Joining in My Father's Remarks: A Sketch of Family History
If you enjoy reading family histories, and some people do (like me), you might enjoy what follows.
My great-great-great-grandfather, William Whiteside Moore, was born in western Illinois in 1805 — part of a pioneer family that had settled the area just as the American Revolution ended.
Moore was a middle-aged father of 10, “whose fortunes had wanted somewhat” in the words of his youngest son, when he heard that gold had been found in California. In 1849, like so many others, William made his way out West, and near Downieville, he and a partner found what they were looking for. They struck it rich.
William Whiteside Moore and his friend kept their gold close as they returned to the Midwest. They sailed from California to Panama, hired wagons to carry them across the isthmus, and then sailed up to New Orleans. There, they planned to ride a steamboat up to Harrisonville, the nearest port to their Illinois farms. What a happy surprise they had in store for their loved ones!
As they waited dockside to embark on the steamboat, my great-great-great-grandfather’s partner said, “Will, I’ll carry the gold, if you get our bags on board.”
My ancestor and two sets of luggage made it aboard. The gold and the partner vanished, just as you instantly guessed. This trait of exceptional trust in human nature is the curse and blessing of our family; one can only imagine what William’s wife said to him when he recounted what had happened after he made it home at last.
In the family memoir, William’s son, my great-great-grandfather, observed the lesson: “Always carry your own sack.”
William, chastened but undeterred, told his family he had seen another kind of gold as well: California farm land. They packed up, and joined a wagon train that carried them along the Platte rivers, then down to Salt Lake, then across the vast desert to Carson, then up and over the Sierras. After some indecision, the family settled a patch of land near the far southeastern tip of the San Francisco Bay, in what would become southern Alameda County. My family has been in this county continuously since 1853.
The youngest son was Albert Alfonso Moore, known forever by the initials of his given name. Ten when he crossed the plains, A.A.’s family saw potential beyond farming within the boy. He grew up hunting and riding and herding, but the parents decided the law would be his calling. In 1861, his mother refused to bless A.A.’s plan to join the California Hundred, the regiment of sons of this state who would fight for the Union in the Civil War. A.A. listened to his mama with regret. It was a good thing, I suppose; several of A.A.’s friends did not make it home.
A.A. went to the Methodist College at Santa Clara, then the only Protestant school of higher education in the state (the University of California did not exist); Methodist would evolve into the University of the Pacific. He studied law, and in those days before bar exams, was apprenticed to a series of lawyers and a judge or two to round out his education.
“I was making good wages and spending them,” A.A. remembered in his memoir, “and then something happened. As I sat on a horse rack in front of my boarding house one evening there passed by a young lady. Children, it was your mother.”
The men of my family are noted for being smitten quick, and A.A. was. “I will only say I viewed her with instant approval, and I do yet,” he wrote after half a century of marriage. A.A.’s bride was Jacqueline Anne Hall, daughter of pioneers from East Texas. Jacqueline had also crossed the plains as a little girl — and my great-great-grandmother changed her young groom’s priorities.
By the time he was 29, A.A. was District Attorney of Alameda County. He left public service to make more money, and ended up spending more than 50 years as a trial lawyer. Civil litigation was his specialty, and chief among his clients were the railroads.
A.A. was at home in the city, and good in the courtroom, but he thought of himself as a country boy still. Perhaps at Jacqueline’s urging, he began to spend some of the money he made to buy land in the hills above Mission San Jose. The land was cheap (the original Spanish land grants had been cancelled by the USA after California became a state), and my ancestor was a good negotiator. Eventually, he owned thousands of acres, including Mission Peak itself and the land on three of the four sides of it.
He was more proud of having his own cattle brand than any of his legal triumphs.
In 1885, A.A. and Jacqueline built their first ranch, a little southeast of where the current ranch stands. It is noteworthy for having the first stone swimming pool in the East Bay hills. Other ranches were built for their children, and in time, A.A. moved the main family operation to the current site. The ranch house in which I type these words was built in 1906, just after the great earthquake rocked the City to our northwest.
Because it matters, I want to note that all of the land my family acquired was first held by the Peraltas, who were dispossessed after California was acquired by the US. Before that, this was Tamien Ohlone land.
A.A.’s son Stanley, my great-grandfather, went to Berkeley and followed his father into the law. They practiced together for years. Stanley was happier in the city, less enamored of ranch life, though he loyally learned to rope and ride. His gifts were as a litigator, and as his papa’s partner, the practice thrived. There is a family story about the differences between A.A. and his son, and I have told it often to my own bunnies:
Not long after the turn-of-the-century, the Moores were arguing a complicated case before Judge Joseph Garber in San Francisco. A.A. had practiced law with the judge’s father, and may have expected a little more deference from a young jurist. When Garber ruled against him, my great-great-grandfather picked up a law book and threw it at the judge’s head. It missed, as A.A. intended it to miss, but it sent a message. A.A. wanted a respect he wasn’t getting.
Garber was having none of it. He sentenced A.A. to a week in county jail for contempt. Stanley leapt to his feet. He lacked his papa’s quick temper, but he understood filial piety. “Your honor,” Stanley said cheerfully, “I wish to join in my father’s remarks.”
Stanley got a week in jail too, and father and son enjoyed their stay a little too much for Jacqueline’s liking. She was scandalized and humiliated to have husband and child locked up, but everyone else thought the Moore men had merely demonstrated some splendid old-fashioned frontier virtue. It helped that A.A. and Stanley chose to pass on eating jail food, and instead had three meals a day brought to them from the Palace Hotel.
A.A. died in 1928, a year after Stanley, who was lost to a brain tumor at 47. A.A. outlived his wife and two more of his own children. He wrote his memoir before he left on the final ride, and you can access that book here. It is in the public domain.
For some of us, the less certain you are of who it is you are meant to be, the more you look to your heritage for clues and instruction as to how to be in the world. Even before my fall from grace in 2013, which I imagine deeply disappointed and affronted the ancestors, my forebears were my moral exemplars. What would A.A. and Jacqueline think? When my wit was quick or my tie knotted just so, when I sat reasonably easy in the saddle, would they be proud? Or would they be prouder yet when I carried my children on my shoulders, all the way to the summit of the Peak they once owned and that an entire region now enjoys? Or is it enough to be kind?
If I thought my ancestors despaired of me, I would not be able to come to this place they built. As it is, I like to imagine that I have disappointed and exasperated them, but that they love me yet. My Christian friends tell me they are sustained by the reminder that Jesus loves them no matter what. My own religion tells me that those who came before are cheering me on, guiding my children’s steps, comforting and reassuring and approving — when they aren’t having a good laugh at my foibles.
The great privilege of having a place like this ranch is that I can come to commune with the forebears, touch the books and wood beams they touched, run my fingers across the no-longer usable saddles in which they sat. I can ask them for help, even if I know that all they have to offer is a murmured “You’re doing fine, keep that chin up.”
And I can teach my boy that while it is true that an astonishing number of the men in my family have briefly gone to jail for one offense or another, I do not ask him to join me in their number.