. He was an incorrigible optimist and a natural born salesman and "hustler." While his book described both places, his exaggerated description of California was far more glowing that that for Oregon. Hastings said that California was a land of "perpetual Spring" where you never had to build a fire except to cook! Oats grew eight feet tall and wheat yielded more than 70 bushels per acre. The book briefly described the trails to California and gave a totally mistaken impression that the crossing was relatively easy, even for oxen-pulled wagons. This little book had a profound impression on farm families, particularly those in the western border states such as Illinois and Missouri. I am quite certain that William Campbell had read the book and probably gave too much credence to Hastings’s remarks.

3.  Oddly enough, I believe that a third reason William Campbell made the trip was that he could afford it! Making a 2,000-mile trek across the Great plains by wagon was an expensive venture. Such a trip was much more costly than that of earlier American migrations that covered much smaller distances. For example, the migrations of the other Campbells described in this book each involved only a few hundred miles. Most historians of the Great Plains crossings estimate that the cost for an average-sized family to make the trip in good order was from $750-$1,500! [7] In 1997 dollars, this cost range would be from $35,000-$70,000! Such amounts of money were simply beyond the means of most small farmers. Indeed, except for the hired hands such as teamsters and hunters, etc., most of the families who made the California crossing before the Gold Rush were almost all of the middle or upper-middle class.

Notable Members of the Russell/Boggs Wagon Train

The expedition which William Campbell and his party joined was perhaps the most famous wagon train in the history of the Western Frontier! Hereinafter, for convenience and for reasons, which will be made clear below, I call this expedition the "Russell/Boggs Train." This was the train that included the ill-fated Donner Party, many of whom later died on the trip and/or were reduced to cannibalism to avoid starvation. In addition to the Donners, several historically significant men were leaders and/or members of this wagon train.

Colonel William "Owl" Russell

On 11 May 1846, Colonel William "Owl" Russell of Kentucky and Missouri, was chosen as the captain of the wagon train to which William Campbell belonged.  Owl Russell was a grandson of the Virginian, General William Russell, of Revolutionary War fame and a distant relative of some of the "White David" Campbells of Southwest, Virginia. Russell was the former secretary to Henry Clay and was a noted orator of his day. He was a tall, charismatic figure, a consummate extrovert who had served in the Black Hawk War and held several political jobs in Missouri, including that of U. S. Marshall. He obtained the nickname "Owl" from a story that was often told among Kentuckians and Missourians. It seems that while camping in the Kentucky woods one night, he heard the cry of an owl going "whoo! whoo!" The indomitable Colonel Russell immediately leapt to his feet shouting: "I am Colonel William H. Russell of Kentucky and the bosom friend of Henry Clay!" [8]

Governor Lilburn W. Boggs

The former Governor of Missouri, Lilburn W. Boggs was also with the train. In 1838, Boggs, while Governor of Missouri, had dispatched six thousand militia to attack the Mormons in Ray and Daviess Counties, Missouri. This was done by his issuance of the infamous "Extermination Order" of 27 October 1838. The Mormons have not forgotten the event, even to this day. In revenge, one of the Mormon "Destroying Angels," Orin Porter Rockwell, attempted to assassinate Boggs at his home on the night of 06 May 1842. Boggs was seriously wounded but recovered. As a result of these and other events, there was great antipathy between the Mormons and the Missourians during all of the 1840’s. In St. Louis, Governor Boggs had married a sister of the Bent brothers of "Bent’s Fort" fame, and removed to Independence on the western frontier of Missouri. There he engaged in the outfitting business catering to traders who were bound for Santa Fe and other locations in the West. Ultimately, Boggs decided to go West himself, hence his presence during the 1846 trek. Several weeks after the train had embarked, dissatisfaction with Russell’s leadership reached the crisis point and he was deposed as wagon train commander; although he was allowed to save face by resigning on the plea that his ague had returned. Governor Boggs was elected as the new wagon train commander, replacing Russell, just prior to the train reaching Fort Laramie on 28 September. Boggs had originally intended to go to Oregon; however, in late August after reaching the California/Oregon fork in the trail just outside of Fort Hall, he decided that it was safer to go over the Sierras rather than risk the Oregon mountains; hence he opted for California. [9]

Edwin Bryant

The former editor of the Louisville, Kentucky Courier, Edwin Bryant was one of the few men of letters to make the cross-plains trek in 1846. Bryant, traveling with two companions (R. T. Jacob and R. Ewing), made rendezvous with the Russell wagon group on 06 May. The Campbell wagons were a part of this group.  Bryant wrote in his journal:

