Saturday, Jun. 15, 2019

Jim Sam: The Legendary Chinese Cowboy

By Dewey Livingston · January 03, 2019

Jim Sam <span>&copy; McIsaac Family </span>

Jim Sam

Jim Sam at the gambling table. <span>&copy; Jack Mason Museum </span>

Without a doubt the most colorful character in Nicasio history is Jim Sam. His story is unique, and he left an imprint on generations of Nicasio residents. Jim Sam was a cowboy, cook, jockey, gambler, and for many Nicasio youngsters, the only Chinese man they had ever seen. What may have started as a felonious, drunken prank, seemed to have ended well for the man, who spent his Nicasio life full of adventure, respect and love.

According to census records, Jim Sam was born in China in 1859 and came to America the next year. He lived in San Francisco, and here’s where the story gets interesting. No one knows his situation there, whether he had a loving family or was a neglected street urchin; around 1870 fate brought him to Nicasio rancher Neil McIsaac and his Civil War buddy Hugh Monroe, who were in San Francisco “for some reason or another” (in the words of McIsaac’s grandson, the late Don McIsaac).

The big cowboys saw the boy alone on a street corner and befriended him; soon, they were on the ferry to Marin County and arrived home on the ranch with a little Chinese boy in tow. One old-time resident thought those two would have gone to jail if they’d been caught: “I think they had a few too many drinks and picked up the little boy and took him home: that’s kidnapping.”

The men brought the boy to Tom Fitzgerald’s ranch, according to Boyd Stewart; at some point he was given the name Jim Sam. “Fitzgerald raised [him],” Stewart said. “The kid that was stolen. They took him out, at least that’s what story they told me, they took him out to Tom Fitz’s place and Mrs. Fitz said he was raised [there].” Indeed, the census of 1900 lists a cook named Jim Sam in residence at the Fitzgerald’s place. Local residents continually denied having anything to do with Jim Sam’s “relocation.”

Don McIsaac claimed that Jim Sam lived and worked at their ranch for a while: “He shows up in the 1880 census,” Don said, “and my family’s listed there, and Jim Sam is listed right with them, right after them – and listed as a servant.” It is likely that Jim Sam moved now and then, since no one could rightfully claim him.

Jim Sam grew into adulthood in Nicasio. He didn’t attend school but reportedly could read and write; many remembered his unique accent, a mix of “pidgin” English and rancher slang. He worked as a milker on the McIsaac’s and probably other ranches. Jim Sam learned how to do everything on a ranch, and became “an excellent rider,” Boyd recalled.

Jim Sam went to work for the Farley brothers, stock traders and butchers. As an able horseman he helped with cattle drives and roundups. “My memory of him, he was working for Farley brothers in Nicasio, and he was driving cattle, helping with cattle,” recalled Don McIsaac. “The three Farley brothers, Bill, Maylon and Tillie, were in the cattle business and they had quite a bit of cattle driving to do.” Clarence Rogers added, “I always remember him [Jim Sam] on his little white horse.”

Jim Sam rode for the Farleys for many years driving cattle. Howard Farley said that when they came to a gate, Jim would “stay in the back so that when they opened the gate he could come roaring through!” Pep Tognalda said that Jim Sam spent most of his time with butcher Bill Farley, chasing cows down to the stockyard through Nicasio on horseback: “See the Farleys coming down the road, there’s a white horse, Jim Sam!”

As of 1910, Jim Sam boarded with the Farleys. He made an income from his cattle work, but took other opportunities as well. “Now, over the years, Jim I think ran a hotel in Point Reyes for a while,” recalled McIsaac. Clarence Rogers told that around 1890, when the Hotel Point Reyes was built, Jim Sam left Nicasio for a while and became a gambler there at the new hotel; “I guess he thought he was going to make money easier than working.” Jim Sam learned to gamble by watching, and had a natural talent. “He never learned how to play cards,” recalled Henrietta Greer, “but he could always win everything the other fellow had!”

Henrietta’s brother Boyd Stewart reminisced about Jim Sam to students at Nicasio School. They wrote this account in Nicasio News about one of Jim Sam’s gambling adventures:

Back then in Jim Sam’s time insurance men and salesmen would often come from San Rafael or San Francisco to Nicasio in order to sell things. These insurance men and salesmen would usually stay at the Nicasio Hotel. 

One day a group of men came from the city to stay at the hotel. The men were putting together a poker game and asked Jim Sam to play since they were one player short. Jim Sam said he didn’t know how to play, but the men said, “That’s okay, we’ll teach you,” secretly thinking to themselves about all the money they would win from Jim Sam. Unfortunately for them they were wrong. By the time the night was through Jim Sam had everyone’s money, for he knew how to play much better than those men.

