.Graham Hell: A Lying Bigamist’s Comeuppance

Santa Cruz County settler Isaac Graham was involved in political crises, family feuds and scandalous legal cases

In late 1849, Isaac Graham had a surprise visitor to his Santa Cruz Mountain ranch: his full-grown son from his first marriage, Jesse Jones Graham. His appearance sent Graham’s new, younger wife Tillatha Catherine Bennett into a fury.

The builder of Graham Hill Road, which runs from Ocean Street near Highway 1 to Felton’s Covered Bridge, had neglected to inform his wife that he had been previously married or had children from his first marriage.

Shortly after this discovery, Catherine absconded with their children and some of Graham’s gold, dressing like a man to avoid detection on a ship headed for San Francisco. 

The junior Graham pressed Catherine’s family for her whereabouts, igniting a family feud that resulted in Jesse Jones injuring Catherine’s mother and murdering her brother, Dennis Bennett. “I was so tired of being beat … and [found] it impossible to please the old tyrant,” his wife said in the divorce proceedings. 

While the above tale is one of the more sordid stories connected to Isaac Graham, the Santa Cruz pioneer has an outsized influence on early California history and his presence is still felt in the state’s legal system. He was an American rabble-rouser who allegedly attempted to overthrow the Mexican government in California 1840, an event that helped push the United States to take over the territory, and  litigant whose cases shaped the state’s laws. 

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In addition, Graham constructed California’s first water-powered sawmill in the Santa Cruz Mountains, an achievement that will be touched upon in an exhibit by the San Lorenzo Valley Historical Society about the sawmills of the Santa Cruz Mountains titled “A Cut Above the Rest,” which will open in the Grace Episcopal Gallery, 12547 Highway 9 in Boulder Creek, in late June. 

As for the true nature of the man behind the many stories, the truth is more difficult to discern. Thomas Jefferson Farnham—a lawyer, explorer, author, and Graham’s unofficial hype man—wrote about Graham in glowing terms.

 In his 1851 book titled Life, Adventure, and Travel in California, Farnham describes Graham as a “stout, sturdy backwoodsman, of a stamp which exists only on the frontiers of the American states” and a man “who stood up boldly before his kind, conscious of possessing physical and mental powers adequate to any emergency.”

But there were as many people who disparaged Graham’s character as those that praised him. Juan Bautista Alvarado, who served as governor of California during the Mexican era, called the American “an assassin and a bully,” while early pioneer B.D. Wilson wrote that Graham was “a bummer, blowhard, drunkard and notorious liar.” Others called him “a seditious malefactor.” 

A petition filed by Graham’s Santa Cruz Mountain neighbors in the mid 1800s accused him of “perpetually corrupting the peace of our vicinity and for the last six years has not ceased to invite or attempt revolutions, challenges for duels, assassinations, and disobedience of the laws even to the extent of arming himself when summoned.” Upon hearing of Graham’s death, Captain Thomas Fallon reportedly commented that “his mourning period would be brief.” 

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Graham’s life story is so compelling that it would be easy to imagine it as an action packed western or the subject of a comprehensive biography. Yet, the only book long examinations of Graham’s life are Dorothy Allen Hertzog’s 1927 thesis paper for the University of California at Los Angeles titled Isaac Graham: California Pioneer and The Trials of Isaac Graham, a slender, rare book that looks at his legal troubles written by historian Doyce B. Nunis in 1967. Both of the sources proved essential to the following account. 

Born in Botetourt County, Virginia in 1800, Isaac Graham claimed Daniel Boone as a cousin. He also said he was near the frontiersman and folk hero’s bedside when Boone died in 1820. Just three years later, he married a Miss Jones and fathered two sons and two daughters in quick succession. This entanglement would cause great turmoil to his life while living in the Santa Cruz Mountains two and a half decades later. 

At some point, he left his family Back East and headed west. There were rumors that he was fleeing a crime, but what is known is that he became a member of a trapping party that crossed into California sometime in the early 1830s. In 1836, he and a couple of his associates rented land in Natividad—a site just north of current day Salinas—where they constructed a whiskey distillery and a tule reed hut that hosted a parade of unsavory individuals including runaway drunken sailors and ruffians.

