Alvin Thorpe Branson
Alvin Thorpe Branson, the fourth son and sixth child of John Sevier Branson and Martha Jane Ousley, was born 25 March 1859 at the gold-mining outpost of Phillips Flat on the Merced River, Mariposa County, CA. The Branson family had only recently settled at this site after John had worked less profitable claims at nearby points along the river. Alvin spent his early childhood in Phillips Flat. By the time Alvin was eight years old, the local gravels had become depleted, so John Branson and his partners decided not to renew the claim for an additional three-year term. Instead, the family set out on a journey by Conestoga wagon -- the very same wagon in which John and his buddies Alonzo Sutton and Ike Paulton had used to come west from Missouri. John had kept the wagon during the intervening years, using it to haul commercial loads to supplement his earnings. The Bransons went first to the gold country of the Trinity Alps in extreme northern California, but finding no ripe mining opportunities there, continued on into the Willamette Valley of Oregon. John farmed for a year before Martha declared the weather too wet and insisted they return to Mariposa County. So the Bransons loaded their worldly goods back into the wagon, took ship from Portland to San Francisco Bay, and did as she recommended. Alvin came of age living at Grasshopper Ranch, a large parcel a few miles north of Hornitos, not far from the mining outpost of Quartzburg.
Once the Bransons were settled on their land, John spent most of his time as a farmer and rancher, or once again hauling supplies in his wagon. He now prospected only as a sideline. Nevertheless Alvin grew up dreaming of the lucky strike that his older brothers, particularly Reuben, were chasing. All across the Mother Lode walked men who had become rich during the Gold Rush, and Alvin had seen his own father make a decent living from prospecting. The mines of Quartzburg were literally right next door, providing a large number of men with jobs. It was not unreasonable from Alvin’s perspective to pin his hopes on a mining career. However, the odds of longterm financial comfort were growing worse with every decade. Alvin’s life from late teens to middle age would be swallowed up by a largely fruitless quest for his bonanza.
While always remaining alert for mining ventures of his own he might profit from (for example, Mariposa County records show an early 1880s claim he filed in partnership with his brother-in-law Alonzo Diah Johnson and their buddy Samuel Tippett), Alvin kept a roof over his head by serving as a common laborer in established deep-vein mines of the area. At first, this usually meant the Mount Gaines Mine or the Washington Mine, both only a short distance from his parents’ home -- Grasshopper Ranch’s property line literally ran along the northwest boundary of the Washington Mine parcel. Both operations were overseen by Moses Rodgers, a friend and saloon-buddy of John Sevier Branson, and lauded even in his day as a former slave who had done well for himself as a free man. The Washington Mine was just coming into its own as Alvin reached adulthood, and would remain a good producer during the 1880s, making the Quartzburg area one of the county’s clusters of population, though with Hornitos to serve as the “incorporated town” of the vicinity, there was no “downtown” nor any commercial businesses to brag about other than the mines.
Among the Mt. Gaines/Washington Mine outpost families was that of William Simmons, a “Cousin Jack” miner. (Cousin Jack miners were those miners originating in Cornwall, England, whose skills at hard-rock mining of precious metals was touted to be the standard of excellence in that profession during the first half of the 19th Century. William, born and raised in Cornwall, had come to the Mother Lode in the 1850s after an attempt to make his fortune in the gold rush of the Adelaide region of Australia.) A daughter of that family, Mary Eliza Simmons (sometimes called Mollie as a kid), had attended Quartzburg School with Alvin. Alvin and Mary Eliza wed 4 July 1880. The ceremony was held at the Hornitos Hotel, officiated by Justice of the Peace Samuel W. Carr, who had served in a similar capacity at the weddings of Alvin’s siblings Reuben, Thomas, and Mary Jane. Samuel Tippett was the signatory witness and best man, just as he had been at the wedding of Mary Jane to Alonzo Johnson three months earlier.
