John Sevier Branson


John Sevier Branson was born 17 March 1826 in Tennessee. He was named after John Sevier, the state’s first (and five-term) governor, and before that, governor of Franklin, a territory that petitioned for statehood but did not quite succeed in being admitted to the union, its land ultimately becoming a dozen of the northeastern counties of Tennessee. John Sevier the governor was not only the sort of much-admired founding father parents liked to name their sons after, but he was also a cousin of “our” John’s grandmother. The distinctive middle name makes John Sevier Branson a kind of genealogical landmark. An abundance of Bransons with common given names (William, Robert, James, John, Andrew, Thomas, Susan, Ann, Elizabeth, Sarah, Mary) were born in the southern states between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Many of these Bransons were part of huge families. Many of their identities have since become obscured by the poor record-keeping of the day, or by losses since, for example the burning down of the courthouse in Marion County, TN, or by disinformation arising from lazy genealogy. It is particularly easy to get confused by the existence of several Andrew Jackson Bransons, all of them closely related. John Sevier Branson presents the opposite challenge. Apparently all mid-1800s references point to the same man, which tempts family historians to regard him perhaps with too much scrutiny. Some of those researchers have been unable to resist “adopting” him. One of the most persistent errors is the number of members of the family. The best research indicates only twelve. His eleven siblings were Sarah, Jared, Mary Ann, Andrew Jackson, David, Reuben, Margaret, Nancy, Ann, George Washington, and Rhoda. However, many genealogists add Madison, Stephen, Thomas Jr., Andrew Cornessus, and another (!) Mary Ann. The mistake appears to stem from an 1850s list of John’s father Thomas’s heirs from a dispersal-of-estate court filing -- a list detailing who would receive what shares of the money generated from the sale of Thomas’s land. The extra five were Thomas’s grandchildren, the surviving progeny of his late son Jared. These five split the inheritance share Jared would have received had he still been alive. As orphans, these five had moved from Marion County, TN to Gasconade County, MO to join their grandparents and remained closely associated with them and with the area (four are buried in the same cemetery there). Interestingly, John himself did not receive his part of the heritage proceeds -- perhaps it was too logistically difficult to send the sum to him, given that he was in California by then.

In general, firm knowledge of the Branson family prior to John’s generation is something I regard as a bit of a will-o’-the-wisp. That is to say, even the best picture I can muster is not guaranteed to be free of error. Most of the early Bransons were illiterate and did not create written records. Many of the clerks and preachers and census enumerators who took down information about them were barely more educated. This is one reason why, on this website, John’s ancestry is covered in this one essay, whereas 120 pages are devoted to his descendants. When it comes to John’s forebears and his birth family, I “hit the wall” genealogically speaking and have no personal, within-the-family records to work from. As far as is possible to tell now, John went west on his own, without any brothers or Branson cousins. If relatives did come along, they soon went back, and ultimately left no trace that they had been there. Once in California, John does not seem to have spoken much about his birth family back in Missouri, at least not when anyone was able to write information down. The family Bible was consumed in a fire that destroyed John’s house in the early years of the 20th Century, near the end of his lifetime, which eliminated whatever lore it may have contained about his heritage. An attempt was made to restore the burned record, but only to the extent of recreating the list of names and birthdates of John himself, his wife, and his ten children. Therefore what I know about his siblings and their clans comes by piecing together from public records and memoirs, and I offer only a summary here. I hope the details are right. If not, what is here does at least establish the context of John’s origins.

Before detailing my own theory, several of the more wide-ranging Branson family research efforts should be mentioned. The families descended from John’s parents Thomas Branson and Susannah McGowan were deeply researched from the 1970s to her death in 2010 by (Ethel) Laverne Baker Shull of California, MO. Her record of the line of her ancestress Sarah Branson Baker, John’s eldest sister, is especially rich. During the 1990s much of Laverne’s archive was tapped -- with Laverne’s active cooperation -- by her Missouri cousin Jo’an Jett Thornton for a series of “books” (in the form of loose-leaf genealogies printed on regular 8"x11" paper) of the families of each of Thomas’s children, beginning with the massive (1500-page plus) volume on Andrew Jackson Branson, who was the Branson most connected, through the Jett family, to Jo’an herself. Since the creation of these books, Laverne and and Jo’an (before their deaths) and others have worked to keep them updated. At present, publication aspects of this effort are being carried on by Mrs. Kathleen Thornton Branson, including the issuance of a regular (often monthly) Branson newsletter. Subscriptions to the newsletter are ten dollars a year. The books are varying prices. For information or purchase, write to Kathleen Branson, 8615 John McKeever Road, Pacific, MO 63069-7545. Credit for much of what I know about John’s father and grandfather goes to Laverne, whose guidance and enthusiasm I greatly miss.

While I have some problems with some of the “facts” mentioned on various Branson family websites, I recommend visiting the following three sites -- as long as you use the information obtained there as a starting point rather than as gospel: 1) Pat Patterson has put together a good website devoted to the genealogy of her family, and many pages deal with the Branson clan. Click here to reach the homepage and then click on various “Branson” links. Pat is a descendant of John Sevier Branson’s brother David Branson. 2) Yvonne Bowers, a descendant of John Day Branson, maintains a site that tries to be expansive in its coverage of John Day Branson’s progeny. According to a prevalent theory, John Sevier Branson is part of the John Day Branson clan. I do not agree, but the coverage on the site is so expansive it is useful for investigation of those lines which are connected. Click here to proceed into the Branson pages. 3) Sandra Branson Young, a descendant of John’s uncle Andrew Branson, maintains a wide-ranging, far-more-than-just-Branson website. Click here to get to the home page.

Comparing the above three sites is a fine way to see just how much of a puzzle remains concerning this gang of Bransons and their immediate ancestors -- because a good look will show that the researchers differ on a number of points. They agree on many other points, and this I take as an omen that we Branson heirs may get the tangle sorted out sooner or later. I applaud Pat and Yvonne and Sandy and all their helpers for their hard work and heartily thank them for their efforts. Do, however, be warned that all three sites contain errors regarding John and his line. (Yvonne has recently been making adjustments in this regard, though.) I ask that you treat my site as a reference of first resort when it comes to this particular area of the clan genealogy.

To best understand John as a man and figure of history, it is useful to become familiar with his context, namely the pioneer era of Mariposa County. For this, I highly recommend consulting the GenWeb research site, MariposaResearch.net.

