Tangled Web at Ends of the Shafter Dynasty (part 3)

Whereas the Shafter family dates back to about 1730, they are recent compared to the Webb family who arrived in America on the Mayflower. There are many branches of the Webb family, including one who helped found Yale and one who commanded a regiment in 1776. Col. Charles Webb’s sister, Mary, married a man named Theron Howard. Our story begins with his grandson, Charles Webb Howard, apparently his namesake.

Charles Webb Howard was born in northern Vermont, in 1831, but his family at one point in time had lived in Rockingham, Vermont. Rockingham is very close to where Oscar Shafter lived when his first child, Emma, was born in 1842. Charles and Emma would marry in 1861 but they needed to get to California, first.

Emma Shafter Moves to California

When Emma was born, Oscar was already a successful lawyer having graduated from Harvard in 1836. His brother, who graduated from Yale, was currently serving in the Vermont state legislature where Oscar would also serve in 1852. Oscar had just built a fabulous octagonal home in Wilmington, Vermont. Life was good.

“Wilmington Roundhouse” built in 1840. Photo by Jack & June Schmidt 2011

In 1854, at the invitation of a Vermont friend, Shafter came to California and practiced law in San Francisco. He was renowned as a real estate attorney and expert in quieting title (resolving property disputes).

His wife, Sarah, and two daughters, Alice and Emma, traveled across the Isthmus of Panama — since the canal was still decades away — and up the coast to San Francisco, arriving there in November of 1855. They lived in rented homes for several years until Emma married Charles in 1861 — who was Oscar’s business partner by this time. Oscar purchased property in Oakland where he served on the City Council and built a new home in 1862.

Emma Shafter, Jack Mason Museum

In 1863, Oscar Shafter was elected as a justice on the California Supreme Court. But in December 1867, he resigned due to ill health.

Charles Webb Howard Moves to California

In 1852, Charles decided to move from Vermont to Galveston, Texas, for his health. He stopped in New Orleans and then in January 1853, set out for California. His course would be toward Nicaragua then across the Isthmus of Panama.

Along the way, he contracted “Panama Fever” (malaria). He boarded the steamer Independence but around 4am on February 14th, it was shipwrecked off Magdalena Bay in Baja California. Soon he boarded the whaler Meteor and continued on toward San Francisco.

When his ship was off Half Moon Bay and almost in sight of the Golden Gate it caught fire. The flames spread so rapidly that everyone abandoned ship in the lifeboats as best they could. Howard was still confined to his cabin because of malaria. The delirium had subsided, but the fever had not, and he was very weak.

As he had told the tale many times afterward, he crawled to the deck, seized a rope, and began to descend down the side of the ship. Halfway down, the rope burned in two and he fell into the ocean. Almost too weak to swim, he fought the waves and kept himself afloat until he was rescued.

Landing in San Francisco desperately sick on account of the fever and without funds, he was taken care of by the Massachusetts Society of California. He went to work as a clerk, among other pursuits until he went out of business. At this point, the timing is unclear, he began working with Oscar and his brother James Shafter — each owning one-third of the Point Reyes Dairy Ranch. Through this association, he became quite wealthy.

Point Reyes, Photo by Ronan Furuta on Unsplash

The Shafter-Howard Marriage

On December 22, 1861, Emma Shafter married Charles Webb Howard, eleven years her senior. Charles is described as a business associate of Oscar.

The situation seems less than romantic. They lived in rented houses, including when their first two children were born. In 1866, they built a home in Oakland on property that Oscar had given them next door to his.

Her father became ill in 1867, retired from the Court, so Emma became more involved in taking care of him. She traveled with him to Europe, where he hoped his health would improve but he died in Florence, Italy, in 1873.

She stayed in Dresden, Germany, for several years while Charles continued working in California. By 1874, he had become president of the Spring Valley Water Company. Spring Valley provided water for all of San Francisco and has a questionable history.

As the City itself had almost no sources of water within its limits, Spring Valley obtain water rights all across the state through dubious methods — including the Alameda Creek watershed where I currently live.

1925, San Francisco Water, Internet Archive Book Images

Their relationship is described as sometimes idyllic and other times fraught with tension. Eventually, in 1890, they separated but did not divorce.

The Double-Cross

It is evident that Charles Webb Howard was a very wealthy man. His success seems linked to his business relationship with Oscar Shafter and the connections that made available to him. His marriage to Oscar’s daughter appears calculated. The rift between them also affected the rest of the family who evidently sided with Charles.

In 1892 Charles incorporated the Howard Investment Company with himself as President and directors including Sarah (Emma’s mother) and four of her sisters, Mary Orr, Sarah Goodrich, Bertha and Eva Shafter. Not only was Emma excluded, she wasn’t even aware of it. This remained a family secret until Charles died in 1908.

At the time of incorporation, Charles held 4,995 of the 5,000 shares. The other five shares were issued to the directors but structured so that he would ultimately benefit from them. He conveyed essentially all of his assets to the company, then valued at about $500,000 (about $15M in today’s dollars). He then sheltered his shares in the Central Trust Company.

When he died, his estate — outside of the trust — was valued at $131.07. This is when Emma found out.

She sued and ultimately won half of the whole estate. As they had not divorced, it was ruled community property. Suits would continue for many years, even after her own death.

Emma Shafter’s Achievements

Despite whatever caused the estrangements, she was an accomplished woman on her own.

She was a lifetime member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. In 1900 she founded the Women’s Agricultural and Horticultural Union of California (WAHU). In 1903 she was elected vice president of the Alameda County Political Equality Society and later attended the California Suffragist Conference. In 1915 she was named Honorary Vice President of the Women’s Board for the Panama Pacific Exposition.

“A woman of unusual ability and strong character … with the greatest interest in everything connected with the advancement of women and particularly in the club and educational work of the state … to her ‘Cooperation’ was the watchword.”

The historians at the Jack Mason Museum, in West Marin County, CA, wrote a fantastic article on Those Shafter Women. It follows the wives and children, most of whom led perfectly normal lives. Aside from the prosperous “El Quito” olive orchard near San Jose, CA, there’s nothing dynastic. Oscar and Sarah had 11 children, but only five survived to adulthood (all daughters).




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Todd Nelson

Todd Nelson

Engineer, sustainability, indigenous history, analog electronics history and anything that supports my belief that bikes can save the world.

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