Early Homesteaders in Big Sur – A Free Life, Not Crowded

Master beekeeper Isaac Newton Swetman made the best sage honey on the coast. In this photo, he is examining a frame of brood comb, taken from a hive from his apiary in Garrapata Canyon, circa 1895

John James Swetman was born in Culpeper County, Virginia, in 1811. In late 1830s, he and his wife, Rebecca Osborne, travelled west to Kentucky, where they farmed and raised a family.

Their second son was born in 1846. They named him Isaac Newton Swetnam, after the great British mathematician and physicist.

In 1864, after the death of his mother, eighteen-year-old Isaac Newton Swetnam enlisted in the United States Navy to fight on behalf of the Union in the American Civil War. He served as a landsman (the lowest rank in the U. S. Navy) on the ironclad river gunboat Carondelet, as well as the steamer Great Western, and the side-wheel steamer Grampus.

On Sunday, July 3, 1870, Isaac Newton Swetnam married 21-year-old Ellen Jane Lawson in Wolfe County, Kentucky.

Ellen Jane (left) and Isaac Newton Swetnam

Their first child, a daughter named Zulema Florence, was born in Kentucky on July 7, 1871. When Zulema was five years old, Isaac Swetnam said goodbye to his father, and he and his wife and children moved west to Kansas.

In the early 1880s, Swetnam transported his family overland in a covered wagon, 2,000 miles, to the California coast. In 1885, he and his wife, Ellen Jane – forever after known affectionately as “Ma Swetnam” – staked a claim on the North Fork of Little River (later the Little Sur River). They had a small herd of cattle and he grazed them on the banks of the river. Their Little Sur homestead is the 21st century location of Camp Pico Blanco, an 800-acre Boy Scout camp (which has been closed since the Soberanes Fire, in 2017.)

In the late 1880s, the Swetnam’s moved to Garrapata Canyon, where Issac started an apiary, producing the highest quality sage honey – a variety that resists crystallization. He passed his knowledge of beekeeping on to his son-in-law, John Pfeiffer.


Cabin  in Big Sur belonging to Mary Belle Swetnam, daughter of Isaac and Ma. Photo by Edgar A. Cohen, 1905


The spring-fed waters of the Little Sur River were considered to be the best trout-fishing stream in Monterey County. The May 10, 1893, issue of the Californian reported:

“Daniel O’Connell, the poet and writer for the Wasp and Examiner, and the Hon. James V. Coleman, the millionaire, together with his cook and valet, were down at the Little Sur last weekend trouting. They were very successful in catching the speckled beauties and will repeat the visit in June. Mr. McConnell caught a trout weighing three and a half pounds before the door of Mr. James Keleher, who, with Dr. S.M. Archer, owns the celebrated hot springs. While there they took up their temporary quarters with the urbane bachelor Keleher. There is no charge for water or bathing and plenty of hay for horses can be had on application. For an outing unexcelled in any part of California, the Little Sur River is the place, above all others, for a week’s sport. Game in abundance and good cheer greets everyone, and the “school marm,” too, is made especially happy. The schoolhouse is on the banks of the river and the children and the teacher fish daily and get inspiration from the surroundings of the pellucid [transparent] waters.”

The December 12, 1889, issue of the Californian offers a description of a visit to the Swetnam’s Little River homestead.

“Northward again a short ways and turning to the right up the little canyon we reach the new little home of I.N. Swetnam. We admired very much the place, because it is nicely located, and nearly everything is growing there which is necessary in supporting a family …

“Mr. Swetnam has made marvelous improvements in the short time he has been here. He has half an acre of strawberries, some of them only set out a year ago, and during the last season realized a handsome little profit out of them. They were still bearing abundantly, and from a quality just picked we had the pleasure of tasting their merit, until fully satisfied. When we did wind up, we were only sorry that we had not grown a little more corpulent. On the same field are growing a good section of various fruit trees. They are thriving in appearance and will, no doubt, prove profitable in a short time.”

The Swetnam’s three-story house in Palo Colorado Canyon, built in 1898 by I.N. Swetnam and Al Clark

The Swetnam’s kids attended the Little Sur school with the children of the Moderas, the Bixbys, the Greggs, and the Heaths. Later, Alvin Dani’s kids rode down to the school from their homestead on Dani Ridge.

In 1890, the Swetnam’s bought land at the mouth of Palo Colorado Canyon, near Notley’s Landing, thirteen miles south of Carmel.

The land was previous owned by Esequiél Soberanes. Swetnam hired a local carpenter named Al Clark – the Hermit of the Little Sur – and built a three-story house made out of redwood logs harvested in Palo Colorado Canyon.