Two relatives of his generation did eventually join John out in California. These were his first cousins, Isaac Branson and Irena Branson Scott. Isaac and Irena were both children of John’s uncle Valentine Branson. They were half-siblings, the product of different mothers. Irena and her husband William Wyatt Scott left their home in northern Missouri in 1864. William was killed when the wagon train reached the California Crossing of the South Platte River on the Oregon Trail. According to family accounts, this was the result of being struck by lightning, but there is reason to think that story is a fabrication. William was certainly killed, but just how is not certain. Travelling along with the Scotts and the others were Isaac and his family, leaving behind their home of several years in eastern Nebraska Territory. It was fortunate in that Isaac could step in and help out his suddenly-widowed sister, who on top of everything had been injured during the incident that had killed her husband (injured by the lightning strike itself, if indeed there was a ligntning strike). Irena gave birth to a son once the wagon train reached its destination in Oregon. The family members then came south, spending a number of months with fellow travellers William and Sarah Shepard in Sonoma County. The Shepards would remain in Sonoma County, but Irena, Isaac, and their families sought out John in Mariposa County, arriving some time in 1865, probably in the spring. Irena was troubled by her injury for quite some time, but it did not hold her back in the long run. She enjoyed a very full life of over eighty years, becoming a well-known widow rancher and matriarch. Irena is buried right next to John in the Oddfellows Cemetery, Hornitos, CA. Over the latter decades of the 19th Century, Isaac and his family were particularly associated with John and his brood. The two households were right next door to each other for a time, as shown in the 1870 census. Their children grew up as neighbors, friends, coworkers, business partners, schoolmates, and of course as kinfolk. John and Isaac and Irena are also connected genealogically through a maze of intermarriages among the pioneer families of Mariposa County -- the Guests, the Scotts, the Spagnolis, the Peards, the Simmonses, and the Bransons.

The Ancestry of John Sevier Branson

I can say with confidence that John Sevier Branson’s father was Thomas Branson. About fifty years ago a family historian named Mable McClellan disseminated a theory that John’s father was named Andrew and came from Ohio. This was a confusion stemming from a similarity of names. Mable had an ancestor named Andrew Jackson Branson. Mable erroneously concluded that her progenitor was the same Andrew Jackson Branson who was John Sevier Branson’s brother, and “adjusted” John’s parentage. Her Andrew was, in fact, not the brother, but a first cousin, the son of John’s uncle Andrew Branson (listed as Andrew Daniel Branson in some genealogies). Both men shared the same full name and had dates of birth in the early 1800s. Mable further conjectured that Andrew, Sr. was a descendant of Eli Branson, famous for fighting in the Revolutionary War in the Colony of North Carolina. Eli did not fight for “our” side -- he was a captain in the Tory militia -- but he is a colorful figure to have in one’s ancestry and it is a fact that he participated in the war. Ivan Branson goes on at length about Eli in the early pages of Bones of the Bransons, implying that somehow Eli was John’s ancestor (though never endorsing this theory in unequivocal words). Let me say in no uncertain terms that John Sevier Branson is not a descendant of Eli Branson. John’s father was not named Andrew. John’s father was Thomas Branson. Thomas was in turn extremely likely to have been the Thomas Branson who was a son of Jarred Branson. (Jarred is a widely accepted version of his name, but it should be mentioned that it is not certain this is the most correct spelling; in records made during his lifetime, he is recorded under many variations, including Jarret, Gerrard, and Jared with one “r.” Also, many genealogists include a middle initial “E” in his name. As Laverne Shull often said, there is no documentation anywhere that he had a middle name, much less one that began with the letter “E.” His son Jared is known to have had that initial because the initial appears in his 1866 estate papers, papers which the Gasconade County clerk eventually archived in the same file with the 1831 paperwork related to Jarred’s own estate. Some early researcher must have looked in that commingled estate file and concluded the “E” belonged to the father as well. This is certainly possible, but there is no proof and for the rest of this essay he will just be called Jarred Branson.)

Thomas Branson, who was either the first or the second son of Jarred, was born 10 September 1778 in Virginia. Just where in Virginia is not directly documented, but the event probably occurred on a farm at Burks Fork in what was then Montgomery County, but is currently in Carroll County. A land survey certificate, tax lists, and deed transaction records make it apparent that Jarred Branson acquired title to land at Burks Fork in 1776, and kept it until 1786. Logically, the family didn’t just own the property, but lived on it as well, and therefore they were there when Thomas was born in 1778. Some researchers have cited an alternate birthplace, namely Patrick County. This is not correct. For one thing, Patrick County did not exist until 1791. The mistake no doubt arises because the family did eventually come to live in Patrick County, but not until well after Thomas’s birth.

Jarred Branson appears to have been born in more easterly parts of Virginia. Where is uncertain. His birth was definitely in the decade of the 1750s, but the year is subject to debate, with 1754 being a popular guess. Jarred may have spent a significant part of his youth in Surrey/Stokes County, NC, and/or in Pittsylvania County, VA. By the time he became a young man, i.e. amid the early years of the Revolutionary War period, he had arrived in the eastern foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. About that time, he became a married man. His wife was Sarah Cock, who probably had arrived as a single woman with her parents, John Cock and Elizabeth Goad, who settled at Burks Fork. Jarred and Sarah may have met well before the Burks Fork years. Back then, families migrated in tandem. Mobility was not as individualistic then as it is now. Whole clans, rather than individuals and/or nuclear families, would establish communities together. The Bransons, Cocks, and Goads were among a slate of families, including the Dillards, the Simpsons, the Shockleys, the Seviers, the Owsleys, and many more who had been part of each other’s lives in other parts of the Colonies for years, if not generations.

The land that Jarred and Sarah lived on was a 300-acre parcel that had belonged to John and Elizabeth Cock. Some of the parcel was probably a part of Sarah Cock’s dowry; the remainder may have been purchased by Jarred from his father-in-law. The family remained in place until 1786, when they sold the parcel to Thomas Dillard.

Many of Jarred and Sarah’s neighbors at Burks Fork were Quaker homesteaders out of Guilford County, NC. This has been cited as a strong hint that Jarred and Sarah were Quakers, which lends credence to the idea that they were part of the line of John Day Branson of New Jersey. The connection is unlikely. The presence of the Guilford County Quakers is coincidental. Jarred was not Quaker. Quakers did not believe in slavery, and Jarred and Sarah were slaveowners.

With the sale of the Burks Fork land in 1786, the family began moving about, and they would not ever really stay put. This was a common pattern among pioneers -- to clear land, plant a crop, harvest their sowings for a year or two or three until the soil became depleted, then move on to virgin territory. Where they went in the late 1780s is a blank, which is a strong hint they were in Franklin, whose records became lost after the state failed to be admitted to the Union. By 1790, they were back in what would become Carroll County, acquiring 150 acres on or near Big Reed Island. They moved to Patrick County, VA in the late 1790s. They continue to appear in Patrick County records until the early 1810s, though it is not at all certain they were there full time without interruptions.

