John McWilliams, Sr.,

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John McWilliams, Sr.,

Birthplace: Scotch Ridge, Belmont, Ohio, United States
Death: Died in Pasadena, Los Angeles, California, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of James McWilliams and Margaret McWilliams
Husband of Clara Maria McWilliams and Mary Elizabeth McWilliams
Father of Elizabeth McWilliams; Anna Louise McWilliams; John McWilliams, Il and Gracia McWilliams
Brother of Elizabeth Farrand

Managed by: Erica "the Disconnectrix" Howton
Last Updated:

About John McWilliams, Sr.,

During the Civil War Capt. John McWilliams served for ninety days in the 8th regiment of Illinois volunteers, commanded by Col. Ogelsby. Immediately after returning home, he re-enlisted, and was with Sherman during his celebrated march to the sea. (1)

Biographical sketch

  • from the biography of Julia Child:

John McWilliams first dreamed of going to California in 1848 when he read Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast (1840) and when news came of the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill. While John was obsessed with going to the New Eldorado, his father, James (who served in the Illinois legislature), dismissed the idea, worried about his son's bouts with chills and the dangers from uncertain weather and Indians. But John had what he called the "going fever": "Father, I am going to California, if I have to run away. I am going, or die."

Despite his father's wishes, sixteen-year-old John, one of his cousins, and two friends outfitted themselves for the trip with guns, ammunition, bacon and flour. John took one book with him, a copy of Plutarch's Lives. On April 9, 1849, with a wagon and four oxen, they left Griggsville, in Pike County, Illinois, for the California territory. Eight days out, John, only 121 pounds on his six-foot-one-and-a-half-inch frame, turned seventeen years old. On the ninth day he found a shroud in the bottom of his trunk and realized that his family feared he would die on the trail.

During the three years he panned for gold in the Sacramento Valley of California, he gained nearly thirty pounds and a wealth of survival experience. With a gold nugget in his pocket, he took a steamer out of San Francisco to Panama and, via railroad and steamship, reached New Orleans and eventually St. Louis. He had been gone from Illinois nearly four years. The spirit of adventure and the beckoning call of California would never leave him.

Drawn West by reading Richard Henry Dana's work, her grandfather would marry not one but two Dana girls. At the death of his wife, Mary Dana, John McWilliams married her sister, Clara Maria Dana, by whom he had three children, including one son, John McWilliams, Jr., whose oldest daughter, Julia, inherited her grandfather's tall, lean frame (though not his Dana coloring), his healthy physique, and his egalitarianism, curiosity about life, eagerness for adventure and travel, and intrepidity.

When Julia was growing up, her grandfather was an elderly gentleman who had chosen to return to the New Eldorado to spend his final years. He could spin great stories at the head of the table and continued to watch over his rice fields in Arkansas and land investments in Kern County, California. (He learned to thresh rice when he ran a mill near Savannah after his march to the sea with General Sherman, and as a panner for gold in '49, he knew the value of the earth's minerals.) As Julia listened to his stories, her imagination wove pictures in which she would blaze new trails and dine with heroes, then serve the public interest with discipline and leadership. She would have him in mind when she was asked in the 1990s for her best advice on a healthy life: "Pick your grandparents." (2)


  1. taken from atlas of Pike County 1872-1912 and Pike County HIstory 1880
  2. APPETITE FOR LIFE: The Biography of Julia Child. By Noel Riley Fitch


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John McWilliams, Sr.,'s Timeline

January 15, 1832
Belmont, Ohio, United States
August 6, 1861
Age 29
Odell, Livingston, Illinois, United States
April 19, 1874
Age 42
Odell, Livingston, Illinois, United States
December 10, 1876
Age 44
Odell, Livingston, Illinois, United States
October 26, 1880
Age 48
Odell, Livingston, Illinois, United States
November 12, 1924
Age 92
Pasadena, Los Angeles, California, United States