Quest for Flight
John J. Montgomery and the Dawn of Aviation in the West
By Craig S. Harwood, Gary B. Fogel
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS Copyright © 2012 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
The Allure of California
California gold was a hidden treasure. But California, like a beautiful maiden—perfect in form and feature, adorned with the matchless charm of innocence, and all unconscious of her own beauty—needed not the vain glitter of gold to complete her loveliness.
Zachariah Montgomery, 1882
John J. Montgomery's history begins with the very independent paths that led his parents, Eleanor "Ellen" Bridget (Evoy) Montgomery and Zachariah "Zach" Montgomery, to California. Ellen Evoy was born on April 23, 1828, in the village of Rosegarland, County Wexford, Ireland. She was the fourth child of James and Bridget Miranda Evoy, who were devout Catholics. Although little is known about their life in Ireland, typical residents of the Rosegarland area made their livelihood as farmers. A few weeks after Ellen's birth, the Evoys (James, Bridget, Mary Ann, Margaret, John, and James, Jr.) boarded a ship bound for America, seeking a fresh start. They arrived in Baltimore, Maryland, in mid- to late May. From there they traveled to Hancock Prairie outside of St. Louis, Missouri, and established a farm.
Only two years later, in early August 1830, James Evoy contracted pneumonia and died. Unable to run the farm and raise five children on her own, Bridget moved into St. Louis and leased out the Hancock farm as a source of income. The prospect of supporting a family was difficult, but she persevered. She never remarried. When news of California's gold circulated in the newspapers, she contemplated the promise of another new beginning in California. The allure of the California Territory proved just too tempting, so at the age of fifty-eight, Bridget liquidated all of her real estate assets, purchased two wagons and some animals (horses, oxen, and mules), and outfitted her family with the supplies necessary for the extended trip across the plains. In the late spring of 1849, Bridget, her daughters Ellen and Margaret, her sons John and James, and Margaret's family (John H. McCourtney and the three McCourtney children) headed out on the Emigrant Trail from Independence. (Mary Ann had married a man named Joseph Millikin and chose to stay in St. Louis.) The sleepy, pastoral California Territory, acquired only two years prior from Mexico, was not yet considered a "legitimate" part of the United States.
The vast majority of emigrants were inexperienced and ignorant of the hardships they were likely to face over the hundreds of miles between Missouri and California as they passed through Indian Territory (Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Nevada). Families with children formed a minority of the emigrant population in 1849, and usually took substantially longer than the average 132 days from the Missouri staging points (St. Louis and Independence) to make the trip to California. Slowed by Margaret's young children, the Evoy/McCourtney group took roughly eight months to make the journey. Along the way they endured many difficulties, including perilous river crossings, the loss of cattle to theft or disease and starvation, the potentially hostile disposition of Native Americans en route, and the constant need for potable water. Diaries of fellow travelers and military correspondence reveal that Bridget's group was among the last to cross the northern Sierra Nevada by way of "Lassen's Route" (or Cutoff) in early November that year. As a consequence, they endured the first snowstorms that fell in the Sierras between October 30 and November 2, 1849. They arrived at Sutter's Fort in the Sacramento Valley in mid-November, with Ellen on horseback, in a dust-covered dress and with one shoe missing.
After picking up new supplies at Sutter's Fort, they relocated to the Yuba Settlement. Located at the confluence of the Feather and Yuba Rivers, the settlement was expected to become a strategic trailhead for miners heading for the northern gold fields of the Sierra Nevada. With the little money that remained, they purchased a lot and constructed a primitive dwelling. The rush of hopeful prospectors heading up the Feather River created many business opportunities. Bridget and Ellen ran a general merchandise business and also sold real estate. Ellen's brothers John and James joined in the search for gold, hoping like so many others to "make their pile." John and Margaret McCourtney established a trading post and toll bridge on the lower reaches of the Bear River, just west of Marysville. Over the next several months, the Evoys settled into the rhythm of daily life in this bustling, raucous gateway to the northern gold fields.
A similar path brought John Montgomery's father, Zachariah "Zach" Montgomery, to California. Zach was born in 1825 near Bardstown, Kentucky. His father, Thomas Francis Montgomery, was a tobacco and sugar beet farmer who had moved to central Kentucky from Charles County, Maryland, in 1812. In 1815, Thomas met and married Clotilda Wathen in Nelson County, Kentucky. The Montgomerys were southerners from the time Zach's great-grandfather Peter Montgomery emigrated from Normandy, France, to Maryland at the dawn of the eighteenth century. Despite his southern pedigree, Thomas did not keep slaves, although paid African Americans worked on his plantation. Several family members of his generation and his father's generation were prominent Catholics and helped pioneer Catholic missions in central Kentucky. Zach's grandfathers on both sides of the family had served in the Revolutionary War. Clotilda Wathen Montgomery's great-uncle and Zach's namesake, Zachariah Riney, ran a one-room school (the Knob Creek School) at Rineyville, Kentucky, and had served as Abraham Lincoln's first schoolteacher. Ironically, Zach later became a consistent critic of President Lincoln's policies. In regard to this family connection with Lincoln, he once said: "I entertain for my humble, and truly Christian Uncle, a far higher veneration, than I could ever cherish toward his far famed pupil."
