The B. F. Lewis Story
Rediscovering the Lost Origins
of a Gold Rush Town and the Men Who
Worked to Build its Legacy.
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The following is a revised text of the article from the Spring, 2006 issue of the Old Lewiston Schoolhouse Library and Museum Newsletter, entitled, "A Legacy Restored: B. F. Lewis and the Injustice of Times Past" by Jack Scribner. It is the hope of the writer that the roots of this small mining town in northern California may be better understood, and that any misconceptions regarding the town's birth and the legacy of its founder(s) be dispelled for the sake of posterity and for maintaining the honor of Mr. Lewis' namesake village in Trinity County, California, respectfully known as Lewiston.

The starkly worded news item from the Trinity Journal, entitled "May Be Him" and dated March 25, 1882, reads less like a death notice than an obituary for an entire town:

"A report has reached here, well authenticated, that Deputy Sheriff J. F. Lewis who was killed recently by a lynching party in Lake County, Oregon, was none other than Frank Lewis, well known here and for whom the town of Lewiston was named."

The point could not have been presented more plainly nor the implication more clear. The miner/merchant for whom Lewiston was named was nothing short of a scoundrel—an ignoble lout who no doubt deserved the reputation which accompanies such labels as ne'er do well. The promising young pioneer—because of an unstable upbringing perhaps, or some unfortunate turn of events during his formative years—somehow wound up on the wrong side of the law before being confronted with the unforgiving hand of mob justice.

So went the unsavory morsel of conventional lore which has been passed down through generations. That countless numbers of believers throughout the region would, over time, extract so much from so little, is a testament to the power of the written word.

For decades after, tongues wagged in towns all across the Pacific Northwest about the "town founder who ran afoul of the law." Some spoke of horse thievery as the "crime" in question. Others speculated of adulterous goings-on in a small Oregon town where he had been living and working—supposedly in the field of law enforcement no less.

Doomed too were the reputations of the citizens of the small town he'd sired, who, for generations to come, would bear the stigma of the man's supposed criminal wrongdoings—painted one and all as the unwitting accomplices after the fact—the upholders of some unholy legacy. The sullied reputation of our town's one-time leader, it would seem, is by now indelibly imprinted on the minds of all, including and especially those self-satisfied few from other northstate communities with a predisposition for striking elitist postures concerning All Things Lewiston

Yet, this timeworn tale is not without its problems. One in particular—which by itself exposes more than a hairline fissure in the shaggy dog story of local lore that is Mr. Lewis' ignominious fate—is that not a soul has bothered to present a single shred of evidence that would support the veracity of this story!


The enduring account of the man's presumed shameful actions and early demise...is, quite simply, false!

In fact, amidst the dusty realm of the public records system lies ample proof that Mr. B. F. Lewis—devoted husband, father of three, accomplished miner and ferryman and the undisputable forefather of Lewiston—lived a long and fruitful life as a hardworking and honest man, and a man plagued by more than his share of tribulations. The enduring account of the man's presumed shameful actions and early demise, which has been viewed as a stain upon Trinity County history and has proven a source of mild embarrassment for so many and for so long, is, quite simply, false!

In order to understand the origins of such a terrific historical blunder, we offer an up-close examination—more extensive than any before undertaken in the annals of local history—of the life of the heretofore enigmatic Lewis and his beginnings in the tiny mountain community that would come to bear his name.

It is imperative then that we start with an introduction to his closest associate, a man who is credited with "discovering" Lewis, and whose own selfless vision and forward thinking would prove him kingmaker rather than king.

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In September of 1849, with nary a white face among the natives who populated the area, a prospector by the name of Tom Palmer arrived here to open a mining claim on the Trinity River. After months of seeing some consistently satisfying returns, he expanded his operation on the river the following year by bringing in some outside help.

Among the new workers was a man called B. F. "Frank" Lewis, a "ragged orphan boy" Palmer had "picked up in some of the border towns" a few years before. The two men worked in tandem until the spring of 1851, when Palmer saw fit to set up a ferry operation on the Trinity River which he put Lewis in charge of. The propery last owned by "Cephus" Wood and the section of the river known previously as "Old Tucker's Place," along with the rapidly-growing community that encompassed it, was briefly called "Lewis Town," then forever after, Lewiston.

