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California Genealogy and History Archives

Sonoma County


John Bacon Lewis

A prosperous, progressive and highly esteemed resident of Petaluma was John Bacon Lewis, a splendid representative of those brave self-made men who have achieved success by their own strenuous labors and acquired a competence by the exercise of their physical and mental faculties. He was proprietor of one of the best equipped ranches of the locality; also owner of the Lewis Museum in Petaluma. A son of Reed Lewis, he was born March 15, 1825, in Saratoga county, N. Y. His father was born and reared in Vermont, but subsequently moved to New York state, becoming a pioneer of Saratoga county, where he spent his remaining years dying in manhood’s prime in 1835. His mother, whose maiden name was Margaret Bacon, was born and reared in New York state.

After the death of his father, John B. Lewis attended school in Greenbush, N. Y., for a year, and then went to Farmington, Conn., where he resided until 1847, making his home with his brother-in-law, James Cowles. Returning then to his native state, he was engaged in mercantile pursuits for two years at Schuylerville. In January, 1849, joining a company organized with regular offices and laws for the purpose of going to California in search of fortune, he started for the gold regions of this state. According to a signed contract, each member of the company was to pool his money, and later draw regular dividends from the same, and no individual could do or control anything that would not be in joint accord with the company. Provided with everything needed for the enterprise, the company started on its journey filled with enthusiasm, each and every member confident of his returning home within a year as a millionaire. After crossing the Isthmus, the company was compelled to remain in Panama four months, during this time many exciting events occurring. From three thousand to four thousand people, coming from all quarters of the glove, were there congregated, waiting for transportation to that golden paradise, where, in their imagination, golden metal could be picked up by the handful. The only steamer plying along the Pacific coast at that time could make but one trip a moth to San Francisco, but unable to wait for that one, many of the more venturesome of the emigrants set out to sea in frail barks improvised for the occasion, but all had to turn back.

Mr. Lewis, who had given to his wife $20 of the $25 he had borrowed prior to leaving home, realized that he must do something to support himself and family. Opening a restaurant, he fed the hungry people with such as he could find to give them, and in his rude tent, with a blanket on the ground for a bed, he lodged all of those willing to accept his accommodations, charging $1 per night. The venture p roved financially successful. The company finally secured an old condemned brig of about two hundred tons burden, single decked and fitted her up, in order that the journey might be continued. Two hundred and fifty tickets were sold, but when the vessel was loaded the number was found to be many more than could be accommodated. For a time serious trouble was threatened, the managers refusing, until intimidated, to return the passage money already paid by those who were obliged to remain behind for want of room on board the vessel. This brig, named the Two Friends, was left at the Island of Toboga, near Panama, where, after a stay of two weeks, the Alexander Von Humboldt came in with a load of coal. This vessel was there purchased for $60,000, and on its arrival in San Francisco it was condemned and sold for $12,000. Of the three hundred passengers who sailed from Toboga, two hundred had purchased tickets for the cabin, which in reality could accommodate but sixteen persons, and the favored number was selected from the most deserving of the company, the others faring as best they could. Dividing the company into messes of fifteen each, the steward of each mess would go up to the caldron in which all of the food was cooked, help himself to his allowance and return to his mess-room with it. Hard tack and sugar were served twice a week, and plum duff, a favorite dish, made its appearance once a week, meals, however, being served but once a day. At Acapulco, where the vessel was detained two weeks, the hungry passengers feasted on fruit.

Finally, after a hard journey of one hundred and two days, the passengers were landed in San Francisco August 29, 1849. There the company found that, banded together, they could do nothing, so dissolved. A large amount of merchandise was awaiting their arrival, and in order to dispose of it a store was opened. Then the problem of getting the goods up from the beach confronted them. Mr. Lewis managed to secure a horse, and having brought carts, with Yankee ingenuity made a harness, thus completing the needed outfit. Mr. Lewis subsequently bought the horse, paying the company $250 for it with the cart, and the day following was offered $1,000 for the outfit, but refused the offer, as the property was worth at least $25 per day to him for hauling purposes. At once establishing a draying business in San Francisco, Mr. Lewis was a pioneer in that industry, which he followed with great success until 1856.

Coming then with his brother-in-law, C. A. Bodwell, to Sonoma county they purchased in partnership a one-thousand acre ranch, of which five hundred acres constituted Mr. Lewis’s home ranch. On this ranch, which contains three hundred acres of upland and two hundred acres of marsh, Mr. Lewis carried on stock-raising and dairying most profitably during his years of activity and was well known throughout this part of the country as a skillful and thorough-going agriculturist. In 1900 he moved to Petaluma, where he resided till the day of his death, January 6, 1909, enjoying his well earned rest.

In January, 1847, Mr. Lewis was married in Farmington, Conn., to Elizabeth Bodwell, who passed away at her home in Petaluma in 1866. Two children blessed their union, one of whom lived but a year. The other child, Charles Wadsworth Lewis, was born in 1853, and a sketch of his life will be found elsewhere in this volume.

History of Sonoma County, California
Biographical Sketches of The Leading Men and Women of the County Who Have Been Identified With Its Growth and Development from the Early Days to the Present
History By: Tom Gregory
Historic Record Company, Los Angeles, California (1911)

Transcribed by Peggy Hooper 2011