Cohen-Bray House    

Victorian Preservation Center of Oakland


The English Gardener of Oaktree Farm (Part I)

Posted by Cohen Bray House on October 11, 2016 at 11:45 PM Comments comments (9)

This post is the story of Thomas Cowell, a gardener who worked at Oaktree Farm in 1880. Based on the census records, it seems like Thomas may have been counted twice - once as part of the Bray’s household and once as the head of his own household nearby in Oakland.


Thomas was born in England sometime between 1841 and 1844. He immigrated to the US in 1877 (according to the 1900 census). It is difficult to know anything about him before that because there are literally thousands of Thomas Cowells born in England between 1841 and 1844.

Records for Thomas Cowell on

Thomas’s wife, Mary, was Irish, and fascinatingly they had three children - Elizabeth, Thomas, and William - born in Australia, and then their youngest, John, was born in California. Australia was an ~80 day journey from England in the 1850s and 60s. There are any number of reasons why Thomas and Mary could have ended up there. Based on the age of their children, they would have had to have arrived in Australia by 1869 at the very latest. In 1851, Australia had its own gold rush, which brought in a wave of immigrants from mostly the British Isles and China, however that would have been too early for Thomas to travel, seeing as he would have been no more than 10 years old.

It is also a mystery why they would have left Australia right when they did. The Australian economy was booming in the 1870s, so it is unclear why they would have chosen to take their 3 young children on such a huge journey.

But in any case, that is what it appears that they did. According to voting records for Thomas from 1894 and 1896, the family was living about a mile away from the Oaktree Farm estate in at 1656 13th Ave.

1656 13th Ave, Oakland Today, Source: Google Street View

Distance from Thomas and Mary's home to the Cohen Bray House

The whole family is absent from the 1890 census and, sadly, Mary had passed away by 1900, meaning that she was no more the 55 years old, and probably significantly younger. Of course, the life expectancy for a white female of her generation was 40 years old, so she actually live longer than most of her peers.

Average US Life Expectancy. Note the difference between white and non-white life expectancy in the early 1900s. Source: Info Please

Thomas continued living with his son John for many years afterwards. We last see him in the record in 1920 still living in Oakland with John and his family. Excitingly, there are lots of people to track down in this family, some of which were in Oakland and alive as recently as the 1980s. We will do that in Part II. Stay tuned!


The Untraceable Chinese Men of Oaktree Farm

Posted by Cohen Bray House on September 28, 2016 at 1:20 AM Comments comments (0)

There were three Chinese servants working for Emma’s household in 1870 according to the census. Their names were Sam Wa (21), Hoa (18 ), and Py (50). 


There are zero plausible records for either Hoa or Py anywhere else in the census data either before or after 1870. For Sam, there are two possible records under the single name Wa for 1880, which either would put him as a laborer in Alameda or a Hop Raiser (beer!) in San Jauquin valley. Both Wa’s are listed as 32 in 1880, and both are married, but living in a large household of other Chinese men with no women.

The vast majority of Chinese immigrants arrived by boat from the Guangdong provence in southeast China. Source: Google maps, Wikipedia

As there is not a lot to learn about these specific men, I dug a little deeper into the general trends related to Chinese immigration in California. There is no doubt about it, being Chinese in 19th Century CA (or 20th century for that matter) was tough. The first Chinese immigrants are recorded as arriving in 1848, just before the gold rush. From the 1850s to about 1870, Chinese men worked primarily in mining and building the transcontinental railroad, often receiving the most dangerous and low paying jobs available. Chinese merchants also set up stores and restaurants to cater to their fellow Chinese workers. 


Gold Miners. Source: Mining Artifacts and History

In 1870, less than 5% of the Chinese population were women and more than half those were recorded as prostitutes according to the census. The vast majority of the Chinese women that were here were brought to the U.S. forceably or through coersion to work in the sex trade. Chinese women who arrived in San Francisco were sold at auction, commanding a price of up to $1,500 (approximately $26,000 in 2016 dollars). The average life expectancy for a Chinese woman working as a prostitute in CA was four years. It is nearly impossible to imagine what life was like for these women.

Chinese prostitute awaiting a client. Source: National Women's History Museum

After the completion of the railroad, there was a huge influx of Chinese workers into the urban areas, particularly the Bay Area, looking for jobs. The softening job market of the 1870s and the highly visible Chinese population, along with moral outcry over the prostitution issue, lead to the xenophobic Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which restricted new immigration and denied any Chinese immigrant the opportunity to become a citizen. This wasn’t repealed until 1943. Let’s just let that sink in for a minute. For 61 years, immigrants who legally lived in this country had no chance of becoming citizens soley because of their race.

Cartoon from Harper’s Weekly, April 1, 1882. Source: Smithsonian National Museum of American History


As always, there is so much more that could be said on this topic, but my key take away is that Sam, Hoa, and Py, wherever they ended up, probably struggled a lot during their time in California. If they were in fact married, as the census states, it may have been to a woman back in China as there were very few in California to be had. It is possible that they returned to China, or that their names were recorded differently in different censuses. We will never know.



A Little Downton Abbey Right Here at Home

Posted by Cohen Bray House on September 13, 2016 at 1:25 AM Comments comments (0)

The first servant listed as part of Emma’s childhood household in Brooklyn (a neighborhood in what is now Oakland) in 1870 was a young Irish maid by the name of Kate Kavanagh (in the 1870 census it was spelled Cavenaugh, but all other years spelled it with a K). The earliest I can find a record of Kate is in the 1860 census, when she was 12 years old and living in Somersworth, New Hampshire with her mother and sister in the household of Betsy Joyce and her six children. Somersworth was a mill town about equal distance between Boston and Portland, ME, with a population of approximately 4,700 in 1860. I can only imagine how difficult it was for two immigrant women to try to raise 8 children between them.

(Source: Wikipedia)

In 1870 we find Kate at 22 years of age as a servant in the Bray Household. It is possible that she may have taken the transcontinental railroad across the country, which was finished in 1869. The trip would have take approximately 7 days and cost on the order of $100, which is about $2,700 in today’s dollars.

(Source: Sacramento History Online)

By 1880, Kate, now aged 32, had moved on to the Gilchrist household in San Francisco. J and Mary Gilchrest were both born in Scotland and had 6 children aged 1 to 18. Kate was one of two servants in that household, along with another Irish woman by the name of Margaret Mulcahy. J G Gilchrest is listed as a liquor merchant, which was likely a very lucrative business in San Francisco in the 1880s.


Meanwhile, in another part of San Francisco, a man by the name of Mathew Kavanagh (presumably of no close relation), was working as a coachman for the Emeric household. Joseph Emeric was born in France and is listed as working in Real Estate. His wife Mary was originally from NYC. Besides the two of them, their household consisted of five Irish servants - three maids, a cook, and Mathew the coachman - so real estate must have been doing well also.

The earliest record of Mathew has him in California at 23 in 1870 in a sort of bizare household with 8 men of varying nationalities and a 3 year old boy. There is also an 1870 boat arrival record for a 21 year old Mathew Kavanagh from Ireland to New York, which may be the year he arrived in the states.

The census is quiet on both Kate and Mathew until 1900, when they show up married for 19 years (i.e. the year after the 1880 census) and living in San Raphael. A voter registration for Mathew from 1904 puts them on Nye St. in Marin. There is still a Nye St. in San Raphael, however the address listed for him is not viable today. They did not have children, so this is the end of the line for this particular story, but let’s hope that they found true love in each other in their golden years, just like Carson and Mrs. Hughes (if you didn’t watch Dowton Abbey, please ignore this reference).


(Source: David Rumsey Map Collection)