The ferry would last only a few months, for the first of what would be several bridges over the next half-century was installed on the river, at Palmer's estate, in 1851. This was known as Lewis' Bridge.

By this time, Palmer's accumulated wealth assured him a vast spread of land along the Trinity River that included much of what is now the Lewiston Historic District and points beyond.

One of the most reliable accounts of this period comes from the oft-cited writings of William Lowden, himself an area pioneer who was largely responsible for the development of Trinity county's infrastructure. Having worked with both Palmer and Lewis and knowing them both intimately, Lowden, in a letter to the Old Settlers of Trinity County, dated December 6, 1891, describes Palmer as "a rather short, heavy set man with a large intelligent head and a face covered with thick hair and a long beard."

In Lowden's own words he recounts a fascinating anecdote regarding the final hours of the prospector's life. Palmer had established another Trinity River ferry just south of Trinity Center in 1853. It was there that the following event takes place.

B.F. Lewis's former house, in a photo taken in the 1970s, after years of structural renovations

After years of success in pursuit of the precious metal, Palmer had acquired a sizable fortune in placer gold, which he kept buried in bottles and cans somewhere in the woods outside of town. On his deathbed he dispatched a messenger named John Christy to send for either Lowden of Lewis so that Palmer could impart to them, his two most-trusted friends, his last wishes—that his cache should be divided between his housekeeper, Mrs. Gibbs, and Mr. Lewis, his adopted son—and presumably, to divlulge the exact location of the dying man's treasure. Rather than honoring Palmer's final request, the scheming Mr. Christy departed, then lingered in the area a bit before returning to report his failure in locating either gentleman. According to Lowden, Tom Palmer lay there for a few minutes staring up at the man and said, "Christy, you have not been to Lewiston at all. You think I will tell you where my money is buried, but you are mistaken; I could not do so if I wanted to. That money is forever lost." A few minutes later he died.

The Lewis' Bridge Estates, as Palmer's property had become known, was transferred to Lewis as had been stipulated in the old man's will, but by the following year the will was contested by former associates of Palmer. The case was lost to the plaintiffs and Lewis was left to pay a sum of nearly $1,500. In February, 1855, the entire estate was sold, including Lewis' half on the "upper side"—a total of 320 acres along the river, buildings, equipment, livestock and all—to Wood, Phillips & Company.

Few today realize that the property adjacent to the Trinity River that has become best known as the longtime estate of the Phillips family was first developed by Lewiston's founder, Tom Palmer, and his adopted son, B. F. Lewis. Until now, the identity of the Lewis' Bridge Estate as the original name of downtown Lewiston was a fact destined to remain hidden in the pages of local history.

Perhaps what is most fascinating about the life of Thomas Palmer is that were it not for the generosity of this one man, the town we've come to know as Lewiston could just as easily have been named Palmer Valley. But fate being what it is, the ferry operation undertaken by Frank Lewis would be the catalyst for the founding of the historic mining town, while the nearby lake, a number of local structures and countless area businesses were destined to share his name as well as his legacy in the century-and-a-half to come.

Despite having such a grand honor bestowed upon him at the tender age of twenty seven, the hardships and injustices faced by Lewis up to this point were only the beginning of what would be a life riddled with personal sacrifices and elusive fortunes.

So, what tale does history tell of the mysterious B. F. Lewis? Until recently, little was known of the man.

Extensive records searches and historical investigations have uncovered reams of evidence that flesh out the story of the Trinity County pioneer and help put to rest old myths and misinterpretations of his life.

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Benjamin Franklin Lewis was born in New York state on February 3, 1824. By William Lowden's account, he had been orphaned by his Vermont-born parents before Tom Palmer "took him and clothed him up nicely, paid his board and sent him to school until he was of age."

Some early records have Frank listed alternately as "Frank B. Lewis" and "Benjamin Francis Lewis." The bulk of the recorded evidence however calls into question these reports of his name.

No doubt embittered from his court losses and perhaps feeling like a stranger in his own town, around 1855 Frank abandoned the house which he helped build at the corner of Schoolhouse and Lewiston Roads, moving south to Sacramento. (The historic Lewis-Scott House would ultimately succumb to the ravages of fire in October, 2005.)

