Theresa Branson

Theresa Branson, the fourth daughter and eighth child of John Sevier Branson and Martha Jane Ousley, was born 24 October 1865 in the Merced River gold-mining community of Phillips Flat, Mariposa County, CA -- a place inundated sixty years later when Lake McClure was created by the erection of Exchequer Dam. Her parents were illiterate and were therefore not in a position in the 1860s and 1870s to tell clerks and census enumerators what spelling of her name to use. In the 1870 census it is Terresa, and looks more like Terrisa, and in 1880 is is a scribble that looks somewhat like Terrisa. Unfortunately several genealogists have used this as their source and this variation has propagated over the World Wide Web. Additionally, family members apparently were not sure how the name was rendered, and they used at least four versions -- the standard spellings Theresa and Teresa, as well as her nickname as “Aunt Trese” and “Aunt Threse.” Theresa herself was educated -- some of that schooling no doubt taking place at Quartzburg District School -- and was in a position to insist on one version or another, but she does not seem to have enforced consistency. Most public documents after 1880 use Theresa. That is the reason why you see that form used on this webpage. For example, a promissory note from 1894, when her father borrowed money from her to complete a land transaction, using the “Th” option and she does not seem to have protested. It is always Theresa on voter registries, of which many are available. On the other hand, the informant for her death record used Teresa, and that form appears in the California Death Index. A photograph of her that turned up in late 2006 -- about a year after the initial uploading of this webpage -- is signed on the back, “Yours, Teresa.” (!) Suffice it to say that she might not have cared what she was called as long as she wasn’t called late to dinner.

Theresa was a redhead, apparently vividly so because this fact is mentioned in multiple descriptions of her written by nephews and nieces. She also was clearly someone who enjoyed having her picture taken. This places her in a much different category than, say, her brothers. Posing for photos back in her youth was not a casual process. One usually had to go to a studio. One had to put up with holding poses much longer than is necessary today. And, because photo sessions were special occasions designed to capture individuals at their best, a lady was obliged to prepare her hair and garments just so. Theresa did not seem to mind all the fuss required, and as a consequence, there are more surviving photos of her from the late 1800s and very early 1900s than any of the other nine children of John and Martha Branson. (Only a few of that trove of images appears here on the website.)

Theresa was only two years old when the Branson family left Phillips Flat. They intended to make a new home in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, but stayed only a year before returning to Mariposa County for good. Theresa spent the rest of her childhood on the family cattle ranch. The land, affectionately known by its occupants as Grasshopper Ranch, adjoined the property of the Washington Mine, one of the active hardrock mines of the Mount Gaines formation. The place was often in those days known as Quartzburg for the settlement founded there during the first year of the Gold Rush. Theresa received her education at Quartzburg School. She completed eighth grade -- something she and her family regarded with pride inasmuch as her parents do not appear to have had any formal schooling at all. The school no doubt loomed large in her social life. Her only other chance to mingle with subtantial numbers of peers was during festivities in Hornitos. That village, which lay two to three miles from Quartzburg/Washington Mine, was large enough to boast of family-friendly activities at its church, town square, and hotel.

One by one John and Martha’s eldest seven kids finished coming of age and began forging their own lives. Many of Theresa’s siblings, especially her brothers, cleaved to life in the Mother Lode. Theresa followed the example of her older sisters Phoebe and Nancy, who had both relocated to Merced, Merced County, CA in their late teens. Her brother Thomas was also associated with Merced, co-owning a tinsmith shop there from the mid-1870s to 1887 even while he and his wife Frances continued to officially reside at Quartzburg. Merced, founded in 1872 by Central Pacific Railroad, was only twenty miles from Grasshopper Ranch, but a world away in terms of lifestyle. Its citizens were far more concerned with commerce and crop agriculture than with mining and cattle grazing. However, in one way Theresa diverged from the path of Phoebe and Nancy, both of whom married and became mothers by their early twenties, as did sister Mary Jane later on. Theresa would not marry until her mid-twenties and she never had biological children. The delay might have been a consequence of a call to duty, as it were. In the 1880s, perhaps even in the early years of the decade when Theresa was still a teenager, Phoebe’s health began to fail. Phoebe and her husband, blacksmith/wheelwright William McDonald, apparently prevailed upon Theresa to serve as a nanny for the four McDonald kids.

