Joseph Branson


Joseph Branson, third son of John Sevier Branson and Martha Jane Ousley, was born 14 November 1849 in Crawford Township, Osage County, MO. He is not to be confused with his nephew Joseph William Branson, the son of John Sevier Branson, Jr., who was born in 1890 and grew up in Madera County. Nor is he to be confused with his second cousin Joseph Russell Branson (sometimes called “Devil Joe” Branson). The latter Joseph was the son of Isaac Branson. Isaac, like his first cousin John Sevier Branson, moved to the Mother Lode from Missouri during the Gold Rush. Thereafter the families of John, Isaac, and Isaac’s half-sister Irena Branson Scott lived as neighbors, schoolmates, business partners, friends, and, of course, as kinfolk. The two Josephs spent part of their childhoods literally living next door to one another, and in adulthood could be found drinking together at the Hornitos saloon. One of the key life-history differences is that Devil Joe never married or had children.

No middle name for Joseph turns up in any surviving documentation, and it seems likely he had none, in keeping with naming patterns common before the mid-1800s. However, all his siblings except Reuben have known middle names, and there remains the possibility Joseph in fact had one. There is one tantalizing hint. On his son John Joseph Branson’s death certificate, the “father’s name” box is filled in with Joseph J. Branson. However, the informant of the death certificate, John’s daughter Gertrude Ellen Branson Gabriel, may have in her grief succumbed to the impulse to guess that her grandfather’s name was a flip-flop of her father’s, i.e. that it was Joseph John Branson. Though the name Joseph John Branson would fit very well, due to the lack of corroborating evidence, Joseph has been given no middle name in this biography.

A year and a half before Joseph’s birth, his father headed west with partners Isaac Paulton and Charles Alonzo Sutton to see if the Oregon Territory might be a good place to settle. They only made it as far as Nevada before returning, but no sooner did they get back than word of the discovery of gold in California reached Missouri. John and his two buddies set out again, this time with greater experience and planning in their favor. Joseph was conceived during the relatively brief period when John was able to be back home with his wife. Martha spent most of the pregnancy without her husband’s company. By the time of Joseph’s birth, John was in the Trinity Alps of California, prospecting there rather than in the Mother Lode, where many of the good claims had already been snatched up by others. While John was away, Martha and her three boys -- the two slightly older ones being Reuben and Thomas -- stayed with her brother William Ousley on his farm in Crawford Township.

John remained in California until 1850, and came back at the end of that summer only long enough to inform Martha that he had decided they should all reside permanently out west. However, he had not struck it particularly rich during his sojourn, and needed to create a suitable home before the whole family made the journey. So Joseph spent a bit more of his boyhood in Missouri. Some of this period was spent at the home of his grandparents Thomas and Susannah Branson in Third Creek Township in Gasconade County -- the very place where his father had been raised. This would not have been long, because Thomas died in 1851, and if she had not already done so, Martha took herself and the kids back to her brother’s farm. There they waited for word from the man of the family. The summons probably arrived toward the end of 1852 or the early part of 1853, at which point John had panned enough gold in the Trinity Alps to become a farmer and maintain a family household. He moved to the Santa Clara Valley, planted potatoes, and began the final wait for Martha and the boys to show up.

Getting to California was of course a challenge for a young woman and three very young sons. Three family friends agreed to escort Martha. The group journeyd down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and took ship for the Isthmus of Panama. The men spoke for years afterward of the challenge of carrying the “little bud” -- i.e. Joseph -- on their shoulders across the mountain ridge of the isthmus. Apparently little Joe was not willing to ride on the pack mules, or at least not on a consistent basis. A northbound ship on the Pacific side took the party up to San Francisco.