The following year, he met an English immigrant named Mary and made her his wife. Their first child, Elvira, was born there in 1857. But by 1860, the family was back in Lewiston, living at Grass Valley, at the time their youngest daughter, Remania (possibly Rimonia), was born in 1862. It is unclear where the clan was living when Frank P. Lewis, their middle child, was born. The Lewis children most likely attended school at the Lewiston Schoolhouse after classes were first taught there in 1865.

B. F. Lewis' family remained in Lewiston until 1870, where he is mysteriously absent from the census.

Years later, local news accounts placed him in Surprise Valley, California, near the Nevada border, where he reportedly owned a ranch. Land deed records from around 1876 confirm this.

But it was Lewis' decision to move his family out of the state that would prove the ultimate test of his mettle as a man; for the choice of his next homestead presented for his a human challenge unlike any he had seen and set the stage for the loss of not one, but two of his beloved family members.

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(I)t was Lewis' decision to move his family out of the state that would prove the ultimate test of his mettle as a man.

Lakeview, Oregon, is a small town, roughly twice the size of Lewiston, that lies just north of the California border in Lake County. By the 1870's, the Lewis clan was living comfortably there when tragedy struck.

Mary, the family matriarch, died in 1878 and was buried in the Lakeview Cemetery. The dates on her gravestone are illegible and the cause of her death remains a mystery as well. But it was what happened next that would change the Lewis family forever, and, unbeknownst to B. F. Lewis, prove the undoing of his reputation as a law-abiding and honorable man, at least as far as his former neighbors back in Trinity County would ever learn.

The events that transpired in or around 1882—those that brought about the Trinity Journal article referenced earlier—are, to this day, unclear. What we now know with some degree of certainty is this:

This plaque is the only memorial in Lewiston dedicated to the memory of B.F. Lewis and Tom Palmer, located on the property known as Lewis's Estate, which once comprised the bulk of downtown Lewiston

Around this time, a shooting took place in Lake County, Oregon, that involved a young deputy Sheriff with the surname of Lewis. The deputy sustained a gunshot wound to the leg which proved fatal, and he was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere on the outskirts of Lakeview.

At this juncture, B. F. Lewis was approaching the age of 60—no longer a young man—and any report of him turning to a life of crime would have seemed dubious.

Further, his son, Frank P. Lewis, appears to have vanished from the census record after 1880, which would lead one to conclude that the young deputy killed in the gunfight was in fact B. F. Lewis' only male heir.

One problem with the theory is that Lake County records have the deputy's name as Simon Lewis, whose brother, Evan, helped settle the dead man's estate. These men were not related to Frank Lewis and a case of mistaken identity would appear implausible.

(As a curious footnote to the story, Lewis' youngest daughter, Remania, was married to the brother of the town jailer, Samuel Hutson, at this time.)

Who knows if Frank P. Lewis was the young lawman killed in what became known as the Laws and Calavan Feud of 1882, or if, as pure coincidence, the Lewis boy simply died around the same time of less-noteworthy means. Tragically, the archive of the area's only newspaper from this period burned in 1890, and along with it any written record of the event.

What we do know is that B. F. Lewis, the renowned miner and pioneer, did not die in Lake County, Oregon, that year. Census records have him leaving Lakeview shortly after the "disappearance" of his son, and relocating his family farther north in Oregon, near the border of Washington state, where they would remain until his death nearly twenty years later.

His daughter, Elvira, married James Moore in 1883, in Linkville, Oregon (now Klamath Falls), just before they moved north to Wasco County with her aging father in tow. She had two children, Lewis (who would sire B. F. Lewis' only known great-grandson, James Finley Moore, in 1931), and Bernice (who lived until 1967). A few years after Frank's passing at the turn-of-the-century, the family was once again uprooted to live out the rest of their lives in the Seattle area.

His obituary, first published in The Dalles (weekly) Chronicle, dated October 3, 1900, and reprinted here, teems with revelations about him and his family not found in the Trinity County records system. Namely, that he came to Lewiston by way of Placerville, that he was married in Sacramento, and that he had at least five siblings, all of whom he preceded in death. Further, Lewis' death notice confirms that his brother was living in this region at the time, and given the proximity of their respective homesteads in some census records, the two may have even worked together at various times.

