James A. Clayton was for many years a leading and influential citizen of San Jose and his activity in business affairs, his co-operation in public interests, and has zealous support of all objects that he believed would contribute to the material, social or moral improvement of his community kept him in the foremost rank of those to whom the city owes its development and present position as one of the leading metropolitan centers of California. His life was characterized by upright, honorable principles, and it also exemplified the truth of the Emersonian philosophy that “The way to win a friend is to be one.” His genial, kindly manner won him the regard and good will of all with whom he came in contact, and thus his death was uniformly mourned throughout San Jose and the surrounding district.
Mr. Clayton was a native of Derbyshire, England, born on the 20th of October, 1831. He came to the United States in 1839 with his parents, John and Mary (Bates) Clayton, both of whom were natives of New Mills, Derbyshire, England. The family home was established in the lead-mining in England, and he followed the same pursuit in this country in connection with agricultural interests during the greater part of his remaining days. he lived upon a farm near Mineral Point, Wisconsin, up to the time of his demise, which occurred in 1857, when he had reached the advanced age of eighty years. His wife also attained a ripe old age and passed away in 1853.
James A. Clayton was the twelfth in order of birth in a family of thirteen children. He pursued his education in the common schools of Wisconsin, but his opportunities were somewhat limited, owing to the financial condition of his father, who found it somewhat difficult to provide for his large family. In consequence Mr. Clayton left school at an early age and came to California with his brother Joel, arriving in this state in the spring of 1850. They were pioneer settlers here, and the brother afterward died in Clayton, Control Costa county. He had been manager of a train of emigrants that crossed the plains in 1850, the number including James A. Clayton.
In 1846 Charles Clayton, another brother, had first made his way to the Pacific coast, settling in Oregon, where he remained for about two years, when he came to California. As the years advanced he took an active and helpful part in the work of improvement and was a factor in municipal and state affairs. His ability well fitted him for leadership and his devotion to the general good was one of his strong characteristics. He served as a member of Congress from California, was surveyor of the port of San Francisco and held many prominent position in that city. For a quarter of a century he ranked among the leading Republicans on the Pacific coast, and his labors in behalf of the party were far-reaching and effective. In the early territorial days of the state he was prominent and influential and served as the alcalde under the Mexican territorial government. This office gave him the power to issue grants of public land, to pass upon the subject of corporal punishment and, in fact, to act as judge upon many cases. During the period of his residence in Santa Clara county he engaged in conducting a flour mill and bought and sold grain on quite an extensive scale, but after a few years he removed to San Francisco, where he operated largely in the market. He was also the president of the Produce Exchange in San Francisco, being identified therewith up to the time of his demise. He died October 4, 1885, and thus passed away one of the pioneer settlers who had aided in laying the foundation for California’s present greatness and prosperity.
James A. Clayton and his brother Joel were eighty-seven days in making the journey from the Missouri river to Placerville (then called Hangtown). In the spring of 1850 the former arrived in Santa Clara and was employed as a clerk by his brother Charles, who had been a resident there from 1848. He also engaged in mining for some time, from 1850 to 1852, hoping that the gold fields would more rapidly yield him a fortune than he could obtain in other lines of business, but after a number of months he became convinced that a more congenial field of labor could be found elsewhere and he returned to Santa Clara valley, locating in San Jose. He then engaged in merchandising from 1852 until 1859, thus becoming a representative of the early commercial interests in the city. Here he purchased a photographic gallery, which he conducted for thirteen years with excellent success. In the meantime he was elected county clerk of Santa Clara county in 1861 for a term of two years, and was then re-elected so that he was continued in the office for four years. After his retirement he established a real estate office in 1867 and continued operating in land until his death. During this period he sold every piece of titled land in the county and some many times over. He thoroughly informed himself concerning realty values in this part of the state and negotiated many important real estate transfers and did a business which brought to him very gratifying success. In 1887 he admitted his sons Edward W. and Willis S. to a partnership and upon his death in April, 1896, they became successors to the original firm and have since dealt in real estate in San Jose.
Mr. Clayton was a man of resourceful business ability and carried his efforts into other fields of activity. In 1872 he assisted in the organization of the First National Bank of San Jose and was one of its directors for many years, while for two years prior to his death he held the office of president, and under his administration the bank was on a most solid financial basis and was carried forward to still greater successes. For many years Mr. Clayton was also identified with horticultural and agricultural interests of California, and was a firm believer in the future of this part of the country, so that he made investments in property here and put forth most earnest effort in behalf of public improvement and for the substantial growth of the state.
In March, 1860, occurred the marriage of Mr. Clayton and Miss Anna L. Thompson, a native of Indiana and a daughter of Robert P. and Any F. (Brown) Thompson, who came to California in 1857. Seven children were born to Mr. and Mrs. Clayton, of whom five are yet living.
Mr. Clayton was a firm believer in the principles of the Republican party, supporting its men and measures from the time of its organization until his demise. In 1864 he was elected a member of the state legislature, and while serving in the house he gave to each question which came up for settlement his earnest and thoughtful consideration. He was always interested in local and state politics and his labors in behalf of the party were attended with excellent results. He was frequently a delegate to local and state conventions and attended the national convention of the Republican party held in Chicago in 1888. At all times his citizenship was characterized by a public-spirited devotion to the general good, and his co-operation in behalf of any public measure that promised to be of value was never sought in vain. He belonged to the Masonic fraternity, and in his life exemplified its beneficent principles. In 1857 he became a member of the Methodist Episcopal church, was a liberal contributor to the cause and an active and co-operant factor in its upbuilding. He likewise served as a trustee of the University of the Pacific. Mr. Clayton always read extensively and became a well informed man. His educational privileges in his youth were very limited, for he attended school only a few months during the winter seasons. He had, however, a faculty of retaining a comprehensive knowledge of whatever he read and using it to the best possible advantage. Experience, reading and observation continually broadened his mind and so enriched his conversation as to make his companionship most desirable. He was noted for his genial manner, affability and his generosity. The poor and needy never sought his aid in vain, and his liberality at times amounted almost to a fault, but of him like the village preacher it could be said “E’en his failing leaned to virtue’s side.” While he established a good business that indicated a life of activity it was not his success alone that won him the respect, confidence and friendship of his fellow man, but his high character, his devotion to the general good and his exemplification of honorable manly principles.
Source: Leigh H. Irvine; A History of the New California Its Resources and People, 2 Volumes; New York and Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1903.