Opinion: Finding Meaning

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The Life of George W. Thurston

If you enjoy Laguna history, here’s a new tale—the life wanderings of George Washington Thurston. Thurston, our first homesteader, brought his family to Aliso Canyon in 1871. His son Joseph S. Thurston spent his life here and is remembered as a Laguna Beach founder. The father George was a settler who never quite settled down. Here’s the story of his travels.

In the patriotism following the Revolutionary War, a pair of Thurston twins in Vermont were named Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Following the War of 1812 the family settled in Ohio, recently carved out of the Northwest Territory. In 1830, Thomas named his first son George W. Thurston also. In Ohio, the family joined a frontier religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the adherents known as Mormons. The Thurstons took part in its western movement, traveling to Nauvoo, Illinois, then Winter Quarters, Nebraska, and in 1847 by wagon train to Salt Lake in the Great Basin.

George’s father Thomas helped explore the Cache Valley (named for fur trappers caching furs and supplies there), built the first road through narrow Weber Canyon, and settled Morgan County (remembered by the highest mountain, Thurston Peak), helped by his son George. In the mid-1850s, George completed a church mission, traveling by wagon and sailboat to England and back. He then married Sarah L. Snow, daughter of the prominent colonizer Erastus Snow, in 1858.

George and Sarah settled in Mendon, Cache County where he built a gristmill, vital for grinding settler’s wheat into flour. A tragedy occurred there that is still remembered. The Shoshone Chief Pocatello, in response to a wrong against his people, vowed to steal ten settler’s children. Only one was stolen, but it was the Thurstons’ cherubic daughter, Rosa. The family and nearby settlers frantically searched the valley for little Rosa and the Thurstons offered a ransom for her recovery, but she was never seen again.

Around this time George read Thomas Paine’s anti-religion tract, “The Age of Reason,” and suffered a loss of faith. In 1871, Thurston uprooted his family and traveled by train to Oakland, by ship to San Diego, and by wagon to Orange County, where they settled in an Aliso Canyon shack.

Life was hard but the Thurstons eked out a hardscrabble living, improving the land as the family grew. Their son Joseph S. Thurston later wrote a memoir titled “Laguna Beach of Early Days,” remembering his father George as a hard taskmaster, sometimes harsh with his boys. Relations deteriorated as his boys became men and after a quarrel in the mid-1880s, George left. Once again, he was a wanderer. George’s last contact was from southeast Texas; he was noted there in the 1900 Census, turning 70 years old, farming. With no further word, the family presumed he died in the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900.

No gravestone marks the passing of George Washington Thurston. He lived a hard life building the western frontier, and left a family of 13 living children. We can remember George as our first settler, but also for the lesson that fathers should be kind and loving to their children. Someday there will be an accounting. There’s meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach. Email:  [email protected]

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