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SJ museum adds major exhibit on early settlers
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LODI — A new permanent exhibition has been completed at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum. It tells the story of the early American settlers of the region, families who came after the Gold Rush to build farms and futures here. “The Historical Society was extremely fortunate to be able to use the Elliott family as an example of the early settlers. They came from their tallgrass prairie homestead in Illinois to San Joaquin County in 1859,” says David Stuart, director of the museum. “Their descendants preserved one of the six wagons that made up the Elliott family wagon train; it has been restored as the centerpiece of the exhibition.” 

The exhibition draws extensively from the diaries of two Elliott sisters who recorded their experiences on the five-month, 2,500-mile trek across the continent. Eva Elliott Morse, 25, and Maria Elliott, 22, documented the drudgery, emotions, hazards, and hardships of their journey on the California Trail. “The sisters had been educated in New Hampshire prior to moving west to Illinois,” says Stuart, “and their good New England education is reflected in their well-written observations.” The Settlers exhibition uses quotes from Eva and Maria to tell the story of the overland emigration on a large map of the route, in artifact labels, in a flip book of “Wonders of the West,” and even in audio messages.

“What makes the audio passages from the diaries even more special,” says Stuart, “is that Eva’s and Maria’s words were given voice by Eva’s great great granddaughter and great great great granddaughter.” 

The Elliott and Morse families put down roots here in the heartland. The diary writers’ father farmed in San Joaquin County, as did their husbands and all but one of their four brothers. Family members are credited with planting the first Tokay grapes in the area in 1892 and the Morse farmhouse still stands and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Eva’s son, Edmund Morse, was a community leader around the turn of the twentieth century. One of Maria Elliott Norton’s sons was the public administrator of San Joaquin County, a district attorney, and a Superior Court judge in Stockton. Maria’s and Eva’s younger brother, Charles Elliott, served as the auditor and county recorder of San Joaquin County.

The Settlers exhibition was made possible by support from Eva Elliott Morse’s great granddaughter, the late Marilyn Roberts Bewley, and her husband Dr. Ross Bewley. The area of the museum has been designated the Morse-Bewley Pioneers Gallery in honor of Mrs. Bewley.

The nonprofit San Joaquin County Historical Society will soon publish excerpts from the Elliott sisters’ trail diaries. The Society operates the 18-acre museum within Micke Grove Regional Park. The Historical Society provides education programs at the museum for school groups, including “Valley Days” and “Pioneer School Day” (in the 1866 Calaveras School). The museum is fully accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. For more information see www.SanJoaquinHistory.org.