THE CUNNINGHAM FAMILY- PIONEERS
compilation from various sources, written and presented here by Carol Lackey
The family patriarch, James Cunningham, was born on May 12, 1824 in Dungiven, Ireland to James Cunningham Sr. and his wife Mary. James Sr. was a color sergeant in the English army, stationed in the West Indies.
He served courageously in some of the most famous battle of his day and exemplified bravery by being the last man to leave the island of Martiniue when it was given up to the French. He escaped by wading up to his neck to reach safety in a boat.
James Jr. long dreamed of being a proficient navigator and owner of ocean vessels, and at age 16 he ran away to the sea. For four years he apprenticed as a sailor and at age 19 he was made second mate of the barue John Horrocks. A mere few months later he was made first mate of the ship Lancaster.
It was while on the Lancaster that James had a terrible accident, breaking his collarbone and a shoulder, icapacitating him for six months. He did not let misfortune undermine his goals however, and used his recovery time to attend navigation school.
He studied diligently, successfully passed his examination and was made captain of the ship Cyclops.
For the next 11 years, James sailed to many ports, rounded Capt Horn three times and covered two-thirds of the globe twice. While on his journeys he heard about the discovery of gold in California and tried in vain to get to America. He even offered to work his way as an ordinary seaman, to no avail.
Finally, in the fall of 1850, his fortunes turned when he was selected as chief officer of the clipper ship Canada, which was making for the New World. After a long and tempestuous voyage, James arrived in San Francisco in February of 1851.
Upon arrival, the entire ship's crew deserted and James was left without any of the eight months pay that was due him. He was in a new country virtually penniless, but friends soon came to his assistance, providing him with money and the chance for adventure.
With four other men, James headed to the gold mines along the Yuba River.
He spent nearly two years mining before receiving an invitation from a cousin, William Laughlin, who was living in Mariposa County.
James made the trip on horseback and promptly staked a claim on Mariposa Creek. He went back briefly to the mines he had been working, and when he returned to Mariposa Creek, he found that strangers had jumped his claim.
James was not easily bowled over, however, and the actions of the claim jumpers left him free to pursue the purchase of the land that is now the Cunningham ranch. He bought the land and turned it into a ranch with horses, cattle, barley, wheat and hay. An observer described the ranch as "the prettiest place I ever saw".
Two adobe houses sat in a grove of cottonwood trees, and the land sloped gently to a winding creek.
On one side rose the foothills. On the other stretched the plains covered with acres of wildflowers.
James was working his land on day when a wagon train from Missouri rolled by. He looked up and saw a beautiful girl with flaming red, curly hair riding horseback. He vowed then and there that one day he would marry that girl. He name was Sophronia Turner. (She would be married twice before she married James Cunningham, 1st to Henry Helm (she had ason and daughter by Henry, the son died as a baby) then to James Henderson, both would die young.)
In 1855, Merced County was formed, and James Cunningham was elected supervisor three years later.
This was the beginning of his family's community involvement that continues to this day.
James Cunningham was one of four children. His brother John married and joined him in California, purchasing the land that adjoined James' ranch.
His brother Richard was also a sailor but came to a most dreadful end. He was sailing in the South Seas when he was sent ashore with several others to collect water from a place called Cannibal Isle. When he and his crew failed to return to the beach, the ship's master did not investigate but retreated quickly, leaving the men to their fate. They were never heard from again.
James sister, Nancy, died a spinster at the family home in Ireland. A neighbor described her as "a real lady and very bright and well-educated."
Upon her death, Nancy's jewels were sent to James and divided among his children. Several articles of jewelry were either destroyed or lost throughout the generations.
On Nov. 8, 1861, rain began to fall in California and continued almost withut interruption until Jan. 24, 1862. Streams creeks, and rivers swollen by the heavy precipitation swept through valleys and twons carrying away animals and property. Property losss was estimated at $10 million.In the low-lying town of Snelling, the flood waters raced through, washing the hotel right off its foundations. The terrified inhabitants sought refuge in the trees and were in danger of losing their lives when James Cunningham, Judge Breen, Honorable W. R. Howard and a Mr. Perkins arrived on the scene. They hastily built a raft and rescued every person.