" ... At two o'clock we reached an encampment, composed of the wagons of Colonel Russell and the family of Mr. West, of Calloway County, Mo. and some others. They were emigrating to California. The wagons numbered in all about fifteen. When our wagon arrived it was drawn up alongside the others, and our oxen released to feed upon the grass of the prairie. I visited the tents of our fellow-travelers, and found the ladies busily employed, as if sitting by the fireside which they had recently left for a long and toilsome, if not a dangerous journey, and a country of which they knew but little. Mrs. West, a lady of seventy, and her daughter, Mrs. Campbell, were knitting. Mr. West, the head of his family, was originally from Virginia, and was, he told me, seventy-five years of age. His four sons and son-in-law, Major Campbell, having determined to emigrate to California, he and his wife had resolved to accompany them. Mr. and Mrs. W., although so much advanced in life, appeared to be as resolute as the youngest of their family, and to count with certainty upon seeing the Eldorado of the Pacific. The former realized this expectation, the latter did not. ... " [See What I Saw in California Being the Journal of A Tour in the Years 1846 - 1847 by Edwin Bryant, page 23, first published in 1848.]

After a few weeks of travel with the main wagon train, becoming dissatisfied with the slow pace of oxen-drawn wagons, Bryant and his companions rode ahead of the train; when they reached Fort Bernard on 24 June, Bryant and several other members of his party traded their wagons/oxen for pack mules. After waiting for the Russell/Boggs train to catch up on 26 September, Bryant rejoined the train and continued on the journey. At about this same time, Colonel Russell also acquired mules and began traveling with Bryant’s group. [10] Now traveling by mule train, Bryant and Russell were able to move much faster than the oxen-drawn wagons. Henceforth, while frequently traveling with the Boggs train, he also on several occasions operated independently, sometimes well ahead of the train. During the trip, Bryant kept a comprehensive set of memoirs concerning the 1846 crossing;; in 1849, he published them in a guidebook under the title: What I Saw in California. The book was quite successful, rapidly becoming a best seller and was much used by the Gold Rush travelers.

Jesse Quinn Thornton

Another man of letters, Jesse Quinn Thornton, his wife Nancy, and two hired drivers joined the Russell/Boggs train on 15 May 1846. [11] A resident of Quincy, Illinois, Thornton was a thirty-five year old, well educated, man. He was a correspondent of Horace Greeley and a friend of both Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri and Stephen Douglas of Illinois. He was bound for Oregon and, like Bryant, kept a detailed journal of the trip. Indeed, his journal is a major source for the story of those members of the expedition, such as the James Campbell family, who decided, after passing through Fort Hall, to take the northern fork of the trail leading to Oregon. In 1849, Thornton published a book, Oregon and California in 1848, which included his 1846 experiences.

The Departure

The Russell/Boggs train, which William Campbell and his party joined, was one of the last trains to depart from Independence; they seem to have embarked on or about 5 May 1846. Bernard DeVoto, the principal historian of the 1846 migration estimates that about twenty wagon trains had departed before the Russell/Boggs train. [12] Timing of a wagon train’s departure was critical because, if too early, the Spring grass on the Plains would not have grown sufficiently to provide adequate grazing for the livestock during the crossing; if too late, then the train might arrive at the Sierra Nevada Mountain passes too late to cross due to snowfall. As we shall see, that portion of the Russell/Boggs train to travel along the already established trail to California (which included the Campbells) got through the mountains just in time before major blizzards closed the passes. Conversely, that portion of the train led by the Donners, who took the supposed shortcut recommended by Lansford W. Hastings, having been substantially slowed due to the unsuitability of the shortcut for wagon passage, arrived at the Sierras too late; heavy snows had closed the passes.

Colonel William Russell - Wagon Train Commander

A few miles beyond the Missouri border, the emigrant train, of which William Campbell was a member, stopped to establish an organizational structure. On 11 May 1846, Colonel William Russell was elected as the overall wagon train commander. The next day a census of the train was conducted with the following results:             

Wagons 63
Men 119
Women 59
Children 110
Total People 288
Cattle 700
Horses 150

The train was well equipped with foodstuffs, the tents were new and in good condition, and the livestock were well fed. The wagons were in good condition, all drawn by oxen, usually three yoke (6 oxen) per wagon. [13]

It should be noted that the above census was valid for only that day. The experience along the trail was the organization of travel companies/trains was frequently disrupted as captains and other leaders were deposed and new ones chosen. The historian Francis Parkman (see page *) wrote the following:

" … in fact, they have no leader - each man follows his own whim, and the result is endless quarrels and divisions, and all sorts of misfortunes in consequence."

