The Pioneer Burkes

Ever see the sign for Burke Hill south of Ukiah and wonder who Burke was? Here's part of the answer.

Alexander Burke was born in Sparta, Tennessee in the summer of 1813. At age twenty he married eighteen-year-old Susan Shelton. They moved on to Missouri, where six sons and two daughters graced their union before they set out for the golden west of California in 1853. In the Mark West Springs area of Sonoma County another son came into this world that year. Two years later, a final daughter joined the family.

According to the 1880 History of Mendocino County, Alexander Burke was the first person to drive a wagon into the Ukiah Valley. That seems a little late for the first wagon in the area and it wouldn't be the first significant error found in that 1880 “History.” It had the Frost-Coates shootout in Little Lake, that cost six lives, occurring two years prior to the actual bloody event.

Nevertheless, Alexander Burke was a hard worker and shrewd businessman. He acquired more than a thousand acres approximately three miles south of central Ukiah and set up three of his son's working, farming, and ranching those lands as their own.

We move forward to the 1870s and the third son of Alexander Burke. He being John William Burke, known as Bill to family and friends.

On April 7, 1872, Arabella Florence Owen married Bill Burke at her father's Anderson Valley home. Thirty-five-year-old Bill Burke may have arranged the marriage to Arabella, several years his junior, with the bride's father. According to an account in the Sonoma Democrat, Bill Burke paid Arabella's father $500 in gold on the wedding day. Burke was reputedly worth ten to fifteen thousand dollars, a sum that in the early 1870s allowed for a comfortable lifestyle.

At least one newspaper account of the wedding also noted that Burke “made no secret of having a squaw for a wife.” As 1872 rolled closer to 1873, and the fact that Arabella was pregnant became more evident, Bill Burke grew more and more jealous. That jealousy expanded to the extent that he attempted to force Arabella to write out a statement proclaiming that if her child resembled one of Burke's older brothers she would give the child to the brother. She steadfastly refused the demand.

Here, we should fill out the Owen family picture a bit. Arabella's brother, John Benton Owen, in his early twenties, had also married in 1872. Like so many early Mendocino County settlers, the Owen family stemmed from Missouri. John Owen's teenage bride was Harriet “Hattie” Clay, another “Show Me” state native.

In January, 1873, Hattie give birth to a daughter, Evelyn. In February, after a nine and a half month pregnancy, Arabella gave birth to a child as well. Bill Burke would not give up on the notion that someone else was the baby's father. The concept drove him to drink. He drank in downtown Ukiah in the morning and afternoon of Tuesday, February 25th. He traveled south three miles or so to his home, where he consumed more alcohol and confronted his young wife again about the parentage of the child.

The day before, John Owen and his father had hauled a load of fruit to Ukiah. On Tuesday, February 25, Arabella's father visited a Mr. Weller just across Robinson Creek from the Burke abode. John Owen made his way around the creek to call on his sister, who he presumed was going to join him on the journey back to Anderson Valley to show the new child off to the maternal grandmother.

At some point late in the day, during the visit between brother and sister, Bill Burke barged in shouting more accusations at Arabella. John Owen tried to get Burke to cease and desist the verbal assault on his sister to the degree that Arabella, fearing for her brother, pleaded with him to be quiet.

The slightly balding Burke grabbed his pistol and pointed it at John Owen's chest. The latter said, “Bill, for God's sake, don't kill me, I never did you any harm.”

Burke waved the gun in the direction of where the baby lay on blankets. “You know that ain't my child.”

He jabbed the end of the pistol nearly into John Owens clothing. Arabella picked up her baby and made for the back door. John Owen grabbed Bill Burke's gun hand, twisting the weapon away from him. They wrestled and struggled out the same door Arabella had fled through then John broke free with the gun in hand. Arabella raced into Robinson Creek. Holding her infant over head, she waded across water up to her stomach then ran as fast as her soaked clothes allowed to the Weller house.

John Owen headed for the stream too. As he ran, he tossed the pistol aside. Burke turned to where he'd hitched his horse upon his return from town. He also procured a shotgun to replace the discarded pistol. He loaded the weapon, mounted, and charged his horse into the creek. Animal and rider emerged on the other bank with young John Owen, dripping wet from the waist down, only a few strides ahead of them. Burke leveled his weapon, pointed at Owen's back and fired. Much of the shot struck around the right temple, dropping the young man face first on the ground. Burke reined his horse to a halt above the prone body, and as the sun drooped over the western hills before him, fired a second round into the back of the head of John Owen. The force of the shot dislodged most of the scalp on the right side of the victim's head and spun the body onto its back.

Bill Burke returned to his house for a brief while then took off afoot for the hills south and west of Ukiah. Sheriff S.J. Chalfant and Deputy Jeremiah “Doc” Standley made their way to the scene of the crime before heading out in search of the perpetrator. After two days of the manhunt, Standley withdrew his Indian trackers, forming a near circle of lawmen and posse members near the Burke home. Sure enough, on the third day after the fatal shooting, Burke came down out of the chemise and brush to a spot where the lawmen surrounded then captured him, without a fight, only a couple hundred yards from his house.

Burke was transported to the county jail where reports had him reaching between the bars of his cell to play checkers with a deputy. In May, the scenario grew more serious. The threat of a mob removing Burke from jail for a lynching caused his lawyers to request his transport to Sonoma County. This was accomplished in the dead of night, with constables driving a wagon to Cloverdale then tucking Burke onto a train car to Santa Rosa where he was housed in the Sonoma County jail.