During the earliest part of the marriage, Alvin and Mary lived with her parents, but the Simmonses developed an intense dislike for their son-in-law. (Judging by first-hand accounts of their natures, they disliked just about everybody on the planet to one degree or another.) Alvin and Mary attempted to keep peace by moving out, taking shelter with her sister, Elizabeth Jane (known as Jennie) and brother-in-law Joseph Spagnoli at their home about a mile away. The relocation only postponed an altercation that may have been inevitable. Alvin was very nearly the first of John and Martha Branson’s children to die. On 16 January 1882, William Simmons rode over to the Spagnoli residence, entered the house and after a brief exchange of words with Alvin, shot Alvin with a pistol. The first bullet hit Alvin in the chest, the next in the hand as he ran away. Further shots missed as Mary and Jennie seized their father and attempted to disarm him. They were soon assisted by the local doctor, who had been passing by. Once William lost possession of his weapon, he leaped on his horse, rode back home, put the muzzle of his double-barrelled shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger with the toe of his boot, blowing off the top of his head. For an expanded description of William and Catherine Simmons and their family and a longer account of the attempted murder and suicide, including the accounts published in the Mariposa Gazette, click here.
By an incredible stroke of luck, the bullet travelled around Alvin’s ribcage and exited his back without entering the chest cavity. He recovered. Inasmuch as the first of his five children was not born until more than two years after the shooting, his entire line of descent would not have existed if William Simmons had been successful.
Perhaps the tragedy was the spur that prompted Alvin and Mary to try to make a life elsewhere. Alvin accepted a job at a mine in New Mexico. It was a coal mine, not a gold mine, but the work was similar and the pay steady. However, the area was still threatened at that time by Apache warriors led by Geronimo, and Alvin and Mary -- like many others -- chose to leave rather than risk being killed.
Back in Mariposa County, Alvin took jobs in a series of deep rock mines such as Hite’s Cove, King Solomon, Pine Tree, Josephine, Buena Vista, Gambetta, and many more. The household’s finances were often in doubt, but there was stability in the form of nearby extended family and familiar neighbors. Four children -- Maude, James, Walter, and Florence -- were born from 1884 to 1891. In 1892, the family moved to El Portal, just outside Yosemite Valley. For two summer seasons Alvin leased an orchard and garden plot, raising produce for the hotel and store at Wawona. When not caring for his acreage, Alvin made supply trips by mule in and out of Yosemite Valley, transporting not only food, but the U.S. mail as well. He was assisted in these endeavors by his second cousin Hiram Branson. (Hiram was not only a cousin, but an extended in-law due to Mariposa County marriages that connected him along one chain to Alvin, and along another chain to Mary Simmons Branson.) They returned from one of their trips accompanied by a half-breed Yosemite Indian girl and her infant. The teenager was wearing traditional Indian garments, which is to say, she was nearly naked by the standards of Victorian-era America. Alvin told his wife that the girl, Josie Allen, had been cast out by her tribe and had nowhere else to go, and he maintained she had to stay in Hiram’s cabin because their own was so crowded. Mary agreed that their own cabin was too crowded, but she must have expressed some doubt as to the propriety of Hiram, a bachelor, cohabitating with an unmarried young woman. She suggested that Josie might be taken to Grasshopper Ranch.
