RUSSELL, John

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John and Ada Russell
Moore (l) and Brookes (center) served in the Army during WWI, and Russell (r) and his wife, Ada, took care of San Miguel Island.

RUSSELL, John (c. 1859-?), Connecticut-born of Irish parents [1920 census], he was resident ranch manager on San Miguel Island for Captain W. G. Waters from 1904 to the late 1920s. Russell lived with his British-born wife, Ada (c. 1862- ) and her daughter from a previous marriage, Mary Alice Malone. Ada had emigrated in 1876 and was naturalized as a citizen in 1901. In the 1910 U.S. census, John Russell is 51, married to Ada and living with his son, Chester, 28, born in Colorado, and Ada's daughter Mary, age 13, also born in Colorado.

On San Miguel Island, Captain Waters built his 120-foot long ranch house above Cuyler’s Harbor with the help of John Russell. (Herbert Lester later named this house, Rancho Ramboullet.) Russell salvaged redwood lumber, which had been cargo aboard the schooner J. M. Colman wrecked on the island in 1905, for construction. Russell also recalled salvaging bags of flour recovered from the J. M. Colman, which were piled on top of the lumber as it was hauled to the top of the island. The Russells used the flour for years.

In 1913, Ada Russell’s daughter, Mary [Malone] (17), married local sea captain Clarence Joseph Libbey (40). (On May 24, 1915 she killed their 5-month-old son and then herself.)

John and Ada Russell continued living on San Miguel Island after Waters death in 1917, and worked for lessees Robert Brooks and J. R. Moore through World War I to 1920, and then for Robert Brooks when he gained the lease alone through 1925. The Russells moved to the mainland sometime in the late 1920s. Elizabeth Lester mentioned “the Russells were too elderly and infirm to remain on the island alone.” She described him as “a devout man... an abstinent man who liked to fondly gossip about the weaknesses of others.” Elizabeth Lester recalled: “the old John Russell that was there before us had had a really big potato patch. He really could grow good potatoes.” Surprising little is recorded about the Russells who spent nearly two decades on San Miguel Island.

The March 1926 Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Leaflet reported “the caretaker at Cuyler’s Harbor was almost a second Robinson Crusoe, and made a plea for old magazines” from Captain M. E. Rodehaver. In 1929 Brooks hired his war friend, Herbert Lester to replace John Russell as island ranch manager. Lester and his bride moved to the island in 1930. [Lester 1974: 3, 60]



In the News

January 4, 1882 [SBDP]: “George Orcutt and family have recently moved into Mrs. Russell’s house on Cota Street. Mr. Orcutt until recently has been in charge of Santa Rosa Island for his brother-in-law, A. P. More. The family will be a valuable acquisition to Santa Barbara society.”


1906 [Roberts/98]: “In 1906 William Waters commenced work on the largest ranch house ever built on an off-shore California island. By this time he also had a full-time resident manager named John Russell...”


November 18, 1913 [SBMP]: “Loses boat but wins bride on island. Clarence Libbey, shipwrecked on San Miguel Island, will wed daughter of keeper. Real romance with nautical flavor across channel yesterday. From San Miguel Island comes a tale of shipwreck and love, how a stranded mariner, who lost boat and all on a rock isolated coast, found shelter in the home of the island keeper, and then won the heart of the house. Next Sunday in this city, wedding bells will ring for Clarence Libbey and Miss Mary Russell; and that happiness will be the sequel of the romance is the assurance that comes from folks who know them both. Early in September, Libbey, who has been engaged in fishing and boating about the island for several years, was tossed upon the ragged edge of San Miguel during a sudden blow. His launch was wrecked. He lost everything, barely managing to escape with his life. He knew this island, and started to walk to the ranch house, which was on the side of the isle opposite from where he landed, and several miles away. Superintendent and Mrs. John Russell gave the shipwrecked mariner welcome, and spread before him tempting food. The daughter assisted in these gentle ministrations. When Libbey left on the first boat that touched at San Miguel Island, he had won the young lady’s heart. Miss Russell came to Santa Barbara several days ago to prepare for the wedding, and yesterday her mother arrived from the island on the Charm, and will be here until after the ceremony. ”


