San Francisco History

The Umbrella That Made History

Helen Crosby Hensley picture With its role covered as the day they were joined together, its blue silk covering unimpaired by age and its carved bone handled shining as brightly as if it had just passed out of the hands of its maker, an old umbrella, an umbrella that figured prominently in one of the most important events in California's early history, has just come into the possession of the State's authorities, and will soon find a place among the interesting relics of pioneer days in the historic old Sutter fort, near Sacramento:

It is an umbrella whose history is closely associated with the admission of California into the Union. Within the folds of its silken canopy were stored the official documents proclaiming California's statehood, during their transmission from Washington to San Francisco by way of Panama, in 1850, and since then the umbrella has been carefully guarded as a cherished relic by Mrs. M. H. Hensley of San Jose, who, as a member of the Bidwell party, bore the welcome news of California's good fortune to San Francisco and participated in the joyous celebration that followed.

Fifty-five years have passed since the steamer Oregon hove in sight of a look out, stationed on top of Telegraph Hill, and signaled to him the anxiously waited news of California's admission. It is a long time ago, the incident of the morning of October 18, 1850, is still fresh in the memory of the California pioneer as is also the celebration, eleven days later, when the populace of San Francisco, then numbering about 25,000, amidst wild excitement, paraded the streets of this city and with the booming of cannon, the waving of flags and vociferous shouting, hailed the new born State.

Mrs. [Helen Crosby] Hensley has lived beyond the exciting period in San Francisco's history, when she was a bella of the promising metropolis of the Golden West. She is now passing into her seventy-fifth year and has begun to realize that her long and happy life is slowly closing. It was this fact that suggested to her the idea of presenting to the State the relic that has been so dear to her. If per plans had been carried out as she had arranged them she would have made the presentation to the California Commission to the Lewis and Clark Exposition on the occasion of the celebration of California day, but, although in Oregon, on a visit to relatives, she was unable to attend the exposition on that day.

The fact that the umbrella was in her charge came to the knowledge of Commissioner Filcher and his associates several days later, and with the view of confirming the interesting story related to them regarding the history of the relic they arranged a pilgrimage to the outskirts of Oregon City, where, in the home of Miss Louise Holmes, a daughter of one of the earliest pioneers of Oregon they met Mrs. Hensley and received from her the blue silk umbrella. Mrs. Hensley, still bright in mind, despite her advanced years, grew reminiscent on that day and recalled many of the exciting events of early San Francisco, and in a womanly way recited her story of how she had become connected with the incidents leading up to the admission of California to the Union.

Mrs. Hensley is the daughter of the late E. C. Crosby, who came to California in 1848. He was a prominent participant in the affairs of San Francisco at that time, and later his services as a loyal citizen to the Union won him special recognition from President Lincoln, who appointed him United States Minister to Guatemala, a position he held for a number of years. Crosby, on coming to California, had left his wife and only daughter behind in New York, with the understanding that they should follow him to San Francisco later, in the event that fortune smiled upon him.

It was shortly after his ventures here had been crowned with success that California was urging Congress to admit her into the Union. A bill to recognize her as a State was being bitterly opposed in Washington, where the feeling between the pro-slavery faction and the abolitionists was most pronounced, and, realizing the need of a representation of forceful men at the national capital to further the interests of the ambitious State, a delegation, among whom was the late General Bidwell, was chosen to proceed to the East and make a fight for California's admission.

Just prior to his departure, General Bidwell was approached by Crosby with a request that he meet his wife and daughter in New York and arrange for their long trip to San Francisco. This General Bidwell did when he reached the East, and having fulfilled this mission he and his associates proceeded on to Washington, where they entered into the fight for the California statehood bill, which, at that time, had received some very discouraging blows from the slave State representatives in Congress, and had been practically pigeonholed by the Senate, where the bitterest of opposition to its adoption had been shown. The Californians were deeply dismayed by the situation and finally decided to return to San Francisco to wait a better opportunity to press their claim.

Returning to New York General Bidwell visited Mrs. Crosby and her daughter to advise them of his early departure for the West. During the conversation the general referred to the poor chances of California receiving favorable recognition from the Thirty-first Congress, and incidentally remarked that one of the strongest opponents to the measure in the Senate was supposed to be Senator Seward of New York, the former Governor of that State.

With Seward's opposition to the bill General Bidwell expressed the belief that it could not be passed until a new Congress had convened. Mrs. Crosby, suddenly advancing toward General Bidwell, asked, as a peculiar smile illuminated her features:

"You don't mean, general, that your fears for the bill center around any possible action on the part of Senator Seward?"

"Yes, madam," responded the general, "and if I could be assured of the friendship of the Senator from your State, I would feel certain that our bill would be passed before the close of the present action."

Mrs. Crosby and Senator Seward had been schoolmates, and had grown up as neighbors in the same town and she felt confident that her influence might be exerted in behalf of California. She so intimated to General Bidwell and then proposed that Senator Seward be invited to her home as a guest of a farewell dinner she had arranged prior to her departure to the West.

History tells the rest; of how Senator Seward announced on the Senate floor his sympathy for Californians and expressed the hope that his colleagues would admit the State unconditionally and at once. In that notable discussion the pro-slavery opponents had concentrated their strength in an effort to defeat the bill, and brilliant oratory flowed from the mouths of some of the most distinguished statesmen the country has had. Days of struggling between the opposing factions in the Senate ended in a victory for California, and on September 9, 1850, President Fillmore affixed his signature to California's statehood charter.