By the early 1810s, the six known children -- John Jefferson Branson (who was probably a nephew or young cousin of Jarred Branson rather than a son), Thomas Branson, Mary Ann Branson Haines, Andrew Branson, Jared E. Branson, and Valentine Branson -- were grown and had established their own households. They all became residents of eastern Tennessee, meaning that all of the next generation finished coming of age there, and not in Virginia. As the eldest of that generation founded their own households, some of them “rooted in” and treated Tennessee as their home for good. A small fraction of the descendants of Jarred Branson can be found there to this day. This long-term presence in Tennessee does not apply to the majority. They roved about Tennessee through the 1810s and 1820s and, in a few instances, the 1830s, then gave in to the siren call of newly available homesteads in central Missouri. Jarred and Sarah came to Gasconade County, MO in the 1820s, probably toward the very end of the decade. (Some genealogies suggest the arrival was as early as 1821. This seems to be a mistake stemming from a history of pioneer families of central Missouri. In that book’s section on the Bransons, an 1821 arrival is mentioned. A careful reading will show that the 1821 date refers to a Branson in-law’s family, specifically, it refers to the arrival of the David family. Sarah David, age eleven at the time of that migration, would grow up to marry David Branson, one of Jarred and Sarah’s grandsons.) Nearly all of Jarred and Sarah’s children and most of their grandchildren joined them in Gasconade County -- or even came with them at precisely the same time. It was in Gasconade County that Jarred died at the beginning of 1831. His precise death date is not known, but his grandson Martin Haines, son of Mary Ann Branson Haines, filed a plea 1 February 1831 asking that his uncles Thomas, Andrew, Jared, and Valentine Branson not be allowed to dispose of the estate until he, Martin, turned twenty-one and could press his own claim to a share. Martin was the only surviving child of Mary Ann Branson Haines, and he was eligible to receive the portion of the estate that would have come to his mother had she not pre-deceased Jarred. The implication of the 1 February 1831 document is that Jarred had been dead only a short time. Jarred does appear as a head of household in the 1830 Gasconade County, MO census, so he was still alive as of that summer. Sarah may or may not have still been alive; her death date is unknown.

Thomas Branson, his wife Susannah McGowan, and almost all of their children were among the group that came to Gasconade in the late 1820s. Their roaming over the preceding fifteen years had sometimes separated them from some of their kin. Thomas and Susannah had lived in White County, TN, then had spent a few years in Marion County, TN, then appear to have spent a brief time in Claiborne County, TN, where John Sevier Branson, the last of their kids, was born. The arrival in Gasconade represented both a reunion of the extended Branson family, and the establishment of a place that would forever after be associated with them. Thomas and Susannah settled on a farm near Mt. Sterling, in what would be designated as Third Creek Township. This place now lies just east of the boundary line between Gasconade County and Osage County. Osage was created out of Gasconade at the beginning of 1841. Many family parcels ended up on the Osage side, but Thomas and Susannah’s property remained within Gasconade. Thomas died on the farm near Mt. Sterling 15 November 1851. Today, the vicinity is so replete with descendants of Jarred Branson that if a locally-born bride wants to marry a locally-born groom, she is as much as conceding she’s going to marry a Branson cousin of some sort, mutually descended from Jarred and Sarah, and there have been dozens of cases where not only are both spouses descendants, but are descendants in more than one way, because there were a number of Branson-cousin marriages in the area even back in the 1800s.

While the life of Thomas and even of his father Jarred can be reasonably reconstructed, this is not true of Jarred’s ancestors. No one has been able to make an airtight case yet for the origin of Jarred Branson -- his mother and father are at best only tentatively identified. However, I’m willing to go on record and endorse one particular scenario that I think fits the facts. According to that scenario, Jarred’s great great grandfather along the patrilineal side can be identified.

First, let’s dispose of one of the biggest of the “red herring” theories, one even more persistent than the Andrew Branson idea of Mable McClellan that led Ivan Branson astray for so many years. Many researchers have placed Jarred Branson as part of the clan of Nathaniel Branson of England. Nathaniel was born about 1605 in Berkshire. His family was associated for much of the late 1600s and early 1700s Burlington County, NJ, and later with Frederick County, VA. They make up the group I and other researchers refer to as the “Quaker Bransons” and is sometimes called the “John Day Branson” line. The presumed order of descent from Nathaniel goes from him to William, Thomas L., John Day, and another Thomas L. Branson to Jarred. The first five steps in that sequence are undoubtedly correct, but I simply don’t see that there is any link between the younger Thomas L. Branson and his supposed son Jarred Branson. No evidence has turned up aside from coincidental presence of a small number of that group in some of the general areas where “our” Bransons briefly lived. Most telling, the y-chromosome DNA pattern of the Jarred Branson line does not match any of the John Day Branson male-line descendants’ y-chromosome DNA patterns.

Likewise, a theory has been promulgated that Jarred’s wife was Sarah Shockley. This, too, doesn’t match up. Jarred’s wife was Sarah Cock, who was related to the Goads and the Seviers. The Shockley family and the Branson family are closely connected and it is a virtual certainty that there was a Jared Branson/Sarah Shockley union somewhere among all the cousins and nephews and nieces et al, but that union was not the one that produced Thomas Branson of Third Creek Township.

While records are too imprecise to guarantee which early Branson line Jarred was part of, it must have been one of those associated with the Cock, Goad, and Sevier families. Recently (late 2008 onward), new research is strongly suggesting this line began with the arrival in 1651 of Thomas Branson, a teenager of St. Elinor’s Parish, Worcester, England, to what was at that time St. Mary’s County, MD. Thomas and his immediate descendants were associated with that locality for about the next hundred years. (During that span, that section of Maryland kept getting rearranged, with counties splitting off, new ones being created, some areas getting back former names, making it a challenge to figure out whether a person cited in documents moved or if the name of the same place they had been living in all along had been altered. Charles County is often cited and I will use that name below to refer to the area in general, but in fact, documents referring to family members come from St. Mary’s, Patuxent, Potomac, Calvert, Prince George’s, and Charles Counties.) This group was tight-knit and intermarried repeatedly with the same families over the next several generations, even to the extent of cousins intermarrying in Missouri in the mid-1800s, so there is abundant reason to advocate that it is this clan, springing from “Thomas Branson the Immigrant” as we might call him, that Jarred emerged from.

The question is, which male line down from Thomas the Immigrant led to his great great grandson Jarred Branson. Thomas had four known sons, Thomas, Gerrard, Michael, and John. As late as the summer of 2009, the case seemed good that Michael was Jarred Branson’s great-grandfather. Lately the case seems better that it was Gerrard -- and this makes sense, given that this may have been the beginning of the frequent use of the first name Gerrard, Jarred, Jared, Jarret, etc. within the clan. The next in the line was probably a Thomas Branson, but while his life can be traced to some extent through documents, it isn’t clear who his father was, nor is there proof he was the father of the John Branson who is tentatively identified as the father of Jarred Branson. However, if the tentative line is correct, the sequence goes from Thomas the Immigrant to Gerrard to Thomas to John to Jarred.