November 25, 1913 [SBMP]: “Clarence J. Libbey and Mary Alice Malone were married Sunday at No. 421 West De la Guerra Street, Judge Jacob G. Shoup officiating. Mr. Libbey and Miss Malone met on San Miguel Island when Libbey was shipwrecked there some time ago. Miss Malone is the daughter of Mrs. Russell, wife of the superintendent of the island. Mrs. Russell returned to the island yesterday on the launch Charm. ”


February 24, 1915 [SBMP]: “Captain Ira K. Eaton left for San Miguel Island in the Sea Wolf last evening. He will return tomorrow, bringing Mrs. Russell, wife of the superintendent of the island, who will visit her daughter, Mrs. Clarence Libbey, for some time, the latter’s husband being confined to his home by sickness.”


May 24, 1915 [SBDNI]: “’May 24th, 1915. Half past ten. Clarence Libbey, Dear Sir — Now who has got the baby? I should worry over all your threats now that we’re both gone. Go and carry out your threats if you need to. Now it won’t do any good because you won’t have any baby anyway. I tried to be good but its no use. I am better dead with my baby. I hope to meet you soon because you won’t get better.’ Writing the above farewell note to her husband, Mrs. Clarence H. Libbey of 200 Gray Avenue, this morning shot her year-old infant through the head, and then turning the revolver on herself committed suicide… Mrs. Libbey is said to have been born on San Miguel Island. Her father, a man named Malone, died there several years ago. Her mother later married a man named Russell, and two years ago the deceased, who is said to have seldom visited the mainland, was married to Clarence Libbey, who met her on his fishing trips…”


May 25, 1915 [SBMP]: “Mrs. Mary Libbey takes life of babe and commits suicide. The wife of Clarence J. Libbey was 18 years old and a native of Iowa, coming here with her father A. Malone, who became employed on San Miguel Island. The girl spent her years there until eighteen months ago, coming to Santa Barbara to marry Libbey, who as a fisherman, met the girl. Their married life had not been a happy one... [Libbey] was 45 and she was about 18. The latter was the daughter of Mrs. Russell, whose husband is employed by Captain Waters on San Miguel Island... Clarence Libbey, husband of the deceased, testified as to the wife's mental characteristics, saying that she was of a nervous excitable nature and very prone to brooding over her affairs...”


May 26, 1915 [SBDNI]: “Lying side by side in death, the little boy’s tiny body nestling in the arms of his mother, Mrs. Clarence Libbey and her five month-old son, Clarence John Libbey, were laid to rest this afternoon in Santa Barbara cemetery, three days after the young wife killed herself and her baby while fearing her husband intended to take the child away from her. Both bodies lay in a white casket, the mother’s arm gently clasping the form of her little son. The funeral was held from the home of Mrs. Delia Mullenary, 222 East Montecito Street, a sister-in-law of Mrs. Libbey. Reverend Warren D. More, Dr. D., pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, read the beautiful words of the burial service. The casket was almost hidden in masses of flowers. The funeral, which was held at 2 o’clock this afternoon, was private, only the husband, Clarence Libbey, the family, and a few intimate friends being present. Mrs. Libbey’s mother, Mrs. Russell, and Mrs. Andrew C. Nebbia, a sister of the husband, attended from Los Angeles. The pallbearers were chosen from among friends of the family. Charles McDermott, as funeral director, had charge of arrangements.”


May 30, 1915 [SBMP]: “Captain Ira K. Eaton will go to San Miguel Island tomorrow to take to her home Mrs. John Russell, wife of the superintendent of the island. Mrs. Russell recently returned from Los Angeles where she had submitted to a serious surgical operation that was, happily, entirely successful, and she returns to her island home with pleasing prospects of the recovery of her former good health.”