Upon reaching the Santa Clara Valley, Martha and the boys discovered that John had moved slightly eastward in the Coast Range to the Livermore Valley. Reunited, they stayed there just long enough for Joseph’s first sister, Phoebe, to be conceived and born. By then, the demand for potatoes had crashed, ending the attempt to make a living from farming for the time being. John decided he would try mining again. In the mid-1850s the newly minted Californians trekked across the San Joaquin Valley to the Sierra Nevada foothills to Mariposa County. The focus of John’s hopes lay along the Merced River. In this respect he was like many others. There was never a time when the Mother Lode was more active than the 1850s, and Mariposa County bristled with miners. In the 21st Century, the places where the Bransons lived are invisible to the hordes of tourists who flock through the local foothills to Yosemite Valley. The sites lie beneath Lake McClure, a reservoir.

John tried several spots -- Harte and Johnson’s Flat during the first year, then upstream to Barrett City, a major mining center. The family lived as close as practical to his worksites, in cabins and at times in tents. In 1858 they settled on the east side of the river at Phillips Flat. The gravel beds here proved to be especially productive. John and his partners -- the very same three men who had carried the “little bud” on their shoulders across the isthmus -- purchased the placer-mining rights to a claim there for a three year term, and renewed it twice, for a total tenure of nine years. Phillips Flat was therefore where Joseph came of age, spending the formative span of age nine to eighteen there.

Joseph reached a height of six foot three, a remarkably tall stature for a man of his era. His eyes were blue, his hair light brown -- all in all he was a man with presence, though he was not so handsome that people commented on his appearance as they did his brother Thomas.

When the Phillips Flat mining rights came up for renewal, John decided he had had enough. He and Martha decided to look for new opportunities in some other place. Joseph was old enough that he could have remained behind, but every indication is that he went along as the family loaded into the trusty old Conestoga wagon and headed north. A brief stop in the Trinity Alps to investigate the gold-mining possibilities there convinced John there was no point in lingering. The journey continued up into the Willamette Valley of Oregon. John became a farmer and rancher once again. This time he would stick to the occupation, but doing so in Oregon proved to be temporary. Martha found the climate too wet and the skies too grey for her taste, so back the family came in 1868 by ship from Portland to San Francisco (bringing along the Conestoga wagon). They returned to Mariposa County, where John and Martha bought the Daniel and Margaret Mahon ranch. This property was situated about two miles from the town of Hornitos and less than ten miles from their old haunts at Phillips Flat, and it lay along the northwest boundary of the Washington Mine parcel. The Washington Mine outpost in turn was part of the greater mining community of Quartzburg. There John raised cattle and feed and hauled wagon loads commercially, prospecting only occasionally as a sideline. The couple resided on this land, called Grasshopper Ranch, for the rest of their lives, completing the raising of their brood of ten offspring. Joseph lived at Grasshopper Ranch in the earliest years of this span.

The photograph of Joseph at left shows Joseph in his forties. This was scanned from a print still in the possession of a great-granddaughter. It is also available in Fifty Years of Masonry in California, Vol. 1 by Edwin Allen Sherman, published in 1898 by George Spaulding & Company, Publishers; San Francisco, CA. A page of that book features photographs of all ten of the 1898-1899 officers of the Hornitos Lodge (Lodge No. 98). Joseph at that point was a Junior Warden.

In becoming an adult, Joseph -- becoming better known by then as Joe -- reached the culmination of what had been quite a wild and colorful upbringing. The local part of the Mother Lode had seen its fair share of frontier excitement. The famous outlaw Joaquin Murietta had been pursued and caught by men who set out from Quartzburg. Joe’s own account of just how dramatic his youth was has been preserved in The Call of Gold by Newell D. Chamberlain, originally published in 1936. Chamberlain interviewed Joe in 1933 or early 1934, and here is what Joe said of his boyhood days:

“My brothers and I witnessed many shooting and stabbing affairs. Outsiders never interfered with the participants and even if there was a killing, the public took a casual look and then passed by for they knew that curiosity, at such times, might be costly.

