Weather Window | Titus family hails from difficult origins |

Weather Window | Titus family hails from difficult origins

Loggers haul cut trees near Sierra House, about three miles from Bijou, Lake Tahoe, circa 1888.
Courtesy Frank Titus |

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series.

Truckee is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its founding in 1863, a significant benchmark for this little historic town. The mid-19th century may seem so long ago, but there are still local families with roots dating back to that pioneer era.

Consider 91-year-old Frank Titus, Jr., who today lives in his family home along the Truckee River near Reno, Nev. Frank’s family is as “Truckee local” as it gets.

The Titus family history opens dramatically with murder and mayhem. Frank’s grandfather, John Charles Titus, was less than 3-years-old when his family left New York bound for California. His father was a seaman being transferred to the Pacific Coast. After their arrival at Panama City in April 1856, the Titus family was caught up in a riot by Panamanians angry at the United States, and aroused by a drunken sailor who took a watermelon from a local grocer’s market and refused to pay for it.

Nearly 30 Americans were killed in this massacre known as the “Watermelon Riot,” including young John’s parents. The Titus adults weren’t listed on the official death list, but the violence was so brutal that many of the victim’s bodies could not be identified.

Fortunately, the Titus children had been left on the pier to play. When the riot started, the captain of a nearby ship rushed everyone aboard and cast off.

The orphaned John, his brother and sister were adopted by passengers on board. A man named William Brigham took John. Brigham and the boy journeyed to Sierra Valley and then back to Missouri for a short time. They soon returned by oxen-drawn wagon to settle near Beckwourth in the Sierra Valley of northeast California.


Frank’s grandmother, Julia Williams, was born in the Sacramento Valley in 1858 to Swiss immigrants. They later moved to the booming Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevada Territory, when she was very young. There they owned and operated a grocery store before starting a profitable express delivery service between Washoe City and Virginia City.

Julia started school in Virginia City in 1863, one year before the territory gained statehood. While there, she became close friends with Virginia Tilton, the first white girl born in Virginia City. (When the 1930s movie “Virginia City” premiered at the Majestic Theater in Reno, a prize of two free seats was offered for the best picture submitted, and Julia’s photograph of Virginia Tilton won the day).


Tragedy struck the family in 1869 when Julia’s father Ernest Williams was killed on Geiger Grade. As Williams drove his express wagon around a curve, he ran into an army unit using camels as pack animals to carry wood. The strange-smelling camels spooked Williams’ team and they bolted, sending him and his wagon tumbling down the steep hillside. Julia, who was 11-years-old at the time, and her widowed mother Mary struggled financially until Mary married a Virginia City prospector named Peter Milich.

After the wedding the family moved to Milich’s ranch on the west fork of the Carson River, a few miles east of Woodfords, Calif. Unfortunately, Milich was a mean and abusive man who forced Mary to do much of the hard work on the ranch, including cow milking, cleaning the barns and rounding up the cattle.


One day Julia met a young cowboy from the Kirman ranches named John Titus. When Julia turned 16, the couple eloped by horseback and they were married in Bridgeport, Calif., in September 1874. It turned out despite William Brigham’s generosity in raising John after the massacre in Panama, this foster parent had a temper and beat his children.

At age 15, John Charles (Titus) had had enough, so he saddled a horse and took off for Reno, Nev. On the way he ran into a Mapes ranch herd of cattle being moved from their Northern grazing grounds back to the Reno area. John was immediately hired to help and worked for the Mapes ranches for a time until he was hired by the Kirman ranches.

The Kirman operation was a large outfit with extensive ranges from Bishop, Calif. to the Oregon border. Mr. Kirman liked the cut of John’s jib, offered the young man a permanent job, and took the teenager in as family. Kirman’s son Richard Jr. would later become the 17th governor of Nevada and came to Truckee to do the eulogy when John Titus passed away in 1938.

After their wedding service, the newlyweds moved to the Owens Valley town of Bishop for two years. John and Julia’s first son Charles was born there in December 1875, but he died five weeks later. In early 1877 John Titus was promoted to foreman of the Kirman Home Ranch south of Carson City, near Genoa, Nev. Their second son, Frank Adolph, was born there in March of that year. Two more sons were born in Nevada, John Walter (1879) and William Elmer (1883). Stay tuned.

Visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society’s Old Jail Museum on Jibboom Street this summer, which is featuring time capsule exhibits of Titus family memorabilia.

Historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. Find Mark’s books at stores or You can reach him at Follow Mark’s blog:

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