Intrepid Isabella! I had no clue she existed until a kind soul at the Lompoc Valley Historical Society (Lompoc, California) gave me a copy of some typewritten notes from the 1920s. Various Lompoc Lyndens were listed, all of whom I recognized, and then, in a corner, was typed: “Isabella Lynden b.? m. (1) Mr. Buxton (2) Mr. Swesey.” Huh? At first I thought it might be a mistake, since other portions of the notes were garbled, but just in case, I started to research. And there she was: A previously undreamed-of aunt to my grandfather Lynden.
Coming to America
The first record I found was a ship’s register: “Isab. Lynden” arriving in New York on May 3, 1861, aboard the SS Adriatic.
The Adriatic could make runs from Galway to New York in “only” six days.
She was listed as 18 years old, and apparently was traveling alone. There were no other Lyndens on the ship. The next name on the register, however, was Anne Morton, also 18 years old. Isabella’s brother Richard married a girl connected to the Morton family, a few years later. Were Anne and Isabella friends? Were they traveling together? I hope so, for both their sakes. And I hope that Anne, at least, was truly 18 — for Isabella almost certainly was not. Later census records reveal that Isabella seemingly lied about her age to get on that ship. As if crossing the Atlantic alone at age eighteen were not extraordinary enough, she evidently left home and struck out for America when she was sixteen or even younger.
Hers was a courage so high it bordered on recklessness.
So many questions! Did her brother Henry, already in San Francisco, write home and encourage Isabella to join him, or did she head out on her own? Did she have her parents’ blessing, or did she run away? Was she unhappy in Ireland, or did she simply long for adventure?
Steerage – Ireland to America. One bunk per person? No, one bunk per family. Plus all their worldly goods.
This voyage was not for the faint of heart. The rich could at least surround themselves with creature comforts while the ship rocked and plunged, but Isabella traveled in steerage. I have read accounts of what it was like to travel in steerage on these 19th century immigrant ships. Most of the tales make your hair stand on end. Women suffered daily harassment at the hands of men who were sometimes of the criminal class — and even men who might be perfectly respectable at home misplaced their moral compass at sea. Unmoored from civilization, traveling singly and separated from family, friends, or anyone who might know them and condemn their conduct, these men felt temporarily liberated from bad behavior’s consequences — especially since they could safely bet on never seeing their victims again, once the ship reached port. Many or most of the women who traveled in steerage, and almost certainly young girls traveling alone, were (according to eyewitness accounts) manhandled regularly. People were also beaten, robbed, and stricken with communicable diseases that swept like wildfire through the cramped, comfortless racks of bunks. And let’s not even talk about seasickness and its inevitable consequences. I hope the floors were mopped on a regular basis.
Of course, the good news is that Isabella survived her six days in hell and arrived in New York — less than a month after the battle of Fort Sumter ushered in the Civil War.
At that time, the transcontinental railroad was a distant dream. Work on it had not even begun. To join her brother Henry in San Francisco, Isabella’s options were few. I hope to do some additional research on this because I would love to know for sure how she did it, and when. Did she spend some time in New York, or elsewhere on the east coast, working to buy her passage? Did she beg a place on a wagon train, and if so, how? Or did she have the funds to immediately take ship again and head south to Panama? Because that was the most common route: Take ship from New York to Panama, cross the isthmus by rail, and board another ship on the other side to travel from Panama to San Francisco.
Imagine how alien New York–let alone Panama!–must have seemed to a teenaged girl from rural Ireland! By the time she crossed the isthmus she must have felt like a bona fide explorer. The tropical heat, the exotic foliage, flowers, and fruit, dark-skinned people in brightly-colored garments, strange food and strange languages–could anything but imagination have prepared her for these experiences?
We next pick up Isabella’s trail in San Francisco, where she is listed as a “domestic” in the 1865 city directory, living in a swanky home on Stockton Street. Sure and ’tis a far cry from Killashee!
Tax records place her older brother Henry in Vallejo, in the North Bay. There were no bridges yet, only steam-powered ferries, so although it's close "as the crow flies," he lived at a two-hour distance from her. Still, once she arrived, did Henry help her? And how the heck did she meet George J. Boomer?