Theresa, left, with sister Phoebe during the years when she helped care for Phoebe’s children.

Theresa’s role expanded to that of surrogate mother upon Phoebe’s death in August of 1887. How long this arrangement lasted is no longer known. Final release from the obligation may not have come until William McDonald married his second wife, Agnes Dunn, in the spring of 1892. However, as the kids all became old enough to be off at school a good part of each weekday, Theresa began expanding her horizon. The 1888-89 Merced business directory shows her as the proprietress of a seamstress service operating on Eighteenth Street. That was the street on which the McDonald home was located and probably meant she worked from there. The venture was part of the streak of self-reliance demonstrated by the females of her generation. Her sisters Nancy, Mary Jane, and Mattie all supported themselves for substantial stretches of time when they had no husbands under their roofs. Theresa no doubt would have done fine if she’d had to. But as it happened, she was soon able to be a full-time housewife. At age twenty-four, she finally wed.

Her new husband was William Osborne Moore. The wedding, held Wednesday, 15 January 1890, was small. It took place at the home of Mr. and Mrs. E.F. Sanford in West Merced and was officiated by Justice of the Peace J.W. Robinson. There are mentions of the wedding in both the Merced Express and the Mariposa Gazette, each of which spawn mysteries about the event. First, the Gazette credits Reverend Mr. Wilson with the conducting of the rites, not Robinson. Second, the Express describes the occasion as a small gathering of friends. Why that should be the case is very strange. Such a quiet ceremony smacks of a shotgun wedding or of a wedding that family members opposed, yet from the perspective of the 21st Century there would appear to be no such factors in play. Theresa does not appear to have been pregnant and the article refers to the bride and groom as two popular young people of Merced -- code for a pair of socially-acceptable sweethearts. Moreover, the fifteenth of January was the very same date that Theresa’s brother John Sevier Branson, Jr. wed his bride, Lillian Jane Guest. Was there a double wedding, with the siblings cheering each other on? This does not seem to be the case. The Branson/Guest wedding also took place in Merced, but the precise locale would not appear to have been the same and the rites were officiated not by Wilson or Robinson but by Justice of the Peace J.Y. Jones. But if there was no double wedding, this implies there was a rift between brother and sister. This is not something mentioned in any family sources, but it is a fact that after growing up, Theresa and her younger brother never lived near one another and do not seem to have had much of a connection. With luck, further research may resolve the matter of friction between them.

William Osborne Moore, born 29 August 1858 in Mooresburg, Hawkins County, TN, was a son of James Madison Moore and Mary Barsheba Whitehead Cobb. William, one of the younger kids of the family, was one of the grandchildren of Mooresburg founder Hugh Gallahue Moore. He tended to be known as Will to family and close friends. In adulthood, in general and business life, he was best known as W.O. Moore. Will’s father had died shortly before Will had turned four years old. His mother had soon thereafter wed Mooresburg physician Henry C. Johnson. Presumably Will had then been raised in the household of his mother and stepfather. However, though many of his siblings and his half-sister Lulu Johnson appear in that household in the 1870 census, Will does not. This may simply have been the enumerator’s oversight, but it is possible Will spent some of his childhood raised elsewhere. This may help explain why he ventured so far from home when he came of age. According to his obituary, he arrived in Merced in approximately 1881. Meanwhile most of his family members remained in Mooresburg, some of them lifelong.

