John Cobb made an indelible impression on south Lake County. Cobb Mountain, the town of Cobb, Cobb Valley and Cobb Creek recall his stature, which physically was not all that exceptional.
In 1868 the Great Registry of Voters, which served the causes of identification we now expect of driver’s licenses, listed: John Cobb, age 52, 5’10½”, sandy complexion, blue eyes, gray hair.
In 1853, a treaty that would have preserved to Native Americans all of the lands west of a line running roughly from Mt. St. Helena across the peaks now named Cobb, Mt. Hannah, Mt. Konocti, and north to Morse mountain was overturned, creating a new block of lands available to settlers.
John Cobb was among the first to take advantage, settling with his wife and three young sons, in November 1853, in the mountain valley that still bears his name. He apparently was accompanied, or preceded, into the area by William and Nancy Springston and their five children, and Edward Dickson of Nova Scotia, who was purportedly a drover for Cobb’s ox-wagon train. The Springston family is believed to have first settled in the Whispering Pines area, but soon moved to Loconoma valley to be warmer, then on to the Knoxville mining area where mining was beginning to thrive.
While there were still a mere handful of residents south of Lower Lake, Upper Napa Valley was gaining enough vociferous residents to demand recognition. The Hot Springs Township, from what is now Calistoga north, had been portioned off in 1853. Still further separation was demanded by vociferous residents in this area, so the township was soon modified and in 1855 our incipient county, the portion north of Mt. St. Helena, became the Clear Lake Township of Napa County. In 1861 Lake County was formed.
Cobb was undeniably a mover. A penchant for moving every few years dated to his childhood when his family moved back and forth between Kentucky and Indiana. His father left his family behind in 1835 to explore Arkansas, presumably scouting a new homestead, and died there. John, then 21, had been on his own three to five years or so, establishing his own small farms and keel boat freighter service first on the Wabash River, then the Ohio and then the Tennessee. Now head of the family, he moved back to Indiana to care for his mother, two younger sisters and a brother, and almost immediately moved the whole family 300 miles west to an outpost on the Mississippi that would eventually become Muscatine, Iowa. They lived there three years. Then John took his mom back to visit relatives in Indiana, and he went on to New Orleans. From there he headed toward Texas.
Arkansas was not friendly to the Cobb men. While there John came down with “the white swelling,” a tubercular infection of the bones and joints, which left him somewhat crippled for the remainder of his life. During his recovery he returned to Iowa, but soon moved back to Quincy, Illinois, where he married Jane Ann Leypold in 1844 shortly before his 30th birthday. A son born in 1845 died at six months of age. Jane Ann died in January 1848, a day before the first birthday of a daughter who died only four days later.
The next autumn John Cobb married Esther Deming, a rewarding union that would last until his death in 1893. Their first son, John Jr., was born in Illinois in 1849, George in 1851 in the Utah territory, Joseph in 1852 in Oregon. Over the next four years
Mary, Thomas and Hester were born in various locations in California.
Another lifelong trait was established in his youth. Camped out by the river one night between 1833 and 1835 (different histories give different dates), John witnessed an intense meteor shower, an event that would instill a sense of awe and spiritual awareness that would color his life. During his travels to the west he became deeply involved with the Mormon religion and, at least in Lake County, officiated as an LDS elder at a number of weddings.
The Cobbs briefly operated a grocery store and boarding house late in 1851 near Hangtown, now Placerville. They next rented a farm about four miles south of today’s Calistoga, but in September 1852 moved north to Oregon.
Back in California a year later, in November 1853 they settled in Cobb Valley, planting a garden and orchard on the east bank of Nutmeg Creek about a half-mile west of today’s Little Red Schoolhouse. The Cobb’s fourth child and first daughter, Mary, was born there in 1854; probably also their fourth son in 1856.
Mary may well have been the first white child born in what is now Lake County.
Some researchers say Cobb also built a saw and grist mill, of small capacity, on Cobb Creek; others credit the mill to obscure settlers. The oxen that had hauled the Cobbs cross-country were used to clear the brush and plant the fields; also for the trip to Napa, five-days each way, once a year to trade excess harvests, butter, cheese and chickens for other needed supplies.
In 1854 Cobb was elected assessor for Napa County, and in 1857 appointed Road Overseer for Clear Lake Township. At some time during his tenure, the family moved back to an 80-acre place near Napa City on Napa Creek. The purchase of Cobb’s Nutmeg Creek properties by Thomas Standiford in 1858 is on record.
By 1860 the Cobbs had moved north over the mountain again, probably to Little High Valley on the west side of Spruce Grove Road, opposite today’s Six Sigma winery. Cobb is believed to have held that property continuously from 1860 until his death, and his heirs for some time after.
By 1861, about the time Lake County was separated from Napa County, Cobb was hired as manager of the ranchos Guenoc and Collayomi. He moved with his wife and younger children into the then abandoned Stone House in Coyote Valley and farmed there for about three years.
By 1861, virtually everyone in Napa Valley knew John Cobb and his family. He had seemed an auspicious choice when the Ritchie estate once again needed a manager for the two ranchos. Quite a number of settlers were congregating in Coyote Valley, whether with or without the approval of the rancho executors is not known. Cobb’s duties would include protecting the estate’s title interests, leasing some of the properties while encouraging the settlers to plan on purchasing as soon as that became possible.
They left Stone House in 1864 to enroll their children in a Sonoma County school, returned to Little High Valley in 1866, then moved to Healdsburg in 1870 while the two youngest children completed their education, then back again to Little High Valley. There he again established a mill, a farm, an orchard and a substantial vineyard – vineyards were cropping up all over Lake County then. With titles to various parcels issued to John Cobb, his wife Esther and each of their adult sons, the family eventually owned virtually all of the small valley. He lived there the rest of his life.
John and Esther Cobb, their son William and their daughter Hester, are buried in the Pioneer Cemetery in Lower Lake.