For in San Francisco on September 17, 1866, Isabella Lynden married the City Marshal of Santa Cruz. And her days as a domestic servant were over.
Isabella married George and moved to beautiful, seaside Santa Cruz, with its white sand beaches, fragrant forests, picturesque mountains and cool, sunny, temperate climate. I hope she enjoyed it as much as I would have. George Boomer was another intrepid soul, an energetic immigrant from Nova Scotia who somehow ended up all the way across the continent on the central California coast.
Perhaps it was the redwood forest that brought him, for he identifies himself in census records chiefly as a “lumberman”–although stories of his exploits abound in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, and he seems to have been far more than a lumberman. He served as City Marshal, ticketing folks who drove their horses too rapidly across the San Lorenzo bridge, unearthing counterfeit money, and arresting drunks and suspected arsonists (among, one assumes, other duties). He owned timberland, had a saw mill and lime kilns on his property, did some dairy farming, invested in real estate, partnered with a friend or two to voluntarily rebuild the footbridge across the San Lorenzo River when it washed out in a flood, discovered gold on his property, etc. etc. — George seems to have had his finger in nearly every pie in Santa Cruz. He is counted twice in the 1870 census — once at home with Isabella, and once at a lumber camp out in the redwoods.
It’s terrible to think of the careless destruction of the priceless trees of California's Redwood Forest, irreplaceable for thousands of years–but of course they thought about these things quite differently in the mid-19th century. The Santa Cruz Sentinel reported that “any number of trees can be cut on the Boomer ranch” and that George Boomer received a contract in 1873 to furnish a thousand wharf piles–each one apparently made from a single young redwood tree, “as straight and shapely as a fishing pole.” Another clipping mentions that George managed to turn a single tree into an astonishing number of roof shingles, for a profit of $300. The thought of thousands of redwood trees being cheerfully sacrificed in this way, and for such paltry sums, is appalling–but to 19th century minds, this all represented “progress.”
Santa Cruz at that time was a bustling, up-and-coming town, and Isabella had a bustling, up-and-coming husband. He was eight or ten years older than she, and seems to have been already well established when they married, running several ventures at once including a farm in what was then called “Squabble Hollow” — now “Glen Canyon” by a perfectly understandable vote of the populace — along Boomer Creek, a branch of Branciforte Creek. Place names were still a bit fluid. Blackburn Gulch Road is now Branciforte Road, and Boomer Gulch, Blackburn Gulch, Moses Gulch, and Squabble Hollow seem to have been alternate names for roughly the same area. There was a saw mill on the Boomer property, but the record is a bit confusing; George and/or Harvey may have leased it to a man named Whidden who was married to one of their sisters. Or “Whidden’s Mill” may have been beside, not on, George Boomer’s timberland. At any rate, on January 27, 1868, Isabella gave birth to Lynden Moffett Boomer at “Whidden’s Mill.” (Moffett or Moffat was the maiden name of Isabella’s maternal grandmother.)
There is no town called Whidden’s Mill. Isabella must have actually given birth in a sawmill. The mind boggles. The sawmill included a mess hall, so it was clearly not an open-air affair, but still–not a place you’d want to birth a child, let alone your first child, I would think.
How do I know the saw mill had a mess hall? Another interesting story in the Sentinel, of course–the obituary of “Club Foot Watson,” the Boomers’ “near neighbor.” Club Foot Watson’s young son borrowed a horse from George Boomer at midnight in mid-December, 1867, and rode for the doctor. His efforts were in vain; poor Club Foot perished. As soon as his death was known at the mill, George went to the Watson cabin and invited the orphaned children to come and have breakfast before the mill hands’ meal was cleared. The children reportedly ran to the mill “bonnetless and hatless,” they were so hungry. “Examination revealed the truth, that the only edible in the house was a little codfish.” Poor things.