A continuance put the trial off until February of 1874. Further legal delays meant that actual court proceedings didn't get under way until May of that year. Alexander Burke reportedly paid the lead lawyer for his son $5,000 for his services. The defense team did not deny that Bill Burke had committed the killing, rather that he was in a diminished state at the time. Physicians from San Francisco were called to attest to Burke's temporary insanity.

To this end, Alexander Burke took to the witness stand, testifying that his son Bill had been engaged rather happily in farming and trading until some time after his marriage. “The first thing I noticed of an unusual character he was walking backward and forward from the house to the granary, rubbing his thumbs and fingers together, with his head thrown to one side. Had been doing so for three or four days when I remarked to him one day, ' What is the matter?' He said, 'There is matter enough, you will see.' I noticed for several days he was restless of nights; would get up two or three times through the night and smoke; this made me pay a little more attention to him. At one time I was burning some logs down in the field ; he came to me and said, “I am a ruined man.' That was about the 15th of November, 1872. I said, 'What is the matter now?' He replied, 'There is enough the matter.' I asked what it was. He said that Doc Stanley [sic] and others were laying a plan to have him arrested and to kill him; that Doc Stanley had come and got him [the defendant] to go up to Ukiah to see a man who bad been arrested and put in jail for stealing sheep, and that it was a plan laid so as to charge him [the defendant] with assisting this man to escape from jail and then have him arrested for it, and that they intended to kill him. I said it was no such thing, that Doc knew better than that, and that it was a notion of his and that Stanley had nothing against him, and that he was certainly going crazy. He would say, 'No, you will see it is true, and that as soon as Court was over and the Grand Jury had found a bill against him that they would arrest him. After Court [and the Grand Jury adjourned] I said, 'The Court is passed, and they have not come to arrest you.' He said they would yet. I then took him up to my sheep ranch, in the mountains. I wanted to get him out of all excitement, and where he would see no one, so I could draw his attention from the 'clique,' as he called it. He frequently said that [prominent Ukiah attorneys] Joe Lamar and McGarvey were at the head of it, and had been employed by these men as counsel for them against [him]. I took him to the sheep ranch with my two youngest boys, as I did not want to go with him alone. There he was up and down all the night smoking; he said he could not sleep as they were intending to kill him without any ifs or ands. There were two small windows in the house, and he asked if there was not some blanket to hang up as blinds, for they could shoot him through the window. Went hunting with him but he would not leave me for he said if they found him out of sight of me they would kill him. Kept him there a week that time, and then sent him home by the boys.'”

The remainder of the elder Burke’s testimony recounted other strange habits of Bill's and more about his hallucination that a conspiracy existed to end his life. Another witness, a long time friend recounted Bill Burke's assertions that others had gained Arabella's attentions, including an accusation against an elderly family friend called Uncle Dan, who was supposedly too intimate with the bride. Bill's older brother, Huston, recounted similar views about the defendant's lapsed mental state in the preceding months. A sister and at least two other brothers presented almost identical testimony, but the prosecution countered with witnesses who'd encountered Bill Burke on February 25, 1873, in Ukiah, and found his words and actions quite normal.

Alexander Burke and most of the defendant's siblings attended all the court proceedings. John Owen's father accompanied Arabella and her one-year-old child through each day of testimony, but after the jury took the case under their consideration on the evening of May 9th, mother and child were seen no more. When the jury announced they had reached a verdict an hour and a half later, Bill Burke returned to the defense table with his father walking right behind. According to a contemporaneous report, “There was a quiet in the room almost painful.”

The elder Burke gazed “hard and earnestly into the faces of the jurymen. He dropped his head upon his breast, he read the verdict in the firm but sorrowful expression of their faces.” Indeed, the verdict was guilty of first degree murder, the sentence, life imprisonment. A reporter from the Sonoma Democrat wrote, “The prisoner dropped his head and remained in that position. His father had not changed position since looking at the jury. The suppressed heaving of his chest alone indicated his deep emotion.” 

The following Tuesday, law enforcement officers transported Bill Burke to San Quentin. In July, Arabella filed for and received a divorce decree. In December, Burke's appeal for a new trial was dismissed by the California State Supreme Court.

However, his father, older brother and friends continued to plead for a pardon from the governor. In July 1878, for example, the very brother Bill had once accused of fathering Arabella's child, James Huston Burke, called “Huse” by some, carried a petition for a pardon for his younger brother to Sacramento. The petition reportedly contained about a thousand signatories.

In 1879, the pressure on Governor Irwin, bore fruit to a degree. The governor commuted Bill Burke's sentence from life imprisonment to ten years. By 1882 John William Burke was back on his property outside of Ukiah, a free man.

Apparently, he lived a relatively quiet if non-productive life from then on. When he died in August, 1896, J.W. Burke was listed in the Board of Supervisors monthly minutes as one of the indigents receiving $10 from the county per month.

Alexander Burke returned to Missouri later that year to visit the locales where he once had lived more than a half century before. The trip lasted several months. He outlived his son, Bill, by a year, succumbing at the age of eighty-four back in Mendocino County.

John Benton Owen's widow, the former Hattie Clay, remarried in September, 1874, to Isaac Crispin. As Mrs. Crispin, Hattie gave birth to six more daughters and two sons over the ensuing twenty-one years.

In August, 1874, three months after Bill Burke's trial ended and one month after her divorce decree, Arabella married Thomas Cox of Ukiah at a ceremony in Bartlett Springs.

(More days of yore in Mendocino County at malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com.)

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