Reuben Branson

Reuben Branson, the eldest child of John Sevier Branson and Martha Jane Ousley, was born 16 November 1846 in either Gasconade County or Osage County, Missouri. He is not to be confused with other Reuben Bransons. In particular, he is not to be confused with his uncle Reuben Branson (1813-1905), a mistake that is surprising in its persistence in various genealogies. The error manifests chiefly in the form of attaching the uncle’s second wife Harriett Slater to the nephew, probably because Harriett is mentioned in passing in Ivan Branson’s Bones of the Bransons (1982) and someone skimming the pages might think they were looking at a section having to do with “the” Reuben. Otherwise it’s easy to tell the two Reubens apart. The uncle was not only much older, but spent his adult life in central Missouri, whereas the nephew spent most of his life in California.

During the first seven years of Reuben’s life, his father was often absent. When Reuben was an infant, John Sevier Branson headed west with companions Alonzo Sutton and Ike Paulton in an unsuccessful attempt to find a good spot to settle in Oregon Territory. Then in 1849, the same three men left to be part of the Gold Rush. John spent the winter of 1850/51 back home in Missouri, but it is accurate to say half of Reuben’s early life was spent with just one parent, along with his slightly younger brothers Thomas, born in early 1848, and Joseph, born in late 1849. His uncle William Ousley and his grandfather Thomas Branson were his male authority figures during that period.

Eventually John found a suitable spot in the Santa Clara Valley of California to farm and sent for his wife and sons. Accompanied by three male friends as escorts, Martha and her boys travelled downriver to the port of New Orleans, took ship to the Isthmus of Panama, which they crossed on foot and on mules. Another ship brought the party to San Francisco. The journey took long enough that the family members did not find John in the Santa Clara Valley. They had to track him down to his subsequent dwelling place in the Livermore Valley, where he was growing potatoes.

Potatoes had been going for high prices when John began farming, but by the time the crop was ready the demand had fallen. John decided he would go back to mining gold. He had earlier done so in the Trinity Alps of northernmost California. He had experienced some success but not enough to tempt him to return to the same region. Instead, he set his sights on the productive mining area along the Merced River in the lower part of Mariposa County. The family remained in the Livermore area long enough that fourth child Phoebe Ann Branson was born there in the mid-1850s, and then they headed for the Mother Lode.

Mariposa County was at that point the most populous county in California aside from San Francisco (it is now one of the most vacant, aside from the hordes of tourists visiting Yosemite National Park). Reuben grew up in a variety of mining camps and makeshift towns along the Merced River, sharing rustic accommodations with an expanding brood of siblings -- after Phoebe, another four sisters and two brothers were born over the next fifteen years, bringing the total number of children to ten. During the first year or so in the gold country, the family stayed near the gravel-mining claims John was working at Harte and Johnson’s Flat, and shortly thereafter moved upstream to Barrett City, a major mining center. By 1859 they moved slightly downstream to the eastern side of the river, to Phillips Flat. (Phillips Flat and the other three sites just mentioned were later covered by Lake McClure, a reservoir.) It was a rough environment. His brother Joseph would later relate to a historian how he, Reuben, and Thomas as youngsters personally saw a number of individuals murdered in the streets of Hornitos when arguments -- usually originating inside the local saloon -- came to a head and the people involved resorted to knives and/or pistols.

The bench gravels of Phillips Flat were apparently productive, and so the household finally had a place to stay put for an extended period. The claim was good for three years. John and his partners were so satisfied by the yield they renewed for two further terms, for a total of nine years. By 1867 John had earned enough to finance a relocation to the Willamette Valley of Oregon, where he tried farming. Martha found the climate too wet for her taste, so back the family came in 1868 to Mariposa County. John bought a ranch adjoining the parcel belonging to the Washington Mine, one of the productive hardrock deep mines at a place generally known as Quartzburg. This was approximately two miles north of the village of Hornitos, and not more than ten miles from Phillips Flat. John raised cattle and feed, and hauled loads to and from the local mines, prospecting himself only occasionally as a sideline. The Branson land had earlier been owned by Daniel and Margaret Mahon. The Mahons had owned it less than a decade. John and Martha, by contrast, would own and reside on the property, which they called Grasshopper Ranch, for the rest of their lives -- a span of nearly forty years in John’s case, and over forty for Martha.