Isabella presented George with a second son, Wanso John, on May 13, 1870. I thought at first “Wanso” was a nickname for “Alonzo,” but apparently not. In the 1870 census the Boomers lived on a “farm with timberland” in Boomer Gulch/Squabble Hollow, about five miles north of town, out Blackburn Gulch Road. One hopes she gave birth in a proper bedroom this time.
More Lyndens Arrive
While Isabella was pregnant with a third son, Sherman W. in 1872, her eldest brother Richard was suffering financial difficulties back in Ireland. There is some indication, also, that Richard and his wife Annie were traumatized by the loss of their little girl to scarletina in 1871. At any rate, at some point in the latter half of 1872, Richard and Annie left Ireland and joined Isabella and her husband in Santa Cruz.
By June of 1873 the Santa Cruz Sentinel was reporting that George Boomer and Richard Lynden had gone into partnership together to build a two-story brick building on the lot “between the Drennan building and Pacific Ocean House” — the best hotel in town. They were only awaiting the arrival of brick to begin construction, and already had secured tenants. The ground floor would be partially occupied by a drugstore, and upstairs suites had been leased in advance by a lawyer, a doctor, and the owner of the drugstore. Everything was designed to be “first class,” and the building was supposed to be ready for occupancy in the autumn.
On October 26, 1873, Isabella gave birth to the Boomers’ first daughter, Georgina Eleanor. Annie had no need to be envious; she had recently discovered that she was expecting a child as well. And in November of 1873, George Boomer sold a modest lot in Santa Cruz to Richard Lynden for $1,200. Was this for, perhaps, a house in Santa Cruz for Richard and Annie? That would be my guess.
Christmas, 1873 must have been filled with hope and excitement for the future. Richard and Annie had left their children with cousins in Ireland, but Annie was pregnant again; Richard and Annie had just bought property in Santa Cruz; there were Lynden, Wanso, Sherman, and little Georgina to fill the house with joyous noise; and on Christmas Eve, George and Richard officially signed the mortgage papers for that “first class” building on Pacific Avenue, right beside the Pacific Ocean House hotel.
Unfortunately, Richard Lynden did not live to see the fulfillment of these hopes. He died just two months later, in February of 1874, at George and Isabella’s home. He was only 34 years old. I do not know the cause of death. His widow Annie gave birth to Ellen Lynden in Santa Cruz in April and completed some real estate transactions in Santa Cruz and San Francisco in 1874. But the next note I have on her, she is living in Santa Barbara, near her late husband’s brothers.
We are left to imagine Isabella’s emotions; I have no record. But Richard was her oldest brother. They may have been exceptionally close; it was doubtless no accident that he brought his wife to Isabella in Santa Cruz rather than join his brothers in Lompoc. And once Richard and Annie arrived she encouraged a friendship, even a partnership, between Richard and her husband. Did she blame herself, when things went awry?
Isabella gave birth to Florence Ethel on February 4, 1875 (just two weeks before Richard Lynden died), and Rosella H. in January of 1877. But the toll of grief began to mount after she lost her brother. Her mother died in Ireland in 1875. George’s mother died in Canada in June of 1877. In August of that year, Isabella’s father died in Ireland. And in September, we have an echo of what happened with Richard, in the start of a new business venture quickly dimmed by tragedy. Intrepid Isabella started a business, surely a rarity for a married woman of her day...and then the cruel blows fell: The Boomers lost seven year-old Wanso in a diptheria epidemic in late October, 1877. Whooping cough took their toddler Rosella (“Rosie”) less than six months later, in April of 1878.
Small wonder, then, that George and Isabella left Santa Cruz and all its happy, painful memories shortly after losing Rosie. Gold had been discovered in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory. George packed up his family and headed for Lead City, about five miles from Deadwood. (Yes, Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. That Deadwood.)
Our Irish rose thus found herself transplanted to the wild, wild West. This was Indian country, with bitterly cold winters, hot, dusty summers, a constant sense of danger, and scarcely any amenities. Apparently Lead City consisted of a handful of log cabins scattered up a hillside, and mines. Lots of individual mines, until they were bought up and consolidated by a couple of big operations. In 1876 they had held a dance in Lead City for the first time, and seven women attended–the entire female population of Lead City. Primitive? You betcha. I would have rushed back to California at the earliest opportunity, but Isabella stuck it out even when her marriage fell apart and horror visited her life.
