History & Profiles

BL Longform: The untold history of Hollister’s Gilmore Colony

County records, newspaper articles and letters describe the formation of an early Black community in San Benito County.
Daniel instructing Scott on capital letters. Courtesy of Antonia Martin
Daniel instructing Scott on capital letters. Courtesy of Antonia Martin
Scott Gilmore. Courtesy of Antonia Martin.
Scott Gilmore. Courtesy of Antonia Martin.
Property record in Ruhanna Gilmore's name, 1889. Courtesy of the San Benito County Historical Society
Property record in Ruhanna Gilmore's name, 1889. Courtesy of the San Benito County Historical Society
Hollister Free Lance, January 25, 1889
Hollister Free Lance, January 25, 1889
Draft by Scott Gilmore of a telegram announcing his arrival. Courtesy of Antonia Martin.
Draft by Scott Gilmore of a telegram announcing his arrival. Courtesy of Antonia Martin

BL Longform articles are designed for a more leisurely reading experience. You can print BenitoLink articles by clicking on the printer icon at the top of each article. This is the first of a three-part series of articles on the rise and fall of Gilmore Colony. 

 

On Sept. 23, 1888, landowner Daniel Gilmore, the son of an Arkansas plantation owner, wrote to Scott Gilmore, one of his father’s former slaves, saying, “I have a large plantation here and like very much to have you come and am satisfied that you can do better with me than there.”

This offer was the genesis of the “Gilmore Colony,” a group of over 40 former slaves brought to Hollister in a failed attempt to found a farm and ranch in Cienega Valley just outside town. Little has been written about the colony and few documents from that time survive.

Historian Phil Reader calls the outcome Gilmore Colony in a 1996 booklet, deriving it from an early newspaper reference. His work has served as the basis for most retellings of the colony’s history since then.

While Reader laid an important foundation, interviews and other published sources show that his widely recirculated narrative of the Gilmores contains serious factual errors.

Recently discovered contemporary news accounts and early county records, as well as previously unpublished letters and documents, offer a clearer understanding of what brought the Gilmores to Hollister and what happened when they got here.

The story begins with Daniel Gilmore’s birth, on March 2, 1848, on the 1,120-acre Pope County, Arkansas, plantation of his father, Daniel Gilmore Sr., as recorded in a family biography in the 1879 book “History of McLean County, Illinois.” His mother, Mary Jane Menefee, died 12 days after he was born, leaving him to be raised by the house slaves, Thomas and Mary Gilmore.

Thomas and Mary’s son, Scott Gilmore, was born on that same plantation, likely between 1848 and 1850, but his birthdate was not documented. Like his parents, he was a slave and, Frederick Douglass, who was born into slavery himself, mentions in his autobiography, that slaves rarely knew their birthdays

Daniel was 13 when the Civil War broke out. Though a slave owner, Gilmore Sr. was a staunch supporter of the Union and was forced to give up the plantation, losing everything he had. He eventually settled in Illinois in 1864 and returned to farming.

We know very little about what happened to his former slaves during the war. Thomas joined the 115th U.S. Colored Regiment Union Army and survived the Fort Pillow Massacre, a battle outside Memphis, Tennessee, in which Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest (later the founder of the Ku Klux Klan) killed Black soldiers after they surrendered. 

When Thomas was presumed missing, Mary Gilmore married Joe Parks, a slave on the neighboring Parks plantation. 

Scott Gilmore married Drucilla Elizabeth Basham Kendall. They had 11 children together; only six lived to adulthood. 

After the war, as free citizens, the former slaves became sharecroppers, house servants and laborers, living in poverty and struggling with the racism of Reconstruction-era Arkansas. 

Daniel Gilmore seems to first enter the public record in 1885, when he married Ruhanna Alice Sanborn in Boston. According to the San Francisco Call, they returned to his home in San Francisco, where they stayed for a year before purchasing a home in Hollister, where he had business interests including a partnership with A.H. Coy in the “69 Store,” a local chain of six general stores. He apparently kept his San Francisco home for a while after that, as his daughter was born there.

