Underground Echoes: Aaron Rice: The final chapter (1880-1906)

Martinez Gazette Contributors

From our last column, we discovered Aaron had siblings. Although his sister Judy Schlesher (58) was never found, (nor could we find any record of her) his older brother William (62) and family, were located living in McKinney, Collin County, Texas. We additionally found them enumerated in the 1880 Census living in the same location but unfortunately have find no other records. How did William’s family end up in Texas separated from Aaron’s?

As reported earlier, William (the slave-owner) moved to California in 1859 to avoid prosecution for his involvement in the “Bleeding Kansas” conflict with the additional intent of continuing Aaron’s family enslavement. His siblings probably moved to Texas for the same reasons. Zibbah Rice and her family lived in Grayson County in 1858, while Elihu Coffee Rice, a cattle rancher, moved with his family to Texas in 1861. When General Order No. 11 in 1863 ordered southern sympathizers to evacuate their lands, Elihu stayed until 1866. With Aaron’s niece Lucy born 1864 in Texas, it corroborates either could have been responsible for his brother’s family relocation.

When we last left Aaron, he had sold the family farm to Manual Lucas for the necessary monies to file Dilcy’s probate and moved in with his son Nathaniel and new wife Annie residing on Napa’s Main St. From their 1880 and 1881 voter registrations, Aaron continues farming while Nathaniel finds work first as a teamster, then a peddler. Nathaniel and Annie then follow her family to Vallejo where he finds work as a laborer according to his March 16, 1882 registration.

According to deeds of sale recorded by the Napa County Recorder’s Office, Nathaniel acquired two parcels (160 acres and 80 acres) of state school land located around Yountville. The State of California’s land office sold property specifically set aside for new schools. Presumably, Nathaniel’s intent was to build an African-American grade school, while serving as its headmaster and one of its school teachers as well. He sold the 80-acre parcel on January 16, 1886, for $5 ($140 today) to a James E. Francis and George Cuthbert. Hoping to accomplish his dream, he held on to the 160-acre parcel for almost two years before finally giving up and selling it to the same buyers for another $5 on October 22, 1887.

Meantime, Aaron (66) moves to Walnut Creek according to his September 15, 1886 voter registration. He continues farming while living on Louisa Rice’s (William’s widow) ranch. With William’s death from heart failure the year before (November 4, 1885), and the promise of payment for his services, Aaron was willing to work again for his previous slave owner’s family.

Since Judy was never found, the Napa County Tax Collector seizes her portion of Dilcy’s land for delinquent tax owed to the county. The property is sold at auction on May 1, 1888 for $3 ($85 today) to the same Manual Lucas who previously purchased the rest of the Rice family farm. Nathaniel’s (42) May 31, 1888 voter registration records his and Annie’s return to E Napa as a farmer.

Soon after Annie (39) dies on January 11, 1890 from paralysis (stroke), while living in Oakland. Nathaniel finds work there as an expressman after her death. The 1891 Oakland City Directory lists him at 708 4th St., while his September 27, 1892 voter registration records his move to 664 4th Street. Meanwhile, Aaron continues to live and farm on Louisa’s ranch according to his October 19, 1892 voter registration.

By 1893, the Napa AME Church officially closes. Aaron and Nathaniel, with a few surviving trustees\founders sell its property on May 9, for $700 ($19,751 today) to H.H. Briggs. With the last connection to their home gone, Nathaniel continues his wanderlust, finding odd jobs along the way. From his April 8, 1885 voter registration Nathaniel (48) is listed as a minister residing in Hollister, San Benito County. Aaron (75) on the other hand, stays on the Rice Ranch and is now a laborer instead of a farmer, as recorded by his July 8, 1886 voter registration.

From the June 1900 Census, Nathaniel (53) is back in Napa lodging with the Canners while working as a day laborer and Aaron (80) is reduced to working as a servant for Louisa (78), who has become quite frail. This Census is our first official record that Aaron is literate despite his physical ailment preventing him from signing.

On February 6, 1904, Louisa (82) passes at home from unknown causes. Not long after Aaron (86), frail and weak, is left anonymously at the Martinez County Hospital, on July 23, 1905. Eight days later, he dies from “old age” on July 31 and finally laid to rest in the County Cemetery’s (now Alhambra Cemetery) Potter’s Field on August 4, as recorded by his official death certificate.

Since Nathaniel is not listed as Aaron’s informant, chances are great that he received late notification and missed his father’s burial while living in Portland, Oregon. According to city directories, he is recorded working as a laborer living at 175 E Water Ave in 1905, as a teamster living at 1420 Madrona St in 1906, and finally the same living at 423½ Davis St in 1907.

Also from city directories, he then returns to California working as a laborer first living at 1523 C St, Fresno in 1908, then living at 740 Charles St, Santa Rosa in 1909. Next he returns to Oakland as a laborer while living at 805 Harrison St according to his 1910 voter registration and fudges his age listing himself as (54) instead of (64). Two years later he’s an expressman living at 508 Jefferson St, Oakland conferred by his 1912 registration.

Nathaniel’s final record was his death certificate from Seattle, King County, Washington. Wanting absolute proof, we ordered a copy that arrived recently. It records his admittance to the local hospital on May 1, 1917 before dying on July 19, from cirrhosis of the liver and dropsy (edema) at the age of 71. Additionally, it listed him living as a border while working as a peddler in Seattle prior to his death. He is buried July 21, in Seattle’s Lakeview Pioneer Cemetery.

We started this journey after discovering Aaron’s broken headstone and wanting to know who he was. According to its inscription, he died on July 31, 1906, age 87 with “The Faithful” noted under his name. Why the discrepancy between his headstone and death certificate? Perhaps significant time lapsed from Aaron’s death to his headstone’s arrival. Which brings us back to our original questions. Who paid for his headstone? What does “The Faithful” mean? While we may never know definitively, we suspect a member of Louisa’s family, as slave owners commonly used the phrase in reference to former slaves who remained in their family’s employment.

With that, we hope you have enjoyed Aaron Rice and his family’s story as much as we have in its discovery. It’s bittersweet to bring it to its conclusion as they have become family to us. However, as new information comes to light, we will publish updates accordingly. Till then, we have many more stories to share.

We are Judie and Joseph Palmer, two of the founding members of the Martinez Cemetery Preservation Alliance (MCPA) and the Potter’s Field Project. Additionally, Joseph is a Board Director of the Martinez Historical Society (MHS). Both of us have a passion for discovery, history, genealogy, anthropology and archaeology. For more info, please visit our website MartinezCemetery.org. Do you have a Potter’s Field story to tell? We welcome any pictures or information regarding the Alhambra Pioneer Cemetery or its Potter’s Field. Please email us at martinezcemetery@gmail.com or call us at (925) 316-6069.

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