There are hints in the record that George went to pieces after Rosie’s death. Not only do we have him taking off–alone, at first–for the Dakota Territory, but the formerly active, civic-minded citizen who served as marshal, pitched in to rebuild a washed-out footbridge, and appears to have been prosperous, well-liked, and something of a leader, eventually skipped town leaving “some small debts” unpaid, and apparently, as the Victorians would say, “took to drink.” And reports are that George Boomer, despite being a perfectly nice guy when sober, was mean and abusive when drunk. (That description of him, by the way, is from his eldest son, Lynden.)
The Lynden/Boomer business venture in Santa Cruz was foreclosed upon in 1880. From that, we may surmise that payments were not kept up … or, perhaps, that it was clear that Richard was dead and George was in Deadwood–so neither was able to appear in court and defend the case. According to the Sentinel, George sold his “place” (probably the farm and timberland on which he and Isabella lived) to a man named James Craig, but I do not know what happened to the lot on Pacific Avenue. It certainly appears that either George and Richard’s building was completed before the Boomers left town, or whoever stepped in next built from the same or similar plans. Images on hotel fliers show the two-story brick building standing beside it just as they planned it.
Meanwhile, back in Lead City, Isabella kicked George out sometime prior to the census in 1880, although she still listed herself as “married.” George was living in Frank Abt’s hotel and working in a quartz mill; she and the children were living together elsewhere. I don’t know where because the census taker did not note the street, and there may not have even been a house number. In late October, George checked into Wentworth House on Main Street in Deadwood. So he was still living apart from his family.
In March of 1881, Isabella Boomer filed a complaint that George was “threatening to take her life.” A few months later, she was granted a divorce. This news raised my eyebrows, because divorce was not only rare, it was scandalous. The fact that she was granted the divorce indicates that George was found to be at fault.
The summer of 1881 was tumultuous. Isabella formally sued for divorce on July 26, and George was arrested in Deadwood for being drunk and disorderly. I do not know which event occurred first. The mayor of Deadwood ordered George’s case dismissed in early August. Isabella promptly sold “one half lot 25, block 4, Lead City” to a man named Alonzo Gray. Was this her home? If so, where did she go? The transaction took place on August 14, and on August 19 her youngest child, six year-old Florence, temporarily became a ward of the court and was taken in by Judge William Healy.
Having sold her house, apparently, why didn’t she immediately return to coastal California, where her brothers lived? Could she not get Florence back? Or was she in love? In my opinion, you’d have to be pretty deeply in love to linger in a place like this. But of course, as a native Californian–and lacking Isabella’s adventurous spirit–I may be biased. Isabella married John F. Swesey in Crook City, Dakota, in 1881.
And now the tale gets really interesting. Did I mention that this was the Wild West? When Isabella remarried, George evidently lost what was left of his mental health and became a stalker, harassing and threatening the couple, vowing to get Isabella back. John Swesey and his bride moved several times to get away from him, eventually homesteading on Box Elder Creek near Black Hawk (a few miles northwest of Rapid City). George followed, and continued to threaten the couple–even tacking a drawing of a coffin on their front door. John and Isabella were so frightened that they began sleeping at the Uncle Sam Mine, where John worked. And then, tragically, this: George Boomer was shot to death and John Swesey was arrested for his murder.
There seems to be no doubt that Swesey did it. George got drunk in Rapid City and went from neighbor to neighbor, asking where the Sweseys were and vowing that either John Swesey or himself would die that night. When he got to the Swesey homestead, Isabella went out and pleaded with him to leave. John had a double-barrelled rifle and fired a warning shot over George's head, but George still wouldn't leave and actually grabbed Isabella and seemingly tried to drag her away. John then fired a second shot that killed George.
Chances were good that he would be acquitted on the grounds of self-defense or defense of his wife, but the court still held him for trial.
