THE LATE ROBT. JOHNSON STEELE.

From the San Joaquin Valley Argus, 8 Feb 1890


Submitted by Priscilla Stone Sharp




A Short Sketch of His Life-A Soldier and Journalist.

Sonoma Index-Tribune, Feb. 1, 1890.

Robert Johnson Steele, who established the first newspaper in Merced County twenty-eight years ago, where he has continued to reside ever since, died at his home in Merced last Tuesday morning.
Mr. Steele was born in Rockingham, N.C., October 22, 1822. At the age of 24 he joined the First Mississippi Rifle Regiment commanded by the late Jefferson Davis and was in the thickest of the fray at the battles of Monterey and Buena Vista, being wounded in the latter engagement. After hostilities had ceased between the United States and Mexico he was honorably discharged from the army and in 1849 crossed the plains to California. After mining with varying success in El Dorado and Tuolumne Counties he engaged in the newspaper business in the latter county, afterwards in Placer County, and in 1861 he married Mrs. Rowena Granice and removed to Merced County, where he has been engaged in the newspaper business ever since. The deceased's wife survives him and he also leaves one son, Lee R. Steele, and one step-son, the editor of this paper.
Mr. Steele was one of the most conscientious of newspaper men and was never known to sacrifice principles for the almighty dollar. In 1874 when the Central Pacific Railroad Company sought to secure a subsidy of $150,000 from Merced County bearing interest at the rate of ten percent per annum, compounded annually, payable in 20 years, he resisted, through the columns of the San Joaquin Valley Argus, the voting of the subsidy and defeated the project although the county officials "stood in" with the railroad people. The scheme was killed by his securing from the Secretary of the State's office, which has been recorded there, a copy of an agreement entered into by the Central Pacific Company, the party of the first part, and J. Friedlander, Chapman & Page, Wm. C. Ralston, the Bank of California and other large holders of property in Fresno and Kern Counties, the parties of the second part, whereby the railroad people stipulated and agreed for a certain amount of compensation in land to run their road through the corner of Merced, Fresno and Kern Counties, on or before the spring of 1872, failing in which the Central Pacific was to forfeit a stipulated sum of money-$1,000,000, if we recollect aright. As the subsidy would have amounted to nearly a million of dollars at the maturity of the bonds tremendous exertions were made by the company's agents to suppress the publication of the agreement, which would go to prove that the road would be built, subsidy or no subsidy. But old Bob Steele was true to the interests of the taxpayers, and to the personal knowledge of the writer, when he was waited upon and urged for a large monetary consideration to suppress the odious agreement, he indignantly spurned the offer and ordered the intruder out of the office. The result was that while he might have made $10,000, or even $20,000 by suppression, the agreement appeared in print the next day, and created such consternation among the advocates of the subsidy that the election which had been called by published proclamation by the Supervisors was declared off and never came to a vote. Merced County got the railroad without one cent of subsidy and was saved nearly $1,000,000 by the timely intervention of Mr. Steele, who was too honest to attain wealth as it is generally attained in these days. His life work, which was essentially devoted to the interests of others, has now ceased. No more will he be a terror to scheming politicians. No more will his gifted pen be used in the defense of the right as against the wrong. Time servers and wrong doers stand aside! An honest and conscientious man passes to the reward beyond the grave.


Also from Priscilla Stone Sharp, author of "Rowena --The Life of Rowena Granice Steele, 19th Century Writer and Journalist of Merced, California" (Nov 2004):

According to family history, Steele was so successful in the mines that sometime after 1850 he went home to Tippah County, Mississippi, where his mother and father were still living, with "several thousand dollars" in his pocket, returning to California in 1853 where he began mining a claim on Pierson's Hill and later Columbia Flat in Columbia, Tuolumne County.[i] He invested some of his profits with his old friend Falconer in the Columbia Gazette and soon became involved in the operation and editing of the paper, which had under its title the slogan, "Where shall the press the people's rights maintain, unawed by influence, and unbribed by gain."[ii] On August 19, 1854, he began a partnership with John C. Duchow to publish the Gazette and manage the printing office. Within months the Gazette became the Gazette and Southern Mines Advertiser, and the partnership changed to Steele and Thomas N. Cazneau. By August 1856, Duchow returned to ownership of the paper along with a Mr. Carder, with Steele "proposing to engage in other pursuits more congenial to his feelings."[iii] Their differences must have been worked out, since Galloway says he remained in ownership of the Gazette until 1857. (Could this back and forth flow of ownership also be indicative of wins and losses in card games, so common in those pioneer days of California?)

He was still in Columbia as of Spring 1858 when he was arrested and sent to Tuolumne County jail from May 4 to June 15 for assault with a deadly weapon. This is the only incident of violence connected to Bob Steele personally, although Rowena did make a couple of veiled allusions to his temper over the years.



[i] Galloway, R. Dean, "Rowena Granice," Pacific Historian, Spring 1980, p. 112.
[ii] Ibid. See also "History of Columbia's Newspapers,"
[iii] Galloway, R. Dean, "Merced Newspapers, A History and Checklist," unpublished manuscript; but see Kemble, Edward C., A History of California Newspapers, 1856-1858, Los Gatos: The Talisman Press, 1962, p. 381 ("leased by Duchow and Carder for six months").

The note in the "time-line" section says he was from Missouri -- it should read "Mississippi." (Changes were made according to this historian's record and also the 1856 Miner's Businessman's Directory)


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