The Disappearance of Mrs. Strong

Sherwood, or Sherwood Valley if you like, lies sheltered from both the dense fog and high wind that can bedevil the coast of Mendocino County. While it can swelter on summer afternoons, it still rests near enough to reap the benefit of cool night and morning sea breezes wending through to the interior.

The first white settler, Alfred Sherwood, traveled up the coast from San Francisco by way of Bodega in 1853. At Noyo, he heard from the folks native to the area of an inland spot, timbered but also possessing open hills and dale, with soil fertile enough to grow any vegetable.

Others followed Sherwood to his elevated valley and hillside. A man named Samuel Watts settled adjacent to Sherwood's western boundary. Indians killed him in the late 1850s. A decade and a half later later, a sometime deputy sheriff and school teacher named Jeremiah “Doc” Standley took ownership of what once was the Watts property.

In winter months, “the western wall of Sherwood Valley rears a lofty, dark ridge against a cheerless sunset. So massive is the repose of this mighty rampart, and so uniform in shade and close-packed are the redwoods up its face, that it appears bare and almost featureless compared with the opposite mountain... At the extreme upper terminus of Sherwood Valley... the wind blows frostily from snowy peaks and there is a threatening pall of clouds in the northeast... A flock of blackbirds rise from a freshly-plowed field and settle with shrill chatter upon the nearest tree, when the leafless ranches appear suddenly to have sprouted a crop of inky leaves.”

That description came from an 1896 magazine article by Ninetta Wiley Eames. Commonly known as Netta, she is best remembered as the aunt and foster mother of Charmian Kittredge, Jack London's second wife. The connections between Ms. Eames and the author of Call of the Wild run deeper literary trails, but we are here to paint a picture not of the late 19th century writer's world, rather to turn back to a bleaker time in Sherwood Valley.

In the last years of the 1860s, a Mr. and Mrs. Strong, settled on 160 acres on the northern edge of the Sherwood area, more mountainous than the valley to the south; a seven mile walk or ride from Cahto to the north. The Strongs, native to New York, were no youngsters. Rensselaer Strong was in his mid forties and Katy Strong was eight years his senior. They ran both sheep and cattle in the same pasture lands. Mr. Strong kept something of a tavern next to the trail where the stagecoach line passed many a day.

By 1870, the adjoining land had been settled by partners named David Geiger and James Alexander. A native of Virginia, Geiger was forty-five years old when he came to Sherwood from the San Joaquin Valley with his Irish wife, Elizabeth, fifteen years his junior. From a babe in arms to a seven-year-old, three girls and a boy blessed the Geiger household. James Alexander was nearing thirty and a bachelor.

Hard working pioneers, what could go wrong? An account in the Russian River Flag, from January, 1873, starts us down the dark path. “One R. G. Strong, who keeps a kind of road house in that vicinity, was accused of stealing and killing a cow, from the property of Mr. Sherwood. Sherwood and two or three other men, without any warrant or legal authority, but with a goodly array of guns and pistols, went to Strong's house and accused him of the theft. Strong says they treated him very roughly, not even allowing him to go into the house to change his clothes, but compelling him to mount a horse and start with them for Ukiah, instead of going to the nearest Justice of the Peace. Strong accompanied them quietly until they got within four miles of Ukiah where he slipped off his horse and made his escape through the bushes, Sherwood bravely fired on him as he started off, but fortunately without effect. For several days Constable Hughes searched for him, thinking he might be wounded or dead, hut no traces of him could be found until about four days afterwards when Hughes received a message from Strong stating that he was at home and that the Constable could come up and arrest him if he wanted. He was arrested and examined on the 3d instant, Judge Lamar appearing as his counsel. The evidence was circumstantial and jumbled and the defendant was held to appear before the grand jury under a bond of $500, which was immediately given. I have no comment to offer at present, but it appears from all that I can learn that Strong has heretofore borne the reputation of being a hard-working, industrious man who always paid his just debts.”

