By Mark Gutglueck
William Curtis was one of the pioneers of San Bernardino County who transformed it through his very presence. He had a well established and substantive life before he ever set foot in California and may never have come to the Golden State had it not been for the War Between The States, known in Texas as the War Of Northern Aggression and today called the American Civil War. It was his lack of sympathy for the Confederate cause and his need to care for his family that prompted him to pull up stakes and migrate further westward.
Curtis was born April 1, 1826, at Pontiac, state of Michigan, the son of Jeremiah Curtis (1782-1845) and Ruth Stratton Curtis (1795 – 1859). He grew up on the frontier farming and hunting. At the age of 24, he was a citizen of the Lone Star State, where, on, the 15th of August, 1850 in Fredericksburg he married Mary Henrietta Racig, who had been born on December 15, 1833. Their marriage would last 62 years and 27 days.
They resided in Bandera County where Mr. Curtis was three times elected sheriff until the secession of the state from the Union following the bombardment and surrender of Fort Sumter in South Carolina that occurred on April 12 through 14, 1861, initiating the Civil War. All Texans with Northern sympathies or affiliations which made them reluctant to link up with the Confederacy were granted permission to take their leave of Texas on the proviso that they make their departure and be outside the borders of the state prior to July 22, 1861. All able-bodied men remaining in the state after that date were subject to conscription into the Confederate Army. On May 11, 1861, Curtis, with his wife and their five children, set out with a party of three other families — Hiram Snow and his wife and daughter; Mr. and Mrs. Irving Carter and their five children; and Gideon Carter, with his sister and her child. Their intent was to travel to California, having loaded the entirety of their household items into four wagons drawn by ox teams. In addition, they had a herd of cattle which were driven along with the party.
All of those in the party had forsaken all else that they possessed in Texas to make the desperate sojourn. They went due west 290 miles on the initial leg of their route, to Fort Davis. At Fort Davis they met up with eight other families. From there they headed southeast, traversing 240 miles, including eighty miles of absolutely inhospitable desert where no water was available. They were obliged to carry with them all the water they had means of transporting. Before they reached their destination, their store of water had been reduced to a minimum. Two rain storms replenished the water, for both man and beast. This providence of nature averted not only suffering but very likely death.
Upon their arrival at Eagle Pass, the sojourners learned that the limited supply of water in barrels there was being held in reserve for use by Confederate soldiers en route to El Paso. The guards of this precious supply refused to let any of the Curtis party have access to it, threatening the use of deadly force upon any who tried to take it.
The members of the party held a serious discussion as to whether it would be better to proceed or to turn back. The women of the party courageously voted in favor of daringly simply taking the water necessary to enable the journey to be continued. The women and children took buckets and filled them from the reserve barrels. The soldiers did not impede them, as they refused to fire on women and children. The party continued on its way, and was still about thirty-five miles distant from the Rio Grande River. No water was to be had en route, but a welcome rain again gave replenishment to the meager supply. Upon reaching the river, the party had to proceed up its course a distance of seventy-five miles to reach a fording place. After traveling two days the company was overtaken by a force of Confederate soldiers. The party had by this time been largely increased in numbers, so that it had about fifty men. The soldiers threatened to hang one member of the party — a man named Cummings, who was known to be a Union sympathizer — and an open conflict was avoided only when the soldiers agreed to leave the sojourners unmolested, though the July 22 deadline for those intent on leaving the state was approaching and the party was not yet outside of Texas. On the next day the emigrant party arrived at a point opposite Victoria, a small town in Mexico, and the group casted about to obtain a guide or pilot to convey them and their belongings across the river. Joseph Curtis, one of William Curtis’s brothers, and Gideon Carter were selected to go to El Paso del Norte and secure the necessary pass which would enable the party to travel through Mexico to Santa Cruz. As the wagon train was passing along the river bank a guide came out of the bush and motioned for the wayfarers to follow him, and the entire party crossed the river in safety, though a few soldiers who had witnessed the escape made all haste to the Confederate camp, about two miles distant, to obtain reinforcements sufficient to stop the passage of the fugitives. By the time the soldiers arrived on the scene, the entire party of emigrants was safely on Mexican soil.
The journey was continued through Mexico and into Arizona where the crossing of the Colorado River was effected at Yuma. On October 11, 1861, the sojourners, jaded and travel-wary, arrived in San Bernardino
County. The original four-wagon Curtis party, came through intact, notwithstanding the hardships and dangers encountered on the long and treacherous overland journey. The additions to the original party had been considerable, and the wagon train increased to fully 100 wagons. There were over sixty deaths in the combined party, however, chiefly as the result of mountain fever. Fortunately there was but a single hostile encounter with Indians.
After establishing his family in a primitive dwelling in San Bernardino, William Curtis gave his attention principally to gold mining on Lytle Creek until about 1867, and his returns from this enterprise were sufficient to enable him to purchase a tract of sixty acres, partially improved with existing grapevines and some walnut trees, in the district known as old San Bernardino, near the old Mission. He built a home for his family on this tract. Seven further acres of the land were planted to grapes at the time Mr. Curtis purchased the property, and a profit was obtained by drying the fruit and shipping it by freighting teams to the Arizona mines.
