Thomas Henry Ousley Branson


Thomas Henry Ousley Branson, second child and second son of John Sevier Branson and Martha Jane Ousley, was born 29 April 1848 in either Gasconade or Osage County, Missouri. His first name was given to him in honor of his grandfather Thomas Branson. Ousley naturally came from his mother; he is the only one of the ten children of his parents to possess the “double” surname, however. (In some public records, it is Housley rather than Ousley. Housley is a common variation of the family name, and one that the majority of Martha Jane’s siblings ended up using. Ousley is the version that Martha Jane herself preferred, but some of Thomas’s children apparently thought the initial “H” in their father’s name was for Housley, not Henry -- in particular, his daughter Inez, who was the informant for some of those public records.)

Thomas was probably also given the middle name Ousley as a nod toward his uncle William Ousley. His mother had joined her brother’s household as a teenager, helping out as a housekeeper and nanny. William continued off-and-on to shelter Martha and her three little boys -- Reuben, Thomas, and Joseph -- while John Sevier Branson looked for opportunities out west as part of the California Gold Rush.

Thomas was not quite five years old when her mother set out to join her husband in California, escorted by three male friends of the family. The group went down the Mississippi River, crossed over the Isthmus of Panama, and sailed up to San Francisco. Martha and the children found John in the Livermore Valley, where he was trying to make a go of it as a potato farmer. The newly reunited family remained there for at least a year, long enough for John and Martha’s fourth child, Phoebe Ann Branson, to be conceived and born, then they crossed the Central Valley to the Sierra Nevada foothills. John resumed his hunt for gold in Mariposa County -- at that point the most populous county in California (it is now one of the most vacant, not counting the hordes of tourists visiting Yosemite National Park). Thomas grew up in a variety of mining camps and makeshift villages along the Merced River, sharing rustic accommodations with an expanding brood of siblings: In the mid-1850s 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. In 1858 they moved slightly downstream to the eastern side of the river, to Phillips Flat. The sites just mentioned now lie beneath the waters of Lake McClure, a reservoir behind Exchequer Dam.

The bench gravels of Phillips Flat were apparently productive, and so the household finally had a place to stay put. John and his partners -- the same three men who had brought Martha and the boys from Missouri -- were so pleased with the yield they renewed their initial three-year claim for two additional terms, for a total of nine years. It was probably during this nine-year stretch that Thomas got to know his future wife, Frances Bauer. Frances was the daughter of Egidi (baptized as Aegidius, and sometimes known in the gold camps as Egide and as Gideon) Bauer, a German immigrant through Missouri, where Frances was born 7 August 1851. The Phillips Flat sojourn was definitely when Thomas developed an abiding friendship with the Chinese members of the tight-knit mining-camp community. These men could not have families of their own due to prejudicial laws that made it illegal to marry non-Oriental women but who also were generally unable to bring over brides from China. They furthermore were often precluded from direct mining responsibilities, the undeserved stereotype being that they could not be trusted not to “steal gold.” They were instead delegated such support tasks as laundry and cooking. These circumstances coincidentally meant that Thomas and his brothers as half-grown kids often hung around with their Chinese “uncles” while their mother was busy taking care of her younger children and their father was off at the sluice boxes or hauling loads of supplies from Stockton with his Conestoga wagon and team of oxen. Both Thomas and his brother Joseph grew up able to speak Chinese. (This would probably mean the Cantonese dialect.) They used it as their private language to keep their mother from overhearing their conversations, a habit that naturally drove her crazy.

By 1867 John Sevier Branson had set aside enough money to finance a relocation to the Willamette Valley of Oregon, where he again aimed at being a farmer. Martha found the climate too wet for her taste, so back the family came in 1868 to Mariposa County. John bought a ranch a few miles north of Hornitos, near the mining outpost of Quartzburg. It was a site not more than ten miles from Phillips Flat, and only about two miles from Hornitos. The land, which had previously been owned by Daniel and Margaret Mahon, touched the northwest edge of the parcel of Washington Mine, one of Quartzburg’s thriving deep-rock mines. John raised cattle and feed and hauled loads to mining sites, and thereafter prospected and dug only occasionally as a sideline. He and Martha resided on the property, which they called Grasshopper Ranch, for the rest of their lives, completing the raising of their younger children there.