It was one of the first hand-hewn redwood log homes in the watershed. The house stood above the old sled road, facing the Pacific Ocean.

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The old Coast Road at Palo Colorado, going north, as seen from the Swetnam residence, at the mouth of the canyon

The July 22, 1903, issue of the Salinas Californian described a visit to the Swetnam’s ranch in Palo Colorado Canyon:

“Leaving Monterey after the noon hour, we soon ascended Carmel Hill and taking a parting look at the crescent Bay, after a short ride we found ourselves at the bank at the Carmel River at a spot within a stone’s throw the antiquated Carmel mission. After a few hours drive along the coast road viewing the restless waters of the broad Pacific, the jagged rocks that adorn the southern coast in the white winged messengers of commerce breaking the monotony of the trip, we arrived at a stopping place for the night. [We] were delighted when we drove up to the well-filled barn of new mown hay and forcibly announced our arrival by their braying, which resound through the red wooded canyons and could be heard to the mountain tops, while from far in the distance came the answer from the official bouy – the guard at Point Sur. After making inquiries as to who was the owner of the beautiful home, the colossal caravansary, three stories high, for a dwelling, the well arranged horse barns, a creamery operated in full blast, and numerous other improvements and conveniences that go to make an ideal home, we were informed that it was Mr. Isaac N. Swetnam’s ranch and that we could have accommodations overnight …

“Now, Mr. Editor, the writer is very find of the good things in this life, but what do you think of a hungry quartette sitting down to a table of venison, rainbow trout, pure cream, creamery butter, home-made biscuits, pickles, coffee, etc., before us  and entertained by the hospitable landlady and her accomplished daughters? Retiring early it is useless to say that the weary travelers were soon in the full possession of Morpheus until awakened by the shrill whistle of Notley Bros. and Co. shingle mill adjoining the Swetnam Ranch, where it is plain to be seen what pluck, energy and enterprise will do – new milling operation, landing, new cottages, store, etc., while trains of burros used to pack the tanbark from the mountains and fine four and six horse teams hauling shingles were to be seen at what is now called Notley’s Landing.”

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Horatio Miller Parmelee was an educated young man from a well-to-do family in New Haven, Connecticut. In 1894, for health reasons, was advised to visit the Big Sur coast to convalesce. There, he lodged with Ike Swetnam’s family at in Palo Colorado Canyon. A romance ensued between Parmelee and the Swetnam’s teenage daughter, Lou Ellen. They were married in Pacific Grove in March of 1895 and they lived for a few months with Isaac and Ma Swetnam in Palo Colorado Canyon.

In September of 1895, the newlyweds traveled on the Canadian Pacific Railroad to New Haven, Connecticut, for their honeymoon and to collect a large inheritance left to Mr. Parmelee by a recently deceased relative.

At Calgary, Ontario, an austere looking older woman boarded the train with bright little girl named Bessie Wright, who was four or five years old. The woman told the Parmelee’s that she was taking the little girl to be placed in an orphan asylum in Winnipeg.

Shortly after this encounter, the child’s guardian clandestinely deboarded the train and disappeared, leaving the orphaned child alone in the railroad car, weeping for her mother. The conductor did not know what to do with the unaccompanied child and, after much discussion, the Parmelee’s offered to take the little girl to the orphanage.

The St. Louis Globe Democrat reported that:

“Many of the passengers regarded the Parmelee’s with suspicion, and every now and then they had to make an explanation that they were not kidnappers … Bessie said her parents had separated and her father had kidnapped her, but afterwards became tired of the burden and abandoned her. Mr. Parmelee, who is well to do, declares that he values his adopted daughter more highly than $19,000 legacy he came east to collect.”

Upon their arrival at the depot in Winnipeg, the Parmelee’s took Bessie to the orphanage, but discovered that there was no authority available to receive the child without a special board meeting. By this time, Lou Ellen and her husband Horatio had become very attached to little Bessie. A few days later, the board met to deliberate on the matter and declined to believe their story. The annoyed Parmelee’s decided to adopt the child, themselves, which the board soon approved.

The Parmelee House at 570 Archer Street in Monterey, photographed in 2002

The Parmelee’s brought Bessie with them to New Haven, where they stayed at the Elliott house for about three weeks. On October 14, 1895, they returned to Monterey by rail, taking the child with them. They bought a lot at 570 Archer Street in Monterey and built their $3,000 home there in 1896 – an historic and iconic Queen Anne style home known today as the Lou Ellen Parmelee House.