The grand jury listened to testimony from Sherwood, Geiger, and Alexander that led to a jury trial which ended in a guilty verdict. The judge sentenced Mr. Strong to five years in San Quentin. His supporters claimed that Geiger and Alexander conspired to fabricate evidence because they desired to take possession of the Strongs' land.

By the time the winter of 1873 turned into an even colder 1874, snow lay on the ground at Mrs. Strong's place. Legal work proceeded in Sacramento in an effort to gain a pardon for Mr. Strong from the governor.

On the next to last day of January, 1874, stagecoach driver Ed Sanders stopped at the Strong house. Mrs. Strong asked him to purchase a sack of flour for her. He did so and on his return trip the next day along the Ukiah to Cahto run, Sanders found no one at home at the residence. He left the flour sack on top of a stump not far from the front door. Two days later, on a Monday, he stopped and hailed two or three times, but received no reply. Stopping again on Wednesday with a letter for her, he opened the front door, found no one home, and left the correspondence on a table.

Meanwhile, John Wolf, who lived on the coast road, about eight miles distant from Cahto, arrived at the Strong home, with his Henry rifle in hand, that same afternoon, February 4th. He had last been to visit Mrs. Strong on January 20, chopping and hauling firewood for her then. He, too, found the abode empty. Wolf thought she might have gone on a visit to Ukiah, but found her saddle and bridle behind the door. Curiously, the dress she usually wore about the place lay at the edge of a bed. Since he had been invited to do so before, Wolf built a fire and spent the night in the upstairs bedroom. Seeing portions of the picket fence blown over by the winds, he feared the livestock might escape, so he set to work repairing it over the next few days. On Saturday morning he hailed Sanders from his stage to look at Mrs. Strong's dress and to point out that one of her horses and her dog were nowhere to be found.

On February 9th men walked and rode up from Cahto after hearing about Mrs. Strong's seeming disappearance. They found the house as Sanders and Wolf had, undisturbed yet vacant. One of them encountered Geiger and Alexander not too far distant. They had been the prime movers in an attempt to form a vigilance committee in November, 1873, to counter depredations they claimed were occurring in the vicinity. On the road near the Strong house, in the second week of February, 1874, Geiger and Alexander accused Mrs. Strong of killing as many as twenty-five of their sheep. They also avowed that, as they called her, “the old woman on the mountain” had been seen by them on February 3, days after the stage driver noticed her absence. They further stated that Mrs. Strong had been disguised in men's clothing as she rode away from her place.

At Cahto, Robert White, the pioneer owner of the local hotel and sawmill, sent some of his Indian employees, deemed good trackers, to the mountain to search for Mrs. Strong.

Next time: The search, an icy discovery, a pardon, and a twist that's a mystery to this day.

4 Responses to "The Disappearance of Mrs. Strong"

  1. David Heller   March 13, 2020 at 5:01 pm

    Well written retelling of the story Malcolm!

    Reply
  2. David Heller   July 2, 2020 at 10:44 am

    As is often the case with the Euro-American historical narrative of their conflicts with Native Americans, who did what first is missing. First Ft. Bragg Post commander H.G. wrote a September 17, 1857 report stating that a white man had been killed in Sherwood Valley (Watts) and his house robbed by Indians–“The murdered man seems to have deserved his fate, as he has killed one or more Indians, and has behaved brutally towards them in general…It is said that they were incited to commit the crime by a white man living in the same valley.”

    Reply
  3. David Heller   July 2, 2020 at 2:51 pm

    Lt. Horatio G. Gates, beg pardon for the omission of his last name in my comment.

    Reply
  4. David Heller   July 2, 2020 at 4:35 pm

    Malcolm was kind and gentle enough to correct me in an email that I had again made a mistake, and should have said Lt. Horatio Gates Gibson, commander of a detachment of the 3rd Artillery. On this very “senior” day, let me clarify that I did not frame my comment above appropriately, unless one has access to microfilmed information from NARA, research material for the 1857 period in northern Mendocino county is rather limited. I should have said that the available storyline about Watt’s murder has a backstory and then added my comment. No disrespect to Malcolm intended, as he is quantitatively better history write than I. Thank you for your tolerance.

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