WHEN TENNESSEE BISHOP was 15 years old, he gambled away his shoes in a crap game with the slaves on his father’s farm.
His father beat him.
Several days later, as he was recovering from his bruises, his mother came to him and said, “Tennie, you’re well enough to walk. You’d better leave.”
So goes the story, passed through four generations, of the beginning of the western trek of the man who carried his origins in his name-Tennessee Carter Bishop, born in Carter Co., Tennessee.
WALK HE DID. The year was 1846. The way was west. He worked as a deckhand rafting on the Missouri River for a time and finally joined a wagon train for California. He mined his way down the slope of the Sierra, through Placer County to Sacramento and finally to Sonoma City in 1853. He returned to the mines for a season and then decided to give up gold-seeking for law enforcement, frontier-style.
He took a job as a deputy sheriff in Mendocino, working the sawmill settlements in the Big River area, a challenge even for a tough 22-year-old who had walked across the plains. By 1855 he had traded his badge for a Sonoma County deputy sheriff’s star and was working as a carpenter in the Sonoma Valley between spells of peacekeeping.
According to his granddaughter’s memoirs, he was building a schoolhouse in Glen Ellen, working on the roof, when 15-year-old Eliza Smith, daughter of a Donner Party survivor, came riding up with two other friends. The young women, all ruffles and finery in their sidesaddles, were on a visit to the valley from the Dominican convent, then in Benicia. They reined in at the schoolhouse construction site for a drink from the well.
Tenny Bishop, 25 years old and imbued with a strong sense of southern gallantry and an eye for a pretty girl, eschewed the ladder and leaped 10 feet from the rooftop to land at Eliza’s feet, offering her a drink from the wooden well bucket.
They were married and soon went to homestead a section (160 acres) in the rugged northwestern section of Sonoma County. His claim, known first as the Bishop Ranch, then, presumably as a testimony to the terrain, the Rockpile Ranch. Bishop built the Rockpile Road, using his badge to direct prisoners from the county jail, which raises speculation that the name, and the name of the ranch, may not pertain to the landscape as much as its origins.
For a brief period in the 1860’s, Tennessee came down from the mountains, buying a farm at the head of Dry Creek Valley, part of the land now comprising Warm Springs Dam. In 1865, however, he went back to the hills. An 1880 historian paid tribute to Tennessee in an 1880 biographical sketch: “He is one of the most widely-known and popular citizens of the county, being justly celebrated for his overflowing hospitality … Mr. Bishop’s ranch is one of the best in Sonoma county and he devotes all of his attention to raising sheep.”
THIS WAS NOT PRECISE information. Evidence is that Tennessee did not devote ALL of his attention to raising sheep. Some of it went to raising hell. Tenny Bishop, like most of his neighbors, was a Confederate sympathizer and, from all accounts, a leader in early Sonoma County’s version of the Ku Klux Klan.
J.C. Shipley, a schoolteacher who worked in schools in the northern part of the county in Civil Wars [sic] days, told tales about “the bulk of the population” being “fire-eating, blood-spilling, roistering Southern Democrats who had a chill, frothed at the mouth and gnashed their teeth every time they saw a Lincoln Republican … all Union sympathizers kept their mouths shut, for during the war a thriving band of the Ku Klux Klan operated in this county.”
Tom Hudson was “the Imperial Wizard”. His ranch was south of Healdsburg on the west bank of the river. Tennessee Bishop, the sheep-rancher sheriff (He served two terms as sheriff before his death in 1888 in addition to his long service as a deputy), was generally acknowledged as a leader also.
THE KLAN DOES NOT seem to have been the sinister organization here that it was in the Deep South. Judging from teacher Shipley’s family tales, it was more of a Confederate support group than a terrorist organization.
(Later, closer to our own time, there is some evidence that Sonoma County residents did organize a more sinister Ku Klux Klan group. A newspaper story in 1925 reports on a KKK organizational meeting in an El Verano hall. The reporter did not enter but counted 40 automobiles parked outside. Recollections of people living outside Sonoma County at that time indicate that Santa Rosa was generally regarded as a center for Klan activities in the 1920’s but, unfortunately, the documentation is almost non-existent for that particular chapter in our history.)
But Civil War days, being longer ago and farther away, are easier to discuss. “On nights when they had nothing to do, wrapped in sheets, hooded in pillow cases and mounted on wild horses, they rode about the country, yowling, shouting, howling and cat-calling in the vicinity of homes of people who were known to be out-and-out Union supporters. They never lynched anybody or burned any victims at the stake, but they would shoot off their old cap and ball pistols along with their other demonstrations just to put the fear of God into the few loyal Unionist who dared express themselves.”
BISHOP ACHIEVED CONSIDERABLE notoriety in his time for hiding his fugitive brother, Jack Bishop, in the Rockpile hills. Jack, one of Morgan’s Raiders in the Civil War, came to California and mined along the American River where he shot and killed his claim partner for robbing the sluice box at night. He fled to the protection of his brother and “lurked in the hills” for two months.
“The family story is that Tennessee was running for re-election as sheriff then and actually considered hanging his brother.” says a Bishop great-grandson. “He thought it would be good publicity.”
Other family members say that this is an embellishment added by the great grandson, one Hugh Bishop Codding, who did indeed, punctuate that thought with a chuckle and a “Doesn’t that sound like something I would do?”
THERE ARE OTHER progeny of old Tennessee Bishop in the area. Grace Codding Cummings lives in Santa Rosa as does the late Bruce Codding’s sons, Jim and Dick. An older brother, Earl Codding, lives in Marin.
Hugh Codding, often likened by his mother to Tennessee (“My youngest son looks more like his Grandfather Bishop than any of the family I think,” wrote Ruby Jewell Codding in her memoirs. “The Bishops were wild and wooly in the traditional spirit of the early west.”), is quick to fall back to his ways when the occasion demands. On one of his 1960’s forays into politics, Codding justified his shift from Republican to Democrat by saying “My great granddaddy, who walked across the plains, always said he’d vote for a yaller dog if he was a Democrat.”
In Sonoma County 100 years earlier, that would have been reason enough to elect him.
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