Thomas was an adult by the time Grasshopper Ranch was founded. He did not live there long. He is shown still there in 1870 when the census was taken. His occupation is listed as teamster, so he was probably hauling freight with, or in the manner of, his father. His older brother Reuben was doing the same thing at this point. These were the final years when the road from Stockton to Millerton along the edge of the Sierra Nevada foothills was still the main commerce corridor of the region and there was plenty of work for a driver of oxen teams. This sort of occupation was severely impacted by the early-1870s establishment of rail service through the San Joaquin Valley. Soon Thomas would need a new way to make a living. This became even more of a priority as he and Frances Bauer decided to get married and Thomas was obliged to become a family breadwinner.

Thomas and Frances were wed 2 June 1872 at Grasshopper Ranch. The ceremony was officiated by Justice of the Peace Samuel Walker Carr, who served in such a capacity at many Branson-clan weddings from the 1860s into the 1880s. Had Thomas been Catholic, the ceremony probably would have taken place instead at St. Catherine’s Church in Hornitos (built in 1851, the church still stands today). The Bauers had by this point also abandoned Phillips Flat. They had settled in, or close to, Hornitos. (It is possible Thomas and Frances did not meet until both families were living in this immediate vicinity, but this has a low probability given that Phillips Flat was so small it would have been nearly impossible for the clans not to have mingled there during the 1860s.) The newlyweds lived at or near Grasshopper Ranch at first. This would continue into the 1880s, i.e. they were residents of Quartzburg aka the Washington Mine outpost. Eventually they established a home a mile or two south on the bank of Burns Creek at the north end of Hornitos. This would be the family’s main residence for a substantial number of years and would remain so until all of the couple’s eight children were fully grown. The north end of Hornitos was where nearly all of the Chinese families lived. This seems to have been one reason why Thomas and Frances established their residence there. Frances shared Thomas’s lack of bigotry toward the local Chinese. She -- and later her daughters -- often cooked Chinese-cuisine meals.

Frances (shown at left as she appeared in the 1880s) seems to have held her family very close throughout her life. At first, this meant living within walking distance of her parents and her brother Joseph Bauer. Thomas, of course, was living only a couple of miles at most from the ranches of his parents and his brother Joe. Thomas and Joseph Branson’s families would become even more connected when Frances’s brother Michael A. Bauer married Mary Jane Geary and Mary Jane’s sister Ellen Margaret (Ella) Geary married Joseph Branson.

(For more about the family of Egidi Bauer, please click on the link here to access a report written for the Branson/Ousley website by Margaret Read, one of Egidi’s great-great-granddaughters. It’s a colorful account of life in Gold Rush California and contains such intriguing bits of family history as the description, drawn from newspapers, court transcripts, and family letters, of Egidi’s murder by one of his neighbors as part of an argument over a pig. Learning more about the Hornitos generation of Bauers is highly useful in putting together a picture of the world of the Bransons during the second half of the 19th Century.)

Tall, blue-eyed, with a fine head of auburn hair (though like his brothers Joseph and Alvin, he went completely bald on the top of his head as he approached middle age -- one of the photos below shows him right in the midst of this transitional point, which occurred in the late 1880s and early 1890s), Thomas was once described as being the handsomest man in the San Joaquin Valley. The photo above right shows why people would have said this about him. It was scanned from a print made by Wallace Kay studio of Jackson, Amador County, CA in the 1880s or 1890s, but the original was taken much earlier, perhaps even in the late 1860s, when Thomas was still young and boyish (and clean shaven). The original photo must have been a tintype. It is possible Wallace Kay was the photographer who took the picture; he served as a photographer in Jackson for decades.

Thomas had an ability to work with and get the best out of people. Though self-taught, he developed a fluent understanding not only of Chinese, but of Spanish, too. (Hornitos had originally been founded by Mexican miners and many lived in the town throughout Thomas’s lifetime.) Thomas also probably knew German as a result of his connection with the Bauers. Thus, he was able to earn a significant amount of his income as a translator. He could deliver oaths and translate testimony in court for speakers whose English was poor; this made him particularly valuable when a knowledge of Chinese was involved. He spoke for petitioners of the court, helped conduct bilingual business negotiations, and reviewed letters of agreement. (At least two of Thomas’s brothers-in-law also showed an affinity for languages. Frank Bauer (aka Frederick Paul Bauer), who moved from Hornitos to Vallejo in the early 1870s and to Benicia in the early 1880s, attracted a steady flow of Chinese customers to the butcher shop where he worked because he could speak to them in their native language. Michael Bauer shared housing with Chinese friends Ah Sing and Ah Fong -- the trio appear together in the 1880 census.)