In the last months of 1897, Mr. Parmelee and Isaac Newton Swetnam bought up all the parcels in the blocks encompassed by Archer St., Hoffman Ave. Spencer St., and McClellan Ave. and had deeded the entire property to Lou Ellen Parmelee. The last two lots, on which the house was built, were deeded to Lou Ellen by her father, “for love and affection” as a wedding gift. The Parmelees lived together in that house for a decade and had four children.

On November 6, 1906, Horatio filed suit for divorce. The August 2, 1909, issue of the Californian reported:

“Mrs. Lou E. Parmelee has felt constrained to publish a card in a Monterey paper denying that she is forced to be reconciled to her former husband, Horatio M. Parmelee, and saying that she would not under any circumstances accompany him to any place of amusement, social gathering or other function, except on business in the interest of her children’s welfare, for the reason that she has been repeatedly falsified and treated with less respect and kindness in her own town than any other place she has ever been in.”

Four months later, she married 45-year-old Samuel Van Scarlett of Atchison, Missouri. What became of the Parmelee’s adopted daughter Bessie Wright is unknown.

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The schooner Cadenza at Palo Colorado, circa 1900

Both Isaac Swetnam and Sam Trotter worked for the Notley brothers, harvesting tanbark in the mountains around Palo Colorado Canyon, during the industrial boom in Big Sur, during the late 1890s.

Tanbark was used in the tanning of leather. Redwood timber and tanbark stripped from tanoaks were the readily marketable forest products. Some neighbors specialized in hand-hewed fenceposts or railroad ties, which were loaded onto a ship that made stops at Bixby’s, Notley’s and Partington Landing, for transport to Monterey and San Francisco.

At Notley’s Landing, redwood and tanbark were delivered by six-horse wagon teams and loaded onto ships by a steam powered cable system. The waiting ship would moor below the cable by a pulley attached to a rock offshore. The cargo was dropped onto the vessel’s decks from a platform suspended from the cable.

In a matter of decades, the supplies of timber and bark were so depleted that most of the timbermen, like the miners before them, moved on.

The Swetnam’s youngest daughter, Elfrieda

For seven years, Isaac, his wife, and their eight children, lived in that three-story house, before they sold the place to the Notley Brothers. In 1905, Sam Trotter’s family moved in. Later, the house was purchased by Corbett and Electa Grimes and the property remains in the Grimes family.

Isaac and Ma Swetnam were educated people for their time. One report suggests they may have worked as schoolteachers. Her diary indicates that she volunteered at the local school, where she was involved in the hiring and firing of schoolteachers.

Ma Swetnam was a pioneer woman. She’d given birth to twelve children, ten of whom survived to adulthood. The daily affairs of her existence were recorded in her diary: farm chores, children’s exploits, sewing, tracking of income and expenses, correspondence with relatives in Kentucky and England, and the arrival and departures of neighbors and friends.

Ma Swetnam’s gravestone in the Monterey City Cemetery

Ma Swetnam’s diary tells of how one of her daughters had a good job in San Francisco and sent money home to the family. Another daughter was epileptic and required special attention.

The diary records the death of her twenty-three year old son, Private John William Swetnam, who was killed on July 1, 1898, in Santiago de Cuba, in the Spanish American War. It tells how, a few months later, Isaac received a letter informing them, that his father, John, had died, back in Owingsville, Kentucky.

Two excepts of Ma Swetnam’s diary were published in Recipes For Living in Big Sur published by the Big Sur Historical Society (1981):

 March 11, 1898:
“I went with Newton to town today to sign the deed to our range land. I signed it and we received a mortgage and note on the place at 8% interest. We took supper with Florence [her daughter]. She had a splendid supper – roast beef – turnip greens, oyster pie, pumpkin pie, plum pie and salad.”

May 29, 1898:

“Maria and Josie went to Mr. Bixby’s today. I sent Mrs. Bixby a basket of peas and some red cabbage plants, cauliflower plants and flat deck cabbage plants. They return this evening bringing some gooseberries, currents – at a sack of pipe plant. Mr. Swetnam and Joe went to the other place and brought over four year-old heifer to kill – she’s pretty as a picture.

“Notley’s did not get milk today.”

Along with her husband, the older children, and a couple of hired hands, Ma Swetnam ran the family farm, supplying Notley’s Mill and producing butter and honey that Isaac hauled to the market in Monterey, twice a month, in a horse-drawn spring wagon.

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Professor Benjamin Putnam Kurtz was a professor of English Composition at the University of California at Berkeley, in the early 1900s. Kurtz was a member of the Bohemian Club of San Francisco. As a teenager, around the turn of the century, Kurtz spent a summer at Ma Swetnam’s boarding house, which her husband had built during the tanbark and lumber boom.

