Sarah Lim: Combing the records to uncover the past of a county historian

11/01/2013 9:00 PM

11/01/2013 9:01 PM

One Tuesday afternoon in March while I was working at the Milliken Museum in Los Banos, I was shown a typed document about Merced County history in an old envelope. The envelope – postmarked April 15, 1954 – was addressed to Ralph Milliken of Los Banos from James Outcalt of San Andreas.

The manuscript, which appeared to be proofread by Milliken in 1939, consisted of two chapters: “Population” and “The West Side – Before the Gringos Came.” I told the staff the manuscript would not have been John Outcalt’s “History of Merced County” since it was published in 1925 and it was more likely the work of Corwin Radcliffe, whose version of “History of Merced County” was published in 1940.

Once I returned to my office in Merced, I checked Radcliffe’s book and confirmed my speculation. Not only did his book cover both chapters, Radcliffe also acknowledged help from historians John Outcalt, Ralph Milliken and Frank Latta.

I was intrigued by the sender, James Outcalt. What was his relationship to John Outcalt? How did he end up with the document? Why did he send it to Milliken long after Radcliffe’s book was published?

Come to think of it, I knew very little about John Outcalt, whose work I have referred to extensively in my writings. In comparison to Milliken, Radcliffe and Latta, Outcalt is the most quoted and celebrated Merced County historian, and yet no known biography about him was ever written.

With the help of local genealogist Alma Stone, I have been able to put together a biographical sketch of this historian.

John Maurice Outcalt was born to Ammi Alamanson and Cynthia Outcalt on Oct. 16, 1880, in St. Johns, Mich. He had a brother, Albert A. Outcalt. When he was a child, the family moved to California and eventually settled in El Dorado County. Outcalt attended the University of California, Berkeley, in the late 1890s and obtained a bachelor’s degree in English.

After successfully passing the teachers’ examination in 1900, he was granted a teaching certificate in El Dorado County.

Teaching may not have been his calling since he returned to Berkeley to work on his bachelor of law degree in 1908. His passion for writing made him a perfect member of the editorial staff for the school yearbook, Blue and Gold.

After his admission to the state bar, Outcalt came to Merced in 1914 and started his own law practice in the Shaffer Building. An interesting note, eight out of 15 law offices in Merced at this time were housed in the Shaffer Building.

Outcalt lived in Merced County from 1914 to about 1938. His last known residential address was 954 W. 21st St., according to the 1935 Polk’s Merced City Directory. It was unclear when he left Merced, but he was listed as residing in the White Oak Township in El Dorado County in the 1940 federal census. When he died on April 4, 1954, he was a resident of Rescue, El Dorado County. It appears Outcalt never married nor produced any children.

During his time in Merced it was not well documented what kind of law practice he had. But from a little information gathered, Outcalt appeared to engage in civil and criminal law.

In 1918, he successfully represented Charles Hing in an insurance law case in the California District Court of Appeal. In 1926, he served as deputy to District Attorney Claude H. McCray who was a close friend, a hunting buddy and a fellow Elk.

Outcalt was more interested in collecting and writing local history than practicing law. Even though he was not a Merced County native, in just a little over 10 years, Outcalt had already established himself as an authoritative local historian. He gave history talks to local groups.

He accompanied Frank Latta to interview John Charles Cunningham, the author of “The Truth about Murietta,” in 1924.

When Historic Record Company in Los Angeles wanted to publish a comprehensive history of Merced County, Outcalt was hired to write it. To finance the book, the company got prominent local citizens to pay for their biographical sketches in the book. Published in 1925, the full title of Outcalt’s book was “History of Merced County California with a Biographical Review of The Leading Men and Women of the County Who Have Been Identified with Its Growth and Development from the Early Days to the Present.”

Although this kind of history often seems a self-promotion of local pride, Outcalt did a fair job in “marshaling of facts and completeness of detail,” according to Merced Sun-Star columnist Corwin Radcliffe.

Outcalt drew his research from old newspapers, county records, federal censuses, manuscripts, maps and interviews of pioneers. One of the most valuable sources was Peter Fee’s diary, which detailed the history of Merced and Mariposa counties in the mid 9th century. If anyone has seen or knows the whereabouts of this diary, please contact me at (209)723-2401.

As for James Outcalt and Radcliffe’s manuscript, James was John Outcalt’s nephew who resided in San Andreas at the time of John Outcalt’s death.

I suspect that Milliken sent Radcliffe’s manuscript with his comments to Outcalt for input in 1939. Shortly after Outcalt’s death in 1954, James discovered the manuscript while going through Outcalt’s personal belongings and sent it back to Milliken. This would explain how the document came into James’ possession.

For more history of Merced County, please visit the Courthouse Museum. Currently on display is the “Weaving A Legacy: The History of Central California Indian Basketry” exhibit.

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