Merced County had its share of interesting Wild West characters long before it was a county.
In addition to Joaquin Murrieta and John Muir, there was the rugged mountain man John “Grizzly” Adams (aka James Capen Adams) whose presence in the county has been a topic of debate among historians.
Was Grizzly Adams ever in Merced County?
In “The Adventures of James Capen Adams, Mountaineer and Grizzly Bear Hunter of California,” a biography published by Theodore H. Hittell in 1860, there are numerous references to a place called Howard’s Ranch in the Sierra Nevada foothills, where Adams kept his transportation equipment, supplies and animals.
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Adams’ first mention of Howard’s Ranch occurs when he describes a hunting excursion in the spring of 1853 to the Oregon and Washington territories with William Sykesey.
He recalls: “I accordingly left my mountain fastness and drove down to a place called Howard’s Ranch. From Howard’s, Sykesey and I proceeded, with our mules and packs, to Strawberry Ranch, on the Tuolumne River.”
In the spring of 1854, when Adams was about to go on another expedition, he left his collection of animals at Howard’s Ranch with the exception of Lady Washington and Ben Franklin, both grizzlies, and a greyhound named Rambler whom he “never for a moment thought of leaving behind.”
By 1856, Adams decided to retire from his hunting life and focus on show business. He then retrieved all his animals from Howard’s Ranch and exhibited them in the Mountaineer Museum in San Francisco.
It is established that Howard’s Ranch was the preserve for Adams’ captives. However, the specific location of the ranch was never clearly stated in the biography. Was Howard’s Ranch in Merced County? Although the ranch is not listed in any official maps, several other sources show that Howard’s Ranch was indeed in the county.
Howard’s Ranch was built by a pioneer as colorful as Grizzly Adams. Captain William James Howard, known as the “last California ranger,” was one of the 20 California rangers who claimed to have captured and killed Joaquin Murrieta in the summer of 1853.
In his biography, “The Last of the California Rangers” (1928), Howard indicated he purchased about 350 acres in 1850 and “named the property Lower Buena Vista, known in history as Howard Ranch, quite near the town of Hornitos.”
According to another Gold Rush pioneer, Sam Ward, Howard’s Ranch was actually owned by William J. Howard and his brother, Thomas T. Howard. Sam Ward was employed by the Howards and their partners George and Upton Belt, who ran Belt’s Ferry and Store at the Merced River from 1851 to 1852. At the end of his biography, a map shows the “Howard Bros’ Ranche” a short distance southwest of Hornitos.
A land survey in late 1853 and early 1854 further confirms Sam Ward’s location of Howard’s Ranch. In the “History of Merced County” (1925) by John Outcalt, the ranch house of Capt. Howard and his brother was located by Burns Creek and Fort Miller road (or Millerton Road) in the northwest quarter of Section 12, Township 6 South and Range 15 East, Mount Diablo Meridian.
The USGS topographic quadrangle map of this area shows the location is near Courthouse Rock, southwest of Hornitos. A Google map shows that it is north of Indian Gulch Extension. Another search on the internet yielded Tom Phillips’ entry of an article from Mariposa Democrat describing a hunting trip to William J. Howard’s ranch on June 25, 1857:
“Last Thursday we left Hornitos in company with the Hon. William J. Howard, on a visit to his Rancho, situated some five miles south of this town (Hornitos), on Burns’ Creek. The rancho embraces within its boundaries the very beautiful valley of Buena Vista, through which runs the Creek.”
With this article, the location of Howard’s Ranch is confirmed. Because the ranch was situated along the Merced and Mariposa county line, whether Howard’s Ranch was actually in Merced County is still not fully answered without an examination of county records.
The 1857 assessment rolls of Merced County list “Howard & Brother” with 920 acres land and personal property valued at $5,000. The assessment rolls also reveal the Howard brothers were horse raisers who had 71 stock horses. This information provides helpful information as to why Grizzly Adams chose Howard’s Ranch to care for his animals in his absence.
It has been rewarding to put the debate of Grizzly Adams’ presence in Merced County to rest; likewise, it was equally interesting to research and locate Howard’s Ranch.
For more history of Merced County, please visit the Merced County Courthouse Museum in Courthouse Park. Currently on display is the “On the Banks of Old Merced: A Music History” exhibit, which runs through Oct. 6.