William Robert Gillis
Final Resting Place Row 4, Plot 150 (No Headstone)
"Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man. The biography of the man himself cannot be written." So said Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), an intimate friend of our very own Bill (William) Gillis. According to family records, Williams parents moved from North Carolina to Mississippi, then to Georgia, where their first two sons, James (1830) and Philip (1834) were born. The family then moved to Wyatt, Mississippi and this is where sons Steve(1838) and Bill are added to the family. Bill entered the fray on August 14, 1840. In 1843, Therese, is welcomed into the family. In 1844, the family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where his father, Angus, was in the wholesale grocery and cotton exporting business. Here, another daughter, Mollie was born.(1846). But things were about to change.
In 1848 gold was discovered in California and Bill's father was ready for an adventure! Taking his two oldest boys, Angus left for San Francisco after crossing the Isthmus at Nicaragua and traveling up the west coast of Mexico and lower California, a trip of over a year's time. Fannie, his youngest daughter was born while he was away (1849). He wouldn't meet her until she was 4 years old. He purchased a ranch in Solano County, on the Sacramento River and raised hogs for the San Francisco market.
On March 1, 1853, after 5 years of separation, Bill's mother, Margaret, now 43 , sailed from Memphis for California aboard "The Pacific". With her were the younger two sons, Jim and Bill (13 years old) and all 3 daughters. They finally arrived in San Francisco 53 days later, having traveled around Cape Horn. The average trip is only 17 days! One can only guess at the hardships this young mother faced and the adventures the children experienced. Bill was only a new teenager, but it was probably one of the most romantic times in the development of the West. He saw the silver mining camps of Nevada spring up overnight and almost empty themselves at news of a new "strike" in the gold region of California. He knew San Francisco in its most lawless period and was a newspaper reporter on The Enterprise in Virginia City, when that camp was even more lawless than "Frisco", as the port was known in the earlier days.
Finally settling in Tuolumne in the early seventies, Bill listed himself as a miner. He lived in Tuttletown, in an area known as Jackass Hill. This was a stopping place for packers carrying supplies to the miners and often as many as 300 jackasses would serenade locals from this location. Pocket mining was common here and the Gillis boys were up for the challenge. Clemens famous 3-month visit to Tuolumne County was in 1864-65. He arrived at Jackass Hill on December 4, 1864. He moved in with Jim and Bill Gillis who shared the cabin with mining partner Dick Stoker and his cat, Tom Quartz. Many stories were swapped between the "boys" and frequent guests, and these became the foundation for many of Mark Twain's famous tales, including the jumping frog story from Angel's Camp. For a number of years, Mr. Gillis had charge of Mark Twain's cabin on Jackass Hill, where he would relate to the tourist many of the interesting stories of the early days and experiences of his brothers, Steve and Jim Gillis and Mark Twain. In later years, the Gillis boys would each publish their memories of their time spent with Sam Clemens. Bill wrote several historical accounts of the gold days of Tuolumne County. He also wrote and published a story on Mark Twain, entitled "Memories of Mark Twain and Steve Gillis" which was in great demand.
In 1875, Bill married Elizabeth Ore, born at Jackass Hill in 1856, about 200 feet from the now famous Mark Twain cabin . Her span of life ran parallel with the California pioneers. She was always highly esteemed for her kindly disposition, her friendship for her neighbors, and her devotion to home duties. They had a son, named Charles Alston Gillis. Their marriage lasted 53 years, when on February 8, 1929, Elizabeth suffered a stroke of apoplexy and never regained consciousness. Grief of losing his love is believed to have hastened his own death, as only 6 months later, in August, he suffered from a lingering illness and died in the cabin that was his home.
In researching Bill's life, I was saddened to find little personal information , other than his special association with Sam Clemens. I know there was so much more to his story that remains untold. It seems that Mark Twain was right- "the biography of the man himself cannot be written".
Written By Pat Dambacher
William Robert Gillis pictured in both photos
Mark Twain's Cabin on Jackass Hill
Note: This plot also contains the remains of their son Charles and his wife Edna, and grandson William (Bud) Gillis. Her sister was Mrs. Thomas Bluett and we have records indicating that she is buried in our cemetery. Since we have several Bluetts without records, it is possible that she is also buried near her husband.
Information taken from:
Family records contributed to Tuolumne County Genealogical Society
Modesto Bee and News Herald-Feb. 8, 1929 and Aug. 22, 1929
Sonora Office Stockton Record- August 20, 1929
File from Tuolumne County Historical Society
The Union Democrat- February 9,1929, August 24,1929