Reuben spent time at Grasshopper Ranch, but it is uncertain it was ever his official residence, or that he accompanied his parents and siblings to Oregon. He had already reached full adulthood by 1867, and the 1870 census confirms he was not living at the ranch at that juncture. He had set out on his own. Naturally, he worked as a miner, but with the Phillips Flat claim no longer being a Branson concern, much of Reuben’s income must have come from the other profession he had learned from his father -- hauling goods. This would surely have involved transporting loads along the main route of the era, i.e. from Stockton in San Joaquin County down to Millerton in Fresno County, passing through various Mariposa County communities such as Hornitos, Quartzburg, and Bear Valley. In this activity, Reuben seems to have often been partnered with a bachelor teamster named David Kirkpatrick, a Hornitos resident -- this assumption coming from the fact that Reuben’s second son was given the name David Kirkpatrick Branson. (The whole family, especially Reuben’s brothers Thomas and Alvin, shared this tendency to name sons after male comrades who were not in a position to have sons of their own.)

It was no doubt through his hauling and delivery work that Reuben became acquainted with the lissome teenager who would become his wife. Ever since the mid-1850s, one of the prominent stage coach drivers and postal carriers along the Stockton-to-Millerton route had been, and still was, James Lafayette Snediker (1824-1877), who had arrived in the area in about 1853 from New York. The teenager was Snediker’s stepdaughter, Eliza Louisa. The family’s home was located at Hornitos, where James raised cattle when he was not gone on his stage coach runs.

Eliza Louisa’s maiden name would continue to be entered as Snediker in later documents, but in fact it was Armstrong. She was a daughter of Tennessee-born miner William Armstrong and his Texas-born (or perhaps Arkansas-born) wife, Mary Jane Adams. This couple had arrived in California some time after the early-1850s birth of their daughter Berthalina and the arrival of Eliza Louisa and her twin sister Laura 15 June 1857. They had come at first to Stockton. Some time after siring another daughter, Mary Armstrong, who was born in late 1860 or early 1861, William appears to have died. Mary Adams Armstrong went on to marry a man named Crofford, whose identity is unknown save that in the Mariposa Gazette announcement of her 30 January 1866 marriage to James Snediker, she is described as Mrs. Mary Crofford. Presumably she had been widowed a second time, as had James, whose first wife, mother of his son James Lafayette Snediker, Jr., had still been alive to give birth to Junior in early 1865. Together James and Mary had at least one child, Samuel P. Snediker, who died in late 1868 at just short of two years of age.

Eliza Louisa is a difficult figure to track in public records. Part of this comes from the rotating names in her childhood and the many changes of residence she went through in adulthood, but another reason is that when giving information about herself in censuses, she altered her name and her age as the mood suited her. She is Louisa Armstrong in the census for Stockton in 1860, Eliza Snediker in Hornitos in 1870, Eliza Branson in Hite’s Cove, Mariposa County in 1880, Louisa Branson in Raymond, Madera County in 1900, Louise Branson in Los Angeles in 1910, Louise Branson in Randsburg, Kern County in 1920, and Louise Eagle in Milton-Freewater, OR in 1930 and is Louise Eagle in the Oregon Death Index. Her reported age shifted radically. Early censuses agree with her known birth year, but by the 20th Century she began reporting herself to be younger than she was, until at the end of her life, records show her as nearly fifteen years shy of her true age.

Reuben and Louisa were wed 4 July 1872 at Grasshopper Ranch, officiated by Justice of the Peace Samuel Walker Carr, who served in such capacity at many Branson-clan weddings of the late 1860s through the early 1880s. Louisa was barely fifteen. By the standards of her family, this was average. Half a dozen years earlier, her sister Berthalina had wed Joseph Biederman a couple of weeks before turning fourteen. Her twin sister Laura would go on to wed Armstead Lincoln on her sixteenth birthday.

Reuben and Louisa’s first child, William Henry Branson, arrived in July 1873. Five more children -- David, Mamie, Robert, and twins Mabel and Mattie -- at a steady pace, each birth happening about two to two-and-a-half years after the preceding one. This gives the impression of a steady domestic situation, but that is not the case. Reuben was not a stay-at-home fellow. Perhaps the frequent absence of his own father at a formative age had left its mark upon his personality. He roamed. In some ways his life constituted a classic portrait of the Old West prospector. He often scrabbled to get by, sustained more by dreams of striking it rich than by any actual bonanzas. At times his lifestyle was almost that of a bachelor, and he would return home to Louisa at irregular intervals, sometimes spending only a few weeks to a few months with his household before he would be off again. At times Reuben’s employment situation was relatively steady. Louisa would find a housing situation near his worksite and the family would be together. At other times she was a grass widow, making do the best she could, finding help where she could get it.