As yet, no evidence has been uncovered to indicate that B. F. Lewis had descendants beyond his great-grandson (who died in 1983), so it would appear that no one remains to tell the story of the Lewis family patriarch who helped Tom Palmer settle a small northern California town and prospered from its rich reserves of placer gold.

Photographs of B. F. Lewis and his family remain a commodity even more rare and precious than the gold he worked so hard to amass, the same substance that would take him on his northward journey and into the pages of a partly-false, and largely forgotten history.

Research surrounding the life of B. F. Lewis and his kin is ongoing. Efforts will be made henceforth to obtain additional documentation of the legacy of this great man, including pursuit of the elusive photos that surely illustrate the life of the unrequited pioneer and eventual icon to all who would follow in his footsteps.

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What then are we to make of the misinformation—or was it disinformation—concerning this man's legacy? Were the horse thief rumors the product of a simple miscommunication in what passed for newsgathering in olden times, when fact-checking was still a fledgling concept during the journalistically-primitive days of the Pony Express? Or were they the end result of a more nefarious endeavor, as some might speculate, a campaign of local origin by envious contemporaries of Mr. Lewis perhaps, who, for one reason or another, bore some grudge against the man after he'd prospered here—and by way of nepotism to boot—only to abandon the town he helped create for the tasty offerings of greener pastures elsewhere?

We may never know the origin of the mistruths that have stood for over a century in the minds of those among us who otherwise consider themselves well informed of area history. Now, with the whole story before us—or as much of it as can be reliably unearthed by mere mortals a few generations removed—we can, with a degree of confidence, draw our own conclusions about this, the first chapter in a very long history of the humble village and historic mining town called Lewiston.

In 1900, the same year the town was preparing to celebrate its 50th anniversary as a California community, Lewiston saw two more milestones that would prove both high and low watermarks on its cultural and historical landscape.

Prior to the construction of the dam, the Trinity River had a rather schizophrenic history, with a proclivity for flooding. After several decades and countless spans lost to flood waters, work was completed by the summer of that year on a one-lane metal bridge. Fifty-five years later, when the bulk of the downtown district was engulfed in an historic deluge, it withstood the ravages of that debacle. And still, the bridge remains to this day, more than one hundred years beyond its establishment.

Without question, the construction of the Lewiston Bridge marked the beginning of an era for the residents of Lewiston. Little did they know that that same hisoric year would signify the end of still another, equally important era.

That fall, several hundred miles to the north, Lewiston unwittingly bade farewell to its patriarch, a man who would never lay his eyes upon the very structure that came to symbolize the honor and integrity of his former place of residence, the same qualities which he himself embodied. B. F. Lewis' unseen bridge, which served as the ultimate replacement to his short-lived ferry from the same stretch of the Trinity River, showed itself to be of much fortitude; for it outlived not just his own grandchildren, but the Lewiston homestead he'd established and later vacated in his pursuit of other horizons.


(He) would never lay his eyes upon the very structure that came to symbolize the honor and integrity of his former place of residence, the same qualities which he himself embodied.

The hardships B. F. Lewis endured throughout his life began with the loss of both parents at an early age and continued through the death of his adoptive father and his being effectively deprived of the fortune that was bequeathed to him. Despite the challenges that he confronted, or perhaps partly because of them, he persevered through the love of his family and a passion for his work. Later, when Lewis suffered the untimely passing of his wife and son, it would only serve as a precursor to the injustices to come. At the end of his life, he died a neglected and unappreciated man whose earlier accomplishments were relegated to the dustbin of local history.

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In a sprawling, yet sparsely-wooded cemetery within the city limits of The Dalles, Oregon, lies the burial plot of one Benjamin Franklin Lewis. Though lacking a formal tombstone, the date of his death in the IOOF Columbia Chapter #5 Cemetery records is listed as September 30, 1900. He lived to glimpse the new century, but barely.

In his wake he left seventy-six plus years of accomplishment, numerous offspring and a legacy that, while equal parts mysterious and just plain wrong, ultimately has been redeemed as nothing less than proud and distinguished.

Lesser men who succeeded him would attempt to distort his and Tom Palmer's contributions to Trinity county history, and, in so doing, many more would come to misunderstand those same accomplishments. As an extension of their own willful ignorance, those who should have known better have erroneously dismissed Palmer and Lewis as nothing more than northstate footnotes.

