Were Pa, Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe from Illinois?

The late 1950s were the heyday of television westerns, and one of the most popular during that era was “Bonanza,” the tale of fictional Ponderosa Ranch owned by the Cartwright family—father Ben (a widower) and sons Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe.

Was the Cartwright family of "Bonanza" fame based on a 19th Century Illinois family? Could be...

Was the Cartwright family of “Bonanza” fame based on a 19th Century Illinois family? Could be…

Their spread was located in the mountains near Nevada’s Lake Tahoe, where the family earned their living logging, raising cattle and selling supplies to the miners working on the huge silver strike called the Comstock Lode.

Lots of people enjoyed the interaction between the three brothers and their father, and the rest of the cast of characters, from the Chinese cook Hop Sing to Virginia City Sheriff Roy Coffee. So many, in fact, that “Bonanza” was number one in the ratings for four years running. It’s still playing in syndication.

What has interested me for years now is whether or not the saga of the Cartwrights might not have been, in part at least, based on a real-life family from Illinois that emigrated west in the 1840s. The patriarch of that family would have been well known to Kendall County’s pioneer settlers—by reputation if nothing else.

When the son of William and Katherine (Devers) Winters was born in 1794 in Pennsylvania, they named him John Devers Winters, his middle name honoring his mother’s family. Little is known of his early life, but he eventually arrived in Illinois, probably from the South. Former U.S. Secretary of State Elihu B. Washburne writing 30 years after the fact, said he believed Winters came “from either Kentucky or Tennessee,” before settling in northern Illinois with his wife, Elizabeth. Winters’ first son, Theodore, was born in Illinois in 1823. Before Elizabeth’s death, the couple had three sons, Theodore, John D. Junior, and Joseph (Little Joe?), along with two daughters, Amanda and Harriet.

In the 1830s and 1840s, the arrival of the mail stagecoach was an exciting community event, as this illustration from Stage-Coach and Tavern Days by Alice Morse Earle (1902) suggests.

John D. Winters engaged in the boisterous stagecoaching business in Illinois starting in the 1830s. Eventually, the Frink & Walker combine drove him out of the state to California. The arrival of the mail stage in Illinois’ small towns was a notable event, as this illustration from Stage-Coach and Tavern Days by Alice Morse Earle (1902) suggests.

Winters probably settled first in southern or central Illinois, possibly around Peoria. In 1827, Winters moved north to what would eventually become Jo Daviess County with James and John Flack. Shortly thereafter, Winters and Capt. Clack Stone (whose first name is, understandably enough, often incorrectly spelled “Clark”), established a village they named Elizabeth after Winters’ wife (Elizabeth is located on modern U.S. Route 20 a few miles southeast of Galena).

Winters apparently got into the freight, mail, and stagecoach business almost as soon as he arrived in Illinois. From his new base in Elizabeth, he began running coaches from Galena south to Peoria and St. Louis.

Dr. John Taylor Temple initiated stage service from Chicago to Ottawa, and from there to Peoria, in January 1834, using his political connections to obtain the mail contract, a must for any successful stage operator. Winters bought Temple out in the spring of 1837 but then lost the Chicago mail contracts to John Frink and his partners later that year.

Winters subsequently abandoned Chicago for greener pastures elsewhere in the state, concentrating on the Peoria to Galena and other lines in western and northwestern Illinois. Sharp increases in passenger and mail business between Chicago and Galena and other points in Illinois in the early 1840s led to Winters and Frink locking horns one more time. Frink’s coaches sported a wheel brake, a sensible safety device, but Winters denounced it as a “Damn Yankee contrivance,” and said he didn’t want anything holding his horses back. Frink fired back that Winters used old broken down horses. Winters then made a tactical error in advertising that passengers in his coaches traveled “leisurely over the prairies.” Frink replied his stages were pulled by lively horses and that due to their speed, space “was almost annihilated.” In the end, Winters braced Frink in the American House hotel in Galena and the two fought it out.

But Frink and his partner, Martin O. Walker, prevailed. In 1848, Winters gave up, sold out, and moved his family west to California. It turned out to be the first of a couple very fortuitous turns of events. Shortly after arriving in California, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill. Winters and his sons, all skilled teamsters, made their first fortune hauling supplies to the gold fields.

The popular view of wagon trains has them populated by emigrant families moving west to new homes. But the vast majority of the trains heading west from Independence, Mo. and east from California hauled freight, not pioneers.

The popular view of wagon trains has them populated by emigrant families moving west to new homes. But the vast majority of the trains heading west from Independence, Mo. and east from California hauled freight, not pioneers.

Then when gold was discovered in Nevada, the Winters clan started hauling supplies from Placerville, Calif. to the Carson Valley in Nevada. It was about that time that old J.D. decided to take a chance in the mining game and he bought an 18th share in a new mine called the Ophir. It was a fateful decision because the Ophir was one of the mines burrowing into what became known as the Comstock Lode, a silver deposit so huge that it was almost incomprehensible. Wrote Sam Clemmens (who eventually became known as the writer Mark Twain) to his brother from Esmeralda, Nev. in July 1862, “An eighteenth of the Ophir was a fortune to John D. Winters.”

J.D. ended his life as a prominent rancher and businessman. Young J.D. Junior was elected a member of Nevada’s first territorial legislature and even ran for governor. Theodore, born all those years ago in Illinois, went on to found the town of Theodore, Calif., and was a rich man in his own right.

Although forced out of the stage and freight business in Illinois, the Winters family headed west where they were in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to make their fortune in transportation, land, and mining. Just like the Cartwrights (whose name, possibly not so coincidentally, means “wagonmaker”), except the Winters’ story started right here in northern Illinois.

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2 Comments

Filed under Illinois History, Local History, Nostalgia, People in History, Transportation

2 responses to “Were Pa, Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe from Illinois?

  1. Jason Hartung

    Very Interesting Blog. I am the GGG Grandson of John D Winters and Nephew of Joseph & Theodore Winters and we have always been told the show was either inspired by The Family’s History. While the dates referenced of the show and historical timeline of the Family don’t match, the coincidences are many and to make the theory even more creditable…the show was shot on the very land the family once owned.
    Theodore in fact ran for Governor and the town of “Winters” California (not “Theodore” California) is between Sacramento and San Francisco. He was a very prominent Rancher, Miner, Farmer, Politician and Race Horse Breeder. The town was named after him because he paid and financed the track found today, so the tracks would go through Winters and so the stop was called “Winters” and the town developed around it.
    There are certainly lots of stories about the family and one in particular that is my favourite was an altercation between Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and my GGG Grandfather because, at the time, Mark Twain was writing for the newspaper in Virginia City and wrote an unfavourable article about him and it caused a feud and physical altercation of some sort in Virginia City…I’m not sure what happened exactly, but I know he didn’t let him get away with writing about him and not facing him in person.
    Thanks again, enjoyed the article.

    • RAM

      Glad you found it fun to read. I researched John D. Winters when I was working on a monograph on the stagecoach era in our area of Illinois west of Chicago. And the more I read about the Winters family the more it reminded me of “Bonanza.” Glad to know family tradition sort of backs up the story.

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