A few days afterward saw the California party, including Mrs. Crosby and her daughter, departing from New York on their way to the Isthmus, exuberant with joy over the success of their mission to Washington. Prior to leaving New York General Bidwell had suggested to Mrs. Crosby and her daughter the advisability of securing heavier clothing in anticipation of the rainy weather they were likely to encounter on the Isthmus trip, and with that good judgment that women generally allow in preparing for a long trip the Crosbys had purchased two umbrellas, little imagining the importance that was to be later attached to one of them.

Immediately after their embarkation General Bidwell had turned over to Mrs. Crosby the various official documents relating to California's statehood that had been received by him in Washington, believing that the precious papers would be in safer keeping in Mrs. Crosby's hands than in those of other members of the party. In turn the papers were handed over to the charge of Miss Crosby by her mother and remained in her custody until they were finally placed in the hands of the Federal officials in this city a month later.

Night after night on the way down the Atlantic coast these papers reposed under the pillow of Miss Crosby and during the day they were as carefully guarded by her as though they were her personal treasure. When the voyage of seven days and nights in an open boat along the Chagres River was undertaken and the heavy rains of the tropics were encountered, Miss Crosby bravely sacrificed her own comfort to shield the papers from the wet by secreting them in the folds of her silk umbrella, which was never raised to shelter her head from the downpour. In this strange receptacle the papers remained during the tedious ride on mule back across the Isthmus to Panama, where the Californians boarded the steamer Oregon for San Francisco.

On the voyage up the coast the Californians agreed that the honor of being the first to land from the steamer and to transfer the valuable papers to the proper authorities rightfully belonged to Miss Crosby as a reward for her faithful care of the documents. The ship was made spank and clean and, at the last moment, lavishly dressed with all her gayly colored bunting preparatory to entering the Golden Gate, beyond which thousands of anxious people were daily turning their eyes toward the summit of Telegraph Hill in the hope of seeing the signal that had been agreed upon.

On October 18, their long nourished hope was realized, when the lookout on the hill signaled the approach of the Oregon, and a few minutes later conveyed the information that General Bidwell and his party were returning with good news. There could be only one bit of good news for those in San Francisco, and that was that California had been granted by Congress her statehood. In ten minutes' time the rapidly growing city was in a state of great excitement, which increased as the Oregon with her guns loudly booming, steamed up the harbor and anchored off the main portion of San Francisco.

Thousands of people greeted the first boat party to land, and the confirmation of the news that California had finally been admitted to the Union as a State was a signal for renewed bursts of enthusiasm. Business came to a standstill and the populace gave way to its joyous feelings and continued the impromptu celebration into the night.

Meanwhile, arrangements had been made for a formal celebration on October 29, when a parade through the principal streets by all the public bodies was followed by a gathering on the plaza, where the Supreme Court Justice, Nathaniel Bennett, delivered an oration and other exercises were performed. In the evening the city was again a scene of excitement. The more fashionable people attended a grand ball, others congregated in the public resorts and cheered and drank to the success of the new State, and thousands paraded up and down the main thoroughfares and shouted as the skies were illuminated by the fireworks and bonfires on Telegraph Hill and Rincon Point.

It is little to be wondered that the woman, now in her seventy-fifth year, can so clearly remember the incidents of that notable occasion, for she was a prominent figure in them. But greater good fortune was in store for the then pretty Miss Crosby. It was not long after that she became the wife of Major S. Jay Hensley, who had journeyed to California in the early 40's. He participated in the Bear Flag affair and was afterward stationed at Sutter Fort, when John Marshall took from the sluices at Sutter Mill the first gold found in California. It is an old story of the historians how Marshall sent the gold to Sutter Fort to be tested by a young army officer who enjoyed a fair knowledge of chemistry, and that the latter pronounced the nuggets to be pure gold. That young officer was Major Hensley, who secured a portion of the newly discovered gold, which later formed the wedding ring placed on the finger of his bride.

The ring is still worn by Mrs. Hensley and on the occasion of her recent meeting with Mr. Filcher in Oregon, she proudly exhibited it to him and related the story connected to it. The interesting tradition attached to it prompted the suggestion by Mr. Filcher that Mrs. Hensley provide a codicil to her will bequeathing the ring to California with the understanding that it be placed among the other relics in old Sutter Fort. This she promised to do, and expressed her pleasure at the thought that the ring will eventually return to the place with which her husband's name is so closely associated in history.

Before the gold ring is given a place among the rapidly accumulating relics in Sutter Fort the old silken umbrella, which is now in the custody of Mr. Filcher at the Palace Hotel, will have been sent to the fort accompanied by a statement of its interesting history that is now being prepared by its temporary custodian. It will also receive a deserved mention in the report of the California Commission to the Lewis and Clark Exposition. A block of wood from the old fort was recently obtained by Mr. Filcher and out of this it is proposed to construct a suitable case for the umbrella, to which the latter will be consigned for future preservation.

Source: San Francisco Call. 31 December 1905. Picture of Mary Helen Crosby Hensley was optimized from the original article by Chris Stern.

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