John Vonderlin: First Sawmill in San Mateo County

Story by John Vonderlin
Email John ([email protected])
Hi June,
   The excerpts below aren’t strictly Coastside related, but I find them  interesting for several reasons. One is it that they seem to contradict somewhat the info that is on the historical marker on Portola Rd concerning San Mateo County’s  first sawmill. More interesting to me is what James Weeks mentioned. I’m looking at Tess Black’s book, “Portraits of Pescadero,” and see that four Weeks brothers arrived in San Francisco after a harrowing, six month, 15,000 mile around-the-Horn voyage in 1849. There is no mention of James in the family tree she diagrams, but I’m curious if his earlier arrival along with the Gold Rush that was initiated by the famous Sutter Mill in 1848 was the reason the brothers came to Cali-for-nigh-aaaa. He was literate, and it’s not too unreasonable that he might have sent a glowing letter back home, particularly, as he spent a fair amount of time travelling to the various settlements of the time, and seemed to be enjoying his pioneer life in the redwoods. I’m going to forward this to Ed Weeks and see if he knows anything. 
   While surname frequency has changed somewhat in the United States since the mid 1800’s, Weeks is the 711th most popular surname in the United States these days, with a frequency of .017% or only 17 out of 100,000. I like the odds of some relationship existing, based on those statistics, but can’t say it’s anything more then a coincidence at this point Enjoy. John
 Marker Text
About three hundred feet south of this monument, on the banks of the Alambique Creek, stood San Mateo County’s first saw mill, built by Charles Brown in 1847. About the same time, Dennis Martin was building a second mill on San Francisquito Creek. Both were run by water power and were similar in structure to the famous Sutter’s Mill at Coloma.
1893 History of Coast Counties ofCentral California
It is a disputed question as to whom the honor of being the first to build a 
mill in this county belongs. Some claim it for Dennis Martin, and others 
award it to Charles Brown. Probably the honor should properly be divided 
between them, for in the same year ― 1847 ― Brown put up a mill on the 
Mountain Home Ranch, and Martin built one on San Francisquito Creek. The 
1883 History of San Mateo 
   One of the first things which attracted 
the attention of Americans and other 
foreigners on their arrival in central or 
northern California, when the country was 
under Mexican rule, was the redwood forests 
of the coast counties; and there many of the 
first comers to the province commenced their 
California life. 
   This is especially true of San Mateo 
county. It is believed that the first foreign 
settler in the county (though Joseph Chap- 
man, who came in 1818, was the first in the 
county) was one William Smith, known at 
the time as “Bill, the sawyer.” The late 
James Pease claimed to have deserted from 
a Hudson Bay Company’s ship, the Nereid, 
in Yerba Buena, in 1823 or 1824, and that 
■ he wandered into the redwoods near Wood- 
side, where he found Smith, who was married 
at the time, and lived in a hut with his wife 
and baby, near where John Coppinger after- 
ward built his residence. He was the only 
foreigner there, and had already dug a saw 
pit, felled some trees, cut them into proper 
lengths, and had sawed some lumber, with 
much difficulty. He had to get his Indian 
help from the missions. The arrival of Pease 
was a fortunate event for “Bill, the sawyer,” 
who at once engaged the newcomer as an 
assistant. They cut timber for a number of 
years with whipsaws, and supplied the Cali- 
fornians with such timber as they needed in 
the adobe houses, which were being built 
then on the ranches of that region. 
   They worked at this business alone for 
several years. One day, however, they were 
joined by George Ferguson, who had de- 
serted from a ship at Sausalito, and who, after 
many adventures, arrived in the redwoods. 
Ferguson took up a claim near Smith and 
Pease, and was soon after joined by a fellow- 
seaman named James Weeks. From that 
time on others came, but did not remain per- 
manently, until the arrival of John Coppin- 
ger, a deserter from the British navy, in 1834 
or 1835. He set about felling trees and 
making lumber in a systematic manner, pro- 
curing the aid of Californians, Indians, and 
of foreigners, whenever they could be- found. 
James Weeks was first employed by ” Bill 
the sawyer,” and Ferguson, who was with 
Smith when he came. He stayed there some 
time, learning to whipsaw, and afterward 
went with Ferguson to San Jose, and built 
the first flourmill there. He then returned 
to the redwoods, and with Smith built a saw- 
pit, felled trees, and began to hew lumber for 
sawing, sometimes sleeping in the pit, the 
log cabin of Bill being some distance from 
the work. Smith and Weeks parted when 
Coppinger came, and Weeks joined the latter 
in making shingles and sawing lumber.
He gives the following picture of his 
Arcadian life in the San Mateo redwoods: 
    “I spent a happy life working in the Pul- 
gas redwoods. Sometimes I would go to San 
Jose, Yerba Buena, Santa Clara, Monterey 
or Santa Cruz; was not overburdened with 
constant hard labor. Our time was our own, 
and we knew how to enjoy it. Except the 
house of ‘ Bill, the sawyer,’ and the residence 
of the Soto family, there was not a building 
in the township. The Indians who had not 
been gathered into the fold of the missions, 
had rancherias in the canons amid timber-clad 
mountains. Hill and vale were alike thronged 
with game, while the herds of the ranches 
roamed literally upon a thousand hills.  

” The marsh lands occupied a greater area 
than they do to-day, while the cultivated or 
occupied (pasture) lands were covered with 
wild oats that grew ‘shoulder high with a 

” Thus the land lay for many quiet and 
peaceful years. Immigration began in 1841, 
and increased with each succeeding year, 
compounding in numbers like interest on a 
note of hand in the flush times of the gold 

” In 1844, Dennis Martin arrived in the 
Sacramento valley, and in the following year 
came into San Mateo redwoods, to the Corte 
Madera rancho, then owned by John Cop- 
pinger, James Pease, John Pepper and Charles 
Brown was then there. Brown was occupy- 
ing the Mountain Home ranch. 

” The country was now on the eve of an 
eventful change. It passed under the sov- 
ereignty of the United States in 1846, but 
nothing more than the rumor of the war with 
Mexico reached the shades of the San Mateo 

” It was not so with the discoveiy of gold, 
which took place two years later. That event 
came like an electric shock, and was felt in 
every town, mission, ranch and camp, not 
only in California, but throughout the civil- 
ized world. Dennis Martin and others rushed 
from the peaceful redwoods to the gold pla- 
cers. Martin, contrary to the general rule, 
was successful; and in 1850 he returned and 
located near Searsville, and in the fall of that 
year, he erected a water-power sawmill on 
San Francisquito creek, about three-fourths 
of a mile below Searsville. This was the first 
sawmill ever built in the country. But it 
was only run for a few weeks, when it was 
carried away by a flood. 

” The next mill was built by a man named 
De’ Hart, on the Mountain Home ranch, then 
owned by Charley Brown. De Hart let a 
contract to one Whipple to run the lumber 
to the tail of the mill at $25 per 1,000. 
Whipple soon made money enough to buy 
the mill, selling a large quantity of lumber at 
$75 a 1,000, for which he did not have to pay 
for the hauling at the rate of $25 per 1,000. 
He afterward moved the mill and broke up. 


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