While in secondary school at Knottsville, Kentucky, in 1843, Zach chanced upon a book owned by his friend Thomas Bidwell, an account of Thomas's brother John's journey in 1841 across the plains to the Mexican province of Alta California. With its wonderful descriptions of California prior to the Gold Rush, the book had an unexpected influence on eighteen-year-old Zach. "It was by reading this journal of young John Bidwell," he later recalled, "that the mind and heart of this narrator first became fascinated with California." When Zach and Thomas subsequently roomed together at St. Mary's College in Lebanon, Kentucky, he added, "Most of our hours of recreation were spent in each other's company, and in our rambles we often spoke of California, the beauty of its scenery, the salubrity of its climate, the field which it presented for enterprise, the probabilities of its becoming a part of the United States, and the possibility of our making it the place of our future home."
Zach transferred to St. Joseph's College in Bardstown, Kentucky, in 1846, where he received a master's degree in law in 1848. Late that year, news of California's gold reached Kentucky, sparking a great deal of interest and speculation about the prospect of exploiting California's riches. In referring to this phenomenon, Gold Rush historian Jo Ann Levy noted:
No expression characterized the California gold rush more than the words "seeing the elephant." ... For gold rushers, the elephant symbolized both the high cost of their endeavor—the myriad possibilities for misfortune on the journey or in California—and like the farmer's circus elephant, an exotic sight, an unequaled experience, the adventure of a lifetime.
As part of an invited speech at St. Joseph's College the following spring, Zach acknowledged the temptations presented by the Gold Rush, but he also appealed to the students' sense of purpose in obtaining an education: "You too are miners, come to dig for gold. Not indeed that base and drossy metal which is the miser's God; at whose shrine fools delight to worship; you are come to dig in the gold region of knowledge, to enrich the precious coffers of your minds, with the precious metals of conscience."
Shortly thereafter, Zach was admitted to the Kentucky bar and served in the moot court of Judge William R. Grigsby in Bardstown. His fascination with California continued to grow, however, and in July of 1850 he decided to head to the California Territory to seek his own share of gold. With borrowed money, he purchased the necessary supplies and met up with a group of like-minded young Kentucky men at St. Joseph, Missouri. They departed St. Joseph on July 31, bound for California on the Emigrant Trail.
After three months on the trail, traveling across the plains and deserts, they finally arrived at "Sacramento City." As Zach described it, "the valley around the city was literally covered with tents and wagons and teams of camping parties, resting from their toilsome journey across the plains, while the roads leading to the city from the various mining localities which made Sacramento their trading point, were alive with teamsters and horsemen driving or riding at a seemingly break-neck speed. Everybody appeared to be in a hurry to 'make their pile' and get out of the country." Eager to start prospecting, Zach departed for Ringgold, a small town located a day's horseback ride from Sacramento. He felt confident that within a day or two, he would be flush with gold. It did not take long, however, for reality to settle in: "It was only the rich strikes that made it into the newspapers, and hence the false idea entertained by most of those who came to California in the sanguine expectation of amassing sudden fortunes by gold-digging. One week's experience at the town of Ringgold was amply sufficient to convince the writer that her gold had but a feeble ring for him, and that he must try his luck somewhere else and, perhaps at some other business."
Zach gave up mining and returned to the practice of law. He moved to Sacramento to enter into a legal partnership with John McKune. On September 9, 1850, he took part in the celebration of California's official admittance into the Union, as the thirty-first state. After months surrounded by the bustling, restless stream of humanity that flowed endlessly through Sacramento, Zach grew restless and depressed, a circumstance that was punctuated by the Asiatic cholera epidemic that hit the city in the winter of 1850-51. "For some time the plague raged with such merciless fury that almost the only active business done was the burying of the dead," he recalled. He spoke eloquently of the difficult and lonely circumstances of the illness and death that surrounded him in the "sea of strangers": "The funeral processions were indeed few and small; for, alas! those who would have moistened with tears of affection the cold clay of the dear departed, were far, far away, dreaming perhaps of the rich harvests of treasure their cherished ones were reaping upon California's fabulous fields of gold."
Over the next four years (1850-54), Bridget's youngest daughter, Ellen, continued her career as a businesswoman and a landowner, working as a real estate agent for family-owned properties in Yuba City and neighboring Marysville. Bridget relocated to the settlement of Briggsville in Shasta County, where she opened an eatery and boarding house. Paper money was scarce in the mining communities, so customers often paid in weighed quantities of gold dust. By mid-1853, however, Bridget had grown weary of the chaos and hardships of the gold settlements; so at the age of sixty-two, she sold her Shasta County property, and she and Ellen relocated to Rancho Temescal, a portion of the large land grant owned by José Vicente Peralta, located just north of the hamlet of Oakland. With the gold she had accumulated at Briggsville, she bought a 100-acre tract with an existing residence and farm buildings on what was then called Peralta Road (present-day Telegraph Avenue).