During Graham’s time at Natividad, California was a territory known as Alta California that was a part of Mexico. Graham’s movements were closely watched by Mexican authorities, and in 1836, the American was recruited by a 27-year-old California native named Juan Bautista Alvarado to overthrow the rule of the territory by Governor Nicolas Gutiérrez. Graham’s ragtag volunteer group of armed men known as “Los Rifleros Americanos” deposed Gutiérrez so that Alvarado could become governor. Unfortunately, the alliance between Alvarado and Graham would falter, an event that would lead to an international incident referred to as the Graham Affair. 

In a dramatic raid on April 7, 1840, Graham and his Natividad associates were arrested for allegedly plotting to overthrow the Mexican government in California. Graham always pleaded innocent of the plot, so maybe it was a way for Alvarado to rid California of Graham and his cronies. Thomas Larkin, who was a prominent American businessman in nearby Monterey and considered a reliable source, wrote that Graham and his friend Henry Naile were shot at by Mexican authorities and eventually “stabbed in several places” before being hauled by Mexican authorities to the jail in Monterey. 

Graham and 46 other American and British soldiers were then shipped to San Blas, Mexico and marched fifty miles inland to Tepic for trial. While the prisoners were being transported to Mexico, Farnham interviewed a defiant but captured Graham in Santa Barbara. Farnham writes that Graham said the following: “And now I am lassoed like a bear for slaughter or bondage, by the very men whose lives and property myself and friends saved. Well, Graham may live to prime a rifle again! If he does, it will be in California!”

Needless to say, he did get a chance to return to California when he was found innocent of the charges almost a year later. It was due in part to the efforts of the British consul Eustace Barron who lobbied on the behalf of all of the prisoners. Robert Glass Cleland wrote in the July 1914 issue of the Southwestern Historical Quarterly that the incident, now called the Graham Affair, made its way into print and resulted in the merchants of the California coast drawing up a petition that would put a United States Navy ship in the Pacific Ocean to protect American interests. 

Later, it would be one of those U.S. Navy ships that would sail into Monterey Harbor to claim California for the United States in 1846. 

Returning to Monterey in 1841, Graham was a hero to the Americans living in California. He had been sent back to California at the expense of the Mexican government but he no longer had his old stomping grounds in Natividad. Luckily, Graham and his friend Henry Naile found their own Eden in the Santa Cruz Mountains: a plot of land thick with redwoods and bisected by mountain streams that was known as Rancho Zayante. 

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Rancho Zayante was located nine miles north of Santa Cruz on the west side of Zayante Creek near its intersection with the San Lorenzo River. The former ranch includes part of Felton along with the Mount Hermon area. 

Lisa Robinson, president of the board of directors of the San Lorenzo Historical Society, says that the land when Graham settled there was quite bucolic. “It is a landscape that has cattle grazing the land,” she said. “Redwood trees in the background. It’s a rather pastoral scene actually.”

Despite its scenic setting, the ranch would become the site of many epic struggles for Graham. California was still under Mexican rule when the California pioneers settled in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and since Graham and Naile were not Mexican citizens, they were not legally able to purchase land on the California coast. They made an arrangement with an old friend named Joseph L. Majors, who acquired the ranch for Graham, Naile, and a few of their business associates. Disagreements over the ownership and boundaries of the ranch would keep Graham in and out of court until the end of his days. 

Upon settling on the ranch, Graham along with his business partners realized that their land was rich in resources, mainly redwood trees, so they became lumbermen and constructed what was the first water-powered sawmill in California on the property. Later, Graham built a road from the ranch to the harbor below, where the lumber could be shipped to other regions. Part of Graham Hill Road follows the route of this former logging thoroughfare. 

Never one to back down from a confrontation, Graham ended up being a litigant in the first jury trial in California after accusing a neighbor named Carlos Rousillion of taking some of his lumber that was piled on the beach at Santa Cruz and waiting to be shipped. The landmark case took place in Monterey in 1846 just a few months after the United States Navy had taken over the city and placed it under American rule. An American named Walter Colton acted as the judge in the case and wrote that “one third of the jury were Mexicans, one third Californians, and the other third Americans.”