Let the facts now speak for themselves. The myths and misconceptions of our town's history must finally be granted a swift and unimpeded death. Once again, the truth has outlasted those who would deny it, as it shall wherever and whenever there are people who venture to ask the questions.

The main entrance of the IOOF Cemetery where Lewis is buried, near the Columbia Gorge

It may entail another generation, or even longer, for the tempest of local folklore to be quelled surrounding the life of B. F. Lewis, for fantasy is often much more titillating than fact.

"Never meet your heroes," goes the old aphorism. For the first time, we have become acquainted with the man to whom we owe so much, and together we have met more than a hero; we rediscovered a legend.

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UPDATE: Spring, 2012--An article appeared in the May 2 edition of the Trinity Journal newspaper, portions of which are excerpted below. Brought to a close once and for all was the final chapter in the B.F. Lewis Story, as evidenced by the events reported therein:

"It's official. The town of Lewiston is back on the map, historically speaking. And its citizens have reason once again to celebrate yet another cultural milestone for their town.

Benjamin Franklin Lewis, one of the founders of the historic mining town in Trinity County, has finally gotten the recognition he deserves, in the form of a modest gravestone at his place of burial, about five hundred miles due north of his northern California hallmark. It's been more than a century in the making, but for the people of Lewiston, and the members of the Old Lewiston Schoolhouse in particular, the official acknowledgement of the life and death of Lewiston's long-forgotten namesake could not have come at a more appropriate time.

Some of those in attendance at the April 13, 2012, dedication ceremony of B.F. Lewis's headstone

That's because the year 2012 also marks the 150th anniversary of the historic building, where Lewis's children were some of the first students to attend class at the one room school located in the heart of what is now the Lewiston Historic District. For nearly twenty years, the timeworn structure has served as the town's sole library and museum. But now, just in time for the Lewiston Schoolhouse Sesquicentennial, it can lay claim to being the launching point for another historic milestone, all the while playing host to what may be the single most significant event since the discovery of a certain unmarked grave site in The Dalles, Oregon, in 2006. B.F. Lewis had been buried there since 1900, but no one from his God Rush-era hometown had had a clue about the site, nor about very many details of the man's life, until local researchers working for the Old Lewiston Schoolhouse organization (led by Steve Lindsay of Lewiston) got involved.

...On April 13,2012, with workers completing the installation of the headstone, the long awaited marker for Benjamin Franklin Lewis, the namesake of Lewiston, California, was complete....A small ceremony marked the occasion, where Ray Petersen of Lewiston read passages from the man's obituary, and well wishers from across the region, including Wasco County historian, Rose Denslinger, gathered to witness the spectacle and to pay their respects to the once forgotten Lewiston patriarch. "This is a day where every single citizen of the Pacific Northwest, from Lewiston to Oregon and beyond, can be proud. We're all very excited", said one attendee, who captured photos of the event.

The stone reads "Miner, Merchant, Ferryman" and speaks of the contributions that B.F. Lewis made to the Trinity County town that included having "christened, by his own name" the community of his founding. The modest blue granite marker now stands proudly at grave site #1, lot 13, row F of the IOOF Cemetery, just walking distance from the mighty Columbia River, near where explorer Meriwhether Lewis once traveled.

Now, the quiet little Oregon town can also be known as the onetime stamping grounds of another Lewis. Our Lewis. Everyone passing through the area is encouraged to stop by and pay him a visit. He'd be glad to meet you.

The grave stone of Lewiston's namesake, Benjamin Franklin Lewis, in The Dalles, Oregon

AUTHORS NOTE: Research for this story was conducted exclusively by the author with assistance from fellow volunteers and associates of the Old Lewiston Schoolhouse Library and Museum. No participants received remuneration for their contributions to the project. The information contained herein is accurate to the best of the author's knowledge. Documents are on file that support many of the factual claims made in this presentation, and can be viewed upon request. In addition, information widely available through the public records database will corroborate all facts presented herein. The text of this article is copyrighted and may not be reproduced without the permission of the author.

Better known by his alter ego, Earl, gentleman is well known for his rambling, vitriolic diatribes and various forms of social miscreantism. Truly, his fan base is legion. But when not riling the populace, his reputation as indefatigable ladies man precedes him wherever he goes. Know him. Love him. And beware!
Jack A. Scribner, Writer/Researcher

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