Features

Juneteenth: Ishmael Williams

A teamster, a singer and town friend.
Ishmael Williams. Photo courtesy of the San Benito County Historical Society.
Ishmael Williams. Photo courtesy of the San Benito County Historical Society.

Ishmael Williams was one of the most well-known figures in the early years of Hollister’s incorporation. He had a reputation for leading one of the best hauling teams.

According to an Evening Free Lance account of Williams, he held the hauling contract of the New Idria Mining Company in the early 1870s. He hauled “ten thousand dollars worth of metal” to Hollister.

According to an obituary from the Evening Free Lance found on Newspaper Abstracts, Williams, despite being disabled (he had two club feet and was unable to stand on his own), was robbed only once—by legendary bandit Tiburcio Vasquez. The newspaper also noted that Williams hauled hay, wool and grain in the later years of his life. 

Williams was born into slavery in Georgia and moved to California sometime after the Civil War (1861-1865). He died on April 23, 1905. While the Free Lance reported he was 91, the obituary on Newspaper Abstracts said he was 78. He was buried in the Calvary Cemetery. The location of his grave is not known, according to a San Benito County Historical Society Facebook post.

In addition to being known as a hard worker, he held a special relationship with children. 

“Up to a few months ago, generations of children had ridden the old man’s donkey, as their fathers did forty years ago,” the newspaper article states. 

Williams had one son with the same name but referred to him as Smiles, but according to “Images of America: African Americans of Monterey County,” he died in his youth. 

The relationship Williams created with the children who rode his donkey lasted for many years, even after they became adults and raised their own families. 

“Up to his sickness, he was a welcome visitor to many homes where he delighted to amuse the little children or ride with them on the old donkey from which death alone could separate him,” the Evening Free Lance reported. 

According to “Images of America,” when Williams was taken to the hospital, the donkey was taken too. However, it’s unknown what happened to the donkey following Williams’ death. 

The book also states that many people in town remembered Williams for his singing voice and that he almost lost his life responding to a fire at a stable in San Juan where his horses were kept.

It also notes that Williams worked as a stableman for the Turner family at their San Felipe ranch.

Juneteenth, short for June Nineteenth, commemorates the end of slavery in 1865 in the United States. On June 17, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, designating Juneteenth a national holiday.

 

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Noe Magaña

Noe Magaña is a BenitoLink reporter. He also experiments with videography and photography. A San Benito High School alumnus with a bachelor's in journalism from San Jose State and a Liberal Arts Associate's Degree from Gavilan College. Noe also attended San Jose City College and was the managing editor for the City College Times, the school's newspaper. He also was a reporter and later a copy editor for San Jose State's Spartan Daily.