Bail was set at $2,000 — a hefty sum in those days, and John Swesey could not make bail. From August of 1885 to mid-October he languished in jail, becoming more and more depressed, and reportedly haunted by nightmares about George Boomer. He seems to have been a great favorite with the sheriff and his deputy, who did everything they could to make John’s stay tolerable, including letting him spend the majority of his time out of his cell, in the “large room” where he took his meals. John Swesey was evidently quite a sympathetic figure, and I’m at a loss to know why they jailed him at all, since the evidence seems so clear (from a ChicagoTribune article and other stories in the Black Hills Journal) that he was acting in self-defense and did not intend to kill George Boomer. His first shot–corroborated by witnesses–was a warning shot over George’s head. And the second shot, John swore was accidental. I believe him, because the bullet could easily have hit Isabella instead.
At any rate, on October 15, 1885, John Swesey broke out of that jail in Rapid City. The authorities swore he got away clean and they couldn’t find him…but I do wonder how hard they looked. At first they thought he must have had accomplices, but then they found a loose board in the ceiling and a hole on the other side of it, and realized he climbed up onto the roof to get away.
My favorite part of this story is that before he escaped, this unlikely desperado took the time and trouble to write a note to his friend, Sheriff Burleigh. I will transcribe it in its entirety, as reproduced in a front page story in the Black Hills Journal, October 22, 1885:
DEAR SIR — I have become so despondent that I cannot stand it in jail any longer. I leave this note as the only surety that I have got in God’s world that if I am not captured I will return when court sits. I do not want to get away from the law but merely want liberty until court time. I am perfectly willing to be tried. I thank you for the kind treatment I have received from you during my confinement. Yours, JOHN F. SWESEY.
P.S. — I will state again and give my sacred word of honor that if not taken I will return when court sits. J.F.S.
And now, maddeningly, I lose the thread of the tale. What happened next? Did the court, in fact, “sit” in November? Did John Swesey keep his word and return for his trial, or was he never heard from again? Did he show up on Isabella’s doorstep after he escaped, thereby making her an accessory to his crime if she failed to turn him in? Did she, in fact, turn him in? Did the posse find him and recapture him prior to trial? What happened?!
I don’t know.
Isabella, of course, is the central figure in my story, and I find her next living in Rapid City in 1890 with children in school. The fact that she is heading the household suggests that John Swesey is not around. Dead? Or vanished? I don’t believe she divorced him, because she goes by “Isabella Swesey” for the remainder of her days … despite the fact that she married John Buxton at the Baptist parsonage in Rapid City on April 20, 1893.
So far, all I have discovered about John Buxton is that he was born in 1843 and was a corporal in the Union Army during the Civil War. He appears in Isabella’s life, marries her, and fades right back out of the story, taking his surname with him. Did he die? Was their marriage bigamous? Why does Isabella, after (finally) returning to California, call herself Isabella Swesey? Are the typewritten notes that started me down this rabbit hole correct, if incomplete, and she remarried John Swesey before he died? (“(1) Mr. Buxton (2) Mr. Swesey”)
The novelist in me imagines John Swesey breaking out of that jail and then having second thoughts about returning for trial. Doubtless someone pointed out to him that breaking out of jail is, itself, a crime, so even if he was acquitted on the murder charge–which he almost certainly would be–they might jail him again for busting out, and keep a closer watch on him this time. If the thought of jail was unbearable, which it seemingly was, he might very well skip. Isabella, then, might marry after he’s been gone for seven years and “presumed dead.” John then sees the notice of her marriage in the papers and comes back out of hiding to end her Buxton marriage. Wouldn’t that make a good story? It covers all the known facts!
I can only imagine what all this meant to Isabella. Having her first marriage deteriorate into drunkenness and abuse is bad enough, especially if George was still a decent human being when sober. I know from experience the second-guessing that goes on in that situation, and the eternal hope that he will stop drinking and everything will be fine. To finally give up that hope and divorce him, even though it meant facing life alone, rearing children, with the stigma of divorce branding the family–that, in itself, took courage. But then marrying a man who seems to have been a genuinely nice guy, and witnessing Mr. Nice Guy shoot her first husband–the father of her children–right in front of her, with the bullet apparently whistling right past her head, and George dying in her arms … it must have been the stuff of nightmares. Let alone losing John to jail and whatever awaited him after. How many sleepless nights did that cost her? What was the attitude of the community? Was she surrounded by sympathetic friends, or cold condemnation? Generally speaking, such sordid situations were presumed to be the woman’s fault, back in the day. And at least one newspaper account reports that the sentiments of the populace were “divided” as to whether Swesey or Boomer were the more sympathetic figure.
