Truth cloaked in “fiction”

While digging through the books in the county library, oh, probably 2 years ago, I ran across Blaxine, Halfbreed Girl, published by Garberville resident Margaret Cobb in 1910.

It’s been awhile since I’ve read the book, but here is the “gist”:

A young man, Stanley Carwood (I just double checked the name) moves to small, isolated Sargent Valley to board in the Sargent house and teach at the Sargent School.   Living in the house are Sargent’s young , sweet white wife and four “half-breed” children, that Sergeant claims as his .  The children have different Native mothers and Sargent and the white wife are raising them.  The mothers (except the one killed by another mother/squaw) live in a nearby Indian village and stay involved, to one degree or another, in their children’s and Sargent’s lives. 

“Carwood” predictably falls in love with one of Sargent’s daughters, drama ensues, and all eventually ends with… well, e-mail me if you want to know the ending, otherwise I’ll let you read it yourself.

The thing that struck me, though, and the point of this post, is that Cobb’s “fictional” story didn’t feel like fiction.   The multiple Indian mistresses/wives in the background, the innocent, lovable white wife… it all felt too real. And when I accidently ran across the census records for Alfred Sherwood, something clicked.  Sherwood “founded” Sherwood Valley, just northwest of Willits,  in the 1850s.   

 In 1860, Sherwood was living withhis son,  a 3 year old half-Native boy, Robert.  There is no woman in the house.

 In 1870, Sherwood is married to Ellen,  a 23 year old white Wisconsin native, and raising “half-breed” boys Ethan, 8, and Andrew, 6.  Sherwood  lists both boys as his sons.

In 1880, he is still with Ellen, now known as “Nellie”, and has moved Joseph (a year older than Andrew at 17), Samuel-13, John-11, Hellen-19, and Mary Ann-16, into the house.  All the kids are listed as “W” for white, but later census records reveal that all of them had Indian mothers.    Later census records also reveal that Nellie, Sherwood’s wife, only gave birth to one child, and that child did not survive.

It  fit and I became convinced that Cobb based her book on the Sherwood family story.  I shared my theory with Ol ‘ManRiver, a preeminent SoHum historian, but he poo-poo’d me (sorry  Ol’ Man), and I let it go. Until… Ol’Man sent me this (along with a wonderful, humble apology)…

2069. Hogshead, John Samuel. “A Chronological Sketch or Narrative of My Life: Covelo, California

1933-1938.”1933. checked, UC Berkeley – Bancroft Library.

Abstract: CXXXII: While teaching at Sherwood Valley school he had 2 indian half-beed pupils old

man Sherwoods’ girl and boy. The boy was dull, the girl was smart. She smiled knowingly

but said nothing when Hogshead mispronounced the word “Sioux.” “Their mother was probably

the ‘Cream Ellen’ of Maggie Smith’s Blaxine character.”

CXLV: “Then I got the Farley School. That is where, as you know, I had Maggie Smith, who

afterwards wrote ‘Blaxine, The Half-Breed Girl.'”

So there you go.  This… shit (sorry) happened.  Cobb was born in 1871 and  grew up on the South Fork of the Eel River, where she would have known many “half-breed” children, children born of the white men who came into the area and their Native “wives”.   I don’t know (yet) if she knew the Sherwood kids, or just heard stories about it later, but it stuck.  Stuck enough to inspire her to write a whole book about the family, cloaked in “fiction”.   


To be continued…


19 Responses to Truth cloaked in “fiction”

  1. Nan Abrams says:

    Wow,indeed . . . it makes me wonder what kind of relationship these white men and native women had, that the men could claim the children as theirs. And makes me wonder if the children were raised by the father because they were not welcome by the mother’s group. But of course it begs the question, why did the woman not become a full fledged wife. Guess “concubine” was good enough for the men at that time?

