Nancy Kelsey – The Betsy Ross of California

By Merle Blasjo

Anyone who traveled across the continent in the nineteenth century was likely to face numerous hazards—wild animals, hostile Indians, and robbers in addition to dangerous weather and water shortages.

When Nancy Kelsey made this trip, she had additional challenges because of her youthful age (17), her responsibility for her infant daughter, and the fact that neither she nor any other white woman had made this trip before. In May 1841 Nancy, with her husband Ben Kelsey, her one-year-old daughter and brothers of Ben joined a wagon train in Missouri for the trip to the west coast. This trip was in response to a letter from a doctor friend who lauded the weather and other features of California Central Valley. The Kelsey family became inspired to move there.

The trip proved to have incidents ranging from frightening to terrorizing. At one time, several heavily laden packhorses fell into a steep pass while traversing it resulting in a loss of vital supplies and the horses. Another time, Nancy sat on her horse for hours protecting her infant daughter from nearby prowling Indians.

Finally, seven months after departing Missouri, the weary party reached its destination—Fort Sutter. The Kelsey family chose this destination because it was American as a contrast with the Mexican residents who were beginning to show resentment of the “Americanos” who were moving in and claiming land. Initially, the Kelsey family worked for John Sutter, but later Ben and his brothers made trading forays to Oregon, Mexico, and Texas. Gradually, the family developed sources of income and became part of the community.

By 1846, hostilities between residents and American newcomers had grown as the war was imminent. A group of Americans began working on a flag and a constitution for what would be the independent Republic of California. Nancy Kelsey was chosen to sew the flag, assisted by others. The design consisted of pictures of a star and a Grizzley bear and the words California Republic, all of which were painted with a dye made from berries. One woman in the group cut the red stripe from her petticoat to make a border stripe at the bottom. The flag was raised over Sanoma on June 14, 1846. While establishing a new country was a bold move, it was short-lived. On August 7, the U.S. Navy raised the Stars and Str-Ps over the harbor in Monterey, making California part of the United States.

Nancy Kelsey California Flag

But what happened to Nancy Kelsey and her family? The family moved frequently, partly in search of wealth and possibly to avoid enemies from days of the fight for independence. At one time they lived in Lompoc where it looked as if they would stay. But they moved to Los Angeles where Ben died. Now a widow, Nancy looked for a quiet place to live, which she found in Cuyama, a small rural community at the eastern edge of Santa Barbara County. There she was known for her kindness and helpfulness just as she had been on her first trip to California. She is buried in Rosewood Cemetery.

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