“I well recall a morning when two Mexican dance-hall girls fought it out, with daggers in the Plaza. Each had a mantilla, or blanket scarf, which was generally worn around the neck, but, when fighting with daggers, was thrown over the left arm as a shield. No one interfered and both girls were mortally wounded.

“Another case, which we witnessed, was a fight between two Mexicans and a white man. One of the Mexicans stabbed the white, who immediately whipped out his gun and shot his assailant, killing him outright. The second Mexican made a lunge for the white, who, although wounded, fired at his new assailant but the shot did not kill instantly. Just at this time, a Chinese happened along, carrying on a pole two jugs of vegetable spray. Paying no attention, he came close to the dying Mexican, who stabbed him. The Chinese dropped his load and ran up the street with the dagger sticking in his ribs but soon fell dead. Four were killed, one of them being an innocent passerby.

“At another time, we boys were going down the steps into the Fandango Hall, under the Campodonico store, when we heard shots within, so we ducked low and watched. Two Mexican musicians had been playing on the stage, when a dispute over the music arose among the dancers, and the two musicians were killed. Almost immediately, it seemed, two others took their places and the dance went on.”

The 1870 census shows Joe at Grasshopper Ranch, but by the end of that year he had turned twenty-one and it was not long before he established an independent life. The 1872 Great Register of Voters of Mariposa County lists Joe separately from his father, though as a resident of Hornitos (anyone from Quartzburg would have been described as “of Hornitos” in terms of voting precinct). County tax records of 1876 show Joe had his own homestead of 320 acres in the Bear Valley region of Mariposa County, a little east of Hornitos. Seventeen years earlier, on 2 February 1859, Ellen Margaret Geary had been born near there, and by 1876 or 1877 may have started teaching at the Bear Valley one-room schoolhouse. As the decade wore on, Ellen -- better known as Ella -- and Joseph became an item, and they married 29 November 1879, a few weeks before her twenty-first birthday. By then, Joe was thirty.

From the beginning, religion was an issue between the couple. Ella was Catholic and was firm that she wanted to continue to be Catholic. Joe, like most of the male Bransons, was skeptical of traditional organized religions. He was a Mason, and proud it. Somehow the pair made it work. They stayed together until death. It took various compromises to accomplish this. The very first instance rose up right from the git-go. Ella would have loved to have a church wedding, but Joe would not convert. Joe would have been satisifed to have a local justice of the peace do the officiating -- neighbor Samuel Walker Carr played this role at a number of Branson weddings. In the end, Joe and Ella were married in the home of his sister Phoebe and brother-in-law William McDonald in Merced, Merced County, CA, and the rites were conducted by the Reverend Father McNamara.


Shown above is an excerpt from a letter Joe wrote to his brother Alvin Thorpe Branson in 1922, offered here as an example of his penmanship and manner of expressing himself. In this fragment, Joe is informing Alvin of the death of their second cousin Hiram Branson, who had been Alvin’s business partner thirty years earlier.


About the time of the marriage, Joe sold his Bear Valley land and acquired property adjacent to Grasshopper Ranch. Eventually his ranch would swell to 1300 acres, absorbing Grasshopper Ranch in approximately 1897 and most or all of Quartzburg itself in the 1910s, after the collapse of the gold industry had made his neighbors’ acreage worthless for anything but grazing. The money for the original purchase appears to have come chiefly from raising cattle in Bear Valley, though where he got the money to buy that land is unclear. Perhaps he had a streak of good luck mining in the early 1870s. His bride does not seem to have been the instrument. Her parents appear to have had little to spare for a dowry. They were John Geary and Ellen Moran, a pair of Irish immigrants who had fled their homeland in the Potato Famine. The Gearys, having arrived in San Francisco in 1847, had enjoyed the advantage of being in California when gold was discovered. This good luck had resulted in John ending up with a good mining claim and founding a productive mine at Whitlock’s outpost near the town of Mariposa. However, prosperity had been relatively short-lived. John had accidentally shot off one of his hands in 1864 and by the end of the 1870s the couple needed what resources they retained, particularly in light of the fact that their youngest daughter, Lizzy, was an invalid. Ella had as mentioned probably become a teacher to support herself. She and Joe were probably instrumental in helping her other sister Mary Jane Geary find gainful employment. Mary Jane became a domestic servant and nanny for Phoebe and William McDonald.