May 5, 1916 [SBMP]: “Waters meets fusillade of ammonia. Strange attack made by laundryman who is looking for his wife. H. D. Trader, a Los Angeles laundryman, came to town yesterday morning, heavily armed, in search of his wife, with whom he recently had a quarrel, with the result of her leaving him. Mr. Trader heard that his wife had found a place in the home of Captain W. G. Waters, at 215 East Victoria Street, and there he went straightaway after landing at the local passenger station… Mrs. Trader is the daughter of Mrs. Russell, who with her husband, has been employed for the past six years on Captain Waters’ ranch on San Miguel Island…”


May 5, 1916 [SBDP]: “J. B. Trader, Los Angeles laundryman, who yesterday made a vicious attack on Captain W. G. Waters, was sent to the county jail this morning by Police Judge E. A. Rizor to serve six months, the maximum punishment possible under the charge preferred. He was charged with brandishing a deadly weapon. Trader sent word to Captain Waters by Chief of Police Ross that he wanted to apologize for his misconduct. The prisoner states that he cannot remember the details of his attack. ‘I was beside myself with mental anguish over my family troubles. My wife had left me, and I became blind with fury,’ said Trader… Captain Waters never met Trader before, and had only once met his wife. Her whereabouts continues to be a mystery. Chief of Police Ross states that only the absolute self-possession and coolness of Captain Waters and his brother, John, prevented a killing.”


May 5, 1916 [LAT]: “H. B. Trader, said to be a Los Angeles laundryman, attached Captain William G. Waters of this city this afternoon with an ammonia squirt gun and a .45 caliber revolver. Trader attempted to storm the Waters home to find his missing wife, whom he believed had sought asylum with the Waters family… The mother of Mrs. Trader works as cook for the sheep crew on the island, and it was this fact that led Trader to suppose possibly Mrs. Trader had sought aid from Captain Waters and his family after leaving her Los Angeles home. Her whereabouts are unknown, the Waters family having no knowledge of her. Trader was locked up and booked on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon.”


May 6, 1916 [SBMP]: “Ammonia gun man given six months. H. B. Trader will have long period to reflect over attack on Captain Waters. In the police court yesterday morning, H. B. Trader, the Los Angeles laundry worker who fired an ammonia gun at the face of Captain W. G. Waters at the latter’s residence on East Victoria Street last Thursday, missing his mark through the agile-stepping of his intended victim, and then covered the captain with a ferocious looking revolver, had his accounting at the hands of the law… All the defense could say to court in extenuation of his violent conduct was that he had a row with his wife; that she had left him, and that he was told that she had found a place in the home of Captain Waters, and that he had determined to compel her to return to him, even if he had to ‘do up’ anyone who stood in his way… Captain Waters came through the episode of the irate husband’s bluff with no harm except to his usual serenity…”


August 23, 1916 [SBMP]: “John Russell, superintendent of Captain W. G. Waters’ ranch on San Miguel Island, had the misfortune a few days ago, to be kicked in the breast by a mule. He came to the mainland with the first opportunity that offered, when the power yacht Dreamer put into Cuyler’s Harbor while on a cruise around the islands. Dr. Winchester was called to attend to Mr. Russell’s injuries, which were found to be not of a serious nature. The injured man was accompanied by his wife. Both will go to Los Angeles today and the husband is expected soon to be able to resume his duties on the island.”


August 23, 1916 [SBDN]: “Suffering from a mule kick in the chest, John Russell, superintendent of Captain Water’s ranch on San Miguel Island was attended here yesterday by Dr. R. F. Winchester. The injury received several days ago was not found to be serious and Mr. Russell and his wife who accompanied him on the trip to the mainland have left for a visit to Los Angeles.”


