Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Americus Napoleon Poe: impressions of a recluse

I recently enjoyed reading Recollections of Leonard Lake: Interviews with Local Residents, 1979– 1983. The document was recorded and transcribed by Sandra Marshall. I found it at which also has wonderful photos of the area. Looks like a great place to live.

And that’s exactly what great uncle Americus Napoleon Poe Jr (1860-1941) decided to do.  

Americus was named after his uncle who lived 1827 to 1906. His other uncle was Alonzo Marion Poe who I’ve written about before.  ‘Americus Jr’, as he became known, was a son of the third and youngest of those brothers Alexander Hamilton Poe (1832- c 1904) who migrated from Missouri to California with his young family in about 1873.

The older Americus and his brothers Alonzo and Alexander were the children of William and Margaret Poe. The younger Americus had a brother named after is more famous uncle Alonzo. So, there was a bit of name recycling going on… And it made things a bit confusing when I first tried to work out who was who.

Sandra tells me that although Poe’s Cabin is mentioned in Recollections it no longer exists. However, he did plant lots of quince and figs, apples, walnuts and almonds among other things. The quinces have survived well despite major neglect and they make ‘good fruit leather’.

Recollections of Leonard Lake contains some fascinating accounts of residents’ memories of Americus. These bring some life the little we know of him and also show some interesting connections with what we know of other relatives including my father.

I’ve speculated about why William named the first Americus Napoleon and it’s interesting to read what the man himself said about his name. Even more interesting that his neighbours felt it was probably true.

So, here are extracts from Recollections.

Dr William A Boyle and Helen Boyle interviewed in San Francisco, 20 May 1979

Dr Boyle: “I was born in San Rafael in 1887... When I was a youngster we spent our summers up there at the lake. We usually went up in the latter part of June and stayed until the Fall, coming down usually pretty well before Thanksgiving. We would start off from San Rafael in the summer and take the train to Ukiah—at that time that was as far as it went. In Ukiah, we would rent a livery team to take us on to the lake which was about a three-hour trip. We did lots of walking on those trips. You know, when my mother and father first went up to the place the train only went as far as Cloverdale and they took a livery team on to Ukiah, then another in, to the lake.

“At the lake we kept one horse to do all the work and we used to rent a cow and take her in with us from Ukiah so that we’d always have plenty of milk. …

“In my day, the only near neighbours that we had were the Priors who were about three miles below and then Poe up on that hill above.”

Sandy: “Tell me about him.”

Dr Boyle: “Well, his name was Americus Napoleon Poe, A. N. Poe. He was quite dark. I wondered in later years if he had some Italian in him. But, he never had any friends. He had a wife and she lived there all alone. He didn’t believe in the education of women and he wouldn’t take any newspapers or anything. He did have a horse who was pretty near starved most of the time, and he also had a dog. But he was a very good hunter, and incidentally, he used to act as [a] guide to people who wanted to hunt around there. He made some money that way. Then, he used to come around to our place when Una was there alone. They got to be pretty good friends and she used to give him food, I think."

The description of Americus is interesting. His dark complexion was a feature of the Poe boys for a few generations; my father and some of his brothers had these features and were ‘mistaken’ for being Italian, Spanish or Jewish depending on how the conversation went. We also have ‘independent verification’ of Americus’ appearance. The Great Register of California listed voters with a brief physical description.

So, while we don’t have a photo of him we have the ‘official’ description of him from the 1892 Register.

Americus was 30 years of age at the time and the Register shows his height, complexion, eye colour and hair colour.

His wife’s name was Mary and she was some 10 years younger than him. They apparently never had any children. We hear more about her below. I can’t find anything more of her after she ‘disappeared’ though it sounds like she married again.

Dr Boyle continues…

“One-time Poe didn’t show up for three or four days and Una [his sister] went out, walked up to his place, and she found him lying dead out in the field and the little dog standing guard. Oh, was he ever. For a long time, she had trouble coaxing the dog to let her approach. Then she called the Sheriff and they took the body down. Although Poe was rather cruel to dogs, that dog really stood by him in the end, guarding his body.”