Following his dreams, Reuben spent the last quarter of the 19th Century shifting from one camp or cabin or house in the southern sections of the Mother Lode. Many of these locales were within the bounds of Mariposa County. Some of them were slightly south in Fresno County -- that is to say, those parts of Fresno County immediately south of Yosemite that would by 1890 be incorporated into the newly formed Madera County. It is not always possible to retrace his steps, but it is known Reuben spent the mid-1870s working the McCabe or Chase mine in Mariposa County with partner John Mossman. Soon (probably upon Mossman’s death in the summer of 1879) he shifted his efforts to Hite’s Cove, also in Mariposa County -- though he may have come there in order to work as a blacksmith rather than as a miner. (The household is shown located there in the 1880 census, his occupation listed as blacksmith.)

The early 1880s seem to have been a particularly challenging period. This had its effect on the marriage. Reuben and Louisa called it quits. Whether they formally filed for divorce is unknown, nor is it clear precisely when he stopped “coming back home” except that it must have been after the conception of Mabel and Mattie, who were born in the autumn of 1882. However, eventually the couple reconciled. The timing of that development is easier to pin down. The pair took their vows again -- either because they were indeed divorced or simply because they felt a formal re-tying of the knot was an essential gesture -- on 16 February 1886. The wedding record can be found in Fresno County files; it would surely have been filed with Madera County had the county existed at that time. Within a couple of months Louisa would be pregnant again, leading to the birth of daughter Margaret, whom they called Maggie (a name she rejected in adulthood and would not answer to). The baby was quite possibly named in honor of the “Little Maggie Mine,” a claim in the Potter Ridge Mining District that Reuben filed in 1886. The remarriage appears to have been part of Reuben’s promise to himself to get his affairs in order and create the sort of stable life his parents and siblings Tom, Joe, Phoebe, and Nancy were enjoying.

Unfortunately, the Little Maggie Mine was a bust. Reuben took a job by the end of the 1880s with the Sugar Pine Lumber Company in the logging community of Sugar Pine, in the Grub Gulch area of what was then becoming Madera County. This was where Louisa spent the months of her eighth pregnancy. Sugar Pine was, however, not where the child would be born. There were complications with the birth. The nearest available doctor was down in the Central Valley in the town of Madera, over sixty-five miles away. The only means of transport that would give mother and baby the quickest and best care was to ride the Gertrude Flume, down which logs were sent to be milled into lumber. Their vehicle was a log cut into a triangular shape, with only eyebolts to hang on to. Somehow Reuben and Louisa made it safely to their destination. The child was born healthy, and was given the name Gertrude in honor of the flume. Gertrude ultimately lived to be over seventy years old. The flume itself, one of several that brought logs out of the Sierra Nevada in the late 1800s and early 1900s -- and a prime example of the “forgotten” major engineering projects of that era -- lasted only a few more decades.

Throughout most of the 1890s the family lived in Raymond in Madera County. Reuben was usually absent. This may explain why Gertrude was the only child born during that decade. Reuben’s daughters, when grown, would mention that they looked to their eldest brother William as a father more than their actual father. The silver lining of this arrangement was that the family finally had a somewhat permanent home. Younger children Margaret and Gertie spoke in later years of their memories of the stonework of the community -- even the fenceposts were made of granite, a consequence of the quarries that formed the initial basis of the local economy. Louisa may have felt she did not have to follow Reuben in his wandering because her two eldest boys were becoming grown men and could be counted on for a certain amount of support. During the 1890s William is known to have kept cattle in the Raymond area, and David to have farmed there. The girls were hired out to neighbors as domestic servants when they reached twelve or thirteen years old.

In 1894 Reuben filed a lawsuit against the Gambetta Gold Mining Company, who had apparently infringed on the Little Maggie Mine that he had abandoned. Soon he was back in the Potter Ridge area, naming his new diggings the Gertrude Mine. In 1900 he moved to Randsburg, CA in eastern Kern County, where he accepted work with the Yellow Aster Mining Company. In that year and the next he sold various rights, permissions, and land having to do with the Little Maggie Mine, the Gertrude Mine, and the Golden Valley Mine and associated mill. His sons Robert and David continued to work at those sites during this period, however.