Older Branson genealogies suggested that the connection back to the British Isles, either to England or Scotland, was more recent than the mid-1600s, but this is a common sort of error. Often people of the 1800s would describe their father’s parentage as being English or Scottish or whatever, as if the father’s parents were literally from the mother country, even when the actual migration had taken place generations earlier.

An indentured servant is a modest origin. It’s not surprising more glamorous origins were tossed about. That said, there are hints Thomas Branson the Immigrant was from a family of stature in Worcester. If the tale told by descendants is accurate, Thomas was sixteen and fatherless when he made the voyage. His widowed mother opposed his departure, so he had to pay for his passage by agreeing to the indenture. One version of the tale has an uncle rushing to the dock to toss him a purse of coins as the ship cast off. However, we will leave aside for now any discussion of what precise bunch of Bransons back in England Thomas sprang from. This is not to say such a discussion would not be worthwhile. The name Branson does have its cachet. As mentioned in Bones of the Bransons, the roots go back to the time of the Norman invasion of England. William the Conqueror’s forces included men called de Brandestin or de Braundeston, a name which mutated over the centuries into Branson, Bronson, Brunson, Braunson, Brownson, Brinson, and other variations. The ultimate pedigree could be impressive. Furthermore, despite the indenture, it does appear that Thomas the Immigrant was a man of means, and associated with the “good” families of the colony. Among others, he was well acquainted with Thomas Gerrard, a leader of early Maryland. Thomas Gerrard was surely the figure for whom Gerrard Branson was named. It is even reasonable to suppose some sort of genealogical connection, whether by blood or marriage, existed between the Bransons and Gerrards in the mid-1600s.

At this time, theory only, Jarred Branson’s mother is thought to have been Mary Neale, daughter of Charles Neale. Charles Neale was a son of John Neale and Elizabeth Hungerford. Elizabeth Hungerford was a daughter of William Hungerford and Margaret Barton.

John Sevier Branson’s mother’s identity is less clear. Ivan Branson calls her Susanna Alma McGowan in Bones of the Bransons, and this was the version I used by default until recently. However, sources offer a plethora of choices. This is probably mostly a result of the imprecise record-keeping of the era, but it also seems possible the woman herself did not maintain a consistent name. So, depending on whom you ask, you might be told her name was Susan or Susanne. Alma is sometimes rendered as Anna and is sometimes presented as her first name. She is Susannah on the aforementioned list of Thomas Branson’s heirs, and as she personally endorsed papers related to that sale of land under the name Susannah, I am persuaded to utilize that version. I do not do so unequivocally, however, because I am aware that her son John was illiterate. His mother may very well have been also, meaning the signature was filled in by a proxy. Alas, Susannah’s birth surname is also uncertain. McGowan is the best guess. McGown is another -- some name with that “sound” to it.

As for Susannah’s ancestry, I can’t say, but I have seen three possibilities. Pat Patterson states that Susannah’s parentage is unknown. Yvonne Bowers puts her as the daughter of David McGowan (30 Dec 1750 Virginia - 1816) and Margaret Madison. Yvonne then shows David McGowan’s parents as John McGowan, Jr. (1716-1796) and Rebecca Hammond (abt 1723-?). At least one website I viewed placed Susannah as part of the family of Captain James McGowan (1749-1814) and Susannah Strode (1756-1814). But other websites that describe the offspring of James McGowan and Susannah Strode generally do not include a daughter named Susannah and/or Alma. The connection was probably wishful thinking. Susannah Strode’s patriarchal ancestry leads straight to Warinus de la Strode, born about 1020, who rode with William the Conqueror in the Battle of Hastings and was awarded with estates and a knighthood after the Conquest. Who wouldn’t want to borrow such an illustrious pedigree?

Susannah herself was born by 1787. Inner-family sources state she came from Scotland (which argues against the de la Strode pedigree). She married Thomas Branson about 1800 in Virginia. (And yes, that would make her only thirteen if her birthdate was as late as 1787. It could be that she was Thomas’s second wife, and was not the mother of the first few children.)

The Life of John Sevier Branson

As stated, John was born 17 March 1826 in Tennessee. The Thomas Branson-Susannah McGowan family is known to have spent some of the preceding ten years in White County and Marion County. White County is midway between the Kentucky and Alabama boundaries, while Marion sits right atop Alabama and Georgia along the far southern edge of Tennessee. Yet family records indicate John was born in neither White nor Marion County. Some of John’s children recalled him citing either Clay or Claiborne County as his birthplace. The latter is mentioned by his daughter-in-law Mary Eliza Simmons Branson, wife of John’s son Alvin, in a brief family history she wrote in 1931 (in consultation with her husband). Both Clay and Claiborne lie up against the boundary with Kentucky, and so we are confronted by a set of widely separated candidate birthplaces. There is a logical explanation. It would seem that by the time of the pregnancy that produced John, Thomas and Susannah had already decided to head for the new frontier. Though it may have taken a few years to reach Missouri, they had already come north to Claiborne County because they could not travel with oxen and heavy wagons straight to their destination. Natural features of the land prevented it. They had to come north to the Cumberland Gap before they could turn west. Presumably they bided their time there for a while, and during that interval, John was born. But logical though this is, the scenario has yet to be proven to be true, so all we can say with certainty is that John was born somewhere within Tennessee.

John spent no more than a small fragment of his childhood in his home state. He is reported to have always described himself as a Tennessee man, but perhaps this was loyalty exaggerated so as to please his wife, who lingered in Tennessee all the way to adolescence and had more reason to identify with the place. Which brings us to John and Martha as a couple, and where they met. The two of them made up only one of at least six unions of the Branson and Ousley families. It is tempting to theorize that John may have ventured back to Tennessee long enough to meet and to woo Martha there, but they are almost certain to have come to know one another in Missouri. As described in Martha’s biography, she was apparently dispatched from her parents’ home in Campbell County, TN to be a helper and nanny in the home of her older brother William Ousley in Osage County, MO, and this led to John encountering her. The pair were wed at the beginning of 1846. Their first child, Reuben, was born 16 November 1846 in either Osage County or Gasconade County.

John and Martha do not appear to have founded their own farm while in Missouri. They appear to have stayed with John’s parents in Gasconade County, or with Martha’s brother William Ousley in Osage County, going back and forth between the two places. This shifting about is why the birthplace of Reuben is described imprecisely in the above paragraph. The same question lingers about the birthplace of second child Thomas Henry Ousley Branson, born 29 April 1848.

