Glenn County History: Water, Wheat and Walters
Glenn County was carved out of Colusa County in 1891 and named for a prominent wheat farmer, Hugh Glenn. Behind those rudimentary facts, however, lies one of the West’s most dramatic sagas – one of ambition, steely persistence, greed, conflict and even homicide.
Hugh Glenn was my cousin, both of us descendants of George Glenn, who immigrated about 1730 from what is now Northern Ireland, one of countless thousands of Scots-Irish Protestants who found a home in the American South prior to the Revolutionary War. George Glenn was Hugh’s great-grandfather and my 6th great-grandfather.
George Glenn eventually settled in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and some of his descendants migrated elsewhere. My ancestors didn’t travel far, just across the Ohio River into Ohio, while Hugh Glenn’s father brought him from Virginia to St. Louis.
Hugh’s restless ambition made itself known early in his life. He attended medical school but practiced only briefly. He volunteered to fight in the Mexican War, and when word of California’s gold discovery reached St. Louis, he quickly set across the plains to seek his fortune.
He wasn’t much of a miner, but made some money hauling freight from Sacramento to Coloma, and later bought a livery stable in Sacramento while dabbling in cattle. Hugh returned to St. Louis, lost his California stake in a bank failure and returned to California permanently, although he made more than a dozen cross-country sojourns thereafter.
Hugh added wheat farming in what was then Colusa County to his growing business holdings and eventually became the “wheat king of California,” with some 80,000 acres under cultivation. He built a mansion on the Sacramento River near the present-day hamlet of Glenn, another mansion in Oakland and dispatched his protégé and later son-in-law, Peter French, to Eastern Oregon with a herd of cattle.
French eventually became the Northwest’s largest cattle rancher. Hugh Glenn, meanwhile, was drafted to become the Democratic candidate for governor in 1880, but lost. Three years later, he was murdered, cut down by a shotgun blast from a bookkeeper – reportedly his brother-in-law – whom he had fired for drunkenness.
In homage, when Glenn County, encompassing his once-extensive wheat operations, was sliced off of Colusa in 1891, it was named for him. French, ironically, was also slain 1897 in a dispute with a neighboring rancher over water. Three books, including a novel, have been written about French’s life.
Hugh Glenn’s once-immense agricultural empire – he even had his own ships to carry wheat to England – was ground up in litigation and debt-repayment.
Glenn – county and village – and another tiny hamlet in Oregon, Frenchglen, are the only remaining traces.
After a brief in-person conversation with Dan about his personal connection to Glenn County, he was kind enough to pen this blog posting for us.