Saturday, February 16, 2008

General Ralph Kirkham - War hero, businessman, philanthropist

[Photo of Kirkham gravesite by Michael Colbruno]

Plot 6

General Ralph W. Kirkham (1821-1893) was a hero of the Mexican War, whose journals and letters provided historians with a vivid portrayal of the period. His lineage in America extended back to 1640 and his family was filled with military heroes. His grandfather Henry Kirkham fought in the French and Indian War and his father John Kirkham fought in the American Revolution.

In 1846, while stationed at Ft. Gibson in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, he met Catherine E. Mix and claimed it was love at first sight. He married the New Orleans-raised woman known as Kate six months later. Shortly after being married Kirkham was called away from his marital bliss when he was summoned to serve in the Mexican War. Kirkham dropped off Kate in New Orleans and boarded a boat to Veracruz, Mexico.

During his time in Mexico, Kirkham kept detailed journals of his wartime service, including six battles and accounts of his Infranty's travels throughout Mexico. After the American takeover of Mexico City he continued to write about the American occupation, showing that there was great cooperation between Mexican civilians and U.S. military personnel. A devout Episcopolian (who frequently trashed Catholics in his journals), he often wrote down his prayers and asked for divine protection for his wife.

In 1848, he was reunited with his wife in New Orleans. The next few years saw the young couple move all over the vast young country, from Minnesota to Missouri to the West Coast. In March 1855, they arrived in Ft. Tejon, California and Kirkham was promoted to captain. In 1857, he was reassigned to San Francisco where he served as quartermaster for the remaining thirteen years of his military career. [A quartermaster is responsible for supplying clothing and provisions to troops]. Kirkham purchased a large home in Oakland at 9th & Fallon Street where he raised his four daughters Leila, Julia, May and Kate.

In 1861, when the American Civil War erupted, Kirkham volunteered to return to duty but was ordered to remain in San Francisco as quartermaster. One of his major responsibilities during this time was to send gold to Washington D.C. to purchase armaments.

In 1870, Kirkam retired from the military and became a prominent Oakland businessman. He became one of the founding members of the Union National Gold Bank (later Union Savings Bank) and began buying real estate. Along with Colonel John Coffee Hays (who has a plaque honoring him at Mountain View Cemetery), Kirkham purchased a huge tract of land that later became Oakland. Hays and Kirkham began selling plots of land to hundreds of settlers, while donating land to railroads, gaslight companies, churches, parks, hospitals and the county seat. In 1879, Hays and Kirkham hosted former military colleague and United States President Ulysses S. Grant in Oakland.

Kirkham also left his mark as a great civic leader of the early days of Oakland, He was one of the founders of Mountain View Cemetery and served on its Association for years. He also donated land to St. John's Episcopal Church, donated generously to the Oakland City Hospital and provided and endowment for St. Luke's Hospital. His wife was one of the early supporters of Fabiola Hospital and served as its first president. Fabiola was built to serve the indigent and the poor.

Kirkham died at his Oakland home in 1893. Both San Francisco and Oakland honored him by naming streets after him and his sword is on display at the Presidio Army Museum. Kate died four years later.

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