Nathaniel Vise — Father of Visalia
When looking at history, there always seems to be those characters who have taken on larger-than-life personas. Whether it’s their amazing life experiences, unbelievable feats of courage, interesting character traits or a combination, there is something that draws us to them. In local history, for me, one of those people is Nathaniel Vise, sometimes called the Father of Visalia.
Vise was born in about 1810 in northern Kentucky near a town called Visalia, named in honor of his family. When growing up, he was a rambunctious and rough-and-tumble lad who acquired the nickname “devil Nat.” He relished adventure and his “itchy feet” always kept him on the move.
In 1833, Vise slowed down long enough to marry 20-year-old Matilda Jarbeau, his childhood sweetheart. The couple stayed in their home state for a time, but eventually headed west, stopping in Texas. From there, they continued their journey by joining, or some say organizing, a wagon train to California. In about 1849, the couple arrived in San Diego, where Nathaniel allegedly ran a restaurant. They then traveled north to El Monte and Matilda, apparently tired of traveling, decided to stay. However, her husband’s insatiable wanderlust kept him on the move.
By 1850, Vise, now known as the “bear hunter,” was in San Francisco running a Kearney Street restaurant known for serving bear meat. He also became known for starting each day with a blood-curdling yell that some said sounded like the “war whoop of a Comanche or Apache Indian.”
He established a reputation for his bravado. He claimed that he could outrun, out-jump, outshoot and “whip any man anywhere outside of Texas.” But in 1851, the boastful man met his match when two San Francisco thugs named McKenzie and Whitaker out-swindled him. While the three men were visiting, the two stole about $900 in cash from him. Vise extracted his revenge when the two were hanged on the gallows.
Vise left San Francisco and made his way to Four Creeks Country, some say to hunt and trap. He built a small cabin in the middle of a large oak forest on land that is now in the heart of Visalia.
One day, Vise was in nearby Woodsville when a group of landseekers arrived. The leader of the group, who called himself “Wanderer,” recognized Vise and described the man he had heard so much about. Vise was “dressed in buckskin, wore upon his head a huge coonskin cap with a long tail of wolf or fox dangling behind, [carrying] his ever faithful rifle in his hand, two pistols and a huge Bowie knife in his belt,” he wrote.
Despite Vise’s threatening appearance, his demeanor and personality were anything but menacing. He had a reputation as a friendly sort willing to help anyone who needed it. He was described as “rollicking and a good-hearted man who loved to laugh.”
When Vise learned that Wanderer and his party were looking for a place to settle, he offered to show them what he described as “the most desirable of any land he had seen in the valley.” Vise took the group to the land around his cabin. Some stayed, and others joined them in the fall of 1852. They built a fort for protection, and Vise joined the group of settlers inside.
Samuel C. Brown, one of the fort’s occupants, recalled one day hearing a rifle shot and saw Vise wrestling with a wounded bear. The bear lost the contest thanks to the bear hunter’s knife.
After a short time, the fort was abandoned by the settlers and homes were built outside its walls. According to Brown, who also was an attorney, Vise owned the land under the principle of “squatter sovereignty.”
Soon, Vise’s itchy feet got the best of him again and he left. It is not clear what he did with his land, but some say that he forfeited his ownership, while others say he sold it. There is strong evidence that Vise never returned.
This daring man lived his life to the fullest, working in a variety of jobs. He was a horse trader and racer, fur trapper, hunter, gambler, preacher and restaurateur. His life was packed with adventure and drama – all the Ingredients necessary for a bigger-than-life figure. So in a tragic sort of way, it is fitting that he should exit the world in a similar way.
On the evening of July 12, 1882, while on one of his many travels, Vise was in the Paragon Saloon in Texarkana, Ark. He was huddled down with dozens of others waiting out a ferocious rain, thunder and lightning storm. Adjacent to the saloon was a three-story brick building under construction. A lightning strike caused the structure to collapse on top of the smaller wooden bar. Most in the saloon were either crushed to death or pinned under the weight of the rubble. But more tragedy was to follow. The oil lamps in the demolished saloon continued to burn, igniting the flammable debris. Those who had survived the collapse were incinerated by the intense fire. No one knows how many lives were lost that evening as many bodies were burned beyond recognition, and others were cremated on the spot. Some put the death toll at more than 25, and Vise was one of them.
Even though Nathaniel Vise experienced Visalia for only a short time, he left quite a legacy. Leaders could have picked any name for the new town, but they chose the name Visalia in his honor. That is a big deal!
But his mark goes beyond the town’s name. He was Visalia’s first booster, calling the land that is Visalia the most desirable of any land he had seen in the valley. And you can bet he had seen a lot.
Yes, by most standards, he was a little eccentric, but we should be proud that this early American frontiersman passed our way and that his name is deeply etched in our history.