A recent walk in Bothe Napa Valley State Park might surprise you with the amount of construction that is occurring along the park’s History Trail.
The History Trail is the short trail that leads from the Day Use area of the Bothe Napa Valley State Park to the Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park. This trail is currently being renovated by the California Conservation Corps but it’s still quite accessible for an easy stroll.
The California Conservation Corps activities are designed to make this important historic site more accessible to visitors, said Jay Jessen, a Bothe Park steward.
The trail loop surrounding the site is being graded and widened to make it ADA compliant. There will also eventually be an interpretive panel at the site, though there is no exact timeline for the panel’s completion. Jessen indicated “the trail around the cemetery and to the church will be done by July 1.”
The trail loop winds around a grassy knoll containing numerous ornate gravestones and little white picket fences surround various plots. This is the park’s “Pioneer Cemetery,” and it’s one of the most interesting historic sites in the valley.
In addition to the gravestones, it’s also the site of the White Church. As the first church in the Napa Valley its history — and the graves of the people that surround the site — acts as a touchstone to understanding the events of how the Napa Valley was first settled.
An early book authored by Lyman L. Palmer entitled “History of Napa and Lake Counties, California” has created confusion about how the White Church got its name. “The church took its name from the fact that it was the only painted house in upper Napa Valley,” Palmer wrote in 1881.
However, later historians attribute the church’s name to a Gospel preaching circuit rider by the name of Asa White who in 1852 rode into the Napa Valley for the first time. This story is documented by the St. Helena Historical Society.
According to the SHHS, White struck up a friendship with a man named Florentine Kellogg. Kellogg lived near the then recently constructed Bale Grist Mill and it was he who was hired by Dr. Edward T. Bale to work on the construction of the mill. Bale bartered 600 acres to Kellogg in return for Kellogg’s work who fashioned all the metal work on the mill.
Kellogg also built a house – now called the Lyman House — across the creek from the Bale Mill which can still be seen through the woods. It’s said to be one of the earliest frame structures in the valley.
The Rev. White, according to SHHS, used the Kellogg house for his headquarters while he was in the Napa Valley to teach Bible classes, and his teaching must have been successful, because one year later, a small church building was constructed and dedicated on Nov. 13, 1853. This was the Methodist-Episcopal Church — “The White Church” and it was just 22-feet by 32-feet frame building with two entrances — one for men, and one for women and children.
It’s the grassy knoll upon which the White Church was built where today’s CCC crews are working.
This land had been deeded to Rev. White by a man named Reason Penelope Tucker, who was one of the most interesting settlers of the Napa Valley. Tucker had previously achieved fame as a member and a leader of two of four expeditions in 1837. The purpose of these expeditions was to rescue the 83 members of the ill-fated Donner-Reed Party.
The Donner-Reed Party had become stranded in 30 feet of snow in the Sierra Nevada. They were starving to death. Accounts of the four rescue attempts —in the form of excerpts from journals — were later published in the California Star on June 5, 1847. Six years later in 1853, Reason Tucker had become one of several famous heroes of the time.
An unnamed granddaughter of Reason Tucker described him as “six feet three inches tall, very strong, and heavy weight, a man of great determination and always friendly and kind.”
Louis Keseberg — one notorious survivor of the Donner Party rescued during the fourth attempt — said that Tucker was the only member of the Fourth Relief group who showed him any compassion. Keseberg had been discovered actually eating the remains of one of the members of the ill-fated Donner Party.
The fact that Tucker gave the building site for the White Church to Rev. White is also a testament to Tucker’s compassionate nature. There were no churches in the valley at that time, and it’s easy to speculate that the raw pioneer life must have fostered a need for some trapping of civilization after the terrible events of the Donner Party a mere six years before.
The remains of members of the Kellogg family and the Tucker family along with many other early pioneers were subsequently buried in the little graveyard near where the White Church stood.
Fire destroyed the White Church in 1906, according to the SHHS. It was abandoned because the deed to the land upon which it stood was disputed in 1855.
As a result of that land dispute, Reason Tucker lost everything and he left the valley, according to the SHHS. For this reason, he is not buried in this small cemetery, but several of his descendants are.