Speaking of Mary Jane Geary, she would in a few years marry Michael Bauer. Michael was a younger brother of Frances Bauer, who had married Joseph’s brother Thomas Branson. This Bauer, Branson, Geary connection was yet another example of the many ways Mariposa County pioneer families are interwoven genealogically.

John Geary and Ellen Moran, like John Sevier Branson and Martha Jane Ousley, are a set of great great grandparents of Dave Smeds, the creator of this website. They are the subject of a large “sidebar” page about them and their descendants. Click here to go to that page.


This is Joseph and Ella Branson’s ranch as it looked in two widely separated points in time. The upper black and white image shows it still in its prime in the early 20th Century. The lower color photo shows it as it looked at Easter, 1993 during a visit by some of Joe and Ella’s descendants. Both images were captured from a similar spot, with the black and white image aimed a bit more toward the west, and the color one a bit more toward the north, but both centered on the main house. The upper view shows just how built up the ranch was during its inhabited era, yet in the lower view you see can see for yourself the only remaining clear hint of that anyone ever lived on-site. The foundations of the main house, made of native stone, can be seen near the main group of visitors. The three individuals in that group consist of Joe and Ella’s elderly granddaughters Marian Ruth Warner Weldon and Josephine Alberta Warner Smeds and great great granddaughter Lerina Smeds. In the distance is great grandson Dave Smeds.


Whatever the means, once Joe succeeded in obtaining his land next to Grasshopper Ranch, his money worries soon ceased. A rich deposit of gold lay underground. There was enough ore to sustain two active mines throughout the Mother Lode mining era. Joe was able to live as a “gentleman miner,” i.e. it was not necessary for him to exhaust himself personally handling a pick or shovel. Though his house was a mere hundred yards from the mine entrance and he closely supervised the operations, he left the hard manual labor to his hired crews. Joe housed his employees in a large barracks. The foreman/caretaker enjoyed a house of his own at the western edge of the site.

The mines, the tracks, and the living quarters were only part of a complex that included a huge barn and stables, a water tower, and a blacksmith shop. It strongly resembled the sort of tiny, rustic town mythologized in so many Western gunslinger movies. In the 1920s, while the mostly-vacated structures were still intact, a film company used the ranch as a shooting location. What movie the footage ended up in is not known. Most likely it was one of the thousands of low-budget, cheap-entertainment efforts that did not survive to be included in the recent preservation of Hollywood’s early black and white silent films.

Naturally, such a large piece of property meant Joe could also maintain a large herd of cattle. His livestock operation often prospered, which was a comfort given the varying output of gold the mines produced from year to year. (Perhaps he provided his father-in-law’s butcher shop with meat animals.) Joe described himself as a farmer, not a miner, in censuses and voter registration rolls of the last two decades of the century. The land’s ability to serve as pasture proved to be its lasting virtue when the mining economy of the Mother Lode collapsed circa 1910, killed by falling bullion prices, a new law forbidding certain ecologically-disruptive mining practices, and by the availability of gold from other parts of the world. Joe shut down his diggings and let most of his employees go at about that point, or possibly a few years earlier. Once the mines were boarded up, Ella would not allow them to be reopened, because she was still heartsick over the loss of her son Alvin in a mining accident. (For more on that tragedy, refer to Alvin’s page, linked below.) The couple subsisted on cattle-ranching revenue from that point on, at first supervised by Joe himself. By the 1920s Joe retired. The land was leased to a young rancher named Horace Meyer, though with the understanding that Joe and Ella would continue to live on-site.


Ella and Joseph Branson outside their ranch house, circa 1920.