The Indians had constructed rude water ditches for irrigation purposes, and Mr. Curtis and other pioneers utilized these primitive water courses for irrigating their lands, thus utilizing the first distinctive “water rights” in this section of California. Mr. Curtis was one of the early orange-growers of the district, his first venture having been made with seedlings, and subsequently planting navel oranges.
Eventually he developed a prosperous enterprise in manufacturing wine from the grapes harvested from newly planted and existing vines on the land.
In 1886 Curtis erected a modern house of two stories and other structures on his fruit ranch.
In their book, The History of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties published in 1922, authors John Brown, Jr. and James Boyd wrote that “William Curtis was a man of vision and public spirit, and he and his wife delighted to extend to friends and to the wayfarer the hospitality of their home. Indians and Mexicans were plentiful in this section in the early days, and none was turned away hungry from the Curtis door. A gentle and gracious personality was that of this honored pioneer, and both he and his devoted wife are held in reverent memory by all who knew them.”
William and Mary Henrietta Curtis had eight children, five born in Texas and three in California, numbering five sons and three daughters.
Henrietta, who was born October 16, 1851, became the wife of John Furney and was about twenty-two years of age at the time of her death. She was survived by one daughter, Mary Ida, who became the wife of Leroy Oliver Yount, a prosperous fruit-grower of the Redlands district.
Mary Aurelia, William and Mary Henrietta’s second child, was born March 31, 1853, and became the wife of Hugh Henry Cole, of San Bernardino County.
They had one son and three daughters: Lela (Mrs. Wilbur Bell), Henrietta Sarah (Mrs. Harry Porch), Alma Mary (Mrs. George Roster) and William Henry. Harry Porch was a San Bernardino County Supervisor from 1932 to 1936. Mary Aurelia Cole died in 1926.
Ruth Aurelia Curtis, who was born inTexas on July 24, 1855,was the third daughter of William and Mary Henrietta. After her parents’ death, she resided in the home erected by her father in 1886. She died there in 1938.
William and Mary Henrietta’s fourth child, William George, who was born October 24, 1857, married Miss Elvira Wilcox, and they maintained their home at Redlands. They had two children: George Edwin, who married Miss Eva Easton, and Miss Faye, who was graduated in a business college at San Bernardino and also from Pomona College. Faye went on to become an agent with the Internal Revenue office in San Bernardino. William George died in 1936.
Eli Cordaroman Curtis, the fifth child of William and Mary Henrietta and the last born in Texas, came into the world on February 24, 1860. He was thus an infant at the time of the memorable hegira of the family from Texas. Eli remained in San Bernardino County and married Miss Jennie Newton, in 1885, she being a native of the state of New York. They had three children. The first, Nellie, married Maurice B. Doughten, of Camden, New Jersey, on May 17, 1919. Prior to her marriage, Nellie went to Washington, D.C. in 1910 and worked for the federal government. Later she held what Brown and Boyd described as a “responsible position” with the General Electric Company, as a representative of which she was sent to the Panama-Pacific Exposition, in San Francisco. Grace, the second child of Eli Curtis, was born in 1887. and graduated from Redlands High School. In January. 1919, she assumed a position in the government war-risk department, in Washington, D.C. In June, 1921, she resigned this position and was employed in the San Bernardino County Library. Theodore, the third of the children, was born in 1890, and in the 1920s was associated with his father in Eli’s orange ranch. Eli died in 1926.
Jeremiah Joseph Curtis, the first of the family born after the removal to California, was born in San Bernardino
County, February 10, 1864. On September 5, 1886, he married Miss Zilpha Wilson. In the very early 1920s, they were residing in Old San Bernardino and their two children, Alice and Mabel, were married. Jeremiah died in 1922.
Newell Bennett Curtis, the seventh child of William and Mary Henrietta Curtis, was born June 20, 1868, and he too became a successful orange grower. He married Miss Rachel Watkins, a native of Pennsylvania, and they had three children: Ethel, born December 8, 1895; Mary, born December 17, 1897 and married on June 22, 1921; and Raymond, born February 14, 1904. Newell did in 1943.
Robert Truman Curtis, the youngest of William and Mary Henrietta Curtis’s children, was born August 2, 1872. He married Miss Ella Strever, and they had one son, Strever. They lived in Tulare County. Robert died in 1934.
Brown and Boyd said of Curtis that he “was an apostle of civic and industrial advancement in Southern California and his worthy and useful life touched with benignacy this favored section of the state, where he lived and wrought to goodly ends and where his name is held in enduring honor.”
On September 11, 1912, as it must to all men, death set its seal upon William Curtis’s mortal lips. He was eighty-six years of age. He predeceased his wife by one year, eleven months and ten days. On August 21, 1914, death too came to Mary Henrietta Curtis, the former Miss Mary H. Raseg.
By Mark Gutglueck