John Cochran Holley
by Michael Douglas White
John Cochran Holley was one of the California Pioneers and a early
resident of Mariposa County, coming across the plains in 1852. Of
his life before California, not much is known. He is thought to have
been born in 1828 or 1830 in Lauderdale County, Alabama; probably in the
month of October.
The earliest record of John's residence was when he took possession
of land on October 18, 1854 in what was then Mariposa (now Merced) County.
The land was obtained by pre-emption ("squatters") right and was situated
a mile away from the present day Bonanza Hills Airport. John's witness
to his claim was his neighbor and fellow squatter John H. Forman, who had
known him since May 1853. Holley lived here until he sold it to Daniel
Zeister in December 1859.
Where exactly John Holley lived during the next decade is unclear.
John appears on the 1860 Mariposa Census with a Coulterville P.O. and on
a Mariposa jury list for July 1865. Other evidence seems to indicate
a residence on Dry Creek in Merced County in 1862. John's main occupation
throughout his life was stock raising and was away from "home" for extended
periods. This might account for the conflicting data.
According to testimony in 1898, John Holley married Martha Birkhead
in December of 1861. Martha Birkhead was the daughter of John and Mary
Ann (Rust) Birkhead, early Arkansas pioneers from Kentucky who moved onto
California in 1857 and settled near Merced Falls. Martha's brother
Benjamin Singleton Birkhead was an itinerant Methodist preacher for many
years throughout central California.
Sometime in February or March of 1863, the Holleys suffered a fire.
The local Snelling paper, The Banner, reported:
"Last week the dwelling-house of John Holley, on Dry Creek,
in this county, was entirely destroyed by fire, together with all the furniture,
clothing of the family, etc. As the family had been absent all day,
and there being no fire in the house since early in the morning, it is
very evident that it was set on fire by some scoundrel." [1881
History of Merced Co., CA]
Their loss must have been offset by the birth of their only child George
in December that same year.
It is not clear exactly when John and Martha began having marital problems.
Their son had always said that his mother "abandoned him" when he was young.
The record seems to support this, as Martha is living with her mother and
3 brothers in the 1870 census and in a homestead application of in 1874
John states that he is married but that his wife has parted and only his
son lives with him. It should probably be noted however, that Martha
was listed as being age 11 in the 1860 Merced County census and was likely
only 13 when she married! Regardless of the particulars, John and Martha
were not formally divorced until a few months before Martha's mother died
After the death of John Birkhead in July 1867, his widow and children
moved near Millerton in Fresno County (which was just north of Friant).
That same year, John Holley appears on the Great Register of Fresno County
voters as living at Fresno River. While John's main occupation during
these years was farming and stock raising, he is listed in the 1871 Fresno
County Directory as a saloon keeper in Buchanan. Buchanan was very
close to Millerton, being founded in 1863 when copper was discovered in
the hills. The year Buchanan's population reached its peak in 1873,
John had moved to Fresno Flats (present day Oakhurst) in Madera County.
In March of the following year, John and George homesteaded a section of
land 3/4 of a mile south of the Green Mountain Copper Mine back in Mariposa
County. The property already had a house on it, which John purchased
from a previous owner. As John described in the Testimony of Claimant
"[I will be] 50 years old next October. ... I have
a wife but we parted and she has not lived with me since I made this homestead
entry. My son lives with me. ... I am a native born citizen,
I was born in Laudervile[sic] County Alabama. ... My residence has been
continuous but my business has been raising sheep and I have
been with them away from the land at times. ... There is a gulch river
throug[sic] the land and a good spring that there is always
water in. ... the house is about 18 x 20 feet, with a kitchen attached,
shingle roof and board floor and is a comfortable house to
live in. ... The place I paid two hundred dollars for. ... I have cultivated
a small piece of it [the property] in vegetables for my own
The two witnesses to the claim were Joseph G. Sullivan of Mariposa
County, who had know him since 1871, and Henry White of Fresno County who
raised goats and had known John since 1855 or 1856. Both witnesses
had a Buchanan Post Office. The patent for the land was issued on
June 1, 1880.
John's main stock was sheep, which had been quite profitable in California
until the early 1870s. This hardship may have been reflected in the
family diet. As an adult, George would never eat mutton, as he was
sick of it from having to eat so much as a kid. John and George moved
from Mariposa County for the last time in 1882 - but that's another story.
History of Merced County, California, Elliott & Moore, (1881)
History of Fresno County, Elliot & Co., San Francisco, CA (1882)
Memorial and Biographical History of the Counties of Fresno, Tulare
and Kern, California, Lewis Publishing, Chicago, Ill. (1892)
Fresno County : the pioneer years, Vol. 1 by Charles W. Clough and
William B. Secrest, Jr. (1984)
Land Patent papers, National Archives, document #770, Merced County,
CA, July 1, 1861
Land Patent (Homestead) papers, National Archives, document #1958,
Mariposa County, CA, June 1, 1880
Great Register of California Voters, Fresno County: 1867, 1872, 1873,
1875, 1882, 1884
Great Register of California Voters, Mariposa County: 1875, 1877, 1879,
Obituary of John C. Holley, Madera Mercury, March 4, 1911
Superior Court Case No. 8239, Fresno County, CA
Holley vs. Holley divorce proceedings (1898)
Census, Polk County, Arkansas: 1850
Census, Merced County, California: 1860
Census, Mariposa County, California: 1860, 1880
Census, Fresno County, California: 1870, 1880
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March 23, 2003