Alvin responded that his mother hated Indians. This was a prejudice Martha Jane actually had expressed. How severe the bigotry was is uncertain, given that she herself was part Indian (see Martha’s biography for the section covering this incident). Alvin may have been exaggerating the cold reception Josie might have received back at Grasshopper Ranch. It seems clear that Hiram and Josie had taken a fancy to one another and had decided to move in together no matter what. The only question was how to put a good face on the impropriety. Later in life Josie would romanticize the meeting between herself and Hiram, claiming that she had first seen Hiram when he heroically jumped into the Merced River to rescue her and her baby after a rope bridge had broken, plunging Josie and child into the water along with husband William Stanley. In this tale, William Stanley perished. This is a fabrication. The 1900 census shows William Stanley, himself a half-breed Indian, though not of the Yosemite tribe, still very much alive and still residing in the county. The story Alvin told his wife was probably cut of similar cloth -- something that would make it easier for Mary to accept the “living in sin” going on right next door. However, there may be some truth to the bit about Josie being cast out by her tribe. The early 1890s was a time of turmoil among the natives of the Yosemite valley, and as a granddaughter of Chief Tenaya, the leader famous for having (briefly) resisted the incursions of white prospectors into Yosemite Valley during the early years of the Gold Rush, Josie may have been in some danger from factions hostile to Tenaya’s clan. What is clear is that she had lived an eventful youth, and had more than once been in a position where she “had nowhere else to go.” Her mother had died when she was quite young, and then her German-born father had perished when she was about eleven. She had over the course of her brief life been engaged in a dance between her white heritage and her red one, and neither group had totally embraced her. That summer something had happened which caused her to spurn the company of William Stanley. To move in with Hiram solved a number of problems for her. Happily, it was a solution that worked out well in the long run. She and Hiram married, raised the baby (Ellen Stanley), and had six more children together.
Supplying the hotel and store did not pay well enough to continue beyond the second year. While Hiram and Josie remained near the gateway to Yosemite lifelong, Alvin and Mary and the kids moved on. Alvin resumed mining. In 1894 they were to the south in the mining camp of Grub Gulch in Madera County, where older brother Reuben Branson and his sons had found work alternately as miners, lumberjacks, or sawmill workers. Within a few years, though, it was back to Mariposa County, and here they would stay for most of the next twenty years. In 1897 Alvin and two partners filed a claim on the “Last Chance” mine near the Branson family’s mid-1850s home of Harte/Johnson’s Flat along the Merced River, investigating a prehistoric gravel bed at some distance from the river that did not appear to have been worked in earlier decades. This general locale was becoming known as Exchequer. Soon a dam would be erected within sight of the cabin Alvin and the family lived in while he was working the claim. Though they did not stay here full-time round the year, this was the one residence they owned title to.
A smidgen of gold turned up, but by no means enough to support the family. Alert for other income, Alvin interrupted his efforts at the Last Chance diggings in a big way twice in the early years of the claim. Gold had been discovered in the Klondike region of Alaska and the Yukon. It was inevitable that Alvin would be swept up in the resulting gold rush. He took ship to from Seattle to Juneau in 1898, returning to California when the winter set in. He did well enough to be convinced a second trip was justified. With his brother-in-law John “Babe” Napier, husband of Nancy Anne Branson, and about two dozen other Mariposa County miners, Alvin headed north again in 1900. By the time they reached Juneau, the buzz was all about the discovery of gold near Nome, farther north on the western coast. He and Babe and the others detoured to that locale.
The party arrived before the Seward Peninsula had thawed for the summer. This was a problem. The places where the gold supposedly was could not be worked by placer miners until the snow gave up its grip on the streambeds. Forced to idle away his time in Nome, Alvin was one of the many men who discovered that the coastal sand was partly made of gold dust. Alvin set up a “rocker” right on the beach and earned the first rewards of his expedition there. Unfortunately, a storm left a broken lumber barge right atop his claim, and he lost valuable work time getting the obstacle removed. When the snows melted -- and once he could find a team of dogs to pull his sled -- Alvin went inland and placer mined until winter set in.
The yield was not as high as Alvin had hoped. Worse still, he fell desperately ill on the voyage south. Feverish in his berth, he was unable to keep a careful eye on his hoard and was robbed. He later suspected Babe Napier to be the culprit, but had no proof. By the time he came to his senses at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, CA, his brother-in-law had returned to Merced having already converted all of “his” gold dust into cash, and if some of that cash was generated at Alvin’s expense, it was Babe’s secret to keep. Alvin arrived home with just seventy-five cents in his pocket.
