HISTORY – James Hall Story, Founder of Elk Grove

James Watson Hall

Writtenby Anne Trussell

Researched by

Dave and Kevin Morse

Jeanette Lawson, Donna Olovson, Anne Trussell

Delores Mitchell & Lance Armstrong

            James Watson Hall is unanimously credited with the naming of Elk Grove.  According to an early Sacramento county history, James Hall built his hotel in 1850. “ He painted on its sign an elks head and thereby established the Elk Grove Hotel.”   Thompson and West’s 1880 History of Sacramento County states he “…gave it its name, on account of having lived in Missouri in a town of the same name.”  The 1890 Sacramento County History  by the Lewis Publishing Company, Illinois, indicates “…he gave it the designation on account of having found elk horns in the grove nearby.”  An 1851 Sacramento County tax assessment lists James Hall as residing in “Elk Grove,”  which is the earliest documented evidence of the use of the name “Elk Grove.”  By 1855, James Hall had sold “the tavern stand known as Elk Grove House” and moved to Sacramento.  He and his family lived on the 200 block of N Street, now known as Crocker Park.  In about 1869, the Hall family moved to Vallejo where James died in 1872.

            The above is information on James Hall found in history books but it only brings up more questions about the founder of Elk Grove.  Where did he come from?  How did he get to California?  Did he have a family?  If so, who were they?  What was his occupation? What happened to his family?  These are questions genealogists and historians struggle to answer about people of the past.  We hope to provide the answers to some of these questions.

            James Watson Hall was born in Manchester, Lancaster County, England, in about 1803. No specific birth date for him has yet been discovered.  Nothing is known of his early life; however, he joined the Masons in England about 1822. It is believed he married Sarah WILD on June 15, 1824, in Rotherham, Yorkshire, England.

Sarah (Wild) Hall

Their oldest son, John Hall, was born in Surrey, England, on March 4, 1826.  Their other children were: Henry Hall, born about 1827; Anne A. Hall, born February 14, 1832 in Chesterfield, England; twins, Thomas Watson Hall and William Hudson Hall born in Manchester March 19, 1837.  It was not long after the twins’ birth that the Halls decided to leave England.

            In 1840, when Victoria was Queen of England and Martin Van Buren was President of the United States, James Hall, 36 years old, and his wife, Sarah, 37 years, left Manchester for the United States of America. Accompanied by their children, John, 13, Henry, 12, Anne Adele, 8, and William Hudson and Thomas Watson, 4 year old twins, James and Sarah sailed from Liverpool aboard the largest merchant packet ship of the day, the Dramatic Line’s 1009-ton packet, the Roscius, the master of which was Captain John Collins. According to the Roscius’ passenger list, the Hall family reached the shores of the United States at Castle Garden, New York City, October 13, 1840.  In the next ten years, the Hall family became part of a great migration out of the east, eventually arriving in the Sacramento valley.


Captain John Collins and the Roscius

Old censuses, books, and diaries give us a peek at the Hall’s westward trek from the east coast to California via Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa.  The 1852 California census lists the Hall family’s previous residence as “Wisconsin.” Often immigrants came to the United States to join other family members or friends so it’s possible that the Hall family spent some time in Wisconsin amongst friends or relatives before moving further west.  The 1857-58 Sacramento City Directory lists the previous residence for James W. and Henry Hall as Illinois and England.  The 1890 History of Sacramento states that James Hall was from Galena, Illinois. Thompson and West’s 1880 History of Sacramento states that James Hall came here from Missouri.  All of these are possible, as, during the first ten years of the Hall family’s life in the United States, it’s very likely they gradually moved west, as did many early settlers, seeking newly-opened public lands on the American frontier.

            Was there an ‘Elk Grove” in any of these places? Indeed, yes.  In fact, there is an Elk Grove, Illinois, located near Chicago on the eastern side of Illinois.  Missouri also claimed an “Elk Grove” in Crawford County, not far from St. Joe, which was the jumping off place for the Oregon Trail.  And Elk Grove, Wisconsin, is located in Lafayette County, in the southwestern corner of the state, no more than twenty-five miles from Galena, Illinois.  The history books mention Galena, Illinois, as a prior home for the Hall family.  The Sacramento directories list Illinois as a prior residence.  An old 1850 gold rush diary verifies this information.  And it was very likely gold was the impetus which moved the James Hall family from the mid-West onto the Oregon Trail where they joined hundreds of thousands of gold seekers heading towards  California and the gold fields.

