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The Richards Ranch

By 1853, William Richards, his wife Grace, son William Hosking Richards, and daughters Elizabeth and Grace, had settled on a five-ace parcel of land near Angles Camp, on the east side of Washington Flat Road and north of Angels Creek. The Richards were natives of Cornwall, England, who had immigrated to Grant County Wisconsin in 1844 (Great Register of Voters 1896-98), where both their daughters were born. Two sons, Edward and John, evidently died there or never emigrated to Calaveras County (U.S. Federal Census 1850).

Richards first appeared in the Calaveras County assessment rolls in 1856, noted as William Richardson (sic Richards) on Angels Creek. The following year he was assessed for five acres at Washington Flat. When the assessor visited him in 1858, Richards was noted as owning a five-acre ranch on Washington Flat, on the north side of Angels Creek, and valued at $250. He was also assessed for a wagon, two Spanish horses, and two yoke of American oxen. The following year his assessment noted a house and lot, with merchandise or stock in trade valued at $700, neat stock at $300, five apple trees, 50 peach trees, 1,000 grape vines, 25 chickens, and four turkeys, suggesting that he had been there a fair amount of time (Calaveras County Assessor’s Roll Books 1858 and 1859).

By 1860, his property had risen in value to $500, suggesting the construction of more buildings, possibly the extant residence (Calaveras County Assessor’s Roll Book 1860). In the census record that year he noted his occupation as a farmer, working with his son William H. Richards, aged 25, and daughters Elizabeth, 16; and Grace, 12; both at school, evidently in the new Washington Flat schoolhouse (U.S. Federal Census 1860).

During the 1860s Richards continued to be assessed for his land and improvements, as well as personal property including furniture, cattle, horses, hogs, and fowl. He was naturalized in Calaveras County in 1867, and died at Washington Flat in 1873. The assessed value of the Richards property continued to drop from its high in 1860 to 1875, when it was valued at $225 for the land, house, barn, sheds, and fence (Calaveras County Assessor’s Roll Books, various), probably reflecting the general depreciation of land values in Calaveras County after the boom years of gold and copper mining.

Grace Richards died in March of 1880, aged 72, and the estate passed equally to her three children. By then the land included 80 acres, patented by Grace in 1875 (Calaveras County Land Patent Maps; William H. Richards Probate 1910, Record Storage Box 58).

In April of 1887, William H. Richards purchased 20 acres of adjoining land from Mary L. Harvey for $100, noting that it was a diagonal parcel of land bounded by his east corner, west by John Massoni, and principally on the south side of Angels Creek (Deed Book 18:372). In the summer of that same year Richards was assessed for the 60 acres of land, with a house, barn, and fence, all valued at $240. His assessment also noted a watch, furniture, sewing machine, cows, calves, stock cattle, horses, colts, plows, wagons, harness, poultry, bee hives, and a dog (Calaveras County Assessor’s Roll Book 1887).

The following year Elizabeth Richards married Alexander Sinclair Forsyth, a native of St. Stephens, New Brunswick, probably in San Joaquin County where he was naturalized in 1887 (Great Register of Voters 1896-98). Forsyth evidently moved to the ranch that year, and joined the family in farming the land. In April of 1890, he purchased 60 acres of the former Thomas Harvey property from James and Mary L. Harvey, for $450 (Deed Book 18:371). By 1895 he had erected a barn and fence on his acreage, and by 1900 an additional barn. He was also assessed for a watch, firearms, and a wagon (Calaveras County Assessor’s Roll Books 1895, 1900).

In 1890 Richards had acquired more land from the Harvey Ranch, including 40 acres for $200 (Deed Book 18:374). Over the ensuing years until his death in 1909, he was assessed for 140 acres, including a house, barn, and fence (Calaveras County Assessor’s Roll Books, various).

In 1900, when recorded by the census taker, the Richards and Forsyth families were residing in adjoining households; William H. and Grace in one and Alex and Elizabeth in another (U.S. Federal Census 1900). The second dwelling may have been situated above the stone cellar, located east of the extant residence. When the two men registered to vote in 1896-98, Richards was noted as a farmer, aged 59, 5’ 8 ½” tall, with a dark complexion, blue eyes, and gray hair. Forsyth was also aged 59, 5’ 10 ½” tall, with a fair complexion, blue eyes, gray hair, and working as a farmer.