Alvin was not tempted to go north again. He worked the Last Chance gravels for the next fourteen years, living in a cabin along the Merced River and often staying at Grasshopper Ranch. It was during the first of these years that son Ivan, the last of his and Mary’s five children, was born. Ivan was a huge baby (his older sister Maude, who at seventeen years old assisted in the birth, remembered him as being thirteen pounds) and the labor a difficult two days that exhausted both mother Mary and grandmother Martha, the latter a midwife one last time at age seventy-three. Mary suffered hemorrhaging and ultimately required surgery. She would be fifteen months recuperating, bringing more debt not only from the medical bill, but from the long period when she could not care for the family’s livestock.
Alvin did not give up on Last Chance, but by 1907, the excavation was failing to produce more than an ounce of gold per year. Alvin’s partners had given up by then. Somehow Alvin couldn’t. He did enough work there to keep the claim active, and paid the hundred-dollar annual fee necessary to keep the rights, but he had no choice but to work at whatever jobs he could find. He was a blacksmith, a teamster, a carpenter. He also mined for others, of course, but he was conscious of the ill health effects of breathing silicon dust hour after hour in tunnels with poor ventilation. He tended toward above-ground jobs. His son Ivan later wrote that his father had a real knack as a blacksmith. During summers at Mount Gaines, Alvin specialized in sharpening and tempering steel drills.
Alvin’s musical-chairs rounds of employment meant the household seldom stayed in one place long. Sometimes they were all at Quartzburg. Sometimes they were at Grasshopper Ranch -- one known instance being in 1904 when the ranch house burned, an incident described by Ivan Branson in Bones of the Bransons. Mary and the kids often stayed with John and Martha whenever Alvin found a job truly far afield, like the time when he journeyed over the Sierra Nevada to work in Virginia City, NV. At Mt. Gaines, they lived in a tent uphill from the outpost cookhouse, getting their water from the flume that passed by the spot. Sometimes, of course, the family was at Exchequer. Probably the steadiest of the places between 1897 and 1909 was the town of Mariposa. Here the family stayed in a rented house, called the Gann House after its owners. (This house no longer exists; it burned down in the 1940s. It was almost certainly the spare home of Elias Newton Gann, whose main residence was his ranch in the Whiterock precinct of Mariposa County.) Alvin was often not present at the Gann House. His job site was seven miles away at Mount Ophir, and this was too far to make it back to his own bed each night, so he stayed in bachelor miners’ quarters in the building that during the Gold Rush had been the Mt. Ophir mint. Mary would bring him fresh laundry and other goods on weekends, staying long enough to cook him a meal or two. The Gann House was the site of Ivan’s birth in 1901, and it was where the family was on 18 April 1906 when the great earthquake struck San Francisco. Alvin and Mary felt the shaking, but thought four-year-old Ivan, in bed between them, was the cause. They assumed he was scratching at fleas. After rising for the day, they saw that the Mariposa Courthouse clock, visible from the front porch, had stopped as a result of the seismic activity.
In 1907 the Yosemite Valley Railroad line was created between Merced and El Portal. The tracks passed within thirty feet of the Branson cabin at Exchequer. (The photo right shows Alvin, Mary, and son Ivan at the cabin in the early 1910s.) Most of the right-of-way was over government land, which the railroad had the right to cross. However, the laying of the track went right over Alvin’s Last Chance diggings, requiring him to create a reconfigured tunnel. He insisted on being compensated. The railroad ignored him until the day the work crew arrived to lay the track and found Alvin at one end of his property and Mary at the other, both armed with loaded weapons. The railroad coughed up the payment -- this being one of the few ways Last Chance ever made money.
Within a few years, Alvin once again had to defend Last Chance. While gone from the cabin, a grocer from Turlock encroached on the site, doing digging of his own. When Alvin discovered the interloper, he got his gun and shots were fired. The details of the incident are not available at this time, but it would appear that the grocer (or his survivors?) afterward filed charges against Alvin for use of the gun. Alvin had to appear in court in Mariposa. However, no Mariposa judge or jury was likely to punish a man for defending his own legitimate gold claim, particularly not when that defender was so clearly “one of their own.” Ivan Branson alludes in a memoir to a gun fight between Alvin and a neighbor as well, separate from the Turlock grocer incident. Times were desperate, and everyone was trying to hold on to what they had.
