Cemetery Resident Profile of Rachel Haskell (1829 to 1900)

Written by Rachalle Weed

Rachel Haskell filled her life in early California with a distinctive combination of bold adventure and sophisticated culture.  By forging her own path as a widowed single mother and prevailing through rugged circumstances during the mining era, she and her family enjoyed the wealth and success that brought so many dreamers to California during the gold rush.  

Rachel was born Rachel Hepburn Mitchell in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania.  According to historian and author Richard G. Lillard, by the age of 16, she was schoolteacher.  She also studied guitar and piano, and because of her “rare beauty,” she was twice selected by visiting United States presidents to lead the grand march at local concerts.  She and fellow schoolteacher Sterling B.F. Clark fell in love, but their relationship was interrupted when Sterling caught California gold fever in 1849.  Rachel chose to wait for Sterling while he made his fortune in California, and Sterling did become successful during the gold rush. Among other ventures, he owned the Union Hotel in Mormon Island near Folsom.  In 1852, Sterling returned to Rachel in Pennsylvania, and the reunited couple married.

During their return voyage to California by boat and land through Nicaragua, Rachel became pregnant, but Sterling became gravely ill.  He died days after their boat reached San Francisco.  Rachel, a pregnant newlywed widow, boldly chose to travel onto Mormon Island to start a new life for herself in California rather than return to her home state.  At Mormon Island, Rachel gave birth to her and Sterling’s daughter, Ella.  To support herself, Rachel once again became a schoolteacher by turning her home into the first public school in the community.

In 1854, Rachel married Dudley Haines Haskell, a Sacramento businessman.  Around the 1860s, they moved to Aurora, Nevada on the border with California.  Dudley operated a toll road through the rugged landscape to the booming mines.  Although Aurora was enjoying prosperous mining operations and population growth, it was still a violent, rough town with a harsh climate. 

Rachel, Dudley, and their growing family lived in the toll house along the toll road in order to manage the road and its travelers.  According to author Sue Silver, the celebrated author J. Ross Browne visited the Haskell toll house during his travels from Aurora to Bodie Bluff, and he described the home as “a mere frame shanty of the rudest kind.”  Despite the poor exterior of these lodgings, however, Browne wrote the interior was clean, nicely carpeted, and filled with books and impressive cultural periodicals.  Browne further wrote the home was “prettily ornamented with water-colored sketches, very cleverly executed by Mrs. Haskell.”

While living along the toll road, Rachel kept a dairy, a portion of which is preserved in the California State Library.  In these private writings, Rachel reveals how she kept music and literature in the daily lives of her family as they lived under these rugged conditions.  For instance, her entry for a Monday describes:

Looked a bit calmer and cooler, brighter in the morning.  Sun shining cheerfully.  Work thru, gave Ella lesson on new page of Linda March [referring to an opera score].  We have been rather musical today, piano open all the time.  Bud played a waltz wonderful, we had no idea he had caught even the air of it.  Is very fond of picking out tunes.

Eventually, the decline in mining operations made the toll road less profitable, and according to Lillard and Silver, the Haskell family moved from Aurora, to Sacramento, and ultimately to the Bay Area enjoying new prosperity.  Dudley, who had spoken favorably about railroad expansion when he served in the Nevada Legislature, started working for the Central Pacific Railroad as the person who sited towns along the railroad route.  The towns Dudley sited include Reno, Elko, and Truckee.  While living in Sacramento, the Haskells purchased their family burial lot in the Historic City Cemetery.  Sometime around 1875, the family moved to San Francisco.  In contrast to their shanty in Aurora, they lived in grand a four-story mansion they built at California and Webster streets with a mansard roof and folding doors made of great mirrors.  In 1900, Rachel died in the Bay Area at the age of 71 and was returned to Sacramento to be buried in the family cemetery lot.

Rachel passed her zest for the distinctive mix of culture and rugged life in early California to her daughter Ella, the child she gave birth to shortly after arriving in California.  Ella Sterling Mighels became an accomplished author and historian of California literature.  Ella’s writings include a description of her childhood in Aurora, The Life and Letters of a Forty-Niner’s Daughter (1928), which she published under the name Aurora Esmeralda, a penname she created to honor the hearty minors she met in her youth.  Ella also documented the work of early California writers, and the California Legislature recognized her as the First Historian of Literary California for these efforts.  

The Haskell Family Lot is located in Plat A73, Lot 601, generally near the intersection of Laburnum Avenue, Sylvan Avenue, and Linden Avenue.  The lot includes, among others, Rachel Hepburn Mitchell Haskell, Dudley H. Haskell (husband), Eugenia Dudley Haskell (child who died at 1 year, 7 months in Salmon Falls, CA and was later reinterred in the family lot), John Mitchell “Birdie” Haskell (child who died at 8 years, 6 months), and Harry H. Haskell (child who died in his 30s).

Sources:  A Literate Woman in The Mines: The Diary of Rachel Haskell, edited by Richard G. Lillard, The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 31 (Jun., 1944), pp. 81-98 (available in the California State Library); Haskell’s Toll Toad to Aurora, by Sue Silver (available at fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprd3800737.pdf); Find-A Grave entries for the Haskell family (findagrave.com); Wikipedia entry on Aurora, Nevada; and the burial records of the Historic City Cemetery made available by the Old City Cemetery Committee, Inc. at historicoldcitycemetery.org.