Note: In January of 1893, Isabella “made final proof of homestead” on 160 acres of land along Box Elder Creek in Black Hawk. I’m told by the kind folks at the Rapid City Historical Society that “made final proof” means that she now owns it. Since her name is on it, not John Swesey’s, and yet it seems to be the same parcel identified earlier as John Swesey’s ranch, this suggests pretty strongly that John is either dead or believed to be dead at this time. She made sure the land was in her name before she married John Buxton in April, which strikes me as a pretty smart move.
So in the early 1890s we have her homesteading on 160 acres in South Dakota, and remarrying. Why, after all this time, and after establishing herself as a property holder–no mean feat, especially for a woman– does she leave the Black Hills and return to California? I would have done it at any number of points up until then, but by 1893 she finally seems to be in position to put down roots. Nevertheless, I have a record of her oldest son, Lynden Boomer, registering to vote in Santa Barbara County in 1898. I have no such record for Isabella due to her gender. But is it safe to assume that the family moved to California in 1897 or 1898? Why? Did John Swesey actually return from wherever he went, and did he then die, sending Isabella back to California in grief?
Such are the frustrations of historical research.
Isabella turns up in Santa Barbara in the 1900 census as “Isabella Swesey, widow,” living in what seems to be a large, comfortable house just a five-minute walk from her brother John, who lives the next street over. She is living with two of her children, Lynden and Florence, and several lodgers. So she seems to be running a boarding house.
At last! Among the family treasures, have I unearthed a photo of Isabella? Gentle reader, I present you my evidence: I found the unidentified image I cropped and posted here as Isabella's profile picture in an album belonging to her niece, Margarette Thornton. The surrounding photographs date to 1911. In the 1910 census, Isabella was running another boarding house, this one in Porterville, California. Her house number is not listed on the census form, but other house numbers on Oak Street are–leaving it all but certain that her address was between 440 and 613 Oak Street. The number of the house in the picture, 609, would work. Isabella would be somewhere around 70 years old at this time. And the white-haired lady in the photo definitely resembles Eliza Lynden Thompson, Isabella’s sister, of whom I have confirmed photographs. Her occupation at this time, running a boarding house, would lend itself to the wearing of a crisp white apron, would it not? So I believe the image is of Isabella in 1911. That's my story and I'm sticking to it!
In the 1910 census Isabella was living with Lynden and Sherman Boomer and a few lodgers and was listed as the owner of the house. This portion of Oak Street no longer exists, unfortunately; it has been replaced with a neighborhood park. In the 1920 census, she was sharing a home on Fourth Street in Porterville with her daughter Georgina.
A little digression about Georgina: In 1907 she married an Englishman, Edwin Leslie Bride, and spent much or most of World War I in London. Her husband served as an officer in the Royal Army Service Corps. Edwin and “Georgie” lived in Maida Vale, a very posh section of London. Interestingly, one of Edwin’s brothers was Harold Sidney Bride, who was a wireless operator on the Titanic. Harold was washed off the ship when the boat deck flooded, but managed to climb aboard one of the lifeboats and survive. I do not yet know what happened to Georgina and Lt. Bride’s marriage, but he stayed on in England and she returned to California in 1919. She remained “Georgina Bride” for the rest of her life.
Isabella died on November 11, 1926 and is buried in Porterville in the Home of Peace Cemetery, as is her son, Sherman. And, by the way — if the birth date on her gravestone is correct, she was fourteen when she crossed the ocean alone to start a new life in America.
You may see Isabella's story illustrated with photographs, etc., here: Lynden Family History - Isabella
|Date of Birth||1844 (circa)|
|Date of Death||11th Nov 1926|