The accounts of these dramatic instances of Alvin’s defense of his claim come from Ivan. It could be Ivan stretched the truth or used “gunfight” as a metaphor. One of the struggles over Last Chance can be verified, but the source makes no mention of bullets flying through the air. The 8 April 1911 issue of the Mariposa Gazette contains an article about a session of the Mariposa County court from April fourth to fifth that dealt with a lawsuit brought by Alvin against rancher William H. Vance, who owned the grazing rights of the land upon which Last Chance was situated. Vance argued unsuccessfully that he should control the mineral rights to the spot as well.
Despite all the times guns threatened Alvin’s survival, it was Mother Nature who gets the blame for a couple of close calls Alvin experienced during the early 1910s, both while at home at Exchequer. A flood that arrived in the winter of 1910-11 broke the Exchequer Dam. The accumulation of redwood trees and other timber that had been trapped behind the dam got stuck again just five hundred feet downstream from the cabin. The floodwaters mounted until at their highest level they came to within three feet of the cabin door. A year or two later, while Mary was away in Calaveras County helping her very pregnant daughter Florence prepare to give birth, a windstorm came along that blew over the cabin’s “anchor oak.” The tree broke through the roof and a jagged limb stopped just a foot over Ivan’s chest.
By 1914, Alvin conceded that squeezing out a living from Last Chance was a hopeless cause. This came in the wake of a Department of the Interior ruling that he must zone his land into separate mining and agricultural parcels -- something not possible due to the terrain. He agreed that the family should move to Stockton. That way Ivan, now a teenager, could attend high school. A house was obtained in June of that year. By the end of the year, an examination of the mortgage loan showed that it contained a nasty balloon payment. A different house at 420 Monterey Avenue was obtained, this one bought under traditional twenty-year mortgage terms. The payments were $13.35 a month -- an amount hard to come up with in the 1910s, but manageable. By no later than early 1915, Alvin and Mary moved in to the home in which they would spend the rest of their lives.
During those final decades, Alvin got by much as he had before, earning money where jobs turned up but never growing wealthy. Blacksmith work was his mainstay. There was one interruption of the general pattern in 1917. In May of that year, former daughter-in-law Mary Ethel Harrigan Bennett, who had been married to James Sutton Branson 1908-1910, died suddenly of a botched abortion. Alvin’s granddaughter Melba was left without a mother. Her stepfather, Marion Bennett, did not entirely feel it was his responsibility to care for her given that she was not his child by blood. As for Jim Branson, he was not in a position to help because he had been convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and was on his way to San Quentin Penitentiary, beginning his incarceration on the 23rd of May -- seven days after Ethel’s death -- and remaining inside until the early summer of 1918. So Alvin and Mary, along with Melba’s maternal grandmother Nellie Robinson Harrigan, stepped in to make sure Melba was okay. Eventually the duty of raising Melba fell mostly to Nellie, but Alvin and Mary stayed involved as much as they could, and for the first several months, a span stretching at least across the summer of 1917, they “went the extra mile” to be there for their grandchild by moving to Oakland, Alameda County, CA to a rental house only about four blocks away from the Bennett home. (Being in the East Bay also eased the logistical challenge of visiting Jim in prison in that San Quentin was now only a short ferryboat ride away.) Alvin obtained a job at the Standard Oil refinery in Richmond, Contra Costa County, CA, a place where a number of former Hornitos men worked. Ivan lingered in the family home in Stockton, probably watched over by his big sister Maude and big brother Walter, but when the school year ended, Alvin suggested his younger son come work at the refinery. Ivan made the move, but didn’t like the refinery and his boss there didn’t like him, so he switched to a job as a street conductor and also, on an unpaid basis, got to know the guys at the local Western Union office -- it was Ivan’s dream to be a telegrapher. This taste of Bay Area life would ultimately lead Ivan to reside there (mostly in San Francisco) for four decades.
