One of the most highly esteemed citizens of Merced County was the late James Cunningham, who had the distinction of being one of the organizers of the county. He was born in Dungiven, County Londonderry, Ireland, May 12, 1824, the son of James and Margaret (Dunlap) Cunningham. The father was born at Castle Colley, eight miles from Londonderry, served in the South Fifteenth Infantry for seventeen years, twelve of which he was color sergeant, stationed in the West Indies. He took part in some of the most famous battles of his time and was the last man to leave the island of Martinique when the island was given up to the French, wading to the boat with water up to his neck.
James Cunningham, our subject, remained at home until he was sixteen, when he ran away and went to sea in company with a boy friend, being apprenticed for four years as a sailor with the firm of Booker, Bond & Co., merchants of Liverpool, who shipped goods to all parts of the world. He was soon made second mate, and a few months later first mate of the ship Lancaster and it was while on this vessel that he met with an accident, breaking his collarbone and shoulder, which laid him up for six months, during which time he was not idle as he attended a school of navigation, and when again able to assume active duty he was made captain of the ship Cyclops. He followed the sea for eleven years, rounded Cape Horn three times and twice was over two-thirds around the globe. In his travels he had heard of the discovery of gold in California and made several attempts to reach the Eldorado, even offered to work his passage as an ordinary seaman, without success. It was his idea that he would work in the mines and the more rapidly accumulate wealth, which he intended to invest in ships.
In the fall of 1850 came his golden opportunity, he being selected as chief officer of the clipper ship Canada. After the ship had outfitted in 1851 he started for the New World and California, and at the end of a long and stormy voyage landed in San Francisco in February, 1852. Here the entire crew deserted ship. Mr. Cunningham had eight months pay coming to him but never received it and he found himself in a strange land and practically penniless. He soon found a friend in a Mr. Livingston, to whose cabin he removed his effects, and some time later a party was organized to go to the mines; Robert Sherwood supplied him with money and the party of five, among whom was a geologist, a Mr. Stephenson, who had been a passenger on the Canada, set out for the mines on Yuba River. Here Mr. Cunningham spent two years mining when he made a trip on horseback to Mariposa County to visit a cousin, William Laughlin, who is buried in the Cunningham lot in the Masonic Cemetery, and while there he located a claim on Mariposa Creek. Returning to the mines in Grass Valley, he there purchased some land, but continued mining. He made another trip to Mariposa County, only to find that some one had jumped his claim. In the meantime some parties had secured some 320 acres of land and put in a crop of barley and this Mr. Cunningham bought for $1000, and this was the beginning of his prosperity and his large land holdings. He got a good price for his barley. His nearest neighbors were seven miles distant.
Not meeting with success in mining ventures, Mr. Cunningham turned his attention to raising stock, in 1864, with Thomas Fowler, later Senator from Tulare County. He made several trips to the southern part of the State to buy cattle for his ranch and for beef to supply the mines. That same year was noted for its dry season and many of his cattle died. He with Alfred Harrell, Joseph Rodgers and J. G. J. Moray joined together and started for Humboldt County, Nev., but lost nearly all of their stock and barely escaped with their own lives owing to the depredations of the Indians. Mr. Cunningham gave up the idea of becoming a ship owner and turned his attention to farming and stock raising, having on his ranch an average of fifty head of fine horses and 1200 cattle. Beginning with his 320 acres he added to it from time to time until he owned some 16,000 acres which was operated by the Cunningham Corporation, composed of Mr. and Mrs. Cunningham, his two sons, James C. and EmmettT., and his daughter, Mrs. E. Massengale, all of whom lived on the ranch, which was located sixteen miles northeast from Merced.
On July 30, 1868, occurred the ceremony that united the lives of James Cunningham and S. Elizabeth (Turner) Henderson. She was born in Jackson County, Mo., the daughter of Capt. Nicholas Turner, a Forty-niner in California, who made two subsequent trips overland as captain of wagon trains, then remained in this State. There were three children born of this union, viz: James Charles, born July 28, 1869, married for his first wife Miss Leota Williams, a native of Indiana, born in Muncie. After her death he married Miss Stella Smith, a native of Mariposa County, and they have three children, James Byron, Vesta and Augusta. Emmett T. was the second child and was born on November 23, 1870. He married Miss Bernice Brandon, born at lone, Amador County, the daughter of Amberson Brandon, of Jefferson County, Wis., a California pioneer. His father, Var Price Brandon, was a Virginian who married Martha Engart, of Pennsylvania; they also came to California as pioneers. Amberson Brandon married, August 31, 1868, in California, Julia A., daughter of Henry and Rachael Misenheimer, of North Carolina, and California pioneers of 1852. Julia A. Brandon was born in Illinois. Mr. and Mrs. Brandon had the following children: Susie, Bernice (Mrs. Emmett Cunningham), Howard, Myron (deceased), Frances, Lloyd, Rodger, Audley, Gladys, Roscoe (Ted), and Horace. Mr. and Mrs. Emmett Cunningham have four children: Margaret E., Mrs. George W. Clark, of Los Angeles; Julia lone, Mrs. Arnold Grasmoen, of Merced; and Carlston E. and Nancy Rose, both at home. The third child born to this worthy pioneer couple was Margaret Evaline, born February 7, 1873. She became the wife of R. E. Massengale, of Le Grand and they have had three children: James, Mary (deceased), and Cecil. Mrs. James Cunningham’s first husband was Henry Helm, by whom she had a daughter, Ollie, now Mrs. Samuel Rothery, of Santa Cruz. She has three living children, Ollie, Edward and Daisy. Mrs. Cunningham’s second husband was a Mr. Henderson, of Snelling. Mr. Cunningham died on May 12, 1908, and his widow passed on in April, 1913.
James Cunningham was a Democrat and took an active part in the councils of that party, serving as a delegate to county and State conventions, and held the office of supervisor from 1860 to 1864. He served for many years as a school trustee. It was ever his policy to elevate the standard of education and he contributed liberally of his means to that end. He was made a Mason in Ireland and demitted to La Grange (now Yosemite) Lodge No. 99, F. & A. M. of Merced. In his long and eventful life he had many interesting and thrilling experiences. Of the latter, one incident will perpetuate his memory for generations. This was in 1862, during the flood at Snelling that threatened the lives of thirty-five people who sought refuge in the trees when the hotel was washed away from its foundation. Accustomed as a sailor to act quickly when danger threatened, he, with the assistance of others, among them Judge Breen, Hon. W. H. Howard, and a Mr. Perkins, constructed a raft and by hard work and great danger to their own lives, safely rescued the people from their perilous position.
In the later years of his life he was in the enjoyment of all his faculties, could read without glasses when past eighty, and took an active interest in all topics of the day and in the improvement of his property.
Source: Outcalt, John. A history of Merced County, California : with a biographical review of the leading men and women of the county who have been identified with its growth and development from the early days to the present; Los Angeles, Calif. : Historic Record Company, 1925.