            Continuing research in our quest for information on the Halls, a founding father of Elk Grove, has unearthed the overland trail diary of Byron McKinstry, a gold seeker who traveled west from McHenry County, Illinois, to Hangtown (now Placerville), El Dorado County, California.  McKinstry traveled with the Upper Mississippi Ox Company, the same wagon train that brought the Hall family to California. From McKinstry’s diary entries, we are able to glean information on the Hall family and their journey west.


            The Hall name first appears in McKinstry’s diary in the roster of the Upper Mississippi Ox Company.  Listed are James Hall and wife, John Hall, Henry Hall, Thomas and William Hall (minors) and Sarah Hall, all from Galena, Illinois. (There seems to be some confusion between Sarah, James’ wife, and Anne, his daughter.) The Articles of Agreement and roster for the company were published on May 16, 1850 by the Frontier Guardian, Kanesville.  The Upper Mississippi Ox Company crossed the Missouri River at Kanesville, Iowa, now Council Bluffs, between May 17th and May 19th.  On May 20th they joined other wagon trains crossing the plains on the Oregon Trail.

             We first meet the Halls on June 2, 1850, near Wood River in central Nebraska when McKinstry relates:

             “Several companies are camped in sight and we had a large congregation graced by the presence of several ladies.  There are now five in our co., Sarah Hall is the Belle.  She is good looking, and a beautiful singer as well as her father and brothers.  Her mother is a very fleshy woman and fell a few days ago while getting into the wagon and both wheels passed over her thighs without breaking any bones, which is a wonder as it was very heavily loaded; the fat saved her.  They are an English family from Galena.”

            “We have frequent singing of evenings, especially at Halls tent, and Mr. Danford has an organ along which with a few other instruments drive away dull care after we get our suppers, till bed time.” (It’s likely that here McKinstry confused the names of Anne and her, mother, Sarah.)

            Mrs. Hall’s incident with the wagon wasn’t her only occasion “to see the elephant.”  On July 6, in Wyoming’s Sweetwater Valley, McKinstry writes, “We overtook Miller here, Wm. Jackson very sick, also Mrs. Hall. Hibbard no better.” Some diseases that plagued the pioneers were cholera, typhoid, dysentery and mountain fever.

            Their overland route passed through Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, and into California.  In Wyoming, the Upper Mississippi Ox Company pioneered the north bank trail along the Platte River, westward from Fort Laramie.  They met up with Kit Carson at Fort Laramie, who warned them “The Devil himself could not get through on the north side.”  Irene Paden, in her book Wake of the Prairie Schooners, says “This courageous party happened along at just the right time to help open up a new route and make history… They made it in good shape and uncounted thousands followed in their wake.”  Andrew Child, a member of the Upper Mississippi Ox Company, later wrote a guide that encouraged pioneers to take this route, which became known as Child’s cutoff.

            Eventually the pioneers encountered the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the last and most difficult obstacle before reaching their destination.  By 1850, the overland pioneers had some choices in crossing the Sierra. The long Applegate-Lassen Route took them north from the Humboldt River, into Oregon Territory and then to California.  Best known is Donner Pass, a difficult route with a bad reputation.  It was often referred to as the “Truckee Route.”  A third route was the Carson River Route. This was the shortest distance to the gold fields and the most-used route from 1848-1851.

            On Friday, August 30, 1852, McKinstry wrote “Saw Moore who told us that Miller Ousterhoudt & Turnbull started Wednesday and took the Truckey Route.  Hall and Greay were out of provisions and had took the Carson rout (sp).” It’s apparent from this entry that, by the end of August, the Upper Mississippi Ox Company was no longer traveling as a single unit.  Provisions were low or gone; the gold fields were near. Small groups of emigrants would often set out on their own, intent on reaching their destination as quickly as possible.  It appears the Hall family did just that.

            The Carson River Route, or Mormon-Carson Route, ran from the Humboldt Sink to Hangtown (Placerville) and Sutter’s Fort. It went through what is now Gold Canyon, Carson City, and Genoa to the base of the Sierra, up the west Carson River to Hope Valley, climbed to the crest of Carson Pass, passed Caples Lake and Silver Lake and eventually approached Hangtown through the Sly Park area (north branch) or Volcano (south branch).   Byron McKinstry arrived in Hangtown on September 17th, 1850.  The Hall family would have probably arrived shortly before that date.

