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 Biographies Index  



California Genealogy and History Archives

Sonoma County


George Napoleon Whitaker 

Characteristics of four of the sturdiest nations of the globe contributed to the well-being of this pioneer settler of California, English, Welsh, German and Irish, a harmonious blending of which made it possible for California to write the name of George N. Whitaker in the list of her upbuilders and progressive citizens. Some time previous to the Revolutionary war the great grandfather, John Whitaker, had left England for the new works, making settlement in North Carolina, and in the conflict between the Mother Country and the colonies he took sides with the latter, rendering valiant service as a member of a cavalry company. His marriage united him with a native of Wales, who had come to this country in her girlhood. The maternal great-grandfather, James Phillips, was a native of Germany, who upon immigrating to the United States settled in Pennsylvania and there reared his family. One of the sons of this immigrant was James Phillips, who figured in the war of 1812. His marriage united him with a woman of Irish ancestry who had come to the United States with her parents in girlhood. 

The immediate progenitors of George N. Whitaker were John Mc and Jane C. (Phillips) Whitaker, both of whom were born in Clermont county, Ohio. Though born and reared in Ohio, much of the early married life of the parents was passed in Indiana, and there it was, in Door Prairie, that the birth of George N. occurred July 27, 1834. When he was a child of two years the family home was transferred to Iowa, the crossing over the Father of Waters being made at Fort Madison, on the ice in January. Settlement was made in Van Buren county on Lick creek, the creek being so named for a large deer lick at its union with the Des Moines river. Iowa was then a territory, inhabited almost entirely by Indians, and in this frontier country, the father split rails and erected a rail pen in which to house is family for the remainder of the winter, 1836-37. Grass was stuffed between the rails to keep out the snow and wind as much as possible, but in spite of the most ingenious efforts on the part of the mother the children suffered with the intense cold of that memorable winter. Charles Bogart and family had accompanied the Whitakers to Iowa and they also made settlement on Lick creek, the two families comprising the only white people between that point and Fort Madison (forty miles), where they had to go for provisions. The settlement was located only twenty-six miles east of the Indian Territory line, in fact Indians were the nearest neighbors of the two white families. Their visits were welcomed rather than feared by the newcomers, for they were friendly and peaceable and the boys and girls were able to understand and speak the Indian language in a short time. 

Directly east of the camp where the family had passed the first winter the father took up a quarter section of land from the government and began its cultivation. With the passing of years he lived to see this once wild, uninhabited country the populous and prosperous country which it later became. School facilities were conspicuous by their absence, but as the little settlement grew the settlers banded together in an effort to provide instruction for their children, the parents up to this time teaching the children in their homes. A log school house was built for the accommodation of the children, and there they diligently conned their lessons during the three or four months of winter that the school was in session. The expense of the teacher’s salary was borne by the parents and the teacher “boarded around” among the families. While he was still very young George N. Whitaker was of great assistance to his father in the maintenance of the home farm, and year after year found him doing his duty faithfully in this respect during the summer months, while during the winters he attended school. It was while engaged in the daily round of duties on the farm that he became interested in California through the reports of the finding of gold, and his homely duties were thereafter performed with less interest. Finally, when he was eighteen years of age, he and an older brother, W. S. Whitaker, and William Robison, set out from Iowa to cross the plains, in the summer of 1853, and July 25 they ended their long journey at Sacramento. 

No serious mishap befell the young travelers at the hands of the Indians, although the year of 1853 was especially disastrous to emigrants. The Sioux Indians were on the warpath and as they owned all of the territory from the Missouri river to the Rocky mountains and from the Texas border as far north as Canada, it may be well understood why travelers took their lives in their hands when they attempted to cross the broad plains. The six hundred miles through the Indian territory was attended by many dangers, but young Whitaker and his brother had lived among the Indians all of their boyhood lives and were not readily frightened by the approaches of the dusky foe. In fact, Mr. Whitaker said that only once throughout the entire journey did he experience the least uneasiness, this happening along the Platte river about one hundred miles below Fort Laramie. It was the custom for the leader of the train to ride ahead during the latter part of the day to locate the camp for the night, selecting a good watering place and where there was also plenty of feed for the cattle. The captain of the party, Mr. Fordyce, had followed the usual custom on the day of this incident, but he had been gone only a short time when the party was startled to see horsemen riding rapidly toward them. As the riders drew nearer to the train they were recognized as the captain and nine Sioux Indians. They stopped at once, and every man who could leave his team went for his gun. Riding up to his companions Fordyce said: “Boys, get around these redskins, but don’ shoot, they practically gave in to captivity.” They were made to dismount, stack their bows and arrows and were kept closely guarded. The wagons were corralled and the teams were turned across a slough that made an island between the mainland and the river and forming an ideal place in case of danger. The animals belonging to the Indians were turned in with the other stock. The redmen were given all the food they desired and were treated kindly by their captors, but care was taken to keep their bows and arrows out of their reach. With the approach of bed-time the captain said: “Boys, see that your guns are all right, as you may have use for them tonight.” The Indians were made to lie down in their blankets and two trusty guards were placed over them to see that none escaped. With the dawn of the morning everyone in camp was up, asking each other how they had slept, and it was found that no one had had a wink of sleep, and from appearances it was safe to presume that the Indians had passed a wakeful night also. During the night one of the Indians arose and attempted to follow the guards, but he was ordered back to bed and no further trouble was given from that score. A hearty breakfast was provided the redmen and after finishing their meal they were allowed to prepare for the mount with their blankets instead of saddles. Careful guard was kept over them until they were ready to start, then Captain Fordyce and several others shook hands with them, gave them their bows and arrows and then gave the sign to mount. The Indians and the emigrants started on the march together, but the former struck out into the open country, without road or path, apparently in no hurry however, for as far as the travelers could see they walked their animals. All of the Indians had very fine looking American horses except one, who had a large mule, the rider of the latter being a fine-looking half-breed who it was thought could speak English, as he seemed to be the spokesman of the band. Mr. Whitaker distinctly recalled the incidents of this overland journey and of the many experiences of his long life, singled out the summor of ’53 as the most enjoyable. 

