Many of the stories of Napa County’s pioneer women settlers or early residents were but a mere footnote to their husbands’ or sons’ biographies in history books. Even these brief notations, as well as the rare personal biography of a woman, provide insights into the hardships endured and overcome by these local women.
A brief biography about Elizabeth Hill in the 1901 “History of Napa County” by Tillie Kanaga and W.F. Wallace detailed a heart-wrenching event in her life — the murder of her son. This occurred in 1856 as the 41-year-old Elizabeth, her eldest son Thomas and her five other children were California bound to join her husband William. That arduous trek across the plains from their east Tennessee home to Napa took four months and 22 days.
Apparently while crossing Nebraska a band of thieves, supposedly Native Americans, stole some livestock. Kanaga and Wallace wrote, “Thomas Hill, her son, and some other young men pursued the Indians, endeavoring to recovery their property. The Indians ambushed the young men, and when they came within shot opened fire upon them, two fell dead, one of whom was Thomas, the others escaped with wounds, and managed to return to the (wagon) train.”
The authors added, “His mother (Elizabeth) said he was such a good boy, and it nearly broke her heart to see one she loved so dearly lying dead and scalped, who but a few minutes ago was well and happy. But such is life on the plains.”
By 1901, the 85-year-old Elizabeth had also lost her husband and two more of her six children. But she lived contentedly in the Napa area with her son Alfred, “Rant,” Hill and his family. They added, “When Mrs. Hill came to Napa City in 1856, it consisted of a small town of shanties.”
Hill also said, “There was no Catholic Church, no Court House, nor any good buildings.”
Another sad account of a local mother tragically losing a child was the story of a New York native, Mary Post Sweitzer. Kanaga and Wallace wrote, “While reading the San Francisco morning newspapers the widowed Mrs. Sweitzer saw the account of two young men being caught in a snow slide in British Columbia, and buried 150 feet deep in the snow, and to her horror one of the names was that of her eldest son Frank.” The mammoth slide that claimed 35-year-old Frank Sweitzer occurred on January 4, 1893. The authors reported in the spring Mary’s only surviving child, Charles Sweitzer, 34, went to Canada searched for, recovered and then buried Frank’s body. By 1901, Mary, 67, and Charles, 42, lived together in the Monticello Berryessa Valley area.
The last story of this women’s history vignette details the measures one local mother took to protect her children. Kanaga and Wallace simply referred to this local pioneer woman as William B. Elliott’s wife. This family consisted of a husband, wife and several children who had settled in the Calistoga area during the 1840s.
The authors wrote, “It was no uncommon thing for the wife and children to remain alone for days, while the father and older sons were away on hunting or other expeditions. They (the wife and children) lived in a tent, which, or course, afforded no protection from the nightly intrusions of the grizzly. This brave woman was not one to succumb to the ravenous attacks of the huge monsters without adopting some expedient to escape an encounter from them.”
They continued, “At such times she would take the children and veritably roost in the trees, high above the reach of bruin. A scaffolding was prepared in the forks of a mammoth oak tree, and on this she would make her beds and she and the children would sleep safely, if not soundly.”
From their treetop sleeping quarters, Mrs. Elliott and her children usually heard and saw the bears ransack their campground foraging for every last scrap of food. Kanaga and Wallace added, “She did not fear the visit of the day time, for she could easily mount to her perch in the tree, and fetch his bearship to the ground with a well-directed shot from the rifle, which she could handle as well as a man.”
In concluding the Elliott story, Kanaga and Wallace wrote an editorial that also applied to Hill, Sweitzer and all early Napa County women settlers and residents. “Such was the life those pioneer women led, and all honor is their due for the noble courage they displayed in facing the dangers they did.”