Wagons were continually dropping out of the wagon train and others joining or rejoining. Thus the size of the train and the number of travel groups it contained was extremely dynamic. Some sources estimate that, during the journey, the size of the Russell/Boggs train varied from a minimum of 46 and a maximum of as many as 128 wagons! [14]

William Campbell’s Wagon Group

Due to the size of the wagon train, shortly after embarkation, it was deemed prudent to subdivide the train into a number of travel groups. Some sources have indicated that, initially, William Campbell was elected captain of his travel group, hereinafter referred to as the "Campbell party" or the "Campbell group." This group, in addition to the Campbells (the families of William, Thomas and James), included members of the Aram, Finley, West and Whisman families, almost 50 people in all.

Many of the other families in the group were related by marriage to the Campbells. Thomas Campbell’s wife, Martha, was the daughter of Thomas West, Senior. James Campbell’s wife, Margaret, was the daughter of Asa Wallace Finley. Conversely, Asa Wallace Finley’s wife, Sarah, was the daughter of William Campbell.

Apparently the Campbell group had several different captains at one time or another during the trip. At least one source has indicated that Thomas Campbell’s brother-in-law, Frank West, functioned as captain during the middle part of the journey. [15] Also, it is known that towards the end of the journey, another member of the Campbell party, Joseph Aram, was functioning as the captain of this group. [16] The known members of the Campbell Group are identified in Table 2; the names are partially based upon information provided by Mrs. Elaine Daum of Petaluma, California, whose husband, George Lenton Daum, is a direct descendent of three members of the train: William Campbell, Asa Wallace Finley and Henry Pascoe.

Outline of the Journey

This essay will not provide a detailed narrative of the cross-plains journey of the William Campbell party. The account of David Campbell, son of William, provided elsewhere at this web site, gives a better description than any I could reconstruct. However, Table 3 gives a brief outline of the major milestones or "legs" of the trail that they actually took, including approximate distances. Where possible the calendar dates of the arrival of the Campbell wagon group at each milestone will be included. For comparison purposes, I will also provide the mileage and average number of travel days to cover these "legs" as given by George R. Stewart in his book The California Trail. It should be noted that the total average duration for the 1,975-mile journey, as calculated by Stewart, was about 140 days. Based upon a 5 May start date from Independence, Missouri and an arrival date at Sutter’s Fort, California of 10 October, the Campbell party took a total of 159 days to complete the trip. This slightly longer time span is consistent with the travel policy used by the Campbells to take one day off each week, when possible, to rest and graze the livestock (see David Campbell Memoir).

Francis Parkman Meets "Owl" Russell

Also, on the trail that same year was the noted Boston historian, Francis Parkman (1823-1893). Parkman, who at this time was a young twenty-three-year-old Harvard Law School graduate, together with his friend Quincy Adams Shaw, had decided go on a "tour of curiosity and amusement to the Rocky Mountains." [17] They left St. Louis on 28 April 1846 and by mid-June had reached the vicinity of Fort Laramie. Parkman was mainly interested in observing and getting to know the culture of the Plains Indians. However, he occasionally made observations concerning some of the emigrants he met on the trail. On 27 June 1846, while briefly stopping at Fort Bernard, [18] which was located about 6 miles from Fort Laramie, Parkman encountered the Russell/Boggs wagon train encamped at that location. In one of the log cabins within the fort, Parkman met Colonel William Russell who was "drunk as a pigeon;" [19] the Colonel was very unhappy because he had recently been deposed as commander of the wagon train. Parkman also met with other members of the expedition. He had this to say about his encounter with these "Missourians:"