Decades later, Professor Kurtz confessed that he had stayed on mainly to watch Ma Swetnam eat at mealtime.

Ma Swetnam’s breasts were so large, it gave her backaches.

He reported that her bosom was so big, the old woman had to toss the food from her spoon into her mouth – her arms would not reach over her tremendous breasts. Amazingly, she never missed. Dr. Kurtz commented that it was especially fascinating to watch her eat shelled peas as not a single one landed on the tablecloth.

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Born in 1802, Justus Gilkey’s ancestors were Scotch-Irish. As a teenager, he left his parents’ home in Wayne County, New York and traveled to Monroe, Michigan. There, he married an Englishwoman named Amy Lutz and purchased an 80-acre parcel in Wayne, Michigan. By 1830, Amy and Justus had four children.

Thirty years later, in the late 1850s, the Gilkey family travelled by spring wagon from Lansing, Michigan, to the farming community of Pajaro, in Monterey County, California. Later, they settled in Prundale, where Justus worked as a farmer.

Amy and Justus’ son, John William Wilson Lutz Gilkey was born in Michigan, in 1838. Old timers in Big Sur said that he curled his beard and was, “quite a dandy.” He played the violin.

On October 30,1864, in Boise City Idaho, he married Mary Jane “Polly” Campbell. Their first child, Rebecca Elizabeth born Walla Walla, WA, on Sept. 25, 1866. Everybody called her “Lizzy.”

John Gilkey’s ranch house in Bixby Canyon, built in 1875 and torn down in 1934

Around 1870, John Gilkey met Charles Bixby, in Prunedale, California, where Gilkey’s father, Justus had lived. Charles Bixby, who was in the process of moving down to Big Sur, persuaded Gilkey, and Kenneth and Ed Cunningham, to move down the coast with him. John Gilkey selected a homesteading site in Big Sur’s Mill Creek (later Bixby Creek), where he built a ranch house in 1875.

As soon as his family had moved into the new house, they received a letter from Michigan informing them that Gilkey’s grandmother was close to death. So, he quickly sold the place to Thomas Fussell (a woodsman from Iowa), saddled up old Betty Horse, and packed his spring wagon for the trip back to Michigan, to see his dying grandmother. Departing in the autumn, Gilkey took the southern route. While crossing New Mexico, they found themselves in the middle of a war between the United States Army and the Indians of the southwest.

Gilkey’s daughter, Amy Melissa Gilkey Miller, born in 1873, remembered:

“On the way from Albuquerque, the Indians saw Pop with the wagon. ‘We’re gone,’ he said. Soldiers were just ahead of us but out of sight. Pop had a rifle called ‘Old Sweet Lips.’

” ‘I’ll fight them off as long as I can’ he said. He piled bedding on us children so we would not be hit by arrows.

” ‘Give me my violin,’ he said. He put down the rifle. He played the violin. Pop had beautiful auburn hair. He was playing for dear life. The Indians stopped. They listened. Pop played loud. Finally, they bowed on their horses and off they went. He played loud but it was soft music. It was more music of the soul than anything I’ve ever heard.

“Pop’s music saved us,” Miller said with tears in her eyes.

Five miles later, the Gilkey’s managed to catch up with the brigade of soldiers who had passed by the Gilkey’s wagon earlier, aware of the presence of the Indians, but without offering the travelers any warning.

“How did you escape?” the captain asked.

“No fault of yours,” Gilkey replied with irony.

Later, the Gilkey family returned to Albuquerque during another war between American soldiers and Indigenous people. The Gilkey family got separated. Unable to find her husband and presuming him dead, Polly, borrowed a wagon and horses and singlehandedly transported her children all the way back to the California coast.

But John Gilkey was alive. He’d barely survived another Indian attack by staying in the house where an old woman and her granddaughter had been murdered and scalped.

“We didn’t see father for three years,” Miller recalled. “We thought he was dead. We came back to Monterey. Later we found out that after the Indian attack, father had to hide out. He nearly starved to death. He got ulcers.”

To support the family, Mrs. Gilkey opened a boarding house in Monterey. When her husband returned to California, they move back down the coast to Rocky Creek and later to Big Sur, where they lived in the mountains behind Posts.

Miller explained, “My father played for coast dances. When we lived in Rocky Creek, after we left Mill Creek, used to walk all the way from Rocky Creek to Little [Sur] River for dances. His violin had come across the plains three times.”

