Wyman house on Johnston Street, HMB

The restored Wyman house on Johnston Street in Half Moon Bay. At top, America Kelsey, photo courtesy of the San Joaquin County Historical Society.

Early settlers to coast faced adventure

Before the Gold Rush in 1849, there were hardly any Americans living in California. America Kelsey and George Wyman were among them.

The Kelsey family faced some of the greatest hardships and tragedies of the American pioneers in California. America Kelsey’s uncles, Ben and Andrew Kelsey, traveled in the first immigrant wagon train that came directly to Mexican California in 1841. They were part of the famous Bartleson–Bidwell Party. The Kelseys' goal was to start farming or ranching in the reportedly fertile soils of California. That trip turned out to be a horrifying experience. It ended with all their wagons wrecked or abandoned. Everyone finally staggered out of the Sierra Nevada on foot.

America Kelsey Wyman

America Kelsey Wyman

America’s father, David, and his wife and child, followed west a couple of years later. They used a safer route. It was still long and dangerous, going through Oregon, then south to California. They bargained themselves into part of a huge Mexican land grant near French Camp, an old fur-trading post near today’s Stockton. Once there, they were afraid of the natives who were living on the land. And they were barely able to scratch out a living with only a few head of cattle and their new farm.

That winter they went by horse and wagon to distant San Jose to trade for survival supplies. While there, both David and his wife caught smallpox, a highly contagious and often deadly disease. On their way home, the parents both got sick and collapsed, helpless in the wagon. Young America Kelsey took the reins and drove on. Her father died in the back of the wagon. Her mother was going blind. Still, 12-year-old America drove on. She made it back to a neighbor’s house and asked them for help. The neighbors fled in terror at the sight of smallpox. They ran to Sutter’s Fort, leaving the sick Kelsey family at their house.

A ranch worker at Sutter’s Fort, George Wyman, heard what was happening and defied the danger and rode out to help. He comforted America, buried her deceased father, and nursed the now completely blind mother. He stayed until mother and daughter were back in their own house and able to care for themselves. Wyman returned regularly to look after them.

Wyman’s rescue became a popular story of local bravery. Within a couple of years, America and George married. In fact, their tale became a romantic novel in the popular “pulp-fiction” style of the Old West. It was a bestseller, “America Kelsey: Romance of the Great San Joaquin Valley.”

George Wyman had his own excitement too. He came to California after being shipwrecked from a whaling ship off Monterey in 1837. Eventually, he found his way to work for Capt. John Sutter. There, he was a hunter, trapper, cowboy and helped build Sutter’s Fort.

When the war between the U.S. and Mexico began, Wyman and his friends were there. He joined and fought with the American Army. When gold was discovered and the United States took Alta California from Mexico (1848), George and America Wyman went back to the gold country. They did not have much luck there.

In the early 1850s, word spread about available land in the small canyon near a community called Spanishtown, later Half Moon Bay. There they found 80 acres of hilly farmland near the town called “Purissima.” (The town is gone now, except for its cemetery.)

America and George Wyman had trouble come their way in 1859. Wyman had “an incident” with a neighbor. He caught the neighbor running off with one of his pigs. A confrontation and scuffle followed, with the neighbor stabbed to death by Wyman. In those early years, “frontier justice” might have ended the matter there. But things were becoming more civilized around Purissima.

 Wyman was charged with murder. He claimed self-defense. Wyman was found guilty of manslaughter and then sentenced to one year in the state prison. It happened, however, that Wyman was well connected in both little Purissima and around California. Gov. John Downey ended the difficulty with a pardon. Networking and diplomacy determined justice as California began to mature.

The Wyman family moved up to Half Moon Bay. Over their years, they had nine children. Wyman became deputy sherriff and constable for the county.

George Wyman passed away in 1893, at age 76. America Kelsey Wyman lived to be 80 years old, passing away in 1916. George was a member of the Odd Fellows, and both are interred in the Odd Fellows (IOOF) Cemetery next to Highway 92.

One can’t help but wonder if years earlier when her parents gave her the name “America” they had hopes ... hopes that she might become a symbol of the grit, courage and tenacity that would proudly represent their country.  Coastside

Dave Cresson is the founder and a proud supporter of the Half Moon Bay History Association. Suggestions for future Flashbacks, questions or comments can be sent to DaveCresson38@gmail.com

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