Sandy: “Was that after his wife had died?”

Dr Boyle: “Oh no, she left him, finally. Seems to me she married somebody at Staleys, but I couldn’t be sure. I was rather surprised, because she was not a very good-looking or attractive woman but, she did get married again after she left Poe.

“Poe was a very good shot. He used to shoot deer and sometimes bring them around and sell them to us."

Sandy: “Can you describe where he lived?”

Dr Boyle: “There’s a little hill there that we used to call ‘Snake Hill.’ “There were always a lot of snakes, gopher and water snakes. You went on from there, on up through the woods and finally came up to a bare area, on the top, where Poe lived. His place was always very bare looking."

Sandy: “The place that they call ‘Poe’s Cabin’ is—you know where the big house is, then the barn. If you keep going up from there, way up on the top of the ridge from there is a little cabin built in the shape of a cross. It’s very old and beginning to fall down now, but that’s known as Poe’s Cabin…”

Hazel Putnam, interviewed in Reeves Canyon, 29 June 1979

Hazel: “I used to visit Americus Poe in his house. His front room was so loaded with books, periodicals… he was a very learned man. His kitchen, well, one of the last times I was in it the wooden floor had completely worn out and he was walking on hard dirt. He had never replaced the floor in the kitchen area.

“He avoided ever riding in any sort of vehicle, a buggy or an automobile because he had crushed ribs and it would be too painful. But, he could walk and cover ground in an amazing way. He travelled on foot every place he went. He could just tear out and cover the ground like a deer.”

Interestingly, Poe was granted a patent in 1899 for his invention of a 'felly shield' for bicycles. It looks like others quickly improved on his patent and there is no record that he ever made any money from it.

Sandy: “His house was where Rick’s is now?”

Hazel: “Just about—it was a little closer. It was under the walnut trees. Well, not under them really, no, because at that time the walnut trees were very tiny. Not too long before he died they had grown up far enough so that he could put a rope up on a limb and hang up the things that he would kill so that they would be cooling and sort of refrigerated by the cool wind that blows up the canyon.

“I don’t know if anyone has told you what a fabulous garden he had. You know where those figs are, just below the house? He had the spring down amongst them developed to irrigate the trees. He had terraces, like they have in Europe, on that whole hillside. He had the stream irrigating back and forth. Those figs are Smyrnas. The only place they grow is in Italy and the only reason that they grow there and not anywhere else is that it takes a very special insect to get into the little low end of the fig. Of course, the fig, the whole meaty fig is the blossom. He sent to Europe and imported some of those insects. He used to can those figs and he gave some of them to me. The figs were so large that four was all that he could get into a quart jar. They were fabulous.”

Sandy: “What other things did he grow?”

Hazel: “He had plums, and then he crossed apricots and plums and called them plumcots. He would cross everything that had similar pits, seeds. He had everything under the sun crossed there.”

Sandy: “Did he have vegetables as well?”

Hazel: “A few, not as many. It was mostly fruits and berries. He would grow enough fruits and vegetables for himself and he had a lot of potatoes so he could boil them up.'

“He was a very slight man, small and sharp. He disliked and distrusted almost everyone who came into the canyon, though he liked Una particularly and he liked me. He didn’t trust my father too much but he did like me and then he got to liking my husband and he liked Harry Jr. as a little kid growing up. He really was a very interesting person and the claim is that he was a descendant of Edgar Allen Poe, which he probably was."

The story of the family being connected to Poe is persistent but as yet unproven. Perhaps if more Poe men did a Y-DNA test we could resolve that one for sure and solve several other mysteries about family connections! If you're interested in learning more please see this link.

“At one time he had a wife who lived up there with him. I do not ever remember her but then when I was very young there were stories, hush-hush type as if they suspected . . . well, she disappeared. They suspected murder but it was a supposition. Possibly she just ran away. I don’t know."