One reason for not establishing their own farm was that John dreamed of a life even farther west, and was willing to look for it. In this, he showed his stripes early. He was a confident and enterprising sort of man. Had it been otherwise, he surely would have stayed put. He would have been “helped along” just fine. The Branson clan was extremely well established in central Missouri by the time he came of age. His father and uncles were well-known pioneers and property-owners. A number of his brothers were well on the way to making their own marks. Andrew Jackson Branson would be among the most prominent men of Osage County in the middle and late decades of the Nineteenth Century, becoming a long-remembered judge for whom local sites were named. George Washington Branson would go on to be nearly as well-known. David Branson, who moved to Maries County, kept amassing cattle and property and eventually had so much money he was able to let his money make money in the form of loans to others. At the time David died in 1881, his estate was said to be the largest in Phelps County, where he had moved in his later years. But John did not want to live in the shadow of his older relatives. If he had stayed, he would always to some degree have been Tom’s youngest or Andy, David, and Wash’s kid brother. That wasn’t good enough. He wanted to be his own man. The only sure way to accomplish that was to go where nobody knew his kinfolk.

Some of the details of John’s early adventures are laid out in a 1959 letter written by John Joseph Branson, one of his grandsons, in answer to questions posed by his first cousin Ivan Thorpe Branson about how and when John and Martha reached California. John Joseph Branson was in his late seventies in 1959 and he admitted his memory was imperfect, but he had heard the relevant tales multiple times not only from his grandfather, but from the two men who had accompanied his grandfather from Missouri: Charles Alonzo Sutton and Isaac Paulton. Alonzo and Ike, as they were known, had gone on to become Mariposa County miners and had lived long enough that John Joseph Branson had personally known them. So he had the story “straight from the horses’ mouths” as it were, whereas Ivan was twenty-one years younger and had never been able to have direct, adult conversations with any of the three men. John Joseph Branson reiterated in his letter than the tales were fairly consistent no matter which of the three pioneers had been speaking, so while John Joseph Branson’s memory in 1959 may have been weak enough to mangle a few details, at least what he himself had heard was probably accurate.

According to the 1959 letter, John Sevier Branson, Ike Paulton, and Alonzo Sutton journeyed west before the Gold Rush, most likely in the latter part of 1847. They were headed for Oregon to see what the homesteading opportunities were like. They made it as far as a place called Round Valley in Nevada, but ran out of food and then had their livestock stolen by local Indians. They came back without having reached their destination. It seems likely John was back in Missouri in time to be present at the birth of his son Thomas.

John, Alonzo, and Ike had the bad luck to return a little too soon to have heard of the discovery of gold. But once that news arrived, John’s case of gold fever was as profound as any. With the same companions, he headed west over land in a Conestoga wagon in the spring of 1849. As she had before, Martha stayed behind with the boys. She was slightly into her third pregnancy by then.

It remains possible that the “early journey west” and the 1849 trip were one and the same. Round Valley may not have been in Nevada. It could have been the Round Valley of northern Mendocino County. The latter Round Valley is in the same general area where John is known to have prospected in 1849. Even though John would in his later years be associated with Mariposa County, he did not go to the Mother Lode at first. When he and his companions reached the west coast, the talk in Sacramento and San Francisco was full of complaints that the good claims in the Sierra Nevada had all been snapped up by the people who had been able to get there during 1848. Some people imagined they would have better luck heading north to the Trinity Alps in the Klamath Mountains west of the Mount Shasta region, where the presence of gold had been revealed just months earlier. John decided to cast his lot with the northward-bound group. He was residing in a mining camp somewhere in the Trinity Alps when his third child, Joseph, was born 14 November 1849 at William Ousley’s farm in Osage County. It could be that his first winter there involved an incident in Round Valley. The 1959 letter goes on to say that after the Indians stole the livestock, the men later chased down the Indians and got their stock back, along with taking the Indians’ food. That would be quite an accomplishment for three starving travellers floundering in Nevada, but the scenario as described matches tales of how prospectors dealt with the Indians of the Trinity Alps in 1849. Groups of ’49ers would trespass on Indian lands, be harassed by the native population, and then use that harassment as a rationalized justification to chase the natives off and steal their supplies. John and his buddies would have had plenty of help.

The 1959 letter mentions that John briefly returned to Missouri and then came back west again. This agrees with the information shown in the 1850 census. Alonzo Sutton is enumerated in Calaveras County, CA. Ike Paulton is shown in El Dorado County. John, by contrast, is shown twice -- and in neither case is he in California. One enumeration, recorded September, 1850, shows him along with Martha and the kids at William Ousley’s farm in Osage County. In the margin next to John’s name is the notation “Gone to California.” (Actually it is abbreviated all the way down to “G. to C.”) In the other enumeration, which was recorded 29 October 1850, John is shown with Martha and the kids on his parents’ farm in Gasconade County. This time there is no notation of absence -- because he wasn’t absent. He was back, having apparently returned some time in late September or early October, and having collected his family from his brother-in-law's place and sought out the haven of the home he had known for so many years.

So John was back, but he apparently made it clear he liked California and wanted to live there long-term. He and Martha must have agreed on a plan to relocate the family. The first part of the plan was for John to go ahead of the rest and find a place to transform into their new home.

Off he went again. He returned to the Trinity Alps for another couple of years. (The 1852 California state census shows him in Trinity County.) The venture seems to have been successful. Ivan Branson mentions in Bones of the Bransons that John “did well” as the saying went. Though the gold rush there is largely forgotten today, shadowed by the historical significance of the Mother Lode strike, there were significant deposits of placer gold in the streams there in the early years. With his earnings, John initiated the plan to be a farmer. He chose to make his first attempt in the Santa Clara Valley, acquiring a parcel, possibly by lease or rent rather than purchase. He planted potatoes because the influx of newcomers to the state had created a high demand for that staple.

When things seemed ready, John sent word to his wife of his whereabouts, and told her to come. Inasmuch as he was not literate, he would have had to ask someone to pen the letter. Martha set out with the boys in 1853 (or about then) escorted by three male friends of the family. (John Joseph Branson did not recall the names of the three escorts when he wrote of them in 1959, but he had spoken directly with them in his youth. The group would not appear to have included Alonzo Sutton, even though Ivan credited Alonzo with the deed in Bones of the Bransons.) The party set out down the Mississippi River to the port of New Orleans and took ship to the Isthmus of Panama. In later years the three escorts spoke of the challenge of getting young Joseph Branson -- the “little bud” -- across the isthmus, which apparently required them to carry him on their shoulders to keep him safe and cooperative. (There were pack mules, but apparently little Joe didn’t always care to be placed aboard one of the animals.) After the journey by ship from Panama to the San Francisco Bay Area, Martha went looking for her husband.

The travellers located John not in the Santa Clara Valley, but over the range of hills to the east, in the Livermore Valley. Apparently the crop raised in San Jose had not done well. John had found a new parcel, perhaps feeling that he needed a hotter, drier climate for his purposes. It could be that he had sent word of his relocation to Missouri, but the letter missed Martha in transit. Eventually she managed to find him. John came in from the fields one day to find supper on the table and his spouse and sons waiting to dine with him. Old family gossip says Martha found a female “housekeeper” in place when she arrived, but if so, the situation was resolved at once. The marriage had survived a separation of a number of years and more than a thousand miles -- nothing would weaken it now.