Will was seven years older than Theresa (though his age is usually reported in censuses as younger, perhaps an indication that the age difference was a touchy subject) and gives the impression of having been a dependable spouse. He definitely was the most constant and lasting of all the original husbands of the five daughters of John and Martha Branson -- though William McDonald would share that distinction if Phoebe had enjoyed a longer life. This means Will and Theresa were well-positioned to be parents of a large family, yet ironically they would never produce any biological offspring. Whether this was due to infertility or an act of choice is no longer known. Surviving photographs show that Theresa was thin to the extent of looking frail. (The photos on this webpage tend to show her at her plumpest and most robust.) Her grandniece Alice Corkins recalled in 2007 email correspondence that Theresa had asthma. She smoked a medicinal type of cigarette to combat this, one of the touted remedies for asthma in her era. She apparently had other health problems, though obviously not as dire as what Phoebe succumbed to.

By the time Theresa became his spouse, Will was one of the movers and shakers of Merced. In the couple of years preceding the marriage he had served as a road overseer in the Snelling District in easternmost Merced County (quite near Hornitos) and, back in the the town of Merced itself, had begun serving as a member of the local Board of Agriculture. In 1890, if not slightly earlier, he became city clerk and a member of the city board of trustees. (Decades later, the city clerk would be Theresa’s niece Teresa McDonald’s husband, James J. Garibaldi.) Will’s installment was part of the on-going establishment of a city bureaucracy. The town from its inception in 1872 had strictly speaking only been a district of the county, but as a result of an election held in March, 1889, it had officially become a city.

Will also enjoyed a kind of prominence for his pastime as a chicken breeder. Various poultry journals of the 1890s note the quality of his fowl and/or his active involvement in poultry shows and the organizing of same. The January, 1893 issue of The Poultry Monthly, an industry journal published in Albany, NY, mentions that Will had recently bought and had been shipped the pullets (young hens) that had won the first prizes at the 1892 Rochester and New York City poultry shows. He had also purchased the cockerels (young roosters) from whose pens the prizewinners had come. Will’s favorite type of chicken was the Plymouth Rock strain, and in February, 1896 he became a charter member of the California Plymouth Rock Club, a west coast chapter of an organization dedicated to the preservation and improvement of that breed.

Childless though she was, Theresa spent a total of many years as a parental figure. Even as the four McDonald children were reaching the point where they no longer required her care, her other Merced-based nephews and nieces lost their fathers. Nancy Branson’s husband Peter Harrington fell ill in mid-1889 and was dead by the beginning of 1890. Mary Jane Branson’s husband Alonzo Johnson, who had often been gone from the family home while mining in various locales, stopped coming home at all. Nancy and Mary Jane pulled together and opened a boarding house. This kept a roof over the heads of both women and their kids, and the income from the paying lodgers gave them some wherewithal. However, the arrangement was only a partial solution. Nancy worked in the boarding house itself as cook and matron, which allowed her to supervise her offspring. Moreover, she could count on the help of her eldest son John and eldest daughter Josephine, ages twelve and eleven respectively when their father passed away. Mary Jane’s kids were in a less secure position. They were all quite young, and Mary Jane could not be with them during weekdays because she worked as a clerk at a drygoods store. (She did the boarding house laundry in the evenings). It was hard for her to provide her children with as much attention as they deserved. Theresa stepped in to lighten the burden. She and Will became foster parents to Mary Jane’s eldest, Clarence Johnson. They may have formally adopted him -- though he retained his original surname. Certainly he became their ward and heir. Theresa and Will resided only three doors down from the boarding house, so Clarence was never far from his birth mother and his two siblings. Will undoubtedly had empathy for Clarence’s fatherless situation, having lost his own biological father so young. (For his part, Clarence’s “real” father never reasserted his parental rights -- by the time Alonzo died in late 1898, he may not have even seen his children at all for about a decade.)