Two years later, he dissolved the partnership. His interests had shifted: he wanted to be a gentleman farmer like his father. He wanted something like the plantation he grew up on. And he wanted Scott to work there.

 

Scott and Daniel: a complex friendship

Scott and Daniel remained friends long after childhood. But a slave-master dynamic can be seen in letters they exchanged, which are now owned by Scott’s great-granddaughter, Antonia Cottrell Martin. Martin lives in Hollister and has made the letters available to BenitoLink. She has also shared her decades of research into her ancestors.

Though they address each other on very familiar terms—Scott calls him “Dannie” and Daniel signs the letters the same way. But while growing up, Scott did not get the education that Daniel received, and Daniel had tried to tutor his friend. In a 10-page letter from 1887, for example, Daniel patiently corrects the grammar, capitalization, spelling and punctuation of Scott’s previous letter.

“These are capital letters and you must not put them in the middle of sentences,” one letter says. He makes five dots in a row and writes, “These little dots are periods and must be put at the end of every sentence.”

Daniel’s letters mention books he is sending to Scott, most likely school primers, as well as gifts of clothing and even two bottles of gin intended for Thomas.

But the tone overall is demanding and superior. In one letter, Daniel tells the 40-year-old Scott that “I want to make a man of you and if you will do as I tell you, I will soon lift you up above the common darkey.” Variations of this line show up in two other letters.

There is a warning in one letter, after Scott had asked Daniel to lend him $50: “I am enclosing $5 and hope you will not ask for money again . . . If I find that you are a lazy, careless, good-for-nothing I won’t want to waste my time and money on you.” 

He glued a Bible verse from Proverbs to the page: “He becometh poor, that dealeth with a slack hand, but the hand of the diligent maketh rich” and ended the letter saying, “If you don’t understand, get some white person to show you.”

 

Beginning of Gilmore Colony

On Aug. 24, 1888, Gilmore bought 465 acres of land in the Cienega Valley, now part of the Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area, and just below the Palmtag Vineyard, the current location of Eden Rift and DeRose wineries.

According to the San Benito County Assessor records, it was Daniel’s wife Ruhanna’s money that bought the land, known as “Blackberry Farm,” and the land was registered in her name. She had inherited $100,000 from her father, an amount worth approximately $3.5 million today.

Her wedding to Daniel had been bitterly fought by her family, who believed he was out for her money. Daniel seemed to be chronically broke and, according to one newspaper account, Sanborn’s family suspected he had never gotten a divorce from his first wife. Daniel had to sign away any claim to his wife’s money before the marriage could take place.

The first public mention of former slaves coming to Hollister was in the Jan. 25, 1889 issue of the Hollister Free Lance:

“Mr. D. W. Gilmore, the enterprising rancher, who has been employing a large number of men at his proposed vineyard in the Gabilan, states that he has experienced a vast amount of trouble on account of the drunken habits of his men, and has sent for a carload of Negroes from the cotton fields of the southern states. He is expecting them soon and hopes in this way to solve the problem of how to get cheap but good labor.”

This is the first of at least three Free Lance articles where Daniel seemed to be trying to control the narrative around his enterprise, perhaps to explain his bringing Black families into an area that had no significant Black population.

The 1888 letter from Daniel asking Scott to come to Hollister was written less than a month after the property was purchased, showing he had intended to bring the former slaves from Arkansas from the start. 

“I will be after you in January if you want to come,” Daniel wrote. “I will pay you wages and build you a house or will make any satisfactory arrangements with you. I will pay your way out here and you can pay me back in work.” 

And on Feb. 2, 1889, at the train station in downtown Hollister, the first members of the Gilmore Colony arrived.

 

 

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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink first approached me as a photographer. They were the ones to encourage me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.