John Cochran Holley of Mariposa
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 in 1898.
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 in 1879,
    "[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 use.''
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, 1880, 1882
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



March 23, 2003