1851: Rev. Isaac Owen to Elizabeth S. (Hardin) Owen

This letter was written by Rev. Isaac Owen (1809-1866) to his wife, Elizabeth S. (Hardin) Owen (1808-1864). The following history of the Methodist Episcopal Church in California identifies the principal players, several of whom are mentioned in this letter:

Rev. Isaac Owen

Rev. Isaac Owen

“Isaac Owen was born in Vermont and raised from the age of two on the Indiana frontier. His father died when he was 15, and shortly thereafter, he was converted at a camp meeting, being convinced by the first sermon he ever heard. With no chance for formal education, he became a self-taught man, with a great respect for higher education, and a willingness to improve himself by reading and studying on his own. It was said that he “sought books as a miner seeks nuggets.” He became a licensed preacher at 22. He developed into an instructive preacher, at times eloquent, speaking with force and accuracy. He was an excellent judge of men and a tireless worker.

The Rev. Owen and his wife and family crossed the plains in a covered wagon in 1849, accompanied by his close friend, James Corwin (who later built the first Methodist Episcopal Church in Sonoma). He preached his first sermon in California to a group of fellow emigrants as they camped near Grass Valley on September 23, 1849. Expecting to go directly to San Francisco, they arrived in Benicia and got word there that Owen had just been appointed to Sacramento. The oxen were so worn out that he decided to hire a boatman to take his goods up the river, while he and his family and Corwin went with the team. Through the recklessness of the drunken boatman, the boat ran upon a shoal in high tide, capsized, and all their goods were lost in the river. Reaching Sacramento with only the clothes on their backs, the Owen family found shelter in a tent at Sutter’s Fort until their house could be built. The next Sunday, October 23, 1849, Owen preached under an oak tree and convinced 72 people to join the new church. A lot at 7th and L Streets was donated by John Sutter, and a church was built in one week with lumber sent from Baltimore to San Francisco and up the river.

The Rev. William Taylor, who had just started the First Methodist Episcopal church in San Francisco, came to Sacramento to dedicate the church on January 6, 1850. Three days later, a flood covered the city and swept the new church and parsonage off their foundations. Taylor returned to San Francisco by steamer, and Owen and his family were forced to seek refuge at the Taylor home. While there, the Owens lost their two-year-old daughter to a sudden illness. This was the crowning blow, especially for his wife. So Owen took his family to San Jose, built a cottage for them there, and returned to Sacramento alone. He and Corwin, who had remained in Sacramento, restored the church and parsonage to their foundations. Eventually, the Owen family settled in Santa Clara, while Owen, as the Presiding Elder of the California Conference, was on the trail most of the time.

On December 14, 1850, Presiding Elder Owen arrived in Sonoma on horseback to conduct the first Quarterly Conference. This historic meeting was held in a private home with five men in attendance, including Owen. Three of the four laymen present quite possibly were David Cook, John Patten, Jr., and his son-in-law, Lewis Adler. Cook had arrived in Sonoma in October 1849 and was later referred to as a charter member of the church. Patten had come to Sonoma in 1846 with his wife, Elizabeth, and family. It is quite likely that this meeting took place in the Patten home (This adobe house, known as the Nash-Patten Adobe, still stands at 579 First Street East) which they had bought in 1848 and where they lived for eight years. The first order of business was to establish the Sonoma Circuit of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The 250 square mile circuit included Sonoma, Bodega, the Russian River, three stations in Napa Valley, Vallejo, Benicia, Martinez, and Suisun; it required 200 miles of travel to cover all ten stations. Sonoma was the mother church of North Bay Methodism, as lasting Methodist churches sprang up in Petaluma, Santa Rosa, Napa, Vallejo and elsewhere. The Rev. Samuel D. Simonds was the first preacher to be appointed to the Sonoma circuit. After his arrival in October 1850, he was ill with Panama fever (yellow fever). It took Simonds two or three months to recover. He preached two or three sermons in Sonoma every other Sunday. He organized Sunday Schools at five of the ten stations on the circuit, including Sonoma.

The Rev. James Corwin was appointed in 1851, but he was delayed in arriving by lack of a replacement in Stockton. He was a skilled carpenter who built a church in Stockton before he came to Sonoma. When he did arrive in 1852, he lost no time in making plans for a church building. William G. Lane offered a lot on East Napa Street for the nominal price of $10.” [Source: Sonoma United Methodist Church website]

Stampless Letter

Stampless Letter

Addressed to Mrs. E. S. Owen, San Jose, California

San Francisco [California]
January 21st 1851

Mrs. E. S. Owen
Dear Elizabeth,

I would like to see you and the children. I heard from you today but that is not what I want exactly but I am pleased even to have this privilege. My last visit at home was to me one of pleasure; never did my humble dwelling appear more like home. How strange the union of man and wife. How much they are dependent on each other for happiness. Truly I can say there is no place like home. I meet with kind friends who make me welcome but still it is not home. But what would home be to me without your smiles? O’ it is you that can make my cottage home. Pardon me for what I have written. I trust you feel at home while I feel homeless. I never desired home so much as of late. May the Lord bless you and the children. Give my respects to Grand Pau, and Brother. I want to hear from you. Direct your letters to Sacramento City.

Say to Hannibal I want to know how he is getting on with his farming as I wish to know what to do in the way of seeds. Say to Mr. Coffy that the seeds I sent to the states for are here and will be sent on tomorrow or next day to the embarkedaro in care of Burnett and Co. Ask Brother Morrow about our taxes if they are paid.

I have been to Sonoro since I saw you and also at Stockton. We had a good meeting at Stockton. Bro. Corwin is well and has his parsonage nearly done. I am now at Bro. Taylor’s. Bro. Taylor and family are well. I am here for the purpose of attending to those seeds for the boys as I would not have them disappointed if I can help it. The seeds are here and I feel all is right.

Please say in your next what I can do consistent with my duties to the church and with my limited means to make you more comfortable. I feel in all my plans your interest is first to be consulted. Keep the children at school. Say to John I expect him to be more than a brother if more he could be to the little ones. I shall go from here to Sacramento City this week.

Give my respects to Bro. Morrow. Say to him to be kind to the Widow. Write soon. Yours truly, — Isaac Owen


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