Another sideline source of income was raising cattle. Naturally, Thomas also spent time prospecting and digging for gold, but he seems to have done much less mining than, say, his brothers Reuben and Alvin. Thomas’s main source of income during the 1870s and 1880s was as a tinsmith, or “tinner” as it was sometimes called back then. This occupation had its advantages and disadvantages. The services of a tinsmith were vital in the 1870s and 1880s because people depended upon their woodstoves for heat and for cooking. The stovepipes had to be tight, well-soldered, and regularly maintained or a house might burn down. Roofs were often temporarily patched with tin, even if they were made of cedar shake. A family’s drinking water often came from storage tanks built by tinsmiths. So there was good pay and regular business to be had. But the best gigs were of two types -- making “house calls” to the sites where customers suddenly found themselves in need of a tinner, the way people today might suddenly find themselves in need of a plumber. The other was a need to have a storefront in order to attract fresh customers while they were shopping around for either the hardware or the installer they needed for infrastructure they were creating or refurbishing. Hornitos was too small to give Thomas the right kind of exposure. He knew he would do better in Merced, the town that had in the early 1870s been founded by Central Pacific Railroad. The downside was that Merced was fifteen miles away from Hornitos, a significant distance in the 1870s. The commute by stagecoach was not the sort of thing he wanted to undertake each and every workday. Thomas began living a split existence, staying overnight at home in Hornitos on the weekends and whenever he was in town tending to Mariposa County customers. The rest of the time he stayed in Merced. He may have maintained a second home, meaning of course that Frances would also have spent a certain amount of time in Merced. She seems to have preferred to stay in Hornitos, but this tendency was less pronounced in the mid-1870s before she had a whole gaggle of children upon whom to ride herd. The death certificate of second son Hugh McErlane Branson indicates that he was born in Merced. His date of birth was 24 April 1875. The informant for that document was Inez Branson, the very youngest of Thomas and Frances’s children, not born until 1890. If Inez believed her mother was in Merced in late April of 1875, it could very well be true. At least one Merced city directory from the era indicates the Thomas Branson residence was on Eighteenth Street. This was not his business address, so it must have a home address. However, his sister Phoebe and brother-in-law William McDonald resided on Eighteenth Street. It could be that their house served as Thomas’s quarters whenever he was in Merced. If he did become a homeowner, it would appear to have been only for a few years at most.

In making such a major commitment as operating a storefront business, Thomas did not “go it alone.” He teamed up with Frederick Barcroft, son of Ralph Wood Barcroft and Rafaela Orosco de Herrera. The pair had probably known one another for over fifteen years by then. Ralph Wood Barcroft was a Mariposa County gold miner and was the proprietor of the saloon in Hornitos where the Branson men, particularly Thomas’s father, loved to spend their leisure hours. Fred was a middle son, born in the late 1850s -- meaning Thomas was literally the senior partner in the sense that he was ten years older than Fred. The partnership was undoubtedly equal in professional and ownership terms, though. Young as he was, Fred had apprenticed for over five years with tinsmith J. Kocher, who had moved his business to Merced in its earliest years. If anything, Fred knew the tinner craft better than Thomas did. Adopting the business name Branson and Barcroft, Thomas and Fred opened their doors on Main Street (later renamed Front Street) not far from William McDonald’s wheelwright/blacksmith shop. While taking on commissions to do installations, a large part of their enterprise was simply selling tinware products to customers who intended to deal with their stoves, water tanks, and roofs on their own. (At left is the firm’s display advertisement from the 1884-85 Merced city directory.)