After maintaining law practices in Sacramento and later in Shasta City, Zach tried his hand at placer mining along the Pit River in the Klamath-Sierra region in northern California. In the spring of 1854, he finally concluded that the "elephant" would always elude him. He settled down in Yuba City and established a law practice in the more populated city of Marysville, on the other side of the Feather River. Soon thereafter, he met Miss Helen Francis Graham. After a brief courtship, they married in July 1854. In December 1855 they welcomed a son, whom they named Thomas Graham Montgomery, after Zach's father. Many of Zach's clients were farmers or miners with limited resources, but his law practice was busy. He had finally found a sense of stability and community.
On February 4, 1856, Zach was appointed district attorney of Sutter County as a replacement for J. S. Reardon, who had abandoned his post. In November of that year, he was elected to serve a full two-year term. He quickly earned a reputation as a vigorous and effective prosecuting attorney. It was said that in his cross-examinations he "was always keen, and if he thought a witness was perjuring himself, he was indeed merciless. Guilty men came to fear his cross-questioning." On July 18, Zach suffered a severe blow when Helen died of an unspecified illness just seven months after giving birth to their child. Her mother cared for young Thomas as Zach struggled to come to terms with his situation.
It is not clear how Ellen and Zach met. Presumably either Ellen or Bridget was conducting some business in Yuba City, where they maintained commercial properties, and somehow made his acquaintance. After a brief courtship, they married on April 28, 1857. Ellen embraced one-and-a-half-year-old Thomas. It was not long before they had children of their own. On February 15, 1858, Ellen gave birth to twin sons, John Joseph Montgomery and Zachariah Montgomery, Jr. Over the next eleven years, they had six more children: Mary was born in 1859, Margaret and Ellen Rose (a second set of twins) in 1861, Richard in 1863, James in 1865, and Jane in 1869.25 The children were extremely close as they grew up. In fact, Richard, Mary, Jane, and Margaret, all of whom remained unmarried, chose to live together for much of their adult lives.
At the beginning of the twelfth session of the California legislature (1860-61), Zach won a seat in the California State Assembly representing the 15th District (Sutter County). Believing that parents should have rights with regard to their children's education and should determine how tax revenues were to be spent for education, he made impassioned pleas in speeches throughout the region and in his writings. In 1861, he authored Assembly Bill 348 for educational reform. The "Montgomery Bill" marked the beginning of Zach's campaign to challenge and revise the state's compulsory public education system, a cause that he championed for the rest of his life.
Throughout the 1860s, the Civil War dominated state politics. Newspaper accounts and family correspondence from Kentucky detailing the horrors of the "War between the States" weighed heavily on Zach. With his passion ignited by the war as well as the actions of the Lincoln administration, he embarked on speaking tours throughout California in an attempt to sway public opinion in favor of Confederate secession. Zach's deliberations usually focused on the war's impact on the rights of individual states. On the floor of the state assembly and at public speaking engagements, he engaged in frequent heated debates and point-counterpoint exchanges with some of the most gifted speakers in the region. He was characterized by a fellow assemblyman as a "picturesque character" and a "southern firebrand." One fellow editor, having witnessed several of Zach's more emotional speeches, referred to him as a "human calliope." Zach's leadership and oratory skills were recognized widely by his peers, however, and in February 1861 he was asked to deliver the State of the Union Address for the California legislature.
But tragedy was soon to strike the Montgomery family. On December 28, 1861, six-year-old Thomas and three-year-old Zach, Jr., ventured into a grassy field next to the family home. There they ate some wild mushrooms that they found sprouting from the dewy field. Within hours, both children had succumbed to the mushrooms' deadly poison. Fortunately John had not followed his twin into the field and did not share his brothers' sad fate. The sudden loss of Thomas and Zach, Jr., devastated the young family and generated an outpouring of sympathy and support from the local community.
By the end of 1863, the U.S. Congress and more than a dozen states loyal to the Union had enacted "loyalty oath" legislation. The act was officially designed to "exclude traitors and alien enemies from the courts of justice in civil cases." Many believed that given the requirement to swear allegiance to the United States, lawmakers had gone beyond the normal boundaries of the federal government and ignored the traditional separation of federal and state powers. As a strict believer in the Jeffersonian doctrine of states' rights, Zach refused to take the "test oath," and he quit the practice of law. His growing disdain for the Lincoln administration inspired him to undertake lecture tours of northern California, criticizing the actions of the Lincoln administration and also expounding on the school question. He occasionally received fees for his services. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Quest for Flight by Craig S. Harwood, Gary B. Fogel. Copyright © 2012 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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