Reaching Civilization

Johnson’s Ranch is mentioned in many pioneer diaries. Situated in present-day Wheatland, the ranch was the first outpost of civilization the overland immigrants encountered after they descended the Sierra Nevada through the Donner Pass. William Johnson came west from Boston aboard the ship Alciope circa 1840, sailing about the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) before arriving in the Sacramento Valley in 1842. After the death of Pablo Gutierrez, the original owner of this rancho on the north of the Bear River, Johnson and his partner Sebastian Keyser bought the 22,000 acre property at auction in the spring of 1845. It wasn’t much—just two small adobe structures, some fences and livestock and wheat fields, but because of its location, Johnson’s Ranch was an important operations base during the rescue of the Donner Party in 1847.  Johnson married one of the survivors, teenaged Mary Murphy, whose mother had perished in the mountains. The marriage was not a happy one. Within six months of their June 1847 wedding Mary left him, subsequently marrying Charles Covillaud, a merchant who founded the town he named Marysville in her honor.  William Johnson and his partner sold their shares in the ranch in 1849, to parties who tried, and failed, to establish a township on the property. Today a plaque in the Wheatland town square relates part of the Johnson’s Ranch history.

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