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  • Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine

The Army of the Immortals: Reclaiming William Jacks

We know so little about Napa in the 19th century. By focusing on one man’s life and the documents saved by his family, we can begin to imagine the town that once was. This essay is a beginning of the story of William Jacks: nurseryman, goldsmith, watchmaker, and citizen of early Napa. Born in 1809 in a log house in western New York, by 1830 he completed his apprenticeship as a watchmaker and opened a business. He married Ann Louisa Craft and began a family. Between 1831 and 1841, Ann gave birth to five children.

Along with brothers Hamlet and Pulaski, William Jacks joined the flood of Argonauts to California in 1849 after the discovery of gold. Living briefly in Stockton, he hauled freight to the mines before moving to San Francisco to operate his first jewelry and watch store. He was a partner from 1849-1850 in Jacks and Woodruff on Clay Street. After the death of his partner, the business from 1850-1854 became Jacks and Brothers. In l851, the company made a medal for Henry Clay, acknowledging his efforts for California’s statehood. From Washington D.C. Clay thanked them: “It is most beautiful in design and execution and has commanded the great admiration of many ladies and gentlemen who have inspected it here. Wrought of California gold, a portion of which in its virgin state embedded in quartz is exhibited on its face…I shall preserve it among the most gratifying testimonies I have ever received.”

In l852, William Jacks bought land in Napa (where both his brothers would also settle) and built the first house on the Napa Abajo. An early map shows Levee Street (now Riverside St.) and Grant Street (now Brown St.). His house and nursery were located at the corner of Oak and Grant. He must have travelled back and forth between Napa and San Francisco on The Dolphin, Napa’s first steamboat. Early historian of Napa, C.A. Menefee noted, “Col. W.S. Jacks still preserves the bell of The Dolphin as a relic,” indicating the significance of this water journey in his life.

A public notice proclaimed the opening of a new watch and jewelry store on Main St., where Messrs. Chase and Jacks “will be glad to wait upon customers.” In 1855 Jacks was one of twelve organizers of the First Presbyterian Church. The first service was held that year; he presented a silver communion service set, still used today. His daughter Mary was among the first children to be baptized. Jacks helped hire the first minister of the church, Peter Veeder, whom his niece Amelia married. The Napa Valley reminded Veeder of the part of New York where he grew up: Cecilia Elkington Setty writes, “He often took long hikes on the beautiful Mayacamas Mountain where he would climb to the top of the peak that would be come to be called Mt. Veeder in his honor.”

An 1856 article from the Sacramento Daily Union celebrated the gift “of a box of fruit from the private nursery of Gen. W. S. Jacks, located on a gore on Napa Creek, at Napa City. The contribution included splendid specimens of the Bartlett Pear, Rambo, Newtown Pippin, Nectarines, Peaches of several varieties, Almonds, and Ground Cherries….Upon an arbor 400 feet in length, he has reared grapes of all varieties, and in addition to between 20 and 30 apple trees in full bearing…Apricots, Plums, Cherries, Currants, Gooseberries, Raspberries and Blackberries growing in the greatest profusion. The grounds are handsomely laid out, and kept at a proper degree of moisture by the simple flowing of the tide, it being unnecessary to irrigate at any season of the year. The nursery is conducted by the proprietor merely for recreation— not as a source of profit the fruit being dispensed with a liberal hand to all visitors without charge. The visitor can take a seat on a side porch of the General’s mansion, and throwing a line into the creek, haul in fish ad libitum.”

When Cayetano Juarez offered some of his land grant to the town for a graveyard in 1858, Jacks was chosen Temporary Chairman of Tulocay Cemetery and elected one of the first five Trustees. The following year, his wife Ann died at the age of 46. She was buried in the new cemetery. The Jacks family maintained a long relationship with Tulocay and many of them are also buried there. We hope to learn more about the descendants of William and Ann Jacks.

Jacks married again in 1860, to Abigail Woodruff, daughter of his business partner in San Francisco. Abigail and William lived the rest of their lives, thirty years, in the house on Brown and Oak streets. The Jacks home must have been as elegant as the remaining Victorians on Brown Street. Inside, his botanical library could perhaps be found in a room with bay windows looking on to the river. Did he press the plants onto paper? Did his wife Abigail, put up jam or jelly from the cherry, quince, pomegranate trees that surrounded the house? What was it like to sit out on the porch at night? What birds flew over, what fish leaped up? How dark was the sky? Did his wife play piano? What music might have been heard if somebody rode a boat up the Napa River past their house?

What do we know about Jacks’ life in the 1880s? A magazine praised the enormous Aloe and Yucca plants that he grew (all irrigated by only river water). The Aloe plant reportedly reached a height of 60 feet when it bloomed. In 1882, he received a gift from Peter Veeder who had spent seven years teaching Math and Science at the University in Tokyo. It was a book about the ornamental woods of Japan: “The volume is printed on the thin mulberry paper commonly found on tea boxes and comprises not less than 100 doubled leaves and contains a series of botanical plates, showing the grains of woods and the end surface, each one consisting of a thin veneer not thicker than paper pasted upon the leaves, showing the exact texture and fibre in its natural colors of the wood represented.” He must have given this book pride of place in his botanical library.

William Jacks died in 1890. The local paper mourned, “Another California pioneer has joined the army of the immortals; there is another vacant chair in one of Napa’s quiet homes. The pleasant and cheery voice of Gen. William Sydney Jacks is hushed in death…Like one who folds the mantle of his couch about him and lies down to pleasant dreams he passed peacefully away in his easy chair. In a full age, like as a shock of corn cometh in his season, so he met the summons which all knew was not afar off.”

The year of his death a major flood caused the river to rise. Perhaps the house was lost in this flood. Most of the 19th century in Napa has also been swept away. A marker at Oak and Brown streets could mark the life of William Jacks, could even showcase the bell from The Dolphin.

Danielle Alexander’s home is six blocks away from the Jacks property. Lauren Coodley lived two doors away when her daughter was a baby. Thanks to Heidi Jacks (all unattributed quotes are from the Jacks archive), the research of librarian Stephanie Grohs, the First Presbyterian Church, Tulocay Cemetery, and the Napa Genealogical Society, for assistance in writing this article. For more, see Mount Veeder Resort: A History of Napa County Settlers by Cecelia Setty and Historical and Descriptive Sketch Book of Napa, Solano, and Lake Counties by Campbell Menefee.


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