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1918: The birth of a city
Cowells walk across Sierra set the ground work for Manteca
Joshua Cowell, third from left, with three other men prominent in the development of Manteca A. Baccilieri, Ben Goodwin, and George Wetherbee.

Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series looking back on Manteca’s first 100 years as a city as the centennial date of the community’s incorporation nears on May 28, 2018.



The Bulletin

Joshua Cowell — the ultimate power walker credited with being the “Father of Manteca” — was not the first settler by far of what was known for years as the Sandy Plains.

Nor was he was among the first inhabitants.

Cowell’s claim to fame was having the foresight once he purchased more than 1,000 acres and built his home where the present day Bank of America is now located on East Yosmeite Avenue just east of Main Street to put in place the beginnings of a city. That included establishing stores, opening the doors to the community’s first industrial operation in the form of the Cowell Station Creamery, and pursuing a 45-mile irrigation ditch from Knights Ferry to Manteca.

He did that after departing Grant County in Wisconsin in 1861 and heading toward California. But instead of crossing the Sierra with his brothers, he stayed in the Carson Valley south of present day Reno for two years. 

He then took his walk across the Sierra, arriving in what is present-day Manteca in January of 1863. He immediately purchased his ranch that ultimately made up of much of what would one day be central Manteca.

Long before settlers reached the Manteca area, this was the land of the Yokuts.

Archeologists estimate the Native American Indians inhabited the area starting 4,000 years ago. Villages were built close to rivers where they could be crossed on high terrain to avoid the perennial floods created by massive Sierra snowmelt.

The huts they created housed as many as 12 families. And just like modern-day inhabitants they headed to the Sierra during the summer and crossed the Altamont Pass for commerce.

Their summer trips to the mountains were to gather food while they used a trade route that passed through present-day Livermore to trade with Native American Indians inhabiting coastal villages. Instead of getting paychecks they traded furs and other items for clam, abalone, and other shells that’s served as Yokut currency to obtain goods and services.

The first known forays of Europeans into the region was in the 1820s when soldiers from the Presidio at present-day San Francisco that served as Mexico’s military base for the area, headed inland to seek out a Consumnes tribal chief. The chief had been baptized Estanislao by missionaries and had revolted against the lifestyle being forced on the Native American Indians.

Estanislao led a group of Native American Indians in fleeing Monterey to the San Joaquin Valley where they ended up camping near the Stanislaus River — which he named — at a spot near Ripon. From there they led raids on the missions stealing guns, cattle, and horses in an effort to repel the people they viewed as invaders. Battles between the Mexican military and the Indians took place from time to time with most along the banks of the Stanislaus. The most notable was about 1.5 miles upstream on the Stanislaus from its confluence with the San Joaquin River. Forty men from the Presidio in San Francisco along with re-enforcements from San Jose using a large boat with a swivel gun mounted on it, engaged Estanislao on May 5, 1829. After three days of fierce fighting, the Presidio group led by Sergeant Sanchez retreated. Twenty-four days later, General Mariano Vallejo brought cavalry, artillery and re-enforcements from Monterey to do battle. They used a scorched earth approach setting fire to brush and Willows surrounding the Indians’ stronghold. As they fled to the river for relief. Most were killed. Only Estanislao and a few others escaped.


First attempt

at a settlement

The first attempt at establishing American-style civilization in the Manteca area came in 1846. A group of Mormons led by Sam Brannan — who would later become a newspaper publisher and wealthy businessman and is widely credited as the Paul Revere of the Gold Rush spreading the news of the find on the American River — arrived in Yerba Buena that is now San Francisco.

The 200-member strong group was split into smaller bands. One had 20 men led by William Stout. They sailed up the San Joaquin River on a launch dubbed “Comet.”  They ended up landing on the north bank of the Stanislaus River near where Caswell Memorial State Park is today at the end of Austin Road.

The area was so plentiful with wild game that journals kept by the party noted one man armed with a rifle could secure enough game in three hours among the abundant Tule elk, California grizzly bear and wild geese to supply the colony for a week.

They built a primitive sawmill to produce boards to build cabins. They planted wheat along with potatoes and had 80 acres cultivated and fenced by January of 1847.

Then disaster struck. Winter rains hit swelling the river and causing an early snow melt in the Sierra. The river overflowed its banks and flooded the land for miles in every direction.

The flood wasn’t what did in the settlement. It was Stout’s insistence what work they did so far — building the central house and cultivating the land — belonged to him and that going forward each man should select a good farm of 160 acres and work together to build one home at a time.

The group called for Brannan. He arrived, listened to their grievances and set aside the house and farm to be used by the 12 Mormon Apostles. Several days later, Stout left never to return.

That spring when they dug up their crop of potatoes and found them to be rotten, the group abandoned the settlement and returned to San Francisco.


Cowell’s influence

on Manteca

Cowell’s role in helping Manteca move forward can’t be overstressed.

Not only was he the first advocate of irrigation that ultimately triggered Manteca’s boom and guaranteed that it wouldn’t simply end up as a wide spot on the road but he was also the first to try and make it work.

He started a ditch that was to run for 45 miles from Knights Ferry on the Stanislaus River to Manteca. After farmers refused to participate, Charles T. Tulloch took over the project and Cowell contracted to just build the ditches. The effort ended up not being successful to any degree until the formation of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District.

Cowell built numerous commercial buildings along what is now Yosemite Avenue near the railroad tracks. Besides serving as president of the Cowell Station Creamery, he was director of a number of establishments in the fledging town including director of the First National Bank of Manteca.

In 1904, he replaced his old home with a new one at the same location where Bank of America stands today. The six bedroom home that included two bathrooms in a two-story floorplan included a living room, dining room and parlor. The parlor sometimes was used for funerals as Manteca did not have a funeral home at the time.

When Manteca incorporated in 1918, Cowell was elected to serve as the city’s first mayor.  He was the honored guest in 1923 for the laying of the cornerstone for the new brick City Hall that still stands today on Sycamore Avenue. The city hall housed not just city operations but the fire department along with rented space when it first opened.

Cowell passed away on May 29, 1925 — seven years and one day after Manteca incorporated — at the age of 84.

Cowell Street in the Powers Tract neighborhood between Spreckels Park and Manteca High is named in his honor as is Joshua Cowell Elementary School.


To contact Dennis Wyatt, email