If you were a 4-H Club person, you would know about the little cemetery on the knoll right beside the Club camp down the canyon behind the Las Posadas fire station. But the Morris family resting place is a secret place to most of the residents of Angwin.
The March and June 1956 issues of the California Historical Society Quarterly ran lengthy reports on the Morris family, which purchased squatter’s rights in l878 to the lower end of the canyon formed by the creek that runs from Las Posadas Road down the eastern slope of Howell Mountain. The introduction to these articles reads: “This recital of the acquisition and utilization of a piece of virgin wilderness has intrinsic value in the reflection it gives of the courage, resourcefulness, and energy shown by the pioneers of American agriculture.”
The story of the Morris family on Howell Mountain is a chapter in American history. The full account is fascinating, but we will open just a few pages here.
It begins with Milton Morris, born in Virginia in 1807. He was an itinerant, poorly paid Methodist minister. He married a Vermont girl, daughter of another minister. They were godly people, who served suffering Indians and supported the anti-slavery movement. Their lives were full of uncertainty and hardship, but they were governed by exceptional personal values.
They crossed the Plains to California in l857, looking for something better.
It was their son, John, who when he was 43, found the land on Howell Mountain, which lifted the family out of poverty. John had worked at many different trades – storekeeper, farmer and miner. He was a traveling book agent, crisscrossing Northern California and Oregon, when he decided he had to settle down. He liked what he saw up on Howell Mountain, and in l878 purchased the squatter’s rights to a distant section of what we now know as the Las Posadas State Forest. He paid $1,000 for the claim, built a tiny two-room house, and began a new life. He wrote in his memoirs, “We felt we were lords of all we could see, for we claimed all the lands our eyes could behold.”
John spoke of the beauty of his property. The pigeons which gathered so thickly that “I never could have believed their number … blackened the sky and when they flew the roar was like distant thunder.” There were speckled trout in the creek and the woods were full of deer.
Over time he bought more land, at first for $6 an acre. Later, 80 acres for $500. The Moore Creek Ranch (named for the land’s previous owner) grew to 640 acres. By 1881, the family was harvesting garden vegetables and blackberries, walnuts and hickory nuts. When Edwin Angwin developed his health resort, he wanted “more vegetables and berries than we could raise,” John wrote. Howell Mountain was becoming famous as one of the healthiest places in California. “The mountain was full of healthseekers,” he said. Fishermen and hunters came to fish and hunt, families came to picnic here.
In spite of the remoteness and the two-hour buggy ride up the hill from St. Helena, Angwin had become a “destination.”
In 1874, the first school was built on Howell Mountain for the handful of families farming here. It must have been a very small structure.
In the winter of l882, the snow fell so deep that it killed nearly half of the Morris’ flock of sheep.
Other Angwin farmers had begun raising grapes for wine, but Morris stuck with blackberries, raspberries, gooseberries, apples, peaches, plums and pears.
We read these stories of how settlers in the 1880s yearned for new homes and new lives in wild environments. In happened up here in Angwin, too, on the slopes overlooking Pope Valley. Our own chapter in American history.
Duane Cronk is publisher of The Angwin Reporter, AngwinReporter.com.