It was during this time that Jim Sam became a legendary figure in Marin County. “Stakes were high,” county historian Florence Donnelly wrote, “and Jim Sam usually had the biggest pile of chips.”

“He could do just about anything,” Henrietta recalled. Jim Sam ran the hotel in Nicasio for a while, by some accounts for a few years. Some say that Dan McNeil, owner of the Nicasio Hotel, left Jim Sam in charge while he went away. “They told him to take care of the hotel until they came back.” Older Nicasio residents remember Jim Sam presiding over the hotel and bar, most adding that he was a very good cook. He could apparently mix a good drink and commanded respect, as reported in a local paper: “Jim Sam, formerly horse trader and dairyman, but now champion mixologist of the town, has received a new invoice of war clubs with which to maintain order and discipline.”

A favorite story about Jim Sam concerned how his trust in others could be tested, in this unsigned reminiscence:

Any night the boys wanted a chicken dinner Jim Sam would agree to cook it for them if they would provide the chickens. The boys thought it a good joke to go out and catch Jim Sam’s own chickens and bring them in for him to fry. They worked this trick undetected a few times but Jim soon caught on and the jokers didn’t think it very funny when he came after them with a shotgun and howled that he’d shoot every —etc.— one of them. They scattered fast because they knew he meant it.

Not every memory shows Jim Sam as a model citizen. “Everybody liked Jim Sam,” said Henrietta. “[But] a lot of people that he took money from, horses, and one thing or another probably didn’t like him!” There was an old racetrack at Lafranchi’s dairy ranch, and Jim Sam was a regular there and at other venues. Ken Irving remembered one of his grandfather William Irving’s stories about Jim Sam, as recorded in the Nicasio News:

Great Grandfather Farley had racehorses and Jim Sam was his jockey. Once there was a race in Novato. Everyone was betting on the Farley horse but Great Grandpa Farley bet heavily on the Novato horse. The Farley horse lost. Many onlookers thought Jim may have thrown the race for Great Grandpa. 

Whatever the truth of the matter, Jim Sam has been remembered fondly by all who knew him. Pep said he was friendly to kids and made quite an impression on his white horse. Later in Jim Sam’s life, “Jiggs” Rogers remembered Jim Sam as a short, older man whose legs stuck out on either side of the big white horse he rode. Don McIsaac never knew Jim Sam to get into an argument and remembered him to be a very nice man. “I can remember in earlier years seeing him on the bench there in front of that store, you know, sitting there — he was just a nice man, as I remember, you know, quiet….” Don, whose grandfather had brought the boy to Nicasio, thought Jim Sam was very happy in Nicasio, because he stayed here almost all his life.

Francis Rodgers talked about how kids rarely saw Chinese people in those days. “We’d never seen a Chinaman before other than Jim Sam.” When very young, Marcie Lafranchi Dentoni saw Jim Sam as a scary person, a strange type to her: 

Oh yes, I remember him well. Well I was just a little girl, and it’s hard to think of the poor old guy. He was a good hearted soul, you know, but when you’re little and you see somebody that looks different, you’re scared and so I was afraid of him. I guess I was maybe about four years old and my mother said you could go down to the store to Mr. Rodgers and get the mail. So I was all happy and all fixed up. I walked down to the store, I opened the door, there’s poor Jim Sam sitting there, just as I opened the door, sitting next to the Post Office, you know, how it was. And he looked at me, I shut that door so fast and ran off. She said, “Well, where’s the mail?” I said, “Jim Sam was there, I didn’t stay.” He was sitting on one of those nail kegs.

Most youngsters warmed up to the out-of-the-ordinary old man. “He loved children,” wrote Florence Donnelly, “and always had candy in his pockets for them.”

When Jim Sam got too old to take care of himself he moved to Marin County’s poor farm on Lucas Valley Road, over towards San Rafael. He died of carcinoma of the stomach in 1926 and was buried at Mt. Tamalpais Cemetery in San Rafael. Nona Fitzgerald Farley, whose uncle and aunt had taken care of Jim Sam as a boy, placed an inscribed blue rock marker on the grave. Elaine Doss once took her Nicasio School class on a field trip to visit his grave.

To Don McIsaac, Jim Sam was more than a memorable character: “He was the only Chinese cowboy we ever knew.”


Excerpted from Nicasio: The Historic Valley at the Center of Marin by Dewey Livingston with Elaine Doss (Nicasio Historical Society, 2012)

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Robert Harrison wrote 5 months ago

The picture of Sam at the gambling table looks very much like the bar room at the Rancho Nicasio today. I wonder if it is the same room?

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