            After traveling overland for more than 2,000 miles, James Hall, his wife, Sarah, and their children, John, Henry, Anne, Thomas, and William, arrived in Placerville, California, in early September, 1850. Their journey had been long; their provisions were limited; winter was fast approaching.  In addition, they arrived in northern California during a time of great change and upheaval.  On September 9, 1850, California was admitted to the Union.  Squatter’s riots were occurring in Sacramento and its outlying vicinity.  A cholera epidemic was spreading throughout the area.

 The Halls soon left Placerville and, by early November, had settled about fourteen miles south of Sacramento in a sparsely populated area located on the Upper Stockton Road between Sacramento and Stockton.  It was here that James Hall built his hotel, in an area that quickly came to be known as “Elk Grove.”

Early California censuses give a hint of the Hall’s life in early Elk Grove. In the 1850 census, James, John, and Henry listed their occupations as “miner.” But by 1852, “Hotel” was James’ occupation.  John was a carpenter by trade.   Henry, Thomas, and William were painters.

            More clues to early Elk Grove and the Hall family can be found in Sacramento records such as marriage licenses, tax assessment records, and land deeds.  James W. Hall is first found in an 1851 assessment record.  He resided in Elk Grove “…fifteen miles below the city” and owned $1,000 in personal property.  On May 19, 1851, James joined the Tehama Masonic Lodge #II in Sacramento. James and Sarah’s daughter, Anne Adele, was married April 22, 1852 at the Congregational Church “…in the city.” Records show Anne A. Hall of Elk Grove, Stockton Road, married Ferdinand Woodward of Washington, Yolo County.  Tax assessment records for 1852 list J. W. Hall of Elk Grove  with $600 improvements to his property and $1400 in personal property.  By 1853, James seemed well on his way to success. J. W. Hall of Elk Grove, Stockton Road was assessed with $2000 in improvements and $1,000 personal property. In terms of 2006 dollars, this would be the equivalent of about $70, 150.

            During this same year, 1853, Sarah Hall, James’ wife, filed a preemption claim for 160 acres of land.  When the Halls arrived here in mid-September 1850, California was a brand new state.  Land acquisition for settlers had yet to become a formalized process.  New arrivals often “squatted” on land. Speculation was rampant. Preemption in California, authorized by Congress on March 3, 1853, was the right of settling on unappropriated public lands and of buying them, without competition, at a minimum price, $1.25 per acre.  Each claim could be no more than 160 acres.

            Many of the early preemption claims, like Sarah’s, are not described in township and range.  Instead, we find Sarah’s 160 acres described in the following manner:

Field notes of a survey of one hundred and sixty acres of land for James W. Hall situated lying and being in the county of Sacramento State of California about 12 1/2 miles south of Sacramento City on the old Stockton Road beginning at a stake forty rods east of Thomas Hall’s SW corner from which J. W. Hall’s house bears S 40 degrees 30 minutes E and a lone tree bears S 6 minutes E thence south 160 rods to a stake from which the said house bears N 79 minutes E and a lone tree distant 5 chains marked v…

This survey is described in terms of rods, chains, stakes, trees, and Thomas Hall’s property.

            This land description opens the door to a couple of mysteries.  Who was Thomas Hall whose property was directly north of Sarah’s claim in 1853? James and Sarah’s son, Thomas, was only sixteen at that time, too young to own land.  Did James have a relative here, perhaps a brother or cousin?  Does this explain why the Halls chose to settle in Elk Grove?  Also, why didn’t James Hall have a preemption claim?  Eventually James and Sarah would sell 320 acres  in Elk Grove.  How did they obtain the other 160 acres?

            It’s likely that 1854 was the best year for the Hall family in Elk Grove.  On May 13, 1854, James W. Hall was appointed postmaster of the Elk Grove Post Office. Assessment records indicate his personal property was valued at $1600 and improvements to his property were $1800. In 2006 dollars, this would amount to $79,500.

            The Hall family fortunes seemed to change in late 1854 or early 1855.  The first evidence of a problem was the closure of James Hall’s Elk Grove post office on December 9, 1854.  Tax assessment records for 1855 list only Mrs. Sarah Hall with $600 in personal property, $1000 in improvements, and tax paid of $40.30.  On November 3, 1855 James Hall was suspended from Tehama Masonic Lodge #II for non-payment of dues.  Seven days later, on November 10, 1855, at 1 o’clock pm, James and Sarah Hall sold the following property to Andrew McHesser and Jared Irwin for $2,000:

One quarter section of land containing one hundred and sixty acres also one quarter section of land adjoining the same containing one hundred and sixty acres of land the whole comprising a half section of land through which the Upper Road from said city of Sacramento to Stockton passes and wherein is situated the Tavern Stand known as the Elk Grove House being the same property held by said Hall and wife…


Ten minutes later, at 1:10 pm, Sarah Hall purchased from A. McHesser for $2500:

…the west half of the east half of Lot No. Three in the square between Second and Third and N and O Street…

This square is located directly north of the Crocker Art Gallery and is now called Crocker Park. All evidence of the early pioneer homes in this neighborhood of Sacramento is gone now; however, there are a number of 1940-50’s  photographs at the Sacramento Archives & Museum Collection Center which show the neighborhood before renovation.  Among them is a photograph of the Hall home.