August 23, 1916 [SBMP]: “John Russell, superintendent of Captain W. G. Waters’ ranch on San Miguel Island, had the misfortune a few days ago, to be kicked in the breast by a mule. He came to the mainland with the first opportunity that offered, when the power yacht Dreamer put into Cuyler’s Harbor while on a cruise around the islands. Dr. Winchester was called to attend to Mr. Russell’s injuries, which were found to be not of a serious nature. The injured man was accompanied by his wife. Both will go to Los Angeles today and the husband is expected soon to be able to resume his duties on the island.”


September 17, 1916 [SBMP]: “Captain W. G. Waters went to San Miguel Island in the Sea Wolf yesterday morning, accompanied by Mr. Howland, president of the San Clemente Wool Company of San Clemente Island, and superintendent and Mrs. Russell, whose home is on San Miguel Island. Captain Waters and Mr. [Charles] Howland expect to return to the mainland next Tuesday.”


September 18, 1916 [SBDN]: “Captain W. G. Waters left in the Sea Wolf for San Miguel Island Saturday, accompanied by Mr. Howland, president of San Clemente Island, and superintendent and Mrs. Russell, of San Miguel Island. Captain Waters and Mr. Howland will return to Santa Barbara tomorrow.”


September 25, 1916 [SBDNI]: “Captain Waters renews 5 year lease on San Miguel Island... At present John Russell and his wife are taking charge of the island for Captain Waters. Mr. Russell has been in the employ of Captain Waters for ten years.”


1920s [Roberts/104]: “John Russell and his wife stayed on as resident managers in the 1920s, but [Robert] Brooks visited regularly and did much to improve ranch facilities...”


March 2, 1923 [LAT]: “Widow weeps by rude grave. Faithful to mate in death on lonely island… Alone on uninhabited San Miguel Island, a widow last night was waiting by the rude grave of her husband for the arrival of a coroner from Santa Barbara, after a vigil kept since her mate’s death on February 17. San Miguel Island is thirty-five miles from the mainland, and fifty-five miles from Santa Barbara. Once a desolate waste over-run by wild hogs [?], it has been used for several years as a sheep range. The widow’s long vigil was revealed, when Captain Charles W. Smith, of the Santa Rosa Island schooner, owned by Vail & Vickers of Los Angeles, sent a boat to San Miguel Island after sighting of frantic signals of John Russell. Russell had been sent to the island on February 15 to repair a windmill on the property, which is controlled by Vail & Vickers [?]. The second day after his arrival, D. G. Guevarra, superintendent in charge of 2700 sheep, died suddenly of heart disease. Last Friday night lumber steamer Watson A. West bound to Los Angeles with 800,000 feet of lumber, was pounded to bits on the rocks at the west end of the island. It was to view the wreck that Captain Smith hove too off the island. Russell told Captain Smith that following Guevarra’s death, day after day he had signaled passing vessels without any response… By sheer accident yesterday, the signals were seen by Captain Smith, who sent a boat to the island…”


March 13, 1923 [ODC]: “Wife left to mourn husband on San Miguel. Left alone when her husband dies on San Miguel Island near here. Help fails to come. Keeps vigil from February 17 until yesterday beside crude grave... The widow’s long vigil was revealed yesterday, when Captain Charles W. Smith, of the Santa Rosa Island schooner, owned by Vail & Vickers of Los Angeles, sent a boat to San Miguel Island after the sighting of frantic signals of John Russell. Russell had been sent to the island on February 15 to repair a windmill on the property, which is controlled by Vail & Vickers [?]. The second day after his arrival D. G. Guevarra, superintendent in charge of 2700 sheep, died suddenly of heart disease. Last Friday night the lumber steamer Watson A. West, bound to Los Angeles with 800,000 feet of lumber, was pounded to bits on the rocks at the west end of the island. It was to view the wreck that Captain Smith hove to off the island. Russell told Captain Smith that following Guevarra’s death, day after day he had signaled passing vessels without any response. At length it became imperative that Guevarra be buried, so Russell fashioned a box of rough lumber, dug the grave and interred the body, with what he could remember of a funeral service.”