The Life and Times of Robert McHenry

  • Born July 23, 1837 in Cambridge, Lamoille County, Vermont.
  • Direct descendent of William Brewster, Mayflower passenger, leader and preacher in Plymouth Colony.
  • Brewster family moves to Ohio in 1833.
  • Robert enlists in a newly formed Ohio Army regiment in 1846.
  • Assigned to guard forts along the Oregon Trail.
  • With the start of the Mexican-American War, his regiment is reassigned to fight.
  • Robert Henry Brewster deserts.
  • Robert McHenry listed in 1850 census, living in Stockton, California.
  • Leonard Oramil Brewster arrives in California in 1852 and locates in Stanislaus County by 1855.
  • Robert McHenry and Leonard Brewster are partners in butcher businesses in Chinese Camp and Jacksonville. They also work together as business partners in Stanislaus County.
  • Robert McHenry is elected a Stanislaus County supervisor in 1855. He is a homesteader, landowner and rancher.
  • Marries Matilda Hewitt of Farmington, formerly of Ohio, in 1859.
  • Oramil McHenry, son, born in 1861 on the Bald Eagle Ranch.
  • Family moves to Modesto after its founding in 1870. Robert starts Modesto Bank.
  • Builds McHenry Mansion in 1883 at 15th and I Sts.
  • Helps establish Modesto Irrigation District.
  • Dies June 25, 1890 - two years after suffering a debilitating stroke.
  • Leonard Oramil Brewster dies Dec. 31, 1891.
  • Oramil McHenry dies in 1906 and bequeaths land and money to build a library in Modesto.
  • Modesto boasts McHenry Avenue, once the road between the McHenry Mansion and the family's Bald Eagle Ranch; the McHenry Library, later established as the McHenry Museum; and the McHenry Mansion, a Victorian-era remnant of old Modesto.


The McHenry Monument at Modesto's Acacia Cemetery


Family Secrets

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

Next: The McHenry Story/McHenry Mansion

Previous: Early History/Timeline - 1870-1900