Given his pioneer upbringing, Joe retained a certain coarseness of affect. He loved to relax in Hornitos at the local saloon. His language was peppered with crude expressions, to the mortification of his prim daughter Grace. Inasmuch as Hornitos remained an edge-of-civilization milieu of rattlesnakes, cow pies, and stubble grass even after it had lived out its 49er phase, Joe fit right in. He was well liked, and regarded as an upstanding and successful man of the community. Of all the sons of John Sevier Branson, Joe was the only one to leave a substantial estate and to live out his twilight years in financial comfort. Nephew Ivan Branson describes Joe and family in the book Bones of the Bransons as “lovable and honorable people.”

At the end of 1929, the ranch was the venue of a big celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Joe and Ella’s wedding. The event was attended by all five surviving children as well as many other family members, with the clans of his brothers Alvin and John particularly well represented. (Alvin and John themselves were among the guests.) All those individuals had to travel there from distant parts, because by the latter half of the 1920s, Joe was the only one of his birth family still lingering in Hornitos -- and had been ever since the death of his brother Thomas in 1924. He and Ella were, in fact, among the very few people of any sort who remained in Hornitos. The village never became a ghost town, in the sense that even at the low point, a few hundred residents remained, but there were very few left to “tell the tale” of the place’s history. Joe was looked upon as one of the valued repositories of memory. In addition to providing Newell Chamberlain with the interview for The Call of Gold, he was also called upon in 1927 to testify in a court case as to the value of his father’s old placer claim at Phillips Flat. This occurred because the heirs of his brother-in-law Charles Arthur (husband of Lizzie Geary, whom he had married despite her invalid status) felt the government had short-changed Charles, who had been the owner of the claim when the land was seized by the government as part of the creation of Lake McClure. Joe described the value by pointing out, “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.” Thanks to his testimony, the heirs received a handsome judgment of $7500.

Joe passed away 23 August 1934 in at Mercy Hospital in Merced, CA, after an illness of several months.

Ella survived Joe. She preferred to remain at the increasingly isolated and empty ranch, somewhat to the dismay of her children. It was only possible for her to stay because her eldest boy, John, was willing to look after her there, even though this was awkward for him because his own home was along the Central Coast, and his wife and daughter continued to live there. Ella only abandoned her home at the very end of her life as her health collapsed, and she was admitted to Mercy Hospital, the very same facility where Joe had expired. She died there 29 June 1946.

Joe and Ella are buried in Hornitos Cemetery, the secular section of the graveyard that lies beside St. Catherine’s, a Catholic church built in 1851 and now preserved as a historical landmark. Their resting place was another example of their lifelong compromise of religious preference. Had it been up to Ella, they would have been buried in the Catholic section near the church building, or might have been placed at St. Joseph’s Cemetery in the town of Mariposa with her parents and siblings. Had it been up to Joe, they would have been buried in the Oddfellows Cemetery of Hornitos with his parents and Branson-clan cousins. In deference to her wishes, it was a Catholic priest who conducted the rites, namely Reverend Father Corrigan of Yosemite.

A half-interest in the ranch remains in the hands of Joe and Ella’s daughters’ heirs to this day, Horace Meyer having acquired the other half as the sons died off and their heirs chose to sell -- Horace’s son George still runs cattle there. The parcel now backs onto Lake McClure. As vividly demonstrated by the photographs higher up in this biography, after Joe and Ella had both passed away, the remaining ranch buildings were left to crumble. The main house was last to go, burning down in the early 1960s.


The grave of Joe and Ella in Hornitos Cemetery behind St. Catherine’s. The church is visible in the background. Photo taken May 2003 by Dave Smeds.


Children of Joseph Branson with Ellen Margaret Geary

John Joseph Branson

Marguerite Ellen Branson

Alvin Arthur Branson

Grace Mildred Branson

Eldridge Geary Branson

Ernest Elton Branson

For genealogical details, click on each of the names.


To return to the Branson/Ousley Family main page, click here.