Herb Singley, interviewed in Ukiah, California 20 July 1979

This continues the conversation regarding Americus Napoleon Poe and his death.

Herb: “Poe had a little pet dog and he had a lot of hogs there and, a body, they’ll eat it if they can, if they can get to it. This little dog was darn near starved to death but he stayed there with that body and kept those hogs from bothering it.

“Una found a home for that dog down in San Rafael somewhere. Although she didn’t think too much of that old guy she did spend quite a good bit of time just seeing that he was all right.”

Sandy: “Tell me, do you know anything about the little cabin that is built in a cross shape, seems to face North, South, East and West.”

Herb: “I’ll tell you that didn’t belong to the Leonard Lake property in those days. It belonged to a fellow by the name of Doc Dollin. He built it up there as a kind of hunting cabin, although it was never used for anything."

Sandy: “Do you happen to know who designed it?”

Herb: “Oh, I think it was old man Poe himself. He was an interesting character, old Poe. Of French descent and first cousin to Napoleon Bonaparte [1769-1821].”

Sandy: “So that’s how he got his name.”

Herb: “Americus Napoleon Poe, yup, that’s the way it was. He was a particular guy but also a mining engineer and was pretty good at land surveying.”

Americus’ uncle Alonzo was, amongst other things, a land surveyor platting the town of Whatcom in Washington state. It may well have been a long-standing occupation of the family. Though family stories claim the original form of the surname was ‘De La Poe’, or something similar, I’ve never heard a suggestion that there is a connection to Bonaparte. 

I think this is a little bit of self-amusement which Americus perhaps learned from Americus senior. 

Or perhaps he adapted an from his reading of Edgar Allan Poe. The Spectacles is a short comedy tale published in 1844. The narrator, 22-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte Froissart, changes his last name to the plebian ‘Simpson’ as a requirement to inherit a large sum from a distant cousin…  

Dorothea Hardy and Esther Clifton, interviewed in Palo Alto, California, 14 July 1979

Dorothea: “I keep thinking about Poe’s place because when he died, that spring when Una found him in the field, well, the children and I hiked north up to his cabin and that cabin was just as he left it, not a hair moved. His hat was on the rack, his clothes, the dirty dishes in the sink. He put up canned jellies, fruits and such and those were all around and his gun in the corner.

“Nobody went up to do anything about his belongings. They were not important and nobody’d been in to see after anything.”  

Sandy: “You remember Poe alive? You knew him?”

Dorothea: “Oh yes, he came down a couple of times to visit, all dressed up. A spry little man, and really quite elegant…”

Doralinda ‘Doris’ Little, interviewed in Ukiah, California, 7 March 1983

Doris: “I also knew the woman whose father had the Cross Cabin built.”

Sandy: “Who was that?”

Doris: “Her name was Dollin, Irene Dollin. She loved Poe’s place. Her father was a dentist. They didn’t go up to the lake but to Poe’s, you know, up to the Upper Ranch and Doc Dollin would rent from Mr Poe the privilege of hunting around his place and he would take Irene with him. Irene has since passed away, she would probably be in her nineties now. She came up to Orr Springs Inn one time, and she tried to walk into the lake but she lost her way.”

Sandy: “You mean to see it again?”

Doris: “Yes, she wanted to see it again you know and she tried to hike in and all. Well, when she couldn’t make it someone told her to get in touch with Naman and me and she did. She told us that she had been a young girl when she used to go up there to the Poe Place, as it was called then, and she wanted to know if she could come in and just see it again. Of course, we welcomed her.

“She came and we went by jeep up top-side, to the Cross Cabin, because that used to belong to her father. Mr Poe built that for her dad. It was a hunting stand, that is why they have the arms on it so that he could see each way across, watch for game. It’s built in a cruciform so that the hunter could see each direction, from which any deer might be coming.

“Now Mr Poe brought all of the timber for that cabin up along the back, up the Jack Smith Trail, because there was no road up there then. Mr Dakin is the one who had that road put in.”

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