In 1864, James turned his attention to the stock business, providing horses and beef to those working the gold mines. Unlike the constant rains of 1861, 1864 saw a nearly continuous dry season, and many of James' herd died. Teaming up with other ranchers, he drove his cattle over the mountains to greener pastures. After the men left, a report was sent to Hornitos with a horrifying tale of an Indian attack in which James Cunningham had been killed. His friends and family were greatly relieved when a letter reached them from James himself describing the suspense-filled events and assuring everyone that he was very much alive.
The men had settled the cattle at a ranch in Nevada, and on April 2, Indians attacked. They shot a man and two horses, set the house on fire and drove off 40 head of horses and 70 head of cattle.
James had not been there at the time but took action upon his return, as he states in a letter dated May 10, 1865.
"I moved the stock immediately opposite Star City and Unionville where I thought they would be safe, but it turned out differently."
Three days later, the Indians attacked again, this time at night. "We were retiring to bed," said James, "when the Indian war whoop was raised and repeated in all directions through out the hills. They came down on us like a qhite squall, and in a short time the house was surrounded by a swarm of mounted Indians armed with rifles. They commenced rapid fire on us, to which we replied as quick as possible, and a general fight ensued."
The men were protected by the stone walls of their house, but James and two others had to leave that relative safety to rescue the horses the Indians were trying to drived off. They managed to save only one, but he was a Billy Blane stallion, and they weren't about to let the Indians have him. The battle was fierce and long. "We fought for two hours and a half," said James, "when our ammuntion gave out. We held a consultation, and it was agreed that one of us should run the gauntlet for help and ammunition. I was chosen to make the trial. The Indians, in the meantime, were packing off their wounded."
While the Indians were thus distracted, James seized his opportunity. "I took my pistol and knife, jumped on Billy, and went off like a'streak of lightning,'", wrote James. He managed to get a mile away before the Indians realized their quarry was escaping and their cries echoed down the canyon for six miles.
"I saw in a moment that the Indians were determined that no help should reach us from town and that none of us should escape. I reflected but a moment," said James. "To go back? Never! So I put on, the bullets whizzing from either side of the canyon."
James pressed on through the "storm of yells and bullets," trying to reach the mough of the canyon, beyond which lay safety. In the moonlight, he saw two Indians guarding his way of escape, and he had a decision to make. "To stop and fight might lose the pary," he thought, " and there were no chances in my favor." Steeling himself James rode straight at the two guards. His effrontery startled them and he miraculously passed unscathed. They chased him for six miles, but he lost them in the end.
James reached the city in record time and secured the men and horses needed to rescue his comrades at the ranch. His horse was shot in two places and he had a bullet hole through the vest and breast of his shirt.
James and the volunteers chased after the Indians and succeeded in getting back the stolen cattle, but not the horses.
James closed his letter thus, "Let all my friends know that I am not dead, and don't intend to die for some time. If there is anything in this letter interesting, you are at liberty to publish it."
James returned home to his ranch with cattle to sell and enough left over to continue in the cattle business until his death 40 years later. Fourteen years after James first caught sight of the beautiful Sophonia Turner, the two were married, in 1868. He was 44 and she was 28.
Margaret Cunningham Clark, a granddaughter of James and Sophronia, says of James, "I remember him as a slender old gentleman with snowy hair and beard. He walked with a cane and wore his sea-captain's cap set on his head a a rakish angle. He retained many expressions from his seagoing days, threatening to 'put you in the long boat and pull the plug out' if you were bad, or to use the belaying pin or, even worse, to make a spread eagle out of the culprit. None of these things ever happened to any of us, I am glad to say."
Maragret says of her grandmother, "I remember Grandma Cunningham as a sweet little old lady, about 5 feet tall, plump, with curly gray hair which she wore parted in the middl, coiled softly over her ears and fastened in a little knot at the back of her neck. She had a sweet soprano voice and loved to sing. Some of her songs that I remember were "Lord Lovell" and "The Sweet Bye and Bye".
RETURN TO MARIPOSA COUNTY FAMILY CHRONICLES
GO TO MARIPOSA COUNTY HISTORY AND GENEALOGY