In the fall of 1917, Alvin and Mary and Ivan were back in Stockton. The town had become the base of many members of the Branson clan. Son Walter lived right with them at 420 Monterey for the rest of his days after brief military service in World War I -- and would in fact live in the house for the rest of his long life. Daughter Maude and her fourth husband Clyde Miller acquired the house next door at 410 Monterey. Daughter Florence remained in Stockton for the rest of Alvin’s lifetime. And San Joaquin County in general was home through much or all of this period to his siblings Thomas, Nancy, and Theresa and a host of his nephews and nieces.
Alvin and Mary didn’t much care for winters in Stockton, where the high fog rolls in and stays for weeks at a stretch. The household had been above the Central Valley fog layer when they had lived in the hills. He didn’t care to have so very many neighbors living so very close. All in all, he wasn’t meant to be a “town man.” Throughout his final twenty years of life he would often hear and answer the call of the Mother Lode and spend what time he could prospecting in the hills. Prospecting was his recreation; the only other pastime mentioned in memoirs about him is that he played the violin, or as his peers would say, his fiddle.
Various members of the Branson/Simmons clan in Stockton in 1920. Adults from left to right: Alvin Thorpe Branson, Florence Branson Corkins, Ernest Lee Corkins, Mary Eliza Simmons Branson, Walter Henry Branson. Children left to right: Alvin Corkins, Mildred Corkins, Daniel Corkins, Doris Curtis, and in Walter’s arms, baby Alice Corkins.
It seems Alvin Thorpe Branson was determined to be a miner until the day he died. It didn’t quite happen that way. In the summer of 1934, age 75, interrupting his retirement to work as a roofer engaged in building barracks for the C.C.C. Depression-era government program, he suffered a stroke while doggedly remaining on the job in the midst of a day when the afternoon temperature reached 114 degrees. (That figure comes from Ivan’s account of his father’s collapse, written forty-five years after the event had occurred; he probably was overestimating by a few degrees.) Alvin never recovered his full health. He died 19 December 1934 in Stockton and was buried at Stockton Rural Cemetery.
Mary spent her widowhood at 420 Monterey with Walter, and with Maude next door. A letter she wrote to Alvin’s first cousin Amanda Branson Martin (daughter of Alvin’s uncle Reuben Branson) of Meta, Osage County, MO at Christmas, 1935 -- a note sent unaware that Amanda had passed away the previous month -- reveals that Mary had gone through a bad patch with intestinal problems in the twelve months or so after Alvin’s death, perhaps a manifestation of her grief. Always a somewhat gaunt woman, she fell below one hundred pounds of weight by the spring of 1935. Fortunately her health rebounded. By October of that year, she went along with Ivan and daughter-in-law Marion for a nine-day trip to Los Angeles and Long Beach -- she had lived such a cleave-to-home life that she had never before been to southern California. Mary made it through the 1930s and passed away 26 December 1940. She was buried with Alvin. Stockton Rural Cemetery is now home to the graves of not only Mary and Alvin but a number of their children and Alvin’s siblings, nephews, and nieces.
Alvin and Mary (center) at their fiftieth wedding anniversary picnic, held 4 July 1930 at Oak Park in Stockton. Their companions are Samuel Tippett, the original best man, and Mary Jane Branson Johnson, the original maid of honor. Four and a half years after this picture was taken, Alvin would be buried in a grave located only a few hundred yards south of this very spot.
Children of Alvin Thorpe Branson with Mary Eliza Simmons
Maude Ethel Branson
James Sutton Branson
Walter Henry Branson
Florence Winnifred Branson
Ivan Thorpe Branson
For genealogical details, click on each of the names.
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