" … I entered an apartment of logs and mud, the largest in the fort: it was full of men of various races and complexions, all more or less drunk. A company of California emigrants, it seemed, had made the discovery at this late day that they had encumbered themselves with too many supplies for their journey. A part, therefore, they had thrown away, or sold at a great loss to the traders; but had determined to get rid of their very copious stock of Missouri whiskey, by drinking it on the spot. Here were maudlin squaws stretched on piles of buffalo robes; squalid Mexicans, armed with bows and arrows; Indians sedately drunk; long-haired Canadians and trappers, and American backwoodsmen in brown homespun, the well beloved pistol and bowie-knife displayed openly at their sides. In the middle of the room a tall lank man, with a dingy broadcloth coat, was haranguing the company in the style of the stump orator. With one hand he sawed the air, and with the other clutched firmly a brown jug of whiskey, which he applied every moment to his lips, forgetting that he had drained the contents long ago. Richard formally introduced me to this personage, who was no less a man than Colonel R[ussell], once the leader of the party. Instantly the Colonel, seizing me, in the absence of buttons, by the leather fringes of my frock, began to define his position. His men, he said, had mutinied and deposed him; but still he exercised over them the influence of a superior mind; in all but the name he was yet their chief. As the Colonel spoke, I looked around on the wild assemblage, and could not help thinking that he was but ill fitted to conduct such men across the deserts to California. Conspicuous among the rest stood three tall young men, grandsons of Daniel Boone. They had clearly inherited the adventurous character of that prince of pioneers; but I saw no signs of the quiet and tranquil spirit that so remarkably distinguished him.

"Fearful was the fate that, months after, overtook some of the members of that party. General Kearney, on his late return from California, brought back their story. They were interrupted by the deep snows among the mountains, and maddened by cold and hunger, fed upon each other’s flesh! … " [20]

The Donner Party

The group constituting "some of the members of that party" cited above by Francis Parkman, were the most famous people to cross the Plains in 1846; they were an ad hoc group of emigrants who came to be known to history as the "Donner Party." On 20 July 1846, they withdrew from the Russell/Boggs wagon train at Little Sandy Creek (see Table 3, milestone 8) and took a new cut-off which went south of Great Salt Lake; this was the "shortcut" that Lansford Hastings had recommended and which was supposed to reduce the travel distance to California by several hundred miles. The titular leader of this group was George Donner, thus giving the name "Donner Party" to the most ill fated group in the history of the West. The shortcut proved to be totally unsuitable for wagon traffic and the Donner Party encountered unprecedented hardships, disasters and death on this trail. Finally, while stranded and snowbound in the Sierra high country, they were reduced to eating the flesh of their dead comrades. Of a total of 87 people who started out with the Donners, 40 died (including all the Donner adults) prior to reaching their California destination! It is beyond the scope of this short essay to go into the story of the Donners; however, an excellent telling of their saga is to be found in the book by George R. Stewart, entitled Ordeal by Hunger. Table 4 identifies the key members of the party. [21]

Caleb Greenwood Guides the William Campbell Group

On 20 July, unlike the Donners, the Campbell party determined to avoid the untried route recommended by Lansford Hastings and instead took the "Greenwood Cutoff," which went to the Bear River (see Table 3, Milestone 9); the trail then continued to Fort Hall. This cutoff had been named after the much celebrated, octogenarian mountain man Caleb Greenwood; it later came to be called the "Sublett Cutoff." This cutoff completely by-passed Fort Bridger which had been a stop on the old trail, thus reducing the overall distance to Fort Hall by about 85 miles (110 miles for milestone 9 versus 195 miles). During this part of the journey, Joseph Aram was captain of the wagon group.

When the Campbell/Aram group, still proceeding along the cutoff, reached the Green River crossing which was about 25 miles west of Little Sandy Creek, they met both Caleb Greenwood and Lansford Hastings. Greenwood had been sent east by John Sutter to divert/encourage any of the immigrants he might meet on the trail to go on to California instead of Oregon. Hastings was making the trip for the same reason and also to encourage the California immigrants to take his new "shortcut" which ran from Fort Bridger along the south side of the Great Salt Lake. Hastings believed that his "Cutoff" would theoretically reduce the distance to be traveled by several hundred miles. Hastings gave the group his sales talk promising that they would save a month by taking his road; however Greenwood told them otherwise. Aram and the Campbells believed Greenwood and hired him to guide them to California by the trail from Fort Hall. [22]

James Campbell, Brother of William, Opts for Oregon

Unfortunately, while traversing the "Greenwood Cutoff" on the way to Fort Hall, James Campbell’s wife, weakened by the cumulative effects of the hardships of the journey, became ill and died on 28 July 1846. She was buried beside the road with a marker that was recorded by travelers for several years thereafter. The Marker read:

"Died: Margaret Campbell, Aged 36 years, 4 months, 23 days."