            By 1856, the Hall family had settled in Sacramento. Tax assessment documents show Sarah Hall in the west 1/2 of the  east 1/2 of Lot 3 between N and O Streets and 2nd & 3rd.

She owned land valued at $600, $300 in personal property, and $700 in improvements. The Sacramento directory listed them as painters (James, John, Henry, Thomas, and William) living on “N” Street, between 2nd and 3rd.  From subsequent Sacramento directories, it appears James and his family lived in this same home and worked as painters for about fourteen years.  On 7 January 1867, James Hall was reinstated in the Tehama Masonic Lodge #2.

            Sometime in 1869, the Hall family moved west yet again. On May 3, 1869, James Hall demitted from Tehama Lodge #II.  That same year he joined the Vallejo Masonic Lodge, which he belonged to until his death in 1872.  The 1870 Vallejo City Directory lists T. W. Hall, painter, at 432 Georgia Street.  The 1871 Vallejo Directory lists J. W. Hall, painter, at the above address.  In the same directory, Thomas and William are listed as painters, with no residence given.

            James Hall died in Vallejo in 1872, at the age of 69 years.  He was buried at the Carquinez Cemetery in Vallejo.  The following are his obituary notice and funeral notice from the Vallejo newspapers:


             Vallejo Evening Chronicle December 20,1872

Died-Mr. James W. Hall, an aged and respected citizen of Vallejo, died yesterday morning at his residence on Georgia street after an illness of about eight or nine days.  The deceased, a native of England, was sixty-nine years of age.  He leaves quite a large family of grown-up people and a great circle of acquaintances, who deeply feel his loss.  Mr. Hall has been a member of the Masonic fraternity for over fifty years.  Naval Lodge of this place meet to night to make arrangements for his funeral, of which due notice will be given.


             Vallejo Evening Chronicle December 22, 1872

The Funeral-Mr. James W. Hall was buried yesterday afternoon by his Masonic brothers.  The funeral ceremonies were held at the hall, Rev. N.B. Klink, officiating. His remains were followed to the cemetery by the members of Naval Lodge, mourners and friends.  The body was deposited in its last resting place with due Masonic honors.  The beautiful ceremony there was conducted by Master J.Q. Adams in a most impressive manner.


His will tells us of his family and his estate at the time of his death:


           Probate Court:     Will of James Watson Hall

In the name of God, Amen.  I, James Watson Hall, resident at the City of Vallejo, County of Solano, State of California, being of sound mind and memory but mindful of the uncertainty of human life do make publish and declare this my last will and testament in manner following that is to say. First-to sons, John, age 47; Henry, age 45; Thomas W., age 35, William, age 35; and daughter, Anna Woodward, age 40: the sum of $1.00 each.  To my wife, Sarah: the remainder of my estate.   Executor: Thomas W., my son; Witness: J Harnell and John North; Attest: T. W. Hall… dec’d had property in Solano County and San Francisco County: Real estate valued at $1,000, income from real estate $120 annually and personal property $800 

Sarah died some years later, about 1885, and is buried at the Hall family cemetery in Shasta County, California.

           It may have been James Hall’s original desire to mine for gold in California.  However, like so many of the gold seekers who came and stayed, he and his family helped to develop California as a new state and, in the process, he became a founder of the city of Elk Grove.


An Illustrated History of Sacramento County; 1890 ; Lewis Publishing Co.

History of Sacramento County California With Illustrations; 1880;Thompson & West

McKinstry, Bruce L.; The California Gold Rush Overland Diary of Byron McKinstry, 1850-1852; Pub. by The Arthur H. Clark Company; Glendale, CA 1975

Robinson, W. W.;Land In California; University of California Press; 1979

Paden, Irene; Wake of the Prairie Schooners;


A 26-page booklet labeled James Watson Hall describing all the information above and more is available at the Stage Stop museum store for only $5.00.