Family reunion remembers historian of Marysville settlement

Brenda Pogue’s husband, Lester, cataloged the Churchill-Burns family history in his book “The African American Heritage of Yuba County, 1849-1870.” She holds the genealogy he created in the 1980s.
Brenda Pogue’s husband, Lester, cataloged the Churchill-Burns family history in his book “The African American Heritage of Yuba County, 1849-1870.” She holds the genealogy he created in the 1980s. mkirk@sacbee.com

Lester Pogue began “The African American Heritage of Yuba County, 1849-1870” book with the hope of preserving his family’s legacy as free African American settlers of Marysville before the emancipation of black slaves.

His research of the settlement and the genealogy of the Churchill-Burns family, to whom he is related, is featured every few years at family reunions. The tradition was continued by his extended family after his death in 2014. The family gathered Saturday at an all-day reunion at Discovery Park in Sacramento. Most of the Churchill-Burns descendants live in the Stockton, Sacramento, Marysville and Yuba City areas.

A Churchill-Burns reunion is more than a time to share barbecue and congregate with about 300 relatives. The descendants of James and Philip Churchill and William Burns celebrate the triumph of their ancestors against the vestiges of slavery, the wild terrain of the frontier and the unsteady Reconstruction period that followed the Civil War.

As a descendant of Philip Churchill, Ivan Guillory has researched the two Churchill brothers back to the Churchill plantation of Jefferson County, Ky., where they trained horses.

In the late 1840s, the two brothers were freed and, with their extended family, they traveled to St. Louis, the jumping off point to Western frontier travel.

Their party cut their own path through the Western territories on wagons, and about half their party died during the dangerous trip, Guillory said.

The infamous tragedy that befell the Donner party happened just before the Churchill party crossed the Sierra Nevada, but according to Brenda Pogue, Lester’s widow, they took the Beckwourth Trail to safety in the Sacramento Valley.

They were allowed to own property in and settle much of the town of Marysville, thanks in large part to Frenchman Charles Covillaud, whose beliefs were contrary to the segregated standards of the time, family member Ron Temple said.

“It was different than how blacks were treated anywhere else in California. There was a lot of antagonism toward blacks,” Temple’s wife, Becky, said Saturday. “In California, they still had laws that said a black man could not testify against a white man. They also had laws that said a black man couldn’t own property. But they didn’t find that in Marysville.”

Having spent most of his 83 years in Marysville, Ron Temple remembers the vast differences between the refuge of his hometown and other parts of California, where there were lynchings and segregation.

He said Marysville was an enclave for African Americans to settle in the West with success during “the Great Migration” of freed black slaves after emancipation.

“I remember (Fourth of July) as a kid,” Temple said of the annual picnics his extended family had in the town before World War II. “Everybody brought their picnics, and the kids got to run around and eat at anybody’s table. Just about everybody who was African American or black was related to us in Marysville.”

Allene Warren preserves the history of the descendants of freeman William Burns, who brought his family, including his daughter Mary, who would marry James Churchill, by a ship that sailed from Virginia around Cape Horn to California, she said.

T’Shaka Toure, who helps preserve some of the Churchill family history, said he is proud to continue the history Lester Pogue chronicled and that the legacy of his family is one of endurance against the racial and environmental struggles in a wild frontier that could upend lives without warning.

“In memory to Lester, we make sure there is this continuation to our family history, culture, pride and the motivation is to inspire other people,” Toure said. “They came a long way. I think it’s a great American story for natives of California.”

Marjorie Kirk: 916-321-1012, @marjorie_kirk