    • lynette77 says:

      Unfortunately, what I’ve heard and read is that many of the men who initially came here as gold seekers and speculators and took indian “wives” actually had family (or aspirations) that went beyond frontier life. When this area became more “civilized”, these early relationships became a liability that many chose to hide, deny, or eliminate.

      The women and children suffered as a consequence and few Native families were legitimized in the traditional sense. And at least a frightening few were eliminated all-together…

  2. Kym says:

    The Sherwood Inn…is it named after them (in spite of the Robin Hood painted on the sign)?

    • lynette77 says:

      My guess would be yes. And that they don’t know the “rest of the story”. Though to be fair, my sense of things is that Sherwood embraced his children and provided for them the best he could (hopefully research/results will support this supposition).

      Ol’Man just gave me more info that shows that Nellie, Sherwood’s wife, worked hard to make sure his children (and even native “wives”) were cared for…

  3. olmanriver says:

    It seems that it was a common practice for the early settlers of many outlying parts of the county to take Indian partners and dump them when white women came into the area.

    Lynette and I shared a few such stories recently. One involves an early settler of Leggett valley who arranged with the Yuki tribal leader to have three wives and six-eight half breed children. When Heathcote, the settler takes on a white wive and returns the wives and children back to the tribe, murder and mayhem break loose. The new white partner wakes up with the half-breed children sitting outside, and Heathcote has some ‘splaining to do. She wants to raise them, he doesn’t, and loses his life later to the outraged, and liquored up Yuki.
    It was a major social transgression to return the children back to the tribe, the half-breed children would never be able to marry into the tribe. One of the wives was the love of the lead brave of the tribe so he had motivation for revenge. It must be mentioned that the Indian wives were sisters and that their father had arranged the marriages, consistent with the practice of wives having economic value.

    It is not clear to me in Maxine that the husband continues conjugal relations with the cast out, but nearby, Indian wives. Did I miss that Lynette.

    When one Mattole pioneer’s wife found out that he had been a “squawman” previously, she left him for a different prominently named person in history, with her sons.

    Having scanned the early newspaper accounts of the late 1850-60’s, I have seen that a number of the white men who history has recorded as victims of Indian attacks, had first provoked the attack by taking wives. Several of the recorded whites murdering whites incidents ensued from competition
    over Indian wives.

    The anthropologist Harrington took some interviews along the coast from Indians who shared that a pair of brothers who were prominent names in the mid 1860’s had cast off Indian partners. They also stated that the wife of one of our Sohum pioneers lassoed his wife in the mountains, ala the story of Bill Woods and the lassoing of his beloved Chloe.
    I am certain that some of the miners, deer-hunters, and traveling mountain men had multiple Indian wives, but that was not uncommon in many of the Indian tribes.
    Lynn was so right, I had pooh-poohed her thinking she could identify Maxine’s story in Sherwood and got to eat some crow when I found that she had been spot on.

    • lynette77 says:

      Actually, that other story you mentioned about the native chief giving his daughters as ‘wives’ of the white pioneer was a good perspective changer for me.

      Up until I read that account, I pitied the women subjected to a bigamist relationship. But the account actually states that one of the girls given as a “wife” insisted that another girl go with her. She didn’t want to be alone with the strange white man, it seems, but when there were two or more of them together, it was tolerable. There is a photo of the well known Mad River Billy with his two wives, and I think it might not have been unusual to have mulitple Native wives in one household , making multiple Indian women in the same (white) male household a good thing, rather than bad… at least for the women involved.

      • olmanriver says:

        There are numerous accounts of Indian women being lassoed, or “taken” as wives by the whites.

        There are also accounts which reveal that Indian wives were basically commodities to be traded for, within tribes and to the whites. Marrying into wealth was to be desired, and in the Heathcote/early Leggett history, preferred by the Indian chief over the natural attraction of Mamalcoosh, the Yuki brave, for his the chief’s daughter.

        These stories add nuance and complexity to our view of these times which was characterized by white domination of Indians.