Thomas’s regular presence in Merced meant he had an on-going connection to the older four of his five sisters to a greater degree than was the case with his brothers. Phoebe and Nancy both came to Merced in the mid-1870s at about the time Thomas did. Theresa showed up by the early 1880s and then Mary Jane by the mid-1880s. They would have been able to see Thomas on an almost daily basis, whereas they usually only saw their other brothers on visits back to the Mother Lode. The women of the family came to know what it was like to live amid the relatively cosmopolitan environment of the railroad town. Thomas shared this with them. However, his bond with these female relatives was probably expressed somewhat indirectly. The genders did not mingle as much then as they do now in the 21st Century. Thomas would not have spent time with his sisters as much as with his brothers-in-law. He is known to have been a comrade of William McDonald. The degree to which he associated with his brother-in-law Peter Harrington, husband of Nancy, is not addressed in family writings, but can be assumed. Peter ran a saloon along with partner Hugh McErlane, a man who had mined in Mariposa County with Thomas and his brothers and father. Thomas thought enough of Hugh to name his second son after him. It is easy to picture Thomas, side by side with William McDonald, having drinks at Harrington & McErlane at the end of a workday while the womenfolk were at home in their kitchens preparing their households’ evening meals.

In December, 1884, Fred Barcroft departed to found his own tinsmith business in Madera. Replacing him was his slightly older brother Raphael. It is safe to say the dynamic of the Branson & Barcroft partnership changed with the arrival of a new Barcroft. Fred had not even been out of his teens when first teaming up with Thomas. Raphael joined at nearly thirty, old enough to know how to make things happen for himself. He was already well acquainted with the Merced business community, having served as an assistant to William McDonald for seven years. Becoming a co-proprietor was another step on a long, bold, and socially prominent path. Raphael went on to become a leading businessman of Merced for decades. During that span he had his hand in a number of high-profile ventures. He operated the Merced Opera House. He founded one of the first automobile dealerships in the entire San Joaquin Valley, selling the one-cylinder Reo when that car came on the market. He was ultimately one of Merced’s longest-serving trustees. From 1914 to 1922, he was the city’s mayor. Thomas may have felt overwhelmed by a partner of so much ambition. He sold out in 1887. By then, there were other reasons why Merced may no longer have felt like a place where he belonged. One reason for a change in his mood was the declining health of his sister Phoebe McDonald. With her death in the summer of 1887, Thomas was fully ready to go back to Hornitos. After he left, Raphael Barcroft expanded the business to include a much wider array of hardware, evolving beyond the tinsmith-shop origins. It became a large enterprise and a family business when his sons Ralph and William became old enough to work there.

Once back in Hornitos full-time, Thomas rededicated himself to the community in multiple ways, including serving as one of the town trustees. (His signature, reproduced immediately above, was taken from the 3 April 1900 minutes of the town trustees.) But as the 20th Century dawned, the economy of the Mother Lode went into a steady and severe decline, leading to much less demand for Thomas’s skills as a tinsmith and translator, and forcing him to take bone-wearying mining jobs of the sort he seems to have eschewed earlier in his lifetime. In 1902, he spent so much time away at Mt. Bullion, one of the remaining deep-rock mines of the area, that he stated Mt. Bullion as his address when he registered to vote for the 1902 election. A 1908 newspaper item in the Mountain Democrat of Placerville, El Dorado County, CA refers to Frances having returned to Mt. Bullion -- not to Hornitos -- after a visit to see daughter Mabel H. Branson Culbertson, then a resident of Placerville. Whenever they were at Mt. Bullion, Thomas and Frances probably stayed with daughter Alice and son-in-law John Henry Williams rather than occupying a dwelling of their own. The Burns Creek place was still the official home. The 1910 census shows Thomas (occupation given as carpenter) and Frances and several of their children still ensconced in their usual spot, next door to Ah Sing and Ah Fong. However, the Hornitos period of Thomas and Frances’s lives was already drawing to a close. Many acquaintances and colleagues had already departed. The couple conceded they could not stay. This could not have been an easy decision for them to make. It wasn’t that they were total stick-in-the-muds. Most of the surviving photographs of the family were taken in San Francisco, showing their willingness to get out and see the world. But the Burns Creek house had always been there, beckoning. That would soon be a thing of the past.

Mariposa County courthouse records illuminate one step in the process of letting go -- on 12 October 1910 Thomas and Frances sold a placer claim at Phillips Flat to Charles R. Arthur (Charles was an extended in-law; he was married to Elizabeth Ann Geary, a sister of the aforementioned Ellen Margaret Geary and Mary Jane Geary). When the last of the preparations and divestments were completed -- a process which may have taken until the early part of 1912 -- Thomas and Frances moved north and west to San Joaquin County. They came to Manteca. Daughter Alice and her family did the same, probably at the very same time, settling on a farm outside town. William remained with his parents. Other children found homes within the county.

