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Charles “Napa Charley” Hopper - The Ancestor whose Adventures Sparked my Interest in Genealogy

By Melinda Cohenour

         As a young girl, my maternal grandmother, Carrie Edith Bullard Joslin, frequently regaled my sisters, my cousins and me with stories of various family members and could provide oral histories tracking our family lines back through the centuries. Grandmother Joslin was quite a character all by herself. When she would come to Texas to visit (after my Grandfather Joslin passed away), she would be expected to stay at least a month or longer if our pleas were answered. One constant in all her visits was her daily “walkabout” which frequently included a picnic in – of all places – the local cemetery.

         My cousin, Gayle Arthur Joslin, and I could always tell when Grandmother was preparing for a “little outing” as she would begin the ritual of doffing her apron in favor of a “sun-coat”, her sun bonnet, a fresh set of anklets and her walking shoes. Into the pockets of the sun-coat would be dropped several sticks of white chalk, lengths of charcoal and several sheets of tracing paper and a few of colored art paper. For those in the know, these materials were the requisite items for documenting headstones in the local cemetery before family historians were blessed by cheap digital cameras, the Internet and websites devoted to preservation of family lineages.

         Some headstones have the deceased’s name, dates of birth and death and various bits of poetry, references to other family members, hobbies, and other miscellany either carved into stone or set out in bas-relief. Gandmother’s tracing paper would be thin and light in color, suitable to tracing those headstones, which were carved by using the charcoal stick. The thin colored art paper would be placed on those with information in bas-relief so as to use the chalk stick. These chalked pages required careful “fixing” of the chalk by application of clear nail polish to prevent the data from being blurred and lost. Of course, my cousin and I were thrilled to join her on her walkabout and especially well pleased to partake of her wonderful picnic lunches. The drudgery of traipsing from grave to grave while she documented the plots was less appreciated.

         As could be expected, this peculiar hobby of Grandmother’s generated many questions about why she devoted so much time to this effort. She would, once again, launch off into the litany of names with which we became somewhat familiar after so many repetitions: the Bullards, the Hoppers, the Joslins, the Davenports, the Coffees and, “Oh, yes, let us not forget” the Youngers and the…” and the lists went on.

         The genealogical fervor, however, for me came when my two sisters and I committed to filling out our family tree. We gathered the materials furnished to my grandmother, my mom Lena May Joslin Carroll and her sister, Linnie Jane Joslin Burks which included photocopied family history books for three lines: The Bullards, the Hoppers and the Joslins. As we carefully transferred the family pages from the books to the computer, we endeavored to capture the various stories as well. This was not so difficult for the bulk of the members of each family line. That is, not until we hit Charles Hopper, Jr. born 1800 Burke, North Carolina, died 1880, Yountville, Napa County, California. In the process of transferring the stories about this fascinating man from faded photocopied pages to the digital wonder of the personal computer, my sense of wonder and intrigue developed.

         The little stories related in the The Hopper Family, by Leona Hopper Newbill, were merely bits and pieces of the life of a man whose exploits would change the face of American history, be documented in the annals of no less than four states and numerous counties and imprint numerous geographical locations with his name, his legend, his legacy.

         Charles Hopper, Jr. grew up in the forests of North Carolina where hunting and fishing were essential to augmenting the crops to feed the outrageously large families of that time. He became a crack shot, easily the best hunter known to all surrounding his family’s farm. As was later related in The History of Jackson County Missouri, Containing a History of the County, its cities, towns, etc., Pp 336 W Birdsall, KCMO 1881:

“Charles Hopper, or Big Charley, was among the first to locate near the lone tree (Lone Jack, Jackson County Missouri). He selected his home there in 1830 and moved to it in 1831; and like Graham, continued to add to it, until he became a large landholder, as well as one of the greatest hunters of the country. It was said he could kill more deer than any one man in this or the adjoining counties.”

