Martha “Mattie” Branson

Mattie Branson, fifth daughter and tenth child of John Sevier Branson and Martha Jane Ousley, was born 27 February 1870 on her parents’ ranch near Quartzburg, a mining outpost a few miles north of Hornitos, Mariposa County, CA. She was named Martha after her mother, though she did not have the middle name of Jane because that had already been given to her sister Mary. She does not seem to have had any middle name at all. In this she was like her brothers Reuben and Joseph, but it is unusual in the sense that all the other girls of the family had one. She was known lifelong as Mattie, not Martha, and used it not just as a nickname but as her identity -- for example when she registered to vote.

By the time of her birth, her parents had long resided in Mariposa County and were a well-known and popular pioneer couple, though they had acquired their ranch (“Grasshopper Ranch”) only two years earlier and Mattie and her slightly older brother John Sevier Branson, Jr. were the only two out of the ten children to be born there. Mining was still the mainstay of the local economy, but workers were far less likely to be scattered in small mining camps, and were now concentrated at the outposts centered at the mouths of deep shafts. Extraction of gold was now an industrial process, not a means of independent living under the open sky. In Mattie’s formative years, the most looming example of such institutionalized mining was the Washington Mine complex. Grasshopper Ranch was situated on the northwestern boundary line of Washington Mine. Mattie would be greeted every weekday morning by the racket of its stamp mill pounding away at quartz ore.

Mattie was so much younger than the eldest Branson children that she grew up with no memory of having shared a home with them -- and indeed, probably never did share a home with her very eldest sibling, Reuben. She went on to experience an existence well apart from her sisters, all of whom settled in Merced, Merced County, CA in their late teens, meaning that by the time she was entering her own teens, Mattie was the only girl of the immediate family left back in Mariposa County. Her greatest sibling bond was with her brothers Thomas, Joseph, and Alvin, all of whom remained in Mariposa County even after establishing their independent lives. She knew many of her nieces and nephews quite well -- being almost their contemporary -- and her class sessions at Quartzburg were shared with many cousins of various degree.

Her parents were senior citizens by the time she came of age and Mattie probably stayed right at Grasshopper Ranch helping care for them right through her twenties. Her social milieu therefore consisted of the young folk of the Washington Mine outpost and of Hornitos. Finally when she was only weeks away from her thirtieth birthday, she ended her spinsterhood. The wedding, conducted by Reverend J.D. Houck, was held in the afternoon of New Year’s Day, 1900 at Grasshopper Ranch, and followed that evening by a masked-ball reception in Hornitos. Mattie’s fifteen-year-old niece, Eunice Harrington, served as bridesmaid -- Eunice would herself become a bride later in 1900, shortly after turning sixteen. Given that the groom’s family all lived out of state, the best man was Mattie’s nephew Hugh McErlane Branson. Eunice and and Hugh were obvious choices. Eunice and her sister Elsie had often stayed at Grasshopper Ranch during their summer vacations, and therefore had spent quite a bit of time with Mattie. Hugh was practically a brother. Only three years younger than Mattie, he had been raised as a near neighbor and had stayed local and mingled with the same group of peers -- quite a contrast to John Sevier Branson, Jr. the only one of Mattie’s actual brothers who was even remotely her own age. John had departed with his wife and offspring in the early 1890s to dwell in the hills of Madera County.

Rudolph Mueller, Jr. had been born April 1872 in Missouri. He was the eldest child of Rudolph Mueller, Sr. (originally spelled Müller) and Anna Sutter (Sautter). Both of these individuals had been born in Switzerland, and had come to the United States in 1866 and 1869, respectively, drawn to the large settlement of Swiss immigrants who had come to roost in northern Gasconade County, MO. The area was so dense with residents of that origin that the community where Rudolph, Sr. and Annie were married -- the wedding taking place precisely nine months before Rudolph, Jr.’s birth -- was named Swiss. Rudolph himself may have been born in that place, though the Muellers moved frequently during the early years of their marriage and may have already left Swiss by the time the pregnancy came to term. It is somewhat ironic that Rudolph, Jr. would come to Mariposa County and be wed to a Branson. Mattie’s father had been raised from toddlerhood to adulthood on a farm near Mount Sterling, Gasconade County, only half a dozen miles or so southwest of Swiss. Inasmuch as Mattie’s parents and older brothers left Gasconade County in the early 1850s and the Muellers did not arrive there until the latter 1860s, there was no time when the families could have been acquainted in Missouri, but nonetheless Mattie and Rudolph could be said to have had a place of origin in common.