Also in 1900, Richards filed a Water Right to 100 inches of water from Angels Creek for irrigation purposes, to be conveyed in a ditch along the north side of the creek “unto and across the land of Richards and his sisters in Sections 22 and 23, T3N, R13E” (Water Rights Book A:166). This was evidently to maintain title to the initial 1853 ditch and water right. The ditch continued to be used for irrigation through the late 1950s or early 1960s (Donnie Whittle 2006).

William H. Richards died in December of 1909, leaving his estate, which by then included the Missouri Placer Mining Claim and a cabin, as well as livestock and farming implements, and the water right, to his two sisters (William H. Richards Probate 1909, Record Storage Box 58; Deed Book 57:635).

In 1910, Alex and his wife Elizabeth, her sister Grace, and John Massoni, the hired man working as a farm laborer, were all residing in the same household (U.S. Federal Census 1910). Three years later, Grace and Elizabeth deeded the school lot premises on their land to the Washington Flat School District, located on the Murphys-Altaville Turnpike, near the Richards residence, for $50. The property was described as being “bounded by a fence to be constructed from the rear of the outhouses between the school house and the residence, in a direct line from the fence near the rear of the outhouses to the fence of the road.” The property was to be returned to the family if its use lapsed (Deed Book 60:320).

Grace Richards died in 1915, and was buried alongside the other members of her family in the Murphys Protestant Cemetery (Calaveras County Cemetery Records). During the ensuing years, Elizabeth was assessed for both the Richards and Forsyth lands and improvements (Calaveras County Assessor’s Roll Books 1918, 1920).

Alex Forsyth died in February of 1921, aged 83, leaving an estate which included Liberty Bonds, mortgages, and money, valued at $6000. His heirs included his wife Elizabeth and nieces and nephews in New Brunswick (Alexander S. Forsyth Probate Record, Record Storage Box 71). Elizabeth died in Stockton four years later, in March of 1925, aged 79 years (Calaveras Prospect, March, 28, 1925).

For several years thereafter the Richards Ranch property was assessed to the estate of Elizabeth Forsyth, which included the house, barn, and fence valued at $400, the water ditch at $25, and the Forsyth land with two barns and personal property (presumably livestock), valued at $400. The assessment was signed by Attorney Joe Huberty. In 1928, however, Mary Nelson, residing in Stockton, signed for Elizabeth’s estate. By 1930, the entire property was assessed to Mary Nelson, but no deeds were located (Calveras County Assessor’s Roll Books 1925, 1926, 1928, 1930).

The Nelson family were farmers, residing on Roberts Island, and their relationship to the Richards family is unknown. In 1930, the Nelson family, consisting of the widowed mother Mary, her three sons, Ellsworth, Edward, and Ervin, as well as daughter Grace, were residing on Roberts Island with two hired men and a cook, and engaged in farming. Grace Nelson eventually inherited the Richards ranch, where she continued running cattle with the help of caretakers.

An informant recalled that his uncle Guiseppe (Joe) Vassere resided in the caretaker’s cabin and took care of the cattle, while a tall older man resided in the house as a caretaker. Vassere, a native of Italy, was naturalized in Calaveras County in 1908, worked on the Sorroco Ranch on Dogtown Road in the 1930s, at the mine in Copperopolis until it closed in 1947, then moved to the Nelson Ranch sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s. The cabin was already in existence when he moved in, presumably built for a previous Nelson caretaker (Donnie Whittle 2006). Vassere died in 1989 and the property has been empty since, except for the Rolleri family cattle who graze its rich pastures.

Grace Nelson died on Roberts Island on June 9, 1983, where she had lived alone in the white frame home of her family. Her estate was appraised at $1.6 million at the time of her death, but increased to $1.7 million with interest by the time it was probated. With no immediate heirs, Grace left most of her estate to charities, including the Roman Catholic Bishop of Stockton, the Stockton Boys Club, the San Joaquin County Historical Society, the trustees of Casa Bonita Cemetery, and several gold coins and 93 nuggets to the Calaveras County Museum.

Nelson was not a Catholic and diocesan officials did not know her, but she left the 300-acre Richards/Nelson Ranch in Calaveras County to the Roman Catholic Bishop Roger M. Mahony, with “strict orders that the ranch must be used as a recreational center for young people” (Flynn, September 30, 1984). Obviously her wishes were not carried out, and the ranch was sold by the Church and is slated for subdivision.


By Judith Marvin