         One of the stories was a listing of the game bagged by Charley, where he laboriously enumerated each rabbit, squirrel, raccoon, deer and so forth along with a description of the quality of the fur and the utilization of the meat. Clearly, hunting was more than a hobby for Charley Hopper. It was a means to support and feed his large family.

         Then we happened upon the story of “Charley and the Grizzly Bear”. It told of Charles Hopper single-handedly killing the largest grizzly bear ever, a fact supported by the skeletal paw bearing seven-inch long claws having been preserved in a museum. The story was one of several related to a local California university researcher in Charley’s waning years.

         And why, do you suppose, was Charles Hopper being interviewed by this researcher? Well, because Charles Hopper had left his mark in the history of California back in 1842 when he led the Bidwell-Bartleson Party into California. This was the first party to successfully travel overland via wagon train from Missouri into California. Hopper was a close friend to George Yount and of Joseph Chiles. Charley Hopper was a born pioneer and when regaled with tales of the lush hills of California, the gold mines and the adventures to be had, he vowed to make the trip. When the mixed party started out, Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick was assigned to be the guide. After numerous travails, the original party of trains split up and Broken Hand left the Bidwell-Bartleson party to travel northwestward to Oregon. Charley Hopper would be assigned to take up the breach, becoming the hunter/trapper and by default, the guide.

         The stories in the Hopper book did not tell me enough about this courageous, stalwart, fascinating relative. I was hungry to know more. I could not wait to end the laborious task of entering the data from the three family history books. I was ready to research. And research I did. Many are the stories of Napa Charley Hopper. How he dealt with the Indians, how by divine intervention he saved the Bidwell-Bartleson from certain death by dehydration on the salt flats of Utah when he dreamed of an oasis, was guided to it by a vision in time to guide them to the life-saving water, and how he cannily led the exhausted, starving, road-weary group into what would become Napa Valley – Yountville – California.

         “Uncle Charley has a firm and abiding faith of the idea of a general Providence that rules over all things and which is common to all men. His thought is rather that, when a man is alone and in danger, and whether within him or from without, there will come teachings and warnings of supernatural origin and distinctness, entitled to implicit confidence. He gives the following instance, which occurred while crossing the great desert southeast of Tularu Lake. "Here we were two days without water, and camped at night in the worst of spirits, not knowing whether to go back, or keep on, and there was a good deal of murmuring in camp. I do not know how to account for it, unless there was some supernatural interference...and I think from the circumstances, as well as others in my experience, that there was...but towards morning, whether in a dream or not, I cannot say, I SAW a green spot where there was plenty of water and could perfectly see the course that led to it. It was so perfectly plain, and I was so sure of it, that I got up, mounted my horse, and told the party when they got up to follow my trail. I struck out northerly, away from the trail we had come over, and everything I came to was JUST AS I HAD BEFORE SEEN IT, SO THAT I WASN'T ONE BIT SURPRISED when I saw a few miles ahead, a green grassy spot, where, when I came up to it, there was the blessed water we so much needed. (From a Sketch book of Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino Counties, CA 1873 BY C. A. Menefee.)

         Along the way, he would become famous for a series of firsts in the various western states touched by his travels: Utah: Charles Hopper guided the wagon train carrying the first white woman ever to see Great Salt Lake, Nancy Kelsey “barely eighteen” who carried a baby in one arm and led a horse with the other. (See: Charles Hopper, "Narrative of Charles Hopper, A California Pioneer of 1841," Utah Historical Quarterly 3 (1930).

         Several years ago I purchased a book about Charles Hopper that included a photograph of my daring GGG-Grand Uncle Charles “Big Charley” “Napa Charley” Hopper, Jr. It revealed a still handsome man with a full head of stark white hair and the icy blue-white eyes I had seen in my Grandmother Joslin’s face. The genes from her mother, my namesake Malinda Ellen Hopper Bullard and Malinda’s uncle were strong.

         Researched and Compiled by Melinda Carroll Cohenour – 31 March, 2015.

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