McANDREWS: Book on Stanislaus County from 1921 worth a read

columns@modbee.comJune 29, 2013 

— In 1878, George Henry Tinkham was searching the city of Stockton for a book about Otto von Bismarck. Growing thirsty during the search, Tinkham entered a saloon and there, as he described it, "Barney Killion, a rollicking young Irishman who had known me since boyhood, was standing at the bar, lightly tapping me on the back. He exclaimed, 'Say, Tinkham, why don't you write the history of Stockton?' Like a streak of fire the same question flashed in my brain and after 14 years of roaming I had found my occupation," according to his "History of San Joaquin County."

Tinkham would go on to write a history of Stanislaus County, as well.

Tinkham's history of Stanislaus, while not a very critical work, has merits and is well worth the investment for its stories of the lives of early Modestans. Published in 1921 — coinciding with Modesto's 50th anniversary — locals were asked to write about their lives and send that information to the author's publisher, along with a fee.

The two-volume work opens with a cursory view of the history of the county. Then the biographies begin, some with photographs. They tend to promote the person as much as the county. Here are some descriptions by the author: John L. Ward was "a broad-minded, liberal-hearted Modestan." J.H. Hoskins was a "progressive young man." Mrs. Ella McCabe Ervin was one of the women of "self-reliance, independent thinkers and possessing executive ability, yet in no way losing their womanly charms and characteristics." Alex McCall Bibens is listed as a "sturdy, brainy Vermonter of interesting Scotch ancestry."

In spite of the platitudes, the books provide an insight into the lives of Modesto's residents and the ways they arrived here. Many came overland with wagon trains and others by sea, taking the dangerous overland trek across Panama.

One of the Stanislaus book's major flaws is the lack of criticism about the people who submitted biographies — unlikely since they paid for their spot in the book — or anything negative about the city itself. For example, in the early days, gamblers and criminals ran Front Street (now Ninth Street), but they are mentioned without comment. Another quirk is how people's perceptions of the world have changed. Things that once seemed mildly acceptable have now become reprehensible. One example would be Capt. Henry George James and his "humorous" tale of what he and a posse did with a man accused of cattle rustling. The posse "stopped to have lunch; and ostensibly to give him a trial, they assumed an air of carelessness. The thief thought that it would be a good opportunity to escape and crawled off into the chaparral; but several shots followed him, and he was presto! a dead thief."

Then there is the story of Stockard Coffee who "liked to exhibit various souvenirs of his trip across the plains, and in particular one of the medals presented by President Jefferson to the Indians, which he had dug out of an Indian mound (grave)."

In spite of some unpleasant stories, Tinkham's history of Stanislaus County is worth reading to learn about old Modesto and the surrounding communities or to learn about one's ancestors and the difficult lives they led to make Modesto what it is today.

Sources: George H. Tinkham, "History of Stanislaus County" (1921) and "History of San Joaquin County" (1923)

James McAndrews Jr. is a docent and board member of the Great Valley Museum. Send comments or questions to

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