Louisa moved to Randsburg with Reuben, but the early years of the 20th Century brought the final dissolution of the marriage. Louisa filed suit to gain power of attorney over (portions of) his estate. It is unknown if this legal maneuvering was designed to fend off Reuben’s debtors or was part of Louisa’s pre-divorce strategy. In any case, divorce did come, the court approving it in 1903. Just how the dynamics played out is not clear. The confusion is not only a matter of lack of documentation. Reuben told one story. Louisa told another. One big way in which their stories diverged has to do with the origin of Herbert Raymond Branson, born 18 February 1903. Louisa claimed that Herbert was her child and that Reuben was the father. According to Reuben, he and Louisa had ceased having sexual relations a year or so before Herbert was conceived and the boy therefore was not his son.

Someone was lying. Who was it? Reuben’s siblings believed his version of the tale. In a 1931 capsule history of the John Sevier Branson family written by Reuben’s sister-in-law Mary Eliza Simmons Branson, Reuben is credited with having fathered eight, not nine, children. Reuben’s nephew Ivan Thorpe Branson touched upon the subject obliquely in Bones of the Bransons. In the midst of his biography of Reuben, Ivan mades an editorial aside to comment on mining men in general living off in the hills without their families and occasionally making arrangements with, say, Indian women to wash their clothes and fix their meals. Ivan does not specifically describe these arrangements as sexual, but phrases things so that it is clear he imagines the reader will engage in such speculations. Ivan then goes on to point out how some of these men would return home to find that in their absence, their families had increased -- “and they had only been gone a year!”

The next paragraph of Bones of the Bransons reads, “An old yarn, gossiped around the pedro tables, unveiled such a hypothetical situation. A neighbor of the new mother pointed out that her man had been away from the premises somewhat over the gestation time. The reply came that the husband was a good corresponder and wrote to her often!”

Ivan does not say straight out that Reuben was one of the mining men of the sort described, nor declare that Reuben had bastard children with other women or that Louisa may have cuckolded him, but it is plain he had some reason for inserting that passage in his book. Perhaps he was simply noting the lifestyle Reuben had led in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. More likely, he was discreetly addressing the matter of Herbert Raymond Branson, and whether to credit Reuben with eight children, or nine.

Was Herbert’s conception the result of one last attempt at reconciliation between Reuben and Louisa? Lacking evidence to the contrary, that possibility can’t be ruled out. But all in all, it seems more likely Herbert was not Reuben’s child. Yet if not, then the story is not as simple as Louisa becoming pregnant by another man. She was nearly forty-six at the time of the birth, a late age to be a natural mother, especially given that she had abruptly ceased having children after the traumatic birth of Gertie a dozen years earlier. The scenario that makes the most sense is that Herbert was the child of Margaret Branson, then fifteen and unwed. Louisa pretended to be the baby’s mother rather than his grandmother. Louisa would go on to raise Herbert as if he were her son.

There is a surviving photograph of Herbert as a young man, standing beside his “aunt” Margaret and his “mother” Louisa. Any objective observer would immediately note the facial resemblance between Margaret and Herbert. Herbert has Margaret’s jawline. He does not have Reuben’s jawline, as seen in, for instance, Reuben’s son Robert.

For now, Herbert retains his position in this archive as Reuben and Louisa’s son. That seems to be the only fair way to deal with the controversy. However, it is safe to say Reuben would not have endorsed the decision.

After becoming single, Louisa opened a boarding house to support herself. This may have been in Randsburg, but was probably in San Jose. (Descendants would recall being told it was San Francisco, but this seems to have been an error stemming from an imprecise reference, such as “the San Francisco Bay Area.” The paper trail consistently points to San Jose. This may mean Louisa sought out the support of her sister Berthalina Biederman.) Reuben does not appear to have ever established a home for himself in the remaining fragment of his life. Instead he drifted about, staying in workers’ quarters or lodging with relatives. He continued to be employed by the Yellow Aster Mining Company for several years. During some of this interval he boarded with his son Robert and daughter-in-law Etta. Yellow Aster was also Robert’s employer, though Robert quickly obtained an above-ground job blacksmithing and maintaining the company’s water supply, which served the whole community of Randsburg. However, Reuben was often in Mariposa County. Sometimes he stayed with his brother Alvin and sister-in-law Mary Eliza and their young son Ivan. Ivan writes in Bones of the Bransons that Reuben assisted Alvin for a number of summers around 1910 to try -- vainly -- to find gold in Alvin’s “Last Chance” claim on the Mariposa/Merced County border, near Exchequer. The 1910 census shows him living near Alvin as a boarder in the miners’ barracks on the land of brother Joe Branson, whose holdings now included Grasshopper Ranch.