Rudolph had spent the first half of his childhood in various parts of Missouri, including shorter periods in the heart of the state where Swiss and German immigrants had congregated, but greater spans in eastern Missouri in or near Kansas City (and including at least one stop in St. Louis, where the photograph at left was taken at the studio of “Röseh the Fotografer”). Three younger sisters had been born during the 1870s. In about 1884, Annie Sutter Mueller had died. Rudolph, Sr. had quickly remarried. His second wife was Ursula Boehm Von Behringsoarf (for some reason, the marriage record shows her as Elizabeth Boehm). Ursula had given birth to another seven children. A year after Rudolph, Jr. married Mattie, an eighth child was added to the count. Perhaps it was the abundance of siblings and half-siblings that sent Rudolph, Jr. wandering. He had come of age in Colorado, where the Muellers had moved in the late 1880s. He had come on his own out to California. The article about the wedding in the Mariposa Gazette describes him as having recently been a resident of New Mexico. It is possible he spent an interval in New Mexico in the late 1890s. However, it is more likely the author of the article simply got the detail wrong and should have referred to Colorado.

Mattie Branson and first husband Rudolph Mueller, Jr. Probably a photograph taken for their wedding.

The young couple lived at Grasshopper Ranch during the early months of their marriage. They appear there in the census, recorded in early June, 1900. Eventually they established themselves on their own in Hornitos. Rudolph was a cook.

Mattie did not have children of her own. However, she seems to have taken a maternal interest in some of her nieces and nephews. More than one surviving photo -- one of them shown at the bottom of this webpage -- shows her with her brother Alvin’s son Walter, who may have been her boarder in his young adulthood. It seems likely that Mattie often was more than a housewife, helping Rudolph with his occupation. This may particularly have been true after the arrival of Rudolph’s father, stepmother, and youngest half-siblings in approximately 1907. Rudolph, Sr. became the proprietor of the Hornitos Hotel. Though not specifically mentioned in documentation, the son and namesake probably worked at the hotel, and this would have surely have been true of Mattie as well.

By the early 1910s more and more residents were abandoning Hornitos and its outlying mining outposts. The local gold industry was in freefall. By 1914, the phenomenon had swept up all of Mattie’s siblings and their families with the exception of her brother Joe. (Joe not only stayed, but kept expanding his cattle ranch as neighbors sold out. The ranch eventually incorporated most of what had been Quartzburg. Grasshopper Ranch was one of the additions.) With such an exodus in play, the Hornitos Hotel did far less business. This was undoubtedly a factor in Rudolph taking a job with the Victory Furnace Company.

In 1915, Rudolph suffered the loss of two young half-siblings in rapid succession -- his brother Albert Mueller on April 27th of a lung infection, and his sister Lena Mueller Jennings July 9th of peritonitis following an appendectomy. Albert was only eighteen, Lena nineteen. These blows came less than a year after the death of Rudolph’s father. At this point, Rudolph’s life seems to have fallen apart, a decline perhaps triggered by these tragedies. Family recollection is that his marriage to Mattie went sour, and they separated, and that he may ultimately have committed suicide. The 1916 voter register shows him as a cook in El Portal, the so-called gateway to Yosemite Valley, and it would appear he went there without Mattie. The following year he joined his stepmother and half-brothers Frank, Harry, and Fritz Mueller in Parkfield, Monterey County, CA. Rudolph passed away in Parkfield 23 March 1918. He was not yet fifty years old, which lends credence to the rumor of suicide being the cause.

