There are not many photographs of Robert McHenry even though he is one of the foremost figures in the history of early Modesto. He seems to have shied away from being the subject of early tintypes or photographs. He and his son, Oramil, certainly left their marks on the city - from the Victorian-era mansion that remains the centerpiece of Modesto's earliest history to the Bald Eagle Ranch in the northern part of the outskirts, as well as the many streets and buildings bearing the McHenry name. The fight for irrigation had no greater champion than Oramil. Yet Robert appeared early in the lore of the Stanislaus area, arriving around 1850. He was born in Vermont in 1827, but, as McHenry Museum archivist Janet Lancaster discovered, there were no McHenrys in Vermont at the time of his birth. This picqued Lancaster's interest and what she eventually discovered changed the historical biography of Robert McHenry.
Two Different Trajectories for One Life
Robert McHenry was actually born Robert Henry Brewster in Vermont on July 23, 1827. Lancaster discovered the deception after a three year investigation, which turned up a fascinating study of an important Modesto historical figure whose life had two completely different trajectories. He was both the well-respected rancher and businessman who provides the basis for much of Modesto's early history, and he was a deserter from the U.S. Army, who changed his name to avoid capture after dodging his military obligation and duty to fight during a time of war.
To add to the conundrum of how history should treat him, Brewster (or McHenry) was related distantly to Mayflower elder William Brewster.
Brewster signed up with a newly formed Ohio Army regiment in 1846 as a rifleman. The term of duty was five years. His primary responsiblity in the Army would be guarding forts on the Oregon Trail. Unfortunately for the regiment, they were called to fight in the Mexican-American War, which apparently was not in the scope of things for Brewster. According to his military records, he deserted. Wartime desertion, even now, is a military crime punishable by death.
The Brewster Brothers Join Forces
Eventually, according to Lancaster's research, Brewster made his way to Stockton, California where he joined his brother, Leonard Oramil Brewster, and dropped his last name, adding "Mc" to his middle name. By 1855, both Leonard and Robert resided in Stanislaus County, where they shared business ventures and assisted with local elections.
Robert accumulated large land holdings, becoming wealthy. He married Matilda Margaret Hewitt and in 1861 fathered a son, Oramil. In 1883 he built the McHenry Mansion, which stands at 15th and I Streets, as a testimony to his accomplishments and his place in Modesto's history. With the added research by Janet Lancaster, Robert McHenry's story is complete and provides a lesson in how hidden information may take over a century to surface, but the truth is always out there.
Jeff Jardine's Modesto Bee column: Brewster Mansion? . . .
Wikipedia Entry: Robert McHenry (rancher)
Wikipedia Entry: Mexican-American War
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