Sins of Omission

The Betsy Ross of California

Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed legislation requiring public schools to teach students about the contributions of “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.”  When I was young, we were taught about men and, yes, women in California, not because of their “sexual orientation” but because they were figures of substance and significance.  One of my favorites was Nancy Kelsey, the Betsy Ross of California, who is unknown to schoolchildren today.

Born Nancy Roberts in Kentucky in 1823, she was only three when her family picked up and moved to Missouri.  At 15 she married a wild, redheaded lad from a neighboring farm family, Ben Kelsey, whose family had likewise migrated to Missouri from Kentucky.  In 1841 they joined what would become known as the Bidwell Party at Sapling Grove in eastern Kansas, intending to trek overland to a place called California.  Nancy was all of 18 years old, had an 18-month-old daughter, and had lost an infant son only three months earlier.  When asked why she was willing to undertake a continental journey through a wilderness, she replied, “Where my husband goes, I go.  I can better endure the hardships of the journey than the anxieties for an absent husband.”

“Our ignorance of the route was complete,” said John Bidwell.  “We knew that California lay west, and that was the extent of our knowledge.”  The pioneers...

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