James Campbell [23] (see photo), like his brothers, originally intended to go to California. However, after the death of his wife he changed his mind. After passing through Fort Hall the trail forked. On the left fork the trail led to California; on the right, the trail led to Oregon. At this point James Campbell left his brothers William and Thomas, and opted to take the trail to Oregon Territory by way of "Meek’s Cutoff." This cutoff had been pioneered by mountain man Joe Meek and was an old American Fur Company trail that supposedly cut off 200 miles from the usual route. Joe Meek himself started them on their way but left them after a couple of days. Afterward, the emigrants lost their way and wandered about the Deschutes Wilderness for several days. The party suffered from sickness, including measles, as well as near starvation. James Campbell went on ahead of the train to obtain supplies. Meanwhile, the wagon train was menaced by hostile Indians and most of the people became ill. At this time, James’s daughter, Mary, became ill and died. Subsequently, on the last leg of the journey, the travelers had to ford a number of flood-swollen streams using boats made of hewed logs. The train finally reached southern Oregon in January 1847.

William Campbell Arrives in California

William Campbell’s wagon group, under Caleb Greenwood’s guidance, suffered many hardships before reaching California, but no one died and they came through in relatively good shape (at least as compared to the Donners!). On about 10 October 1846, their wagons reached Sutter’s Fort in the American River Valley of Northern California (see Map).

On 11 October 1846, the son of John and Margaret Whisman, was born. He was named John Sutter Whisman and was the first child to be born in California of United States parents. After resting for several days, the weary travelers prepared to continue on to their respective destinations, either the Napa Valley or the Santa Clara Valley. By that time the War with Mexico was in full swing. A certain Lieutenant Blackburn of the U. S. Army arrived at Sutter’s Fort on about 15 October and asked for volunteers to join Colonel John Fremont’s regiment. William and his sons, Benjamin and David, were among those who enlisted in Fremont’s forces. The families of the volunteers were ordered to go to the Santa Clara Mission for safety. The Campbell’s arrived at the Santa Clara mission on about 25 October. William and David subsequently participated in the Battle of Natividad and the Battle of the "Mustard Stalks," while Benjamin remained at the Santa Clara Mission as a member of the guard force stationed there.

Death of Agnes Hancock Campbell

Unfortunately, soon after her arrival in Santa Clara, William Campbell’s wife, Agnes, became ill with typhoid fever and died on 30 November 1846. By special permission of the mission padre, Suarez de Real, she was buried in an unmarked grave in the cemetery at the old Santa Clara Mission.

Section 5 - Settlement in the Santa Clara Valley

Sawmill and Grist Mill

After the American victory, in late1846, William Campbell established a wheat farm on a 160-acre tract of land two miles south of what would become the town of Santa Clara. In late 1847, William Campbell, with the help of his sons David and Benjamin, began the construction of a sawmill along a creek, which in those days was called Arroyo Quito, and which today is called Saratoga Creek. His sawmill, completed in the fall of 1847, was only the second water-powered mill in northern California. The Spanish language contract, that gave him the right to erect the sawmill and sell the finished lumber, is the first legal document in the Santa Clara County public records. In 1849, William also became the operator of a gristmill, which he maintained until the summer of 1852. [24]

Surveys of the Towns of San Jose and Santa Clara

In April 1847, the Alcalde of the Pueblo of San Jose, John Burton, hired William to survey a plat of land a mile square to be laid out in building lots for the town. Assisted by his brother Thomas, William surveyed a tract:

" … lying between the following boundaries: On the North by Julian Street, on the east by Eighth Street, south by Reed Street, and west by Market. … This is the original plat of San Jose, and from this survey may be dated the existence of the city." [25]

William Campbell also had a roll to play in the founding of the town of Santa Clara:

"In 1850 the town site was surveyed by William Campbell into lots a hundred yards square, and one lot given to each citizen, with the understanding that he was to build a house on it within three months: failing to do so, the lot could be taken by another." [26]

The surveyor’s compass and chain, that William Campbell used in the town surveys cited above, are owned by George and Elaine Daum of Petaluma California; they have loaned these instruments to the Campbell Historical Museum in Campbell, California, where they are currently (1997) on display.

Lumber Business

After sale of his gristmill in 1852, William concentrated on the operation of his sawmill. The lumber business was very profitable as virtually all of the new American immigrants wanted wood frame houses in lieu of the adobe homes that were then typical in California. In the first couple of years since his arrival in California, prices for lumber rose from $50 per 1000 board feet to $300 per 1000 feet!

