contributed by; Carol Lackey
The family patriarch, James
Cunningham, was born on May 12, 1824 in Dungiven, Ireland to James Cunningham
Sr. and his wife Mary.
James Sr. was a color sergeant in the
English army, stationed in the West Indies. He served courageously in some of
the most famous battles of his day and exemplified bravery by being the last
man to leave the island of Martiniue when it was given up to the French. He
escaped by wading up to his neck to reach safety in a boat.
James Jr. long dreamed of being a
proficient navigator and owner of ocean vessels, and at age 16 he ran away to
the sea. For four years he apprenticed as a sailor and at age 19 he was made
second mate of the barque John Horrocks. A mere few months later he was made
first mate of the ship Lancaster.
It was while on the Lancaster that James
had a terrible accident, breaking his collarbone and a shoulder,
incapacitating him for six months. He did not let misfortune undermine his
goals however, and used his recovery time to attend navigation school.
He studied diligently, successfully
passed his examination and was made captain of the ship Cyclops.
For the next 11 years, James sailed to
many ports, rounded Capt Horn three times and covered two-thirds of the globe
twice. While on his journeys he heard about the discovery of gold in
California and tried in vain to get to America. He even offered to work his
way as an ordinary seaman, to no avail.
Finally, in the fall of 1850, his
fortunes turned when he was selected as chief officer of the clipper ship
Canada, which was making for the New World. After a long and tempestuous
voyage, James arrived in San Francisco in February of 1851.
Upon arrival, the entire ship's crew
deserted and James was left without any of the eight months pay that was due
him. He was in a new country virtually penniless, but friends soon came to his
assistance, providing him with money and the chance for adventure.
With four other men, James headed to the
gold mines along the Yuba River.
He spent nearly two years mining before
receiving an invitation from a cousin, William Laughlin, who was living in
James made the trip on horseback and
promptly staked a claim on Mariposa Creek. He went back briefly to the mines
he had been working, and when he returned to Mariposa Creek, he found that
strangers had jumped his claim.
James was not easily bowled over,
however, and the actions of the claim jumpers left him free to pursue the
purchase of the land that is now the Cunningham ranch. He bought the land and
turned it into a ranch with horses, cattle, barley, wheat and hay. An observer
described the ranch as "the prettiest place I ever saw".
Two adobe houses sat in a grove of
cottonwood trees, and the land sloped gently to a winding creek.
On one side rose the foothills. On the
other stretched the plains covered with acres of wildflowers.
James was working his land one day when
a wagon train from Missouri rolled by. He looked up and saw a beautiful girl
with flaming red, curly hair riding horseback. He vowed then and there that
one day he would marry that girl. Her name was Sophronia Turner. (She would be
married twice before she married James Cunningham, 1st to Henry Helm (she had
a son and daughter by Henry, the son died as a baby) then to James Henderson,
both husbands would die young.)