In the early years of the Twentieth Century the younger generation of the extended family came of age and nearly all chose to leave Merced. Soon there would be only a few holdouts, such as two of Phoebe’s children, John McDonald and Teresa Garibaldi. Among those who left was Clarence Johnson, who became a clerk in Oakland, CA, and who would by the middle of 1906 become the husband of a young lady from Oakland, Lillian Elvira Brown. The Moores probably would have been among the few who stayed put, given Will’s status within the community, which had grown even stronger over the years. By this point in time -- probably in addition to his other roles -- he was an undersheriff. He might have done better to limit his occupation to something less exciting, because suddenly he and Theresa found themselves in circumstances which made it prudent to leave Merced for good.

In early January, 1906, a young woman of Merced, Mary Garcia, was accused by local man Frank Harrell -- who may have employed her as a maid -- of having stolen a set of diamond rings. She was sent to jail. Eventually the diamond rings were found. It became obvious Miss Garcia had been falsely accused and she was released from custody. However, according to her, while in jail Will Moore and another deputy sheriff had come to her cell and “tried to take undue liberties” with her. On the morning of the fifth of January, she showed up at the courthouse with her parents and a friend named Jose Gonzalez to press charges against Harrell for false imprisonment and against Will and his colleague for their treatment of her while incarcerated. The party was confronted in the lower corridor of the courthouse by Will Moore, who opened fire on them with a pistol. Jose Gonzalez was struck by two of the bullets. He survived.

Charges of attempted murder were filed against Will. Naturally from the vantage of over a century it is impossible to determine if Will might have been innocent. However, the accounts of the legal proceedings as published in the Merced Express -- which appear to be unbiased and factual -- paint a picture of guilt. He was put on trial on the eighth of February. His lawyers argued that he was “laboring under great excitement and a temporary aberration of mind at the time of the shooting.” He was acquitted.

The matter did not end there. Another indictment was filed, this time on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to commit murder. This was apparently enough different from the original charge to circumvent double-jeopardy protections. This indictment was quashed in early April on a technicality -- it had been brought by a grand jury whose term had officially expired 31 December 1905. Follow-up attempts at justice were similarly thwarted.

It is apparent his acquittal and later legal escapes had more to do with Will being one of the “good old boys” who ran Merced, while his victim(s) belonged to a class of citizens who at that point in time had little power in society. But no matter how influential his friends and colleagues were, they could not shield Will from all consequences. The early 20th Century was still a time when people took justice into their own hands. Will faced the real possibility that Mary Garcia’s family and friends would take direct and personal vengeance upon him. So he left the area. The 7 April 1906 edition of the Express, in the article about the quashing of the indictment, mentions that he had already departed for Nevada, with his wife to soon follow.

The Moores may in fact have gone to Nevada, or it may be that they deliberately fed the Express a red herring to “throw the posse off the track.” If they did go to Nevada, they did not linger. According to the January, 1908 obituary of Martha Jane Ousley Branson, Theresa and Will were at that time residents of Kennett in Shasta County, CA. Kennett, a community later inundated by the creation of Lake Shasta reservoir, was enjoying its prime as a copper-mining center, with Shasta County as a whole producing more copper than any other county in the nation. More important to Will and Theresa than a thriving economy was the fact that the spot was a nice, safe distance from Merced. Theresa’s niece Maude Ethel Branson (daughter of Alvin) was also a resident of Kennett from the late spring of 1907 into the middle of 1908. Perhaps Maude’s presence was a factor in the couple’s choice of refuge. However, it is possible Maude did not move there until after Theresa and Will were already in place.

After a year or two or three in Kennett, Theresa and Will fled south to San Bernardino County. This shift seems to have been spurred by medical needs. A post card survives in the genealogical memorabilia of Theresa’s nephew Ivan Thorpe Branson, brother of Maude, sent by Mary Jane Branson Johnson from her home in Redlands, San Bernardino County, to Maude in Stone Canyon, Monterey County, CA. (Mary Jane had moved to Redlands to live near her daughter Bretelle and son-in-law Gifford Fowle, who had recently had their first baby. Maude had left Kennett in 1908, had become the wife of John Davidson Curtis, and had temporarily settled at Stone Canyon.) Dated 11 June 1909 and signed “Aunt May,” the full text reads, “Will write you as soon as I can. Aunt Teresa and Will here. She has been out of the hospital about ten days but is still in bed. Will write all about it later.”