Death of William Campbell

After the death of his second wife, Agnes, William married two more times in California (see Section 1 above). In his old age, William resided with his son Benjamin. However, while on a visit to his eldest son David, in Porterville, California, William Campbell died on 02 December 1885. He is buried in Vandalia Cemetery in Tulare County, California where a War of 1812 marker honors his gravesite. [27]

Section 6 - Children of William Campbell

William Campbell had three daughters by his first wife Sally McNary: Ann Laurette, Margaret J. and an unnamed child who died in infancy. By his second wife, Agnes Hancock, William had four sons: David, Benjamin, William G. and John Franklin; and three daughters: Sarah, Elizabeth Margaret and Agnes Susan,  Several of these children are worthy of special note:

David Campbell (1825-1912)

David Campbell of Porterville, California was the eldest son of William Campbell of Santa Clara, California and his second wife, Agnes Hancock (1800-1846). He was born in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky on 23 January 1825. In April 1847 David assisted his father, William Campbell, and uncle, Thomas Campbell, in surveying the newly established town of San Jose. When gold was discovered near Sutter’s Mill, in January 1848, David, was one of the first Americans to reach the gold fields. In 1849 he married Mary King Whisman in Santa Clara County, California. David, in 1899, wrote an account of his family’s 1846 migration to California, which is appended to this web site. David Campbell died in Tulare County, California on 12 May 1912.  David’s cousin, David Lee Campbell, son of David McCord Campbell and Jane Campbell of Adams County, Illinois, had a very low opinion of this man (see his letter).

Benjamin Campbell (1826-1907)

Benjamin was the second born son of William Campbell and his second wife Agnes Hancock. He migrated to California, with his father and mother in 1846. In 1852, he returned to Missouri, married and led a wagon train back to California. He patented 160 acres of land near the town of San Jose. Benjamin, after the Civil War, founded the town of Campbell, California on a portion of this 160-acre tract. Benjamin’s cousin, David Lee Campbell, son of David McCord Campbell and Jane Campbell of Adams County, Illinois, had a very high opinion of this man – see the letter written to his father in 1851.



1.  See Otto A. Rothert, A History of Muhlenberg County (1913), page 94.

2.  See David Campbell's Memoir.

3.  John D. Unruh, The Plains Across (1976), pages 119-120.

4.  George R. Stewart, The California Trail (1962), page 301.

5.  Bernard Bailyn, The Peopling of British North America (1986), page 60.

6.  John D. Unruh, The Plains Across (1979), page 4.

7.  Dollar conversions are based on the price indices contained in John J McCusker, How Much Is That in Real Money (1992).

8.  Bernard DeVoto, The Year of Decision 1846 (1943), pages 121-122.

9.  Bernard DeVoto, The Year of Decision 1846 (1943), page 378.

10.  Ibid., page 181.

11.  Ibid., pages 121 and 146.

12.  Ibid., page 146.

13.  George R. Stewart, The California Trail (1962), pages 149-150.

14.  Ibid., pages 152, 156 and 175.

15.  Jeanette Watson, Campbell the Orchard City (1989), page 10.

16.  Ibid., page 174.

17.  Francis Parkman, The Oregon Trail (1849; reprinted, Signet Classic edition, New York, 1950), page 13.

18.  Fort Bernard was a half-finished trading post maintained by the Richard brothers and was the local competition to the American Fur Company’s Fort Laramie.

19.  George R. Stewart, The California Trail (1962), page 159.

20.  Ibid., pages 103-104

21.  Roster is adapted from: George R. Stewart, Ordeal by Hunger (1988), pages 363-364.

22.  Ibid., page 508.

23.  James Campbell, younger brother of William, was born in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky in 1806. About 1832, he emigrated to Callaway County, Missouri with his parents, David and Margaret Campbell (see page * of this book). While in Missouri, he married Margaret Almira Finley (1810-1846), by whom he had seven children. After his arrival in Oregon, James Campbell settled in Marion County, Oregon, in the Waldo Hills area. Subsequently, he lived in Seattle for awhile, but later returned and acquired a farm in Salem, Oregon where he lived until his death in 1872. James was a member of the Republican Party and a devout Methodist.

 24.  William A. Mitchell, "William Campbell (1793-1885) Wagon Train & California Pioneer," Journal of the Clan Campbell Society, Vol. 14, Autumn 1987, No. 4, pages 24-25.

25.  H. S. Foote, Editor, Pen Pictures from the "Garden of the World" or Santa Clara County, California Illustrated (1888), page 81.

26.  Ibid., page 205.

27.  William A. Mitchell, "William Campbell (1793-1885) Wagon Train & California Pioneer," Journal of the Clan Campbell Society, Vol. 14, Autumn 1987, No. 4, page 25.