Looking back with a hundred years’ perspective, the winnowing of the Mother Lode region and the exodus of so many neighbors from Hornitos might well have been the only spur that would ever have driven Thomas and Frances and the majority of their children from their sanctuary. The 1900 census shows all but one of the family still in Hornitos, still in the same house, even though by that time eldest son William Proctor Branson was 26, second son Hugh McErlane Branson was 24, and others were of an age they might have already been gone had they behaved like some of their peers in this pioneer town. Only the two youngest offspring, Alex and Inez, could still have been called children in 1900. Even the child who was not living on-site, eldest daughter Evalena (Lina), was still unmarried and was helping newly widowed aunt Elizabeth Powers Bauer (Mrs. Frank Bauer) manage her brood of half-orphans in Oroville (Ophir Township), Butte County, CA. The 1910 census provides a similar picture. William P., age 36, Alex, age 22, and Inez, age 20, are still at home. Alma’s child Lila Frances Reeb is also part of the household. Hugh is next door living in Ah Sing’s boarding house. Thomas and Frances’s kids do not seem to have been easily able to cut the apron strings. This could be a testimony to the loving and nurturant quality of the Branson/Bauer family. Nephew Ivan Branson describes in his book Bones of the Bransons the welcoming atmosphere he found when he and his parents dropped by the Burns Creek house -- as they often did -- and Ivan compliments Frances as a wonderful cook with a pot of soup always on the stove. However, the living arrangements also raise the spectre of an unusual level of dependency. None of Thomas and Frances’s sons would go on to have children, nor did their daughter Inez. The total number of grandchildren came to only nine, mostly the children of Mabel and Alice. The implication is that as a group, Thomas and Frances’s offspring felt more comfortable functioning in the world as children than as parents.

In the case of William, there may be a specific reason why he stayed at home. He contracted tuberculosis, and suffered from it for many years. His mother was his chief nurse and caregiver. Frances and William died the same day -- 5 December 1916 -- in the Manteca house. William, as expected, died of TB. He survived his mother by about seven hours. The death certificate of Frances lists Chronic Brights, a severe cyst-prone inflammation of the kidneys, as the primary cause of her demise, with cancer of the heart as a contributory factor. Cancer of the heart is extremely rare and this detail is to be taken with a grain of salt. Chronic Brights is a condition that afflicted more than one Gold Rush pioneer in old age. The disease is seen among people who have been exposed to toxic levels of metals. It is quite possible the water Frances consumed during all those years in the Mother Lode poisoned her.

Suddenly alone after a lifetime spent as either an elder brother of a large family or the patriarch of another, Thomas was left at loose ends. It is possible Inez stayed with him during summer and winter vacations from her teaching gigs during the first couple of years of his widowerhood, but otherwise he had to be content involving himself in his kids’ lives on a sporadic basis. In Bones of the Bransons, Ivan mentions the last time he ever saw his uncle was when Thomas was at the front of the crowd at the race track in Stockton, cheering on a horse. This incident occurred during the late 1910s, when Ivan was a teenager living in Stockton. It could be Thomas was at the track in support of his son-in-law John Williams, who according to family legend bred racehorses.

Thomas spent some of his twilight years back in Hornitos. He is listed as a householder there in the 1920 census, occupation carpenter. Yet when he passed away 29 May 1924 of heart disease, the place where he took his last breath was Stockton State Hospital. He was laid to rest 2 June 1924 at Stockton Rural Cemetery next to the graves of Frances and William, and not far from the grave of Alex, who had succumbed to a wisdom-tooth surgery infection in 1919. Later Hugh and Inez would be buried in close proximity. Stockton Rural Cemetery is also where the resting places of many other relatives can be found, including daughter Alice, son-in-law John Williams, granddaughter Ruth Williams Carlson, and brother Alvin and most of his family.


The six surviving children of Thomas and Frances Branson in 1943, shown outside the home of Alice on her farm near Manteca, CA. From left to right, Mabel, Alice, Inez, Alma, Evalena, and Hugh.


Children of Thomas Henry Ousley Branson with Frances Bauer

William Proctor Branson

Hugh McErlane Branson

Evalena Branson

Alice Branson

Mabel H. Branson

Alma Branson

Alexander Hamilton Branson

Inez Branson

For genealogical details, click on each of the names.


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