Steve Cottrell: Echoes From Our Past — James Churchman and the Nevada County Republican Party
Although Aaron Sargent is often credited with founding the Nevada County Republican Party, that honor rightly belongs to James Churchman. In fact, it appears Sargent wasn’t even a charter member of the local GOP.
Churchman was born near Philadelphia in 1810 and raised in a Quaker home. In 1831, now an attorney, he moved west — first to Ohio, later to Iowa. There, he married Samantha Lockwood, fathered a son and daughter, and served a term in the state Assembly. In 1846, the Churchman family settled in Galena, Illinois, where Churchman and Abraham Lincoln became friends. But three years later, when news of great riches in California began to spread, he headed for the goldfields, opening a Nevada City law office in 1850 and a year later sending for his wife and children.
In April 1856, Churchman, previously a Democrat, called for establishment of a local Republican Party. The May 2 Nevada Journal reported, “About 60 persons assembled in the Congregational Church (April 26) to effect a Republican organization in Nevada County, and send delegates to the State Convention held in Sacramento (April 30),” adding that Churchman, “an elegant lawyer,” was convincing but crude when he spoke.
At that first meeting, Churchman was one of 14 Nevada County men named to attend the April 30 state convention and, at the convention, was the only Nevada County delegate elected to the first California Republican Party Central Committee.
In October 1860, when Sargent and Churchman were tussling over who was going to address a group in Sacramento, the Bee reminded its readers, “In 1856, Churchman got up the first Republican meeting ever held in Nevada (City). While he was going about urging men to attend the initiative rally, Sargent was crying, ‘Don’t go with them; they’re Abolitionists!’ So Sargent is not loved by Churchman.”
It seems Sargent did not attend the state’s 1856 Republican convention, but was a delegate to the 1860 session, (gaveled to order by convention president pro tempore James Churchman), where he was elected one of four California delegates to the Republican National Convention in Chicago, pledged to William Seward. Churchman, who wanted badly to be named so he could help his friend Lincoln get the nomination, became an alternate delegate but chose not attend the national convention.
That July, the Nevada County Republican Club was formed. Separate from the Central Committee, it was a social organization and Churchman was elected its first president while Sargent was named one of three vice presidents. Both men were certainly prominent in the early days of the Republican Party — here and statewide — but the record is clear: James Churchman founded the Republican Party of Nevada County.
Following Lincoln’s election, Churchman quietly lobbied for the position of United States consul (ambassador) to Japan, but had to settle for a similar assignment to Valparaiso, Chile. That’s not to say he didn’t try to sway his friend, including presentation of a special gift that he traveled from Nevada City to Springfield, Illinois, to personally hand the president-elect.
On Jan. 12, 1861, accompanied by Samuel Gamage of San Francisco, a manzanita walking stick with a gold nob was presented to Lincoln as a gift from Charles Young, a Nevada City jeweler. A small plate was engraved:
To ABRAHAM LINCOLN
First Republican President of the United States
From C. W. Young, Nevada City, Cal.
When asked by a reporter, Churchman and Gamage insisted they were merely delivering a token of Mr. Young’s regard for Lincoln and were not in Springfield in search of presidential appointments. Six months later, however, Churchman and his family were on their way to Valparaiso for four years and, thanks to the intervention of President Lincoln, Gamage was commissioned a captain in the Union Army and appointed paymaster of the California Volunteers.
When his diplomatic assignment ended in 1865, Churchman took his family to Austin, Nevada, where he practiced law for a year, then they relocated to Prescott in the emerging Arizona Territory, where he did what he had done in Nevada County: He organized the first Yavapai County Republican Central Committee and then, in November 1866, was elected chairman of the first Arizona Territorial Republican Party. A year later, he was additionally elected president of his county’s central committee.
In August 1869, after contracting Rocky Mountain spotted fever, 58-year-old James Churchman died at Fort Bridger in the Wyoming Territory. But because of what he did here in the spring of 1856, the Nevada County Republican Party will celebrate its 165th birthday on Monday.
Historian Steve Cottrell, a former Nevada City Council member and mayor, can be contacted at email@example.com.
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