Mattie had put in years doing hotel-housekeeping by the time of the marital break-up, so as a single woman she naturally made use of this skill set to support herself. By the end of the 1910s she moved to Kern County, CA (possibly after a sojourn in Stockton, San Joaquin County, CA, where her brother Alvin and family had moved in 1914). Kern County was chock full of residence hotels and boarding houses serving the many bachelors employed by the booming oil industry. Mattie became a cook at an establishment in Bakersfield. Her workplace doubled as her place of residence. It may also have been the very spot where she met Joe T. White, a Standard Oil employee, the man who was soon to become her second husband. Joe was Joseph Tilden White, son of Ambrose White and Mary A. Tritt. A native of Caldwell County, NC, born 29 July 1876, Joe had come out to California with his brother Daniel T. White, who like him had become an employee of Standard Oil and who, like Joe, would finish out his life as a resident of Kern County. Joe and Dan were twins, the ninth and tenth of eleven children, and tended to stay within one another’s sphere, though they do not appear to have actually lived together after an interval in the early 1900s in Roane County, TN, where they shared a home with their widowed mother and siblings Ellen and William after leaving Caldwell County. Mattie and Joe were wed in approximately 1922.

Mattie and Joe may have lived in Bakersfield at first, but soon settled long-term in Pond, CA. Joe was already familiar with Pond, having been housed there along with six other Standard Oil Company employees in 1919 and into the 1920s. Pond is such a small place it does not appear on most maps. It is in Kern County, located about six miles southwest of Delano. It was no doubt a community that existed as a whistlestop along the Southern Pacific railroad line. It has lessened in vitality now the main transport corridor is Highway 99, several miles to the east. When the Whites lived there, it was near an oil pumping station where Joe worked as a night watchman. He was sometimes unemployed during the difficult years of the Great Depression. Mattie raised chickens at home as a supplementary means of income.

Mattie was a well-beloved figure within the tight-knit community of Pond. She was known affectionately by neighbors as “Auntie White.” Mattie is shown at left during those years in front of her home in Pond with a young neighbor, who was one of those who served as her surrogate nieces. Unfortunately this girl’s name is not known. It is worth wondering if two of the kids Mattie knew during the 1920s might have been Lois and James Miller, the children of Joe’s Standard Oil colleague Albert Martin Miller and his wife Alice Jane Hamlin. The Millers are shown on the very same census page with Joe T. White in the 1920 census. James, born in 1923, would grow up to marry Mattie’s grand niece Gertrude Ellen Branson (see her biography elsewhere on this website). However, as far as can be determined, Mattie played no role in introducing James and Trudy, who appear to have coincidentally encountered one another in the early 1940s when James and his family became based in Arroyo Grande, CA during Trudy’s high school years.

Mattie died in Pond, succumbing unexpectedly in her bed during the wee hours of the night of Monday, 28 December 1942 -- meaning technically she died Tuesday, 29 December 1942. Her funeral was held Saturday, 2 January 1943 at Delano Mortuary, Baptist Reverend Charles E. Flanagin officiating. As was often the case when a member of the Branson/Ousley family died, the funeral logistics were handled by lodge members, in this instance, representatives of the Alpha Rebekahs and the Royal Neighbors. Her grave is at North Kern Cemetery in Delano.

Joe T. White survived Mattie. As far as can be determined, he remained in Pond. Certainly he remained in Kern County. The California Death Index shows he died within the county 15 April 1947. Like Mattie’s, his grave is at North Kern Cemetery, as is that of his brother Dan, who perished in late 1951.

Note: Some web-based genealogies still unfortunately render Mattie’s death date as 29 January 1943. The ultimate source of this error was Mattie’s nephew Ivan Branson, who used that date of death in his 1982 book, Bones of the Bransons. Ivan possessed a newspaper obituary on which someone had written “January 1943.” The text of that obituary stated that Mattie had died on the 29th of the month. Ivan took this to mean January 29th. However, this clipping was from an issue released during the first week of January and the line referred to the previous 29th.

Mattie and Rudolph either in front of their Hornitos home/cabin circa 1910, or behind the Hornitos Hotel. The extremely tall young man is Mattie’s nephew Walter Henry Branson, son of Alvin. The identity of the dark-haired woman on the right is unknown, but it is possible it is Rudolph’s stepmother Ursula. A second photo taken in the same spot on the same day shows Walter’s kid brother Ivan Thorpe Branson and another boy with the same four people (and same dog) shown here.

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