Gaye LeBaron: The checkered past of two who sought Sonoma County’s refuge

“What was your name in the ’States?

“Was it Thompson or Johnson or Bates?

“Did you murder your wife

“And fly for your life?

“Say, what was your name in the ’States?”

This old Gold Rush ditty that speaks volumes of California’s separation from the real world in the 1840s and ’50s has been stuck in my head ever since I started reviewing the interesting life of Gen. Otho Hinton, for whom a one-block street in downtown Santa Rosa was once named. And just might be again.

There is an embryo “movement” to restore the name Hinton Avenue to the street-to-be on the east side of Old Courthouse Square.

The name originally honored Hinton, who was credited in the earliest editions of the Sonoma Democrat with beautifying the plaza, which was little more than an empty field in the center of the growing town when the sort-of general, and ersatz attorney arrived here, paid workers to landscape - clear the weeds and lay some paths - in the new town’s gathering place.

Hinton, who ran unsuccessfully for county judge in 1859, was apparently no great shakes as a lawyer, but he had enough money to hire a corps of plaza workers and to help retire a fire department debt. He is credited with aiding the creation of the Rural Cemetery on a makeshift burial ground behind the short-lived town of Franklin.

Hinton is credited with so many things that he didn’t do; with being so many places he wasn’t that it’s hard to pin the guy down. And even harder to understand how he got a street named for him in the first place.

Collectors of golden nuggets of Santa Rosa history, like Jeff Elliott, who is restoring the gracious old Comstock House on Mendocino Avenue and writing a blog called “I See By the Newspapers … ,” has mined the internet for information on Gen. Hinton and learned many things, some of which are true - although it is sometimes difficult to determine which ones.

We know he came in 1858 and died here in Santa Rosa in 1865. At least that’s what it says on his tombstone in the Rural Cemetery.

But, earlier in the 1850s, when he was living in the Oregon Territory, married to a woman who was not the same wife as the one he still had in Ohio, he changed his name to Samuel Gordon.

He was Gen. Otho Hinton again when he came to Santa Rosa to open an office as an attorney-at-law. He may or may not have been an actual attorney. He may or may not have been a general, although his tombstone credits him with the rank of brigadier in the Ohio Militia. It’s pretty clear, however, that he did rob the U.S. mails in Ohio, not once but several times. He was apprehended, charged, released on bail and fled, was captured, fled again, and finished his checkered career committing acts of philanthropy in Santa Rosa.

Only his good deeds were recorded in the weekly Democrat. And, in the 1870s, when the city fathers were casting about for what to name that one-block street, they remembered Hinton and his service to the town. They didn’t have a clue about who he had been “in the ’States.”

(If you want to try your hand at figuring him out, check Elliott’s blog.)

Now that street is coming back, along with the one on the western edge of the square, which was Exchange Avenue, why I don’t know. The name came 12 years earlier than the founding of the Exchange Bank.

My suspicion is that the businesses on both streets prefer to keep their current Old Courthouse Square addresses, rather than reverting to Hinton and Exchange avenues.

It’s expensive to change an address. Think about the notifications to the government, to utilities, to customers. Think about stationery and business cards and brochures and, omigawd, Yelp and Google Maps and all that jazz. And, since there will be a hotel and several eating and drinking establishments, the Courthouse Square addresses would tell travelers where to find them in this metropolis.

It will be up to the City Council to make that decision.

It may seem like a slam dunk, knowing what we know now, to skip old Hinton in favor of the easier way.

But I’m not so sure that his checkered past doesn’t make “The General” more interesting. We westerners seem to love the bad boys. And it does speak to that early California that offered refuge for scoundrels and sang songs about them.

There are plenty of other wastrels, scofflaws and fugitives in our county’s colorful past, you may be sure. William Rogers was one more verse for the old song.

Rogers was chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in the 1870s. He lived a leisurely and enviable life in the most impressive house in Sonoma Valley. Temelec Hall, the stone, Southern plantation-style mansion, was built by Bear Flagger Granville Swift after he struck it rich in the Mother Lode. (It is now the centerpiece for a senior living community, also called Temelec, on Arnold Drive.)

Rogers used the honorific “Colonel,” which was fairly common among transplanted Southerners in those days, so people assumed he was a rich plantation owner who had skipped out on the Civil War, emigrating westward. Rogers never said that was the case. But he never said it wasn’t either.

He was living the good life, was elected supervisor in 1872 and was serving his second term as chairman when the President Grant matter came up.

In 1879, former President Grant and his wife, Julia, undertook a 2½-year world tour, which included the coast of California.

On this local leg of the journey, the Grants sought overnight accommodations in Sonoma and, to the presidential scouting party, Rogers’ home, where he was known to entertain lavishly and often, seemed a natural.

But when they called upon him, well in advance of the proposed visit, Rogers was not delighted. He hemmed and hawed, said he didn’t have spare rooms and couldn’t possibly entertain Grant and his entourage.

The word “surprised” doesn’t do justice to what the scouts experienced. “Suspicious” was the more operative term.

The resulting investigation revealed what Rogers hoped the refusal would avoid. They found that he wasn’t Rogers at all but rather an accused swindler, arsonist and murderer (of 16 people), named William Kissane.

More than 25 years earlier Kissane had been accused of being been one of a consortium of arsonists who collected insurance on trumped-up cargo claims after torching riverboats on the Ohio River.

The fire on the steamer “Martha Washington” killed 16 passengers. Kissane and his cohorts were arrested - and acquitted.

Later, charged with a bank swindle in New York, he was sent to prison for nine months but, with help from influential friends, he was pardoned and left the country, joining General William Walker’s infamous expedition to Nicaragua in 1856.

While Kissane was looting cathedrals and pillaging villages in Central America with Walker’s men, he was, apparently, homesick.

He reportedly planted a story in the press announcing his death in a skirmish with Nicaraguans, changed his name to Rogers and came west to the Sonoma Valley.

His ruse worked like a charm for 16 years - until President Grant came calling.

That’s the way the story is told by the late pioneer journalist Edmond Coblentz, who wrote the “Tale of Temelec Hall” when he and his wife, Lolita, owned the estate in the mid-1900s. Eight months after Grant’s courier visited, federal authorities showed up at Rogers’ front door asking for William Kissane.

He told them to go to the end of the lane “by the little house” and wait. He would send them Kissane.

They honored his request and he theirs. Shortly, he went down the lane and surrendered.

He was held to answer on multiple charges, but too many years had passed. The statute of imitations had expired. He came back to the valley many months later. All his money had been spent on court costs and defense attorneys. His neighbors said he was a broken man. No more politics. No more parties. They said he just sat on the porch at Temelec, looking across the valley, until his family took him away.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette