Blog post by Randi Richardson
Rev. Isaac Owen, missionary of the Methodist Church, arrived in California in September 1849. After passing through Sacramento without stopping, they continued west toward San Francisco. On September 23 they camped in Grass Valley. It was there that Isaac stuck his cane in the soft ground, hung his hat on it and used it as his pulpit for his first sermon in his adopted state.
From Grass Valley the wagons carried the Owen family to Benicia on San Pablo Bay. They were eight in all, Isaac with his wife, five children and a colleague, Rev. James Corwin. It was upon his arrival in Benicia that Isaac learned he had been appointed to Sacramento. The journey that seemed never ending would require him to backtrack over the path he had recently traveled.
Owing to the exhausted condition of his faithful oxen, Isaac decided to ship most of the wagons’ contents up the river to Sacramento by schooner. With much lighter wagons, he could make good time to Sacramento and be on hand to receive the cargo upon the schooner’s arrival. Unfortunately, however, he had no need to hurry.
The boatman in charge of the schooner became inebriated during the course of his journey and in a drunken state ran the vessel on a shoal causing it to capsize. All of the schooner’s contents were lost in the river including those of the Owen family, all the possessions they had hauled safely across 2,000 miles of wilderness. Upon arrival in Sacramento as strangers in a strange land, the family had only the clothes upon their back. They had no home and no money excepting $150.
Isaac found housing in the land of gold and opportunity at a premium. An unfinished room at Sutter’s Fort rented for $100 per month. The Owen family took shelter there but one week. Rather than seeking financial support from the Methodist church conference in order to continue their stay, Mrs. Owen, true to the missionary cause, suggested the family live in a tent until a house could be built. So Isaac went to work and constructed a tent out of the remains of the family’s old wagon covers and a few bed quilts. When completed, the tent measured eight by ten. There the eight resided for about four or five weeks until Isaac could build a church and one-room parsonage from lumber sent from Baltimore. During this time Mrs. Owen supported the family mostly by the proceeds of the milk of two cows brought from Indiana.
On January 11, 1850, in Owen’s first official communication from California, he noted the cost of a few staples: flour, $30-40 per barrel; salt pork, $30-40 per barrel; potatoes, 25-40 cents per pound; butter $1.25-1.50 per pound; milk, $1 per quart. That same quart of milk in today’s dollars would cost $30.49.
By that time of that communication he was living with his family in the parsonage, according to information published in the Danville (IN) Weekly Advertiser on April l6, 1850. Isaac noted that first sermon in Sacramento was preached on October 27, 1849, under an oak tree and 40 people were convinced to join the new church.
A month later Isaac’s youngest child, a two-year-old daughter who was yet a babe in arms when the family left Indiana, became sick and died. Mrs. Owen, worn down by hardship and toil, was so shattered by the death that she never really recovered from the effects of the bereavement. She was a quiet, pious, sensible woman but from the time of her arrival in California was but a wreck physically of what she had been in the days of her sunshine and hope.
Elizabeth Owen died August 19, 1864, and was buried in the Mission City Memorial Park Cemetery. Isaac, missionary of the Methodist Church, died on February 9, 1866, and was buried by the side of his wife and near several of his children. In the years prior to his death, during his sojourn in California, he built a parsonage and a church, established the first church in Stockton, California, was a founding member of the University of the Pacific, was the first “presiding elder” of the California Methodists, was superintendent of Methodist churches and traveled into practically all settled portions of California along trails of coast and mountains. What an illustrious career for a man of simple means with roots in Monroe County, Indiana!
William Taylor, Story of My Life: An Account of What I have Thought and Said and Done in My Ministry of More than 53 years in Christian Lands and Among the Heathen (NY: Hunt & Eaton) 1895, various pages. Viewed online at https://archive.org/details/02281208.emory.edu/page/n3 in 2019.