Driving south on McHenry Avenue, you’ll pass McHenry Bowl, the McHenry Village shopping center and a dozen other businesses or buildings named for one of Modesto’s oldest families.
Downtown, there’s the city’s most revered edifice – the 130-year-old McHenry Mansion – completed in 1883 at 15th and I streets. Just a block away sits the McHenry Museum, built in 1912 as the McHenry Library.
Indeed, everything McHenry in Modesto began when Robert McHenry arrived here sometime around 1850. That, McHenry Museum researcher Janet Lancaster recently discovered, includes the invention (or reinvention) of McHenry himself.
What began as a project to learn more about the patriarch’s personal and family histories morphed into a three-year investigation worthy of a “CSI” episode, complete with DNA matches and the use of computer technology. Lancaster’s findings ultimately change some of what local historians believed for more than a century. She unveiled her findings during the McHenry Mansion’s grand-reopening dinner Friday.
Robert McHenry no doubt helped transform the Valley and build Modesto. But, Lancaster found, he wasn’t the man folks thought he was back then.
He was born Robert Henry Brewster in Vermont on July 23, 1827, a direct descendent of Mayflower elder William Brewster. He signed up for a five-year hitch as a rifleman in a newly formed Ohio Army regiment in 1846, told he’d be guarding forts along the Oregon Trail. But when the Army commandeered his regiment to fight in the Mexican-American War, he deserted.
To this day, wartime desertion is a military crime punishable by death.
A few years later, Brewster surfaced in Stockton as Robert McHenry, dropping Brewster and adding “Mc” to his middle name to create his alias surname. Within a couple of years, he settled along the Stanislaus River, became one of Modesto’s most influential citizens, and the rest is, well, history. Or legend.
Except for being elected county supervisor in 1855 and later helping form the Modesto Irrigation District, McHenry kept a relatively low profile in the valley. He managed to stay out of the newspapers, which frequently named prominent residents who were guests at parties or other events, Lancaster said.
“I believe he was looking over his shoulder,” she said. “He must have been really nervous. There were lots of Mexican War veterans here, including L.C. Branch, who wrote the ‘History of Stanislaus County.’ And bounty hunters abounded. There were lots of deserters.”
Lancaster wonders, “Did his family know?” And could he have risen to such prominence had Valley residents known his deep, dark secret?
Great detective work and tenacity enabled Lancaster to find the truth.
“I figured this would take a couple of weekends,” she said with a laugh.
Since he’d listed Vermont as his birthplace on some documents, she began searching the 1830 Census Bureau records for that state.
“There wasn’t one McHenry in all of Vermont in 1830,” she said.
She kept going back ... 1820 ... 1810. Then, she jumped ahead to the 1840 census, when McHenry would have been roughly 13 years old.
“There were no McHenrys in New England in any of them,” Lancaster said. “In fact, there were no McHenrys in New England until the potato famine.”
And by the time the famine began in 1847, she knew McHenry already had joined and bolted from the Army.
Early-day Valley tax records didn’t help. Nor did she find any ship manifests listing a McHenry on the passenger rolls.
Her first big break came from 1850 census records from the Valley. She found a Robert McHenry listed in Stockton.
Census records from 1860, meanwhile, showed the same address for both McHenry and one Leonard O. Brewster – the O standing for Oramil – as a resident. McHenry named his son Oramil, which hardly is a common name.
She researched Leonard Brewster’s family history, and learned the Brewsters descended from Elder William Brewster, who not only came over on the Mayflower but was the major author of the Mayflower Compact. Leonard Brewster had a brother named Robert Henry Brewster, born in July 1827. The family had moved in 1833 from Vermont to Ohio – the same state where Robert Brewster enlisted in the Army in 1846.
When McHenry died in 1890, his obituary listed him as a native of Vermont and a veteran of the Mexican-American War. But war records Lancaster obtained from the National Archives listed no McHenry. It did list a Robert Brewster with a notation mark. She went to the top of the facing page on the record sheet. The legend explained what the notation represented: a deserter.
“Nothing really jelled until I found the desertion,” she said.
She also found documents involving land he homesteaded here as Robert McHenry.
“You have to say where you were born,” she said. “McHenry said, ‘I’m a married man, head of a family and a natural-born citizen of the United States.’ I was mad. I thought, ‘You’re hiding something.’”
McHenry and Leonard Brewster, she suspected, were brothers. She still doesn’t understand how they reconnected in California after Robert Brewster arrived and created his McHenry alias. Leonard Brewster, listed in the 1850 Ohio Census, arrived in San Francisco by steamer in 1852 and was in Stanislaus County by October 1855. She did find a newspaper clipping from a Stockton newspaper in 1857 in which the post office alerted people who had mail awaiting them. Two entries caught her eye: one for Brewster, L.O., and another for Brewster, Robert H.
Were the letters from their parents in Ohio, perhaps unaware that Robert had changed his name to McHenry?
Lancaster learned that McHenry and Brewster worked side by side during local elections; McHenry as the inspector of elections and Brewster as the clerk. And when McHenry became the estate administrator when his brother-in-law Henry Langworthy died in 1869, Brewster performed the appraisal of the estate.
Only recently did Lancaster confirm the brotherly link, though. Combing the Internet one day, she came upon an entry asking if anyone had information about L.O. Brewster. The inquisitor was from Ohio and turned out to be a descendent of L.O. Brewster. Lancaster responded, hoping to get a photo from that family to compare it with the only known photo of Robert McHenry. The Ohio Brewsters knew nothing of a Robert McHenry, only that Leonard had a brother named Robert.
“There is no photo of L.O. Brewster,” Lancaster said. “Or at least, they (the Ohio Brewsters) don’t have one.”
She also asked for DNA samples from a Brewster living in Ohio and contacted Jack Robert McHenry of Humboldt County, great-grandson of Robert McHenry, for the same. Testing confirmed the link between between them, with Leonard Brewster – Robert and L.O. Brewster’s father – being their first common ancestor.
When she explained the results of the DNA testing and her other findings to Jack McHenry, he was fascinated by the entire story. He attended the mansion event Friday.
During her investigation, Lancaster found documents that detailed partnerships involving Robert McHenry in butcher businesses in Chinese Camp and Jacksonville, but never in gold mining, as long believed and reported.
No one can dispute the impact Robert McHenry had on the Valley, and Modesto in particular. He was a farmer, rancher, butcher, businessman and visionary. He built in 1883 the mansion that still stands today as Modesto’s crown jewel.
He also, undeniably, was a Brewster – not a McHenry – until he reinvented himself in California.
So, the next time you’re downtown, note the magnificent Brewster Mansion and the Brewster Museum. Head north on Brewster Avenue past the Brewster Village shopping center, Brewster Bowl and all of the other businesses or buildings named for a man we now know used an alias.