John Gilkey never recovered his health after his harrowing experience in New Mexico. For the rest of his life, he was an invalid, as well as an alcoholic. He made his living as a blacksmith. By 1880, Polly and John had four children.

The Saturday, June 8, 1889, issue of the Monterey Cypress reported:

“Mrs. Gilkey, a lady residing down the coast, near the Sur, met with a painful accident on Friday of last week. While riding horseback she became faint and fell to the ground striking a rock and almost severing her right ear. When she applied for medical assistance, gangrene had already set in, and Dr. Hood had to amputate the lobe of the ear.”

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In February 1890, John Gilkey was arrested on the charge of assault to commit rape. The charges were filed by his wife, Polly Gilkey. The victim of the assault was Gilkey’s own daughter, Evalina. The Monterey Cypress reported:

“[John Gilkey] being extraordinarily fond of liquor has, according to the wife’s story became a poor provider, the family having to subsist on what little they produced in their mountain patch and the earnings of the oldest boy, now a young man … Friday last, so Mrs. Gilkey alleges, her 14-year-old daughter Eva went to the cabin in the homestead and was about to return when her father met her at the door and compelled her to return to the house, where he was in the act of assaulting her when Mrs. Gilkey arrived on the scene. The latter states that she was so terror-stricken by the act that she knew not hardly what to do; she was afraid to venture to town to complain against him, believing that he would kill the entire family rather than permit it.”

Polly and her son conspired to get the drunken Mr. Gilkey to leave the property, sending him to collect the son’s wages from as nearby timber camp. As soon as he departed, Polly and her daughter Eva left the house on foot for Monterey, twenty miles away. When Mr. Gilkey returned home and found them gone, he followed them to town on horseback. Hearing his approach on the trail behind them, Mrs. Gilkey and her daughter evaded him by hiding inside a neighbor’s house along the road.

When John Gilkey arrived in Monterey, he, “spread the news that there was trouble in his household; that his wife had another crazy spell on her and was making trouble for him.”

After some time, Gilkey left Monterey, heading back down the old Coast Road, and soon encountered Justice of the Peace, Ernest Michaelis. The newspaper reporter continued:

“Justice Michaelis, who had just passed the mother and daughter coming in, and having learned of the trouble existing the family, he immediately sent a horseman post-haste to inform the two that Gilkey was coming up the road and they had better get out of the way. The horseman met them none too soon for Mrs. Gilkey and daughter scarcely had time to find refuge in a house near the road when Gilkey with a clasp-knife in hand rushed upon the scene and nearly frightened the lady who accompanied Mrs. Gilkey to town, out of her wits. Justice Michaelis had arrived in Monterey and making out the necessary papers for Gilkey’s arrest placed them in the hands of Constable Knapp, who arrested Gilkey and lodged him in jail. The girl corroborated all that has been charged by the mother, but the latter cannot testify against her husband the child’s testimony is all that can be relied upon by the prosecution.”

Some peculiar coincidences surround this case, one being that … Gilkey [has] been frequently accused with being the principal participants [in a] lynching … Another peculiarity is that a brother of Gilkey’s was accused of assaulting his own daughter in Santa Cruz County several years ago [and was] in a quarrel with a physician who testified against him, both drew their pistols and killed each other instantly.

Judge Alexander dismissed the charges, writing, “I think, on the whole, that her evidence is highly improbable, and that no jury would or should convict on it alone … it (the evidence) is not reasonable, probable or satisfactory to my mind and does not convince me of the guilt of the defendant.”

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In July of 1894, John Gilkey was cutting timber for railroad ties on a steep hillside, when a redwood tree he had felled somewhat carelessly, lodged in the fork of an adjoining tree. Although he was able to cut away a section, and as he did so, the balance of weight shifted over the fork and the tree swung around. Before he could get out of the way, the trunk crushed his right shoulder, barely missing his skull, breaking his collar bone.

Three years later, in June of 1897, Gilkey’s wife, Polly, was thrown from “her wagon” while driving over Corral de Tierra. She suffered a concussion of the brain and was unconscious for a day. This was reported in the Californian, however the newspaper did not indicate whether her husband was driving the wagon at the time if the incident.

Plagued by ulcers and chronic pain until the end, John Gilkey died in 1910, at the age of seventy-two, in Salinas, with his beloved violin by his side.

For the remainder of her life Amy Melissa Gilkey Miller kept her father’s violin and the old family powder horn, on which the births of all of the Gilkey children had been inscribed.

“I still see him riding old Betty Horse up the Coast Road,” Miller reminisced, “with his golden auburn hair flowing, and I hear him saying, ‘This is a free life, not crowded…’ ”

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Categories: California History.