By the time the potatoes were ready to harvest, the price had dropped precipitously. There was no point in trying again, and the Livermore Valley had relatively little to recommend it. The family remained long enough to welcome the arrival of fourth child and first daughter, Phoebe Ann Branson. Shortly thereafter everyone loaded into the Conestoga wagon and set out through Altamont Pass and east across the Central Valley to the lower foothills of Mariposa County. The year this migration took place is somewhat unclear because Phoebe’s birthdate is subject to doubt. Ivan Branson stated it was 8 February 1854. His source is not clear. Phoebe’s 1889 obituary supplies a birthdate of 7 March 1855. The latter, repeated in cemetery records, is more likely to be correct.

Mariposa County was home to a tremendous number of pioneers, drawn by the phenomenally rich deposits of gold along the Merced River. Strangely, modern-day Mariposa County is one of the least occupied parts of California, with a total population of less than 20,000 residents. (This total does not reflect the multitudes of tourists who visit Yosemite Valley.) In the very early days of statehood, Mariposa County included parts or all of Merced, Fresno, Kern, Los Angeles, Madera, Tulare, Mono, and Inyo Counties. It is called the “Mother of Counties” because so many counties, some of them huge, were split off from its original territory. It is ironic that the parent county became so small, but that choice was made while the Merced River watershed was the sweet spot of the Mother Lode, and it made a certain kind of sense to wrap the borders snugly around the population concentration.

For the next few years, John maneuvered to find a claim that would produce enough income to provide for his growing family. The Merced River sediment had been and still was rich, but the easy gold had already been removed. John set his hopes on the upper banks near the adjacent camps of Johnson’s Flat and Harte. Here was ground that had not been dug earlier because it lay too far from the river. The construction of a ditch provided the water needed to run through the sluice boxes. Whether John helped dig the ditch or simply took advantage of its completion is not known.

The yield was not abundant, ditch or no ditch. John and Martha did not stay at either Johnson’s Flat or Harte for long. They moved upriver to Barrett City, where fifth child Nancy Anne was born 6 November 1856. Barrett City was a major mining center on the western bank of the Merced. However, its heyday had already passed. Soon John and Martha moved again. They made a new home a mile downriver on the eastern bank at Phillips Flat. Son Alvin Thorpe Branson was born there 25 March 1859. Here, finally, was a place worth staying. The amounts of gold John and other miners found in the local bench gravels was enough to sustain a more-or-less continuous mining effort and a semi-permanent presence of about sixty residents, enough that for a year between late 1857 and late 1858, there was a post office in operation there. (When this closed, mail came via the Hornitos post office.) Production was good enough that John bought a mining claim there in the latter part of 1858. He did so with three partners, J. Coons, O. Thompson, and J. Howard. These three would appear to be the same three men who escorted Martha across the Isthmus of Panama. John Joseph Branson’s 1959 letter specifically says the three escorts were later partners with John at Phillips Flat. The investment paid off so well that when the original three-year term expired in 1861, the four men renewed it, and did so again 1 November 1864. The paperwork of this final renewal can still be found in old Mariposa County courthouse records. The documentation shows that John was the major owner. He paid $1200 in 1864 to renew his one-third share. Coons and Thompson each had a quarter share. Howard had a one-sixth share. The claim had earlier been owned by Philip Thackster, who despite the lack of two L’s in his name may have been the person for whom Phillips Flat was named. There is another possibility for the name origin, though. Early in the Gold Rush a pioneer from Wisconsin, John Phillips, had maintained a ferry on the Merced River at a spot whose description is a close match for Phillips Flat. In his tenure the place was known as Phillips Ferry. Were Phillips Ferry and Phillips Flat different names for the same place? We might never know. It seems likely. If true, Phillips Ferry was the name in use in the early 1850s, while Phillips Flat became the name used from the mid-1850s until the camp faded away a couple of decades later.

All of the Merced River communities mentioned in the preceding paragraph no longer exist, not even as ghost towns. When the Exchequer Dam was built in the 20th Century, the resulting reservoir, Lake McClure, covered the sites. Barrett (no longer a “city”) can still be found on some maps. On MapQuest, the bullseye is slightly offshore, in the lake. Of all the Mariposa County communities that John and Martha were part of, only one exists today. That one is Hornitos. (Shown at left is St. Catherine’s, the Catholic church in Hornitos, built in 1851. Many individuals associated with John and Martha are buried in the adjacent cemetery, including Joseph Branson and his wife Ella. John and Martha’s own gravestones -- located in the Oddfellows cemetery one hill east -- can be glimpsed from the hill on which the church sits. Photo taken by Dave Smeds 5 May 2003.)

John was a popular figure in Phillips Flat. Though he was illiterate to such a degree that he signed his legal documents with a mark, his perceptiveness and common sense were easily apparent. Described as mild-mannered and gentlemanly, one local man said of him that if John had had a better education, he could have been governor of California. He slipped into a leadership role, and even held minor govermental office, such as when he was appointed roadmaster for the Hornitos/Temperance Creek Road. This was no small responsibility, for in those days before railroad lines had become established in California, the condition and security of such stagecoach routes was vital to the well-being of whole communities.

His home, barn, and corrals seem to have been on higher ground, above the diggings, and he and his family lived in a substantial house at a time when many locals were still getting by in tents and the simplest of cabins. He was no longer a desperate 49er hoping for a quick bonanza. He and his family represented a picture of permanence and wherewithal often in short supply in the era of the Gold Rush. The prospect of poverty was a fear that never plagued John and Martha again. In 1927, their son Joseph, then seventy-seven years old, was called upon to testify in court as to the value of the Phillips Flat placer claim in order to determine how much the estate of his wife’s brother-in-law Charles Arthur should be compensated for its loss, Charles Arthur having been the final owner of the placer rights at that spot when the land was seized by the government as part of the creation of Lake McClure. Joseph stated, “Well, my dad raised ten children, clothed and fed them first rate, sent them to school, and never owed a dollar in his life. All from the lesser portion of that claim.”

This is not to imply that John had grown wealthy. Secure, yes. And he was unquestionably rich in character. However, his pockets seldom bulged. By frontier standards he was successful, but the gold yields varied. Sometimes this was because the metal itself turned up in low amounts per hours expended to retrieve it. At other times, simple logistics interfered. In dry seasons, which in California could be very long indeed, the river’s flow would grow so shallow the main diggings were impossible to work and mining therefore produced no income. In rainy seasons, floodwaters covered the digs. John raised livestock and did odd jobs to get by. His chief alternate employment was as a hauler of supplies between the camps and towns of Mariposa County, particularly the route between Stockton, the furthest inland that barges and ships could bring heavy cargo, and the stores and warehouses at Barrett City and Hornitos. His wagon, pulled by oxen, proved to be the family’s prime asset. John would make sure never to sell it. Ivan Branson wrote of sitting in the bed of the vehicle a few years after his grandfather’s death, tossing small rocks to wake up the imaginary team and get the animals moving.