Although Graham won the historic trial, he ended up having to pay $40 for the four witnesses that testified on his behalf. Rousillion was ordered to pay Graham for the mistakenly taken lumber, but in the end, Graham came out $2.71 poorer from the trial. It would be far from his last day in court. 

It was his marital conflict with Tillatha Catherine Bennett that would keep him in courtrooms during 1851 and 1852. Graham eventually found Catherine after her quick departure with their children and his gold in 1849, but the custody of their children was decided in a legal battle. Catherine also filed another suit against her former husband for personal damages and assault.

 One of the issues of the latter case hinged on whether Graham had married Catherine in good faith. He asserted that he believed his first wife and family had been killed by Native Americans while traveling to Texas. It eventually made its way up to the state Supreme Court and became a landmark case that established the legal precedent that children from common law marriages in California are legally legitimate. 

Graham’s later life in the Santa Cruz Mountains was considerably less scandal-laden than his early years. He bought Rancho Punto del Año Nuevo—now Año Nuevo State Park—in 1851. A decade later, Graham believed that he had found a significant silver ore deposit on Rancho Zayante that ended up being nothing more than a financial pitfall. Throughout all of his later years, the old pioneer spent a good many of his days in the courts attempting to prove his claim to Rancho Zayante.

His life ended unexpectedly in San Francisco on November 8th, 1863 while staying at the Niantic Hotel, a former ship that was run aground during the Gold Rush and converted into a lodging establishment. He had just won a court case deciding the acreage of his ranch and stayed in the city to celebrate his victory. Hertzog’s thesis paper simply notes that he “died suddenly from poisoning,” which raises yet another question about this fascinating but enigmatic pioneer’s life.

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It’s a sunny spring afternoon in Santa Cruz’s Evergreen Cemetery, where Traci Bliss and I stand amongst the old gravestones that rise from the verdant ground like chipped teeth. Bliss is the author of Evergreen Cemetery of Santa Cruz, a book about the historic pioneer cemetery written with research assistance from local historian Randall Brown.

We stand over Graham’s gravestone and try to determine the character of one of Santa Cruz’s most notable pioneers. His daughter Annie, who died at just 14-years-old, shares the plot with him. Bliss, who does 90-minute walking tours of the site for the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, points out that Graham’s grave is in one of the prime spots in the cemetery beside the graves of the Imus family, who donated their land for the graveyard. “He wanted to be front and center,” Bliss says of Graham.

Standing among the wildflowers and the graves, Bliss notes that Brown was a devoted expert on Isaac Graham and described him as the most fascinating of all the pre-statehood pioneers.

I think back to the last pages of Hertzog’s thesis where an unexpectedly warm portrait of the former hellraiser comes into focus. She notes that his daughter, Matilda Jane Rice, learned after his father’s death that Graham had a tab at Mr. Elden’s store for anyone who couldn’t afford food. Hertzog herself concludes that “for his quarrelsome and filibustering spirit let him be forgiven—his contributions were more remarkable than his sins were unwholesome.”

The obituary that ran in the Santa Cruz Sentinel after Graham’s death notes a change in the 64-year-old’s character over the years. It ends by stating that “he was of litigious spirit and in his prime had both friends and enemies, but his last years of child-like age had pacified all enmities and he left none but friends behind him.”

Graham was clearly a man whose temperament was tempered by the passing of time, but thankfully he left some damn good stories in his wake. 

Stuart Thornton is a freelance writer and guide at Monterey State Historic Park, where he first learned about the California pioneer Isaac Graham. Based in Seaside, Stuart is the author of the travel guidebooks Moon California Road Trip, Moon Monterey & Carmel, and Moon Coastal California along with co-writing the forthcoming Moon Northern California Road Trips. He has been a staff writer for the Monterey County Weekly and had his work published in a variety of publications including National Geographic Education, Relix Magazine, Via Magazine and more.

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