Despite the familial awkwardness left in the wake of the divorce and despite Reuben’s lack of a home of his own, he did maintain at least some connection not only to his son Robert, but to his daughters. A photograph of the 1909 class of Quartzburg School includes Gertie Branson (who like many miners’ kids of the area was still working toward graduation from eighth grade at an age when well-to-do kids in urban areas were finishing high school). This is a very good indication that Gertie stayed with her father while he was based at his brother Joe’s ranch. Reuben may even have insisted on this. Having Gertie there meant she would be under the watchful eye of her prim and proper aunt, Ella Geary Branson. The alternative was to let Gertie stay with Louisa, who at that time was cohabitating in Pasadena with a divorced carpenter, Charles R. Hines.

Right at the end of his life, Reuben stayed with his daughter Mabel and her husband George Latham in the Los Angeles area. It was not so much a relocation of residence as choosing a place to die. Not long after his arrival he was admitted to Ward 61 of the Los Angeles County Hospital in Tropico, where he spent his final twenty-two days on Earth. He succumbed 10 May 1916. His remains were buried in Old Forest Lawn Cemetery, Glendale, CA, in a grave plot purchased for him by his son Robert.

One of Reuben’s pastimes was fiddle-playing for dancers. Informal dances were one of the forms of social amusement readily available in the gold camps. An ability with the fiddle was something Reuben shared with his brother Alvin and probably with several other male relatives of his generation.

Some nieces and nephews and descendants later characterized Reuben as a drinking man. This habit may help explain some of his lack of financial success in life, and his broken marriage, or it might have been more of a symptom of those things. Some family members maintained that he “drank himself to death.” This may be figuratively true. His death record lists “stomach cancer” as the cause of death, but that may be a way of saying liver cancer.

Despite her relationship with Charles R. Hines (or Heine), Louisa did not marry again until well after Reuben’s death. She appears to have spent the 1910s mostly or entirely in southern California, first in Pasadena. The 1920 census shows her back in Randsburg with “eighteen-year-old” (actually sixteen-year-old) Herbert listed as head of household. In 1924 or early 1925 Louisa married Joseph (“Papa Joe”) Eagle, and settled with him in Milton-Freewater, Umatilla County, OR. She died in Milton-Freewater 20 November 1939, succumbing to cancer that first invaded a finger and then an arm. Amputation of the finger and then the arm failed to halt the spread of the disease. Papa Joe wanted her buried locally, but daughter Mabel Grace Branson, who along with her sister-in-law Alene had often cared for Louisa during her final few years, surreptitiously arranged to bring the body to Madera, Madera County, CA, where it could be laid to rest near the graves of children William, Mamie, and Mattie at Arbor Vitae Cemetery. (Joe Eagle, born about 1867 in France, spent his widowerhood in Milton-Freewater, passing away there 2 July 1947. His grave lies at Arbor Vitae Cemetery beside that of Louisa.)

Reuben’s ex-wife along with their surviving younger children, along with children-in-law, grandchildren, and others, taken in early 1910. Left to right Herbert Raymond Branson (as a boy), Eliza Louisa Armstrong Branson, Charles Hines (behind Louisa with his hand on her chair), Mamie Branson Dougherty, Emmett Dougherty, Oliver Heitkemper (kindergartener on ground), Margaret Branson Heitkemper Gaver, Edgar Leroy Gaver (standing behind Margaret), “Little” Margaret Gaver (the baby in Margaret’s lap), George Latham, Mabel Branson Latham, Edgar Robert Gaver (two-year-old at his Aunt Mabel’s feet), boyfriend of Gertie Branson, Gertie (Gertrude) Branson.

Children of Reuben Branson with Louisa Armstrong

William Henry Branson

David Kirkpatrick Branson

Mary Jane “Mamie” Branson

Robert Lee Branson

Mabel Grace Branson

Martha “Mattie” Branson

Margaret Alice Branson

Gertrude Branson

Herbert Raymond “Blondy” Branson

For genealogical details, click on each of the names.

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