        • lynette77 says:

          ‘River, you bring up a great point about women/daughters basically being commodities. Not that unusual for that time period in any culture. And unfortunately, it still exists in some cultures today…

    • lynette77 says:

      I need to reread Blaxine, but if I remember correctly, Sargent/Sherwood continued some kind of relationship with Blaxine’s mother, “Cream Ellen”… As well as having Cream Ellen kill another of his former “wives”.

  4. The more you know about the history of the settlers of the Eel valley, the more you realize that the story goes much deeper than you would ever guess at first glance.

    I’ve often mused about what the early settlers, and Indians, would think about us, and our standards.

    The story of Chloe Wood is a wonderful story, of a “Wild caught” Indian woman that adapted quite well to her new life. It would have been hard to tell who was who’s servant, Chloe or Bill.

    I’ve heard several versions of the Chloe and Bill story. The lasso is often questioned, and the place changes, but there are enough stories that it is certain that they were a well known and famous couple.

    There was, and is, and old saying on the Harris Ridge. “If she’s caught in your lasso, she’s your woman.” Apparently that was all the marriage ceremony that some of the men needed back then. I’m sure that some of the “marriages” weren’t as good as Chloe and Bills. Again, I wonder how they would judge our relationships today.

    Oh… Welcome back Lynette!

    • Frank Asbil, in “The Last of the West” spelled her name “Clowie”. His account of Bill talking about his Clowie was: “She was the prettiest thing I ever see’d in my life. Her hair was as black as a raven. Her eyes, they shined like two diamonds. She was, I tell ye son, just a rare beauty, as rare as I ever see’d.”

      But, that account was from Frank Asbil. Anybody would tell you, that “he was and old liar. you couldn’t believe a word that he said.”
      Just one of the versions of “The Gods honest truth” that I’ve heard.

      • lynette77 says:

        So are you saying that Asbil was full of crap about how Bill captured Clowie, or about how pretty she was?!?!?!? Might want to clarify that, Ernie….

        • No, Just that Asbil was generally an exaggerator. Any story that he told got “better”. As I have said before about local history, you have to gather as many stories about the person or event that you can, to get a “feeling” of the “truth”.

          From all the stories that I’ve heard. Clowie was beautiful as a young woman. So, I generally accept that as truth. How and where she was captured leaves some doubt in my mind. The fact that Asbil was a “Story Teller” leaves absolutely no doubt in my mind. But, thank God for story tellers!

          • olmanriver says:

            Ms. Clowie Wood got her language lessons from her foul-mouthed husband and associates no doubt. Visitors to their home would be greeted by Clowie with a long string of colorful invectives that was her natural speaking mode.

            The story has it that Bill and Clowie had only the kindest of words for each other.

          • lynette77 says:

            And you have to figure (at least I do) that a story usually grows out of some kind of truth. That truth may be buried (or outright obliterated), but it was there, somewhere, in the beginning.

    • lynette77 says:

      Hello to you, too, Ernie. Glad to be back.

  5. […] among the local natives.   Early census records and stories (about Jack Mann, for instance, and Sherwood ) give evidence that more than a few white settlers took up this practice when they arrived on […]

  6. […] was contacted by someone seeking information on Margaret Cobb, author (authoress ?) of Blaxine , which Cobb published in 1910 (quite a story and I urge you to click the link if you haven’t […]

  7. Nan Abrams says:

    A friend just gave me an 1882 Illustrated History of Humboldt County–sort of like a yearbook/travel guide–that she found in a used books store. (The same can be found at the county library.) Looking through it yesterday, I was appalled, but not surprised at the way the Indians were spoken of–as more than just a curiosity but as if they were not human and it was fine to exploit them, whip them (discipline them as they called it when they were being whipped–and even had one Indian whip another) and treat them as beasts of burden. I do not think we can apologize enough to make amends for what our “pioneers” had done.

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