San Bernardino would later come to be so notorious for its smog that it is almost impossible to believe it was once a place with a reputation for good, clean, dry air, and that tuberculosis sufferers and people with other respiratory problems were sent there for therapeutic reasons. A number of facilities there specialized in the care of such patients. Whatever hospitalization Mary Jane was referring to seems to have been a successful episode, because Theresa would go on to live another thirty-two years. Her convalescence may have been lengthy, though, because she and Will remained in San Bernardino County for at least another year. It’s also possible they lingered simply because they liked the area and decided to try living there. Leaving Mary Jane in Redlands, Theresa and Will moved into a place at 456 Baldridge in the town of San Bernardino. Both the 1910 voter register and the 1910 census place them there, with Will’s occupation listed as cigar store proprietor.

(Theresa, left, with sisters Mary Jane, center, and Nancy, right, at the gathering held 4 July 1930 at Oak Park in Stockton, CA to celebrate the fiftieth wedding anniversary of their brother Alvin Thorpe Branson and his wife Mary Eliza Simmons.) By 1916, Theresa and Will were in San Joaquin County, apparently feeling that it was safe to return to the stomping grounds of their kinfolk as long as they did not return to Merced itself. San Joaquin County is where they would spend the remainder of their lives. The 1916 voter register shows them as residents of Manteca. It is likely they were drawn there to be near Clarence. In 1910, putting in motion their plan for a long-term family home, Clarence and Lillian had moved to Manteca. The pair would remain permanently, at first in town and then, in the early 1920s, on a farm they acquired just east of the community, in the Summer Home district. San Joaquin County had in a more general sense become the new “headquarters” of the family. Among those members of the Branson clan who dwelled within its boundaries were three of Theresa’s siblings -- Nancy (now Nancy Napier), Thomas, and Alvin. Many of the offspring of these three had settled either in or near Manteca or in Stockton. Theresa and Will’s house was inside the actual town of Manteca at 604 W. Yosemite Avenue. The 1920 census and voter registers from the mid-1920s describe Will as a bookkeeper. He retired from this occupation in the late 1920s. His health collapsed in 1931 and he spent his final two months in San Joaquin General Hospital in Stockton before passing away 5 July 1931.

Nine months later, Clarence Johnson also died, which undoubtedly left Theresa feeling abandoned despite the nearly presence of the extended relatives. When her sister Nancy passed away in 1939, niece Maude Branson (Chamberlin) in a letter to her cousin Grace Mildred Branson Warner described “Aunt Trese” as “prostrate with grief.” Theresa did at least have the comfort of being able to continue residing at the 604 W. Yosemite Avenue residence for six or seven years after being widowed, kept company by daughter-in-law Lillian Brown, grandchildren Ruth Wampler Akins, Lloyd Johnson, and Annette Johnson, and great-granddaughter Phyllis Wampler. However, the younger members of the household moved to Stockton at the end of the decade. Theresa did not go with them. She moved a mile east and became a lodger in the home of Lemuel and Fannie McIntire on their farm along Highway 99. Alas, Lemuel died in the summer of 1940. Theresa moved again, ending up a few miles west in the small community of Lathrop.

Theresa passed away in Lathrop in her sleep the morning of 12 July 1941, having been attended by her sister Mary Jane for the last two weeks of her life. She was laid to rest in Park View Cemetery, San Joaquin County, where Will and Clarence had been interred.

This is a picture of Theresa and Will Moore at Yosemite Valley, taken some time between 1890 and 1910. The couple are to the lower right, standing on a small wharf that projects into the lake. Other photos of Will Moore probably survived, but have not been indentified. Alas, this is the only one on which his name is written. Voter registers tell us he was 5'8" tall and had a fair complexion and blue eyes.

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