Probably nothing did more to enhance John’s reputation within the community than his behavior during the flood that came during the winter of 1861-62. This was a weather event of a proportion California had not seen since well before the first Franciscan missionaries had arrived in the 1700s and has not seen in all the years since. Over a period of forty-five days so many storms rolled that a third of all the taxable acreage in the state ended up being covered by water. The California treasury was so negatively impacted that the government declared bankruptcy. The Merced River rose to levels the people living on its banks had not believed possible. Phillips Flat was washed away. The miners’ tents, food supplies, and equipment disappeared in the current. The Branson home appears to have been high enough up to be spared, but some neighbors and temporary laborers lost everything but their lives and the clothes on their bodies. They faced starvation. John responded by slaughtering his oxen to feed them.

In terms of political parties, John was an unwavering Southern Democrat to the end of his days. His values were so deeply embedded that even long after his death, some of his children and grandchildren refused to register as Republicans, even though by then the policies of the Republican Party mirrored their own, because the Republican Party had been the Party of Lincoln. During the Civil War, John sympathized with the Confederacy. Naturally he took no part in the war itself due to residing in California, but upon Lincoln’s assassination, he was instrumental in declaring a celebration of the killing in Phillips Flat. When the authorities heard of his impertinence, the U.S. Marshall’s office in San Francisco dispatched men to arrest him. The deputies were told in Hornitos that Phillips Flat had been washed away in a flood and no longer existed. The deputies chose to use this as their excuse to return to San Francisco empty-handed. It was either that or keep searching and have to look to their own safety in territory where John’s attitude was the prevailing one.

Phillips Flat had of course been reestablished after the flood, and its mining operation continued well past the end of the Civil War. However, as the 1860s marched on, the gold grew less easy to find. Thankful though they might have been for the good years, John and Martha nevertheless understood they could no longer shackle their destinies to the place. It was no doubt distressing to find themselves facing that development. Phillips Flat had been their home longer than any one location during their marriage. Three children had been born on-site. After Alvin had come Mary Jane, born 25 July 1862, and Theresa, born 24 October 1865. Yet when the time came to leave, they did not do so halfway. The family piled into John’s old Conestoga wagon and left the Mother Lode entirely. They journeyed north, where John briefly investigated the mining possibilities in his old stomping grounds in the Trinity Alps. The prospects were apparently not good enough to tempt them to stay. They continued on immediately and did not stop until they reached the Williamette Valley of Oregon.

The soils were fertile. The grass was green and thick. John tried farming. But a year in the rain proved too much for Martha. She had grown used to California’s sunny skies. Anxious to get home without delay, they put their wagon, oxen, worldly goods, and themselves on board a ship at Portland and sailed down to San Francisco Bay. Once back in Mariposa County, John used what savings he had accumulated during the previous twenty years and purchased land just to the northwest of Quartzburg, a mining outpost a couple of miles northeast of Hornitos. The 160 acres, a parcel that had formerly belonged to Daniel and Margaret Mahon, shared a property boundary with the Washington Mine. Much later Washington Mine would be known as the Jenny Lind Mine, but not until its heyday had come and gone. At the time the Bransons arrived, Washington Mine was becoming one of the prime spots in the county for hardrock miners to make a living. The name Quartzburg was becoming less significant, and locals would often describe their place of residence as Washington Mine rather than Quartzburg, though there wasn’t really a geographical distinction between the two. The Branson family no doubt appreciated being close to the sites they already knew; Phillips Flat was only a few miles to the west over a range of low, grassy hills. John and Martha would remain on this land, which they called Grasshopper Ranch, for more than a third of a century -- the rest of their lives.


Shown above is an 1890s image of Grasshopper Ranch. Martha is the old woman on the porch in the rocking chair. The two adolescent girls are her granddaughters Elsie and Eunice Harrington, daughters of Nancy Anne Branson. This picture was published in Bones of the Bransons.


Quartzburg, whether called that or referred to by any of its mine-outpost alternate names, is little known now even by locals. The settlement had been founded at the very beginning of the Gold Rush by 49ers who had come from the Deep South. These sons of Dixie had chased away the would-be miners of Mexican and otherwise “questionable” descent. The disenfranchised prospectors had instead put down roots a few miles away -- this was the creation of Hornitos. In the end, the bigotry of the founders of Quartzburg would seal its fate. Once the gold was gone, the place soon became uninhabited because it never developed the broader infrastructure that Hornitos enjoyed as a result of the diversity and size of its initial population. Today when Quartzburg is mentioned, it tends to be in reference to the headquarters of the California Rangers that was located there during the earliest years of the Gold Rush. That headquarters was the place from whence Captain Love and his men set forth on the mission that resulted in the capture and execution of notorious Gold Rush outlaw Joaquin Murietta. If you went today to the spot where Quartzburg was located, you would see only a few raggedy olive trees as the remaining meager indication of its once-abundant human presence. Likewise, what was once Grasshopper Ranch looks like nothing more than barren, rattlesnake-infested foothill country. But back then, John and Martha had ample reason to be satisfied with their purchase. The exact timing of their arrival was probably late 1867 or early 1868, in time for the birth of John Sevier Branson, Jr. 20 May 1868. Ivan Branson, in Bones of the Bransons, places the Oregon sojourn after this birth, but that seems unlikely given that the Bransons were already paying property taxes on “the old Dan Mahon place” (along with a one-dollar dog tax!) in 1868, as shown in old Mariposa County assessor’s records.

John still prospected now and then, but once he had his land, viewed himself as a farmer. (We would use the term rancher these days, as he mostly “farmed” in the sense of raising livestock, the only crops being hay and grain for his animals and whatever Martha helped raise in the family garden.) As ever, he turned to hauling loads when cash was needed. The last few decades of his life were on the whole secure ones. Most of the residents living in the area during that time were those who had come in the 1850s, or the descendants of same. And some were cousins, as by this point, Irena Branson Scott and Isaac Branson had arrived in Mariposa County and would reside very close by for many years.

John and Martha were in their place, happy to be able to provide their younger children -- the youngest being Mattie, born at the ranch 27 February 1870 -- with the stable existence that their eldest offspring had not experienced. Reuben and Thomas each took wives in the summer of 1872, and became fathers in the summer of 1873, but lingered close to home -- at times staying at Grasshopper Ranch itself. Joseph remained a bachelor a little longer. All three boys spent a certain amount of time mining, though this applied to Reuben most of all -- even to the extent of leaving his wife and youngsters alone for extended periods while he found work at different mines. Thomas’s life was more eclectic. He supplemented his mining income with work as a tinsmith, as a teamster, and as a translator, having picked up a working knowledge of Chinese, Spanish, and German from neighbors. Thomas’s father-in-law Egidi Bauer owned a vegetable garden that probably supplied the two local Chinese cooks, Ah Sing and Ah Fong, with whom the Bransons and Bauers were closely associated in the 1870s and 1880s and beyond.

