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History unraveled

An old marriage certificate mailed to the Penn Valley Chamber of Commerce from a man researching his family history in the United Kingdom has changed the way docents and rangers tell the history of Bridgeport.

In June, the chamber received the certificate from Val Morrison of Welwyn Garden City, Herts, providing new insight into the lives of the first European emigrants to settle along what is now the popular South Yuba River State Park.



The information showed William Burdett Thompson and Mary Ann Russell ” the first European couple to settle along the river 150 years ago” were married seven years earlier than previously thought in their homeland across the Atlantic, not here.

“It was a real surprise,” said volunteer Herb Lindberg.




Morrison was researching his family history and came across the 1843 marriage certificate of Thomson (spelled without the “p”) and Russell.

Coincidentally the couple shared the same forenames as Morrison’s great-great-great grandparents and were married at about the same time in the same church.

“Just out of interest, I searched for the man’s name on the Internet and was surprised to find a hit on your website, hence why I am writing this letter,” Morrison wrote.

The marriage certificate and letter is now framed and on display in the park’s visitor center.

“We’ll also be using the information as part of our history tours when we take visitors through,” said Dick Alexander, who coordinates history research for the park and has been a docent for ten years.

Thompson was a sea captain who bought a farm and settled along the South Yuba River (now Bridgeport) in the 1850s. He is buried at the cemetery at Bridgeport alongside his 6-year-old daughter.

“He was the beginning of the whole thing. That’s why we’re so interested, because he’s kind of the root or trunk of the whole affair,” Lindberg said.

For decades, historians had thought that Thompson arrived in San Francisco in 1849 and moved to what is now Nevada County where he married Russell.

Instead, the new records show the couple was married in St. Anne’s Church in Limestone Parish, Middlesex County, England.

“He did come around the horn and was presumably the captain of a ship that docked in San Francisco,” said Alexander.

His crew “heard about the Gold Rush and immediately deserted the ship.

“Thompson and his wife found their way up here to Bridgeport,” explained Alexander, as he walked slowly in the blistering hot sun past old rock walls leading to the site of Thompson’s oak shaded grave.

Thompson became a farmer and died in 1853 at the age of 44.

His young employee, Charles Cole, later married Thompson’s widow and the 160 acre ranch grew to 1,040 acres and became more widely known as the Cole Ranch, according to Lindberg.

“They carried on the dynasty with a number of children of their own,” Alexander said.

The couple’s daughter, Victoria, later married Andrew Kneebone, starting the Kneebone era at Bridgeport, Lindberg said. Son Alfred Kneebone started a popular resort with swim holes on the river.

Many of the Kneebones are buried at the graveyard and descendants regularly tend to the graves by adding brightly colored plastic flowers and American flags.

The graveyard is one of several worthwhile stops at the park along with its covered bridge built in 1862 and its newly restored barn.

A deceased researcher who supplied the original dates of Russell and Thompson’s marriage apparently was wrong, Lindberg said.

No evidence has been found at local historical libraries or elsewhere to back up the previous history told by docents for years, Lindberg said.

“Wherever we got it, we believe it was wrong,” Lindberg said.

Though the spelling of Thompson’s name appears different on the marriage certificate, Alexander is certain its the same couple. Thompson is described as a mariner and a bachelor, and Russell is described as a spinster.

“It fits the bill. We always knew he was a sailor of some kind. It’s the same first, middle and last names we have in our records. We can only assume some clerk used the common spelling of Thompson” once he arrived in the United States and the name stuck, Alexander said.

The same time worn spelling appears etched on his tombstone placed on the earth.

To contact Staff Writer Laura Brown, e-mail lbrown@theunion.com or call 477-4231.


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