Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Francis Ziba Branch:

Francis Ziba Branch was born in Scipio,  New York, on July 24, 1802.  His grandfathers were both veterans of the Revolutionary War.  Branch’s father died when he was just a toddler, and because his mother was too poor to support the family, the children were split between relatives for upbringing. In 1820, at age 18, Francis became a sailor out of Buffalo, New York, working Great Lakes boats for about five years.  

Early in 1830 Branch found himself in St. Louis where he joined a pack train, possibly led by Ceran St. Vrain, headed to Santa Fe.  (In 1830, St. Vrain partnered with the Bent Brothers to form the Bent, St. Vrain & Company.)  The pack train, consisting of 150 men and 82 wagons, traveled along the Santa Fe Trail, past the future site of Bent’s Fort, which wouldn’t be constructed until 1833.  

In the fall of 1832 Branch joined a fur brigade being formed by William Wolfskill in Santa Fe.  Wolfskill was planning to trap beaver in the Tulare Valley of California.  The trip to California  was filled with hardships.  In November the country through which the men were passing was covered with deep snow, and for nine grueling days the party broke trail through snow two to three feet deep.  Few beaver were present to be trapped, and no game was found.  The brigade soon exhausted their supplies, living first on the four oxen they had left Santa Fe with, followed by the mules and horses. To the trappers surprise, when they arrived on the lower Colorado River, they were treated kindly by the Mojave Indians, who by this time had a reputation for hostility (See Jedediah Smith).  The party was able to trade knives and red cloth for bread, corn, dried pumpkins and beans. 

The Wolfskill party arrived in the San Bernardino area by February of 1831.  Although these men had endured extreme hardship along the trail the path they took would eventually become known as the “Old Spanish Trail” for travel and trade between Taos/Santa Fe to Los Angeles.

In Los Angeles the Wolfskill party disbanded.  The destitute men were left to return to Santa Fe or remain in California as they choose.  Branch had little more than his rifle and some personal equipment.  With these he was able to successfully hunt sea otter, the furs of which commanded a high price in the trade with China.  He was able to earn a comfortable living hunting otter for three years.  With sea otter becoming scarce, he became a merchant in Santa Barbara for a short period of time.  

In 1835 he married Manuela Carlon with whom he would eventually have eleven children.  In 1836, he joined the Catholic Church, probably becoming a Mexican citizen at this time.

On April 6, 1837, Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado granted Branch the Rancho Santa Manuela property in the San Luis Obispo area, at this time an expanse of wilderness.  He was highly successful as a rancher, and at one time owned 37,000 acres of land and herds of cattle that peaked at 20,000 head.  In addition to being a successful businessman, Branch was a civic-minded member of his community.  He was involved in local and County politics, and allowed the use of a ranch house for a schoolhouse. 

Francis Branch died of bronchitis at his home on May 8, 1874 at the age of 71.

To learn more about Francis Ziba Branch see the following references:

The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Vol. 2, edited by LeRoy R Hafen, published 1965 by the Arthur H Clark Company.

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