Given John’s Confederate sympathies, it is worth noting that a member of his social circle in his later years was Moses Rodgers. The latter, despite having been born a slave, became the boss of Washington Mine and was therefore a close and influential neighbor, at various times employing quite a number of men associated with the Bransons, including Alvin Thorpe Branson and Alonzo Diah Johnson (a son-in-law of John and Martha). As noted above, John was mild-mannered and comported himself well -- he must have found it easy to cast his bigotry aside when it came to one-on-one relationships. It would appear the good terms between the Rodgers and Branson households even went as far as Martha serving as the midwife when Moses’s daughter Louella was born, a role that meant not only helping with the birth, but doing the cooking and housekeeping for the family during the lying-in and post-partum phases. It is quite possible the effort consumed a number of weeks.


John was among the sixteen old-time residents of the Quartzburg/Washington Mine/Hornitos area who posed for this photograph circa 1890 in front of the Barcroft Saloon in downtown Hornitos. From left to right, back row: Henry Nelson, Thomas James Smith, John Sevier Branson, William Roland Dennis, Benjamin Allen Shephard, Guiseppe Gagliardo, James Duffey Craighan, Moses Logan Rodgers. Front row: Ralph Wood Barcroft, Elbert Franklin Sylvester, Samuel Collins, Joseph Spagnoli, Nathaniel Ashe Bailey, Thomas James Thorn, Robert Arthur, Thomas Williams (aka Spanish Tom). Over forty years later this photograph was included in The Call of Gold by Newell D. Chamberlain (near the back of the book between Chapters 38 and 39). It was also featured in the special commemorative edition From Quartz to Gold, the story of Hornitos Lodge No. 98, F.&A.M. by Kenneth Cooper. John was a Mason and a member of Hornitos Lodge No. 98, something that may have been true of all sixteen of these men.


As John and Martha’s girls came of age, all save Mattie left Hornitos, which began to become a backwater as soon as the railroad lines were established through the Central Valley in the early 1870s and cargo increasingly was transported that way instead of along the Stockton-to-Millerton foothills road. All of the four daughters who left chose to relocate to the newly-founded town of Merced, which soon became more settled and sophisticated than Hornitos ever was. First to depart was Phoebe, who married William McDonald in 1874. In addition, Thomas opened a tinsmith shop in Merced, though Hornitos continued to be his main residence. However, even Merced was not all that far away, so for nearly the whole of their lives John and Martha had the comfort of knowing their progeny were nearby. The main exceptions were that by the early 1890s both Reuben and John Jr. were making their livings higher in the mountains and to the south in Madera County -- only a short drive by automobile today, but somewhat remote then. Reuben would venture even further afield by the early 1900s, over the Sierra Nevada to eastern Kern County. Hornitos and/or Grasshopper Ranch were the standard venues for many a family holiday, wedding, or funeral. It was rare not to find some of John and Martha’s grandchildren present at the ranch, and quite a few lived there off and on during their childhoods.

Genial as John was, he was also a man of his rustic times and occasionally “had words” with neighbors. The family had the custom of raising pigs. So did the Collins family. Neither set of pigs seemed willing to obey property boundaries. The porcine trespassing led to some shouting between the owners. Eventually the two families resolved the matter by agreeing that neither would raise pigs again. This was a decidedly better solution than what happened in 1881 when Egidi Bauer’s neighbor and good friend D.K. Pitzer shot him dead in the road on the outskirts of Hornitos over just such an errant-pigs situation.

In the summer of 1885, John butted heads with George Reeb, the prominent butcher and sausage-maker of Hornitos. John, in his capacity as roadmaster, accused George of installing an illegal barbed-wire fence across the East Phillips Flat Road, a nearly-forgotten and all-but-invisible track. George argued his fence was legal and that John knew very well that this was true but wanted the route clear for his own purposes. The two men conducted their battle in the pages of the Mariposa Herald. Again, matters were resolved without burning any bridges. George continued to buy beef from the Bransons (not only from John, but from John’s sons Thomas, Joseph, and John, Jr.) for many years to come, as he had done for the previous fifteen years. (George Reeb’s purchases of cattle for slaughtering made up a significant portion of John and Martha’s income in some of those years.) Both the Reeb clan and the Collins clan can now be linked to the Branson clan in several different ways due to marriages among members of the younger generations.

Sometime in their old age, probably in 1897, John and Martha sold their homestead to their son Joseph, who added the 160 acres to his ever-growing cattle ranch. (Eventually Joe would accumulate 1300 acres, absorbing most of the land that had been part of Quartzburg and its mines. As the gold ran out, the price for his neighbors’ properties fell to levels he was readily able to afford.) Joe and his wife Ella had a house of their own, though, so John and Martha were able to stay in the same living quarters they had known for so many years. Unfortunately this was only true until approximately 1904, when a fire consumed the structure. No one was injured -- though grandson Ivan, two years old at the time, was startled to awaken in a barn stall instead of the bed inside the house where his mother, Alvin Branson’s wife Mary, had put him to sleep. This was when the family Bible was lost, much to the frustration of later family historians.

The number of John and Martha’s grandchildren would eventually swell to forty-five. Martha would live to welcome them all into the world, along with twenty of her great-grandchildren. John missed out on the birth of his final grandchild, Dorothy Branson, the daughter of John Jr.

John’s obituary in the Mariposa Gazette states that he was eighty-three years old at death. His death certificate confirms the death date of 27 November 1905, and (correctly) states he was seventy-nine. He was buried in the Oddfellows cemetery in Hornitos. Martha would be laid to rest beside him slightly more than two years later. Just seven weeks after that, John’s cousin Irena would be interred in the neighboring grave, joining her children Charlotte Marshall, Elijah Scott, and William Wyatt Scott, Jr.


This is a scan of John’s portrait as published in Bones of the Bransons. If you look closely, you will see it is actually the same picture of him as reproduced at the beginning of the “Life of John Branson” section of this biography. Apparently Ivan Branson’s niece, Melba Branson Larsen Sharp, who handled the book production at her print shop, was not satisfied with the reproductive potential of the source photo. The latter was a tintype (no doubt the very same tintype that was later scanned for use here), and may have been too dark. So Melba superimposed John’s face upon a painting. The suit and tie are obviously painted, but less apparent is that the background and his hair is also part of the “fake.” Only the face itself comes from the photographic source. Part of the challenge Melba faced comes from the fact that so few photos of John survive.


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