As has been stated the party arrived in Sacramento July 25, after which for two weeks Mr. Whitaker worked on the dairy ranch of an older brother, three miles south of that city. At the end of this time, the cattle having rested from the long trip across the plains, George N. and W. S. Whitaker and Mr. Robison came to Sonoma county, near Tomales, where another of the Whitaker brothers resided, and here the party remained until the setting in of the rainy season. George N. and W. S. (“Win” as he was familiarly known) then set out for the mines of Eldorado county, at Drytown, covering the entire distance on foot, and in the following spring they were joined by Mr. Robison, the three then going to Grizzly Flat. It was while in the first mentioned place that G. N. suffered with an attack of chills and fever, finally removing to Drytown, and as soon as he was able, undertook work on a vegetable ranch, in so doing acting on the advice of a physician. In the fall, however, he was able to return to Grizzly Flat and resume mining operations with his brother and Mr. Robison. Altogether he remained in the west about three years, July of 1856 finding him on his way to Iowa in company with his brother and friend, the trip being made of Panama to New York City. 

Soon after his return from the west Mr. Whitaker was united in marriage with Miss Elmira E. Day, the ceremony being performed October 28, 1856. Mrs. Whitaker is a native of Ohio, her birth occurring in Hamilton county, April 13, 1836. After their marriage the young people settled down on a farm in Iowa, and for about six years Mr. Whitaker diligently7 tilled the soi9l with apparent content. Another attack of the western fever seized him at this time and in 1863 he again set out for the west, accompanied by the brother who made the journey ten years previously and by his wife and three children. The journey was made overland with mule teams, and settlement was first made in San Luis Obispo county. It was Mr. Whitaker’s original intention to embark in the sheep business, but the plan failed of fulfillment through inability to find suitable range land. Land at that time was held in large Spanish grants, the owners of which were unwilling to sell parts of the tracts, and the settlers were few indeed who could at that time satisfy their longings to become land owners. George N. soon afterward came to Sonoma county to locate, but his brother W. S. continued to make his home in San Luis Obispo county throughout the remainder of his life. For a time after locating in Sonoma county G. N. Whitaker made his home on rented property, but November, 1866, marked the date of his purchase in Bennett valley, and throughout the remainder of his life there was no indication of a desire on his part to locate elsewhere. The original purchase of one hundred and sixty acres was added to from time to time as it was possible to do so, until he finally owned four hundred and forty acres of fine land all in one body. Probably no resident of Sonoma county was more deserving of credit for the firm and steady advance along agricultural and horticultural lines than George N. Whitaker, and as an evidence of the esteem in which his opinion was held on these subjects it is sufficient to state that for twenty-two years he was statistical correspondent for the agricultural department at Washington, D. C. To him also belonged credit for the organization composed of live, thoroughgoing ranchers like himself, and the result of their co-operation was the means of spreading enthusiasm and raising the agricultural standard of the county. For forty-two years his slogan was “apples and prunes, apples and fruit and apples and co-operation,” and in his later years he enjoyed the results of his long-standing convictions in seeing Sonoma county take her rightful place as one of California’s rich agricultural centers. 

No history of the life of Mr. Whitaker would be complete without mention of his deep interest in the Grange movement, and his connection therewith may be read in detail in an article entitled “Farmers Organizations” to be found in the history section of this volume. The first harvest feast was held at his home, and everything on the bill of fare was produced on his ranch, and served at the tables by his wife. The deputy organizer at conclusion of the feast declared he was “too full for utterance,” but nevertheless made known his sentiments to the effect that it was no “imaginary dinner” and offered a toast that Mr. and Mrs. Whitaker were the “largest, whole-souled grangers in the state.” For many years Mr. Whitaker was chairman and secretary of the Sonoma County Farmers Club, president and secretary of the Sonoma County Horticultural Society, holding these offices also in the local Farmers Alliance and the County Alliance, besides which in the Bennett Valley Grange he served as secretary for nine years, master two terms and treasurer eight years. In the Pomona Grange he held the office of master for two years, secretary for eight years, and was the efficient treasurer for fifteen years. After having served as a member of the executive committee of the State Grange for eight years he declined re-election to office, although to the end of his life he still retained his old-time interest in the movement which had been dear to his heart for so many years. At the time of his death, June 22, 1911, he was the only charter member of Pomona Grange, one of three of Bennett Valley Grange, and as far as known was the last survivor of the train in which he crossed the plains in 1853.

Ten children were born of the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Whitaker, of whom the three eldest were born in Iowa and accompanied their parents to California in 1863. Named in the order of their birth the children are as follows: Wilson R.; John B.; James P.; William H.; Kate R., who died in April, 1904; Arthur S.; Walter L.; Rhoda M.; Mark S.; and Rosa A., the latter of whom died in 1890. Four of the children still reside with the mother on the family home in Bennett valley.

Death came to Mr. Whitaker suddenly during the still hours of night, and as he had been in his usual good health for many months, the news of his sudden death came as a great shock to his family and friends.

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