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‘The Silverado Squatters,’ part II

“Some of them, too, lived in the country and found their pleasure in the management of their private estate. Such men have had the same aims as kings — to suffer no want, to be subject to no authority, to enjoy their liberty, that is in its essence, to live just as they please.”

— Cicero, “De Officiis”

Go to the title page of any copy of “The Silverado Squatters” by Robert Louis Stevenson, and you won’t be able to read the above unless you know your Latin. Fortunately, most editions supply a translation. The thought, though, makes people think in any language. Who wouldn’t like to live like that: “to suffer no want … to live just as they please”?

One man left a record of such an attempt, if only for a spell. He was Robert Louis Stevenson, and he made the American West at Napa Valley in California, on the southern slope of Mount St. Helena, the stage for his performance as king of the mountain. His story begins in the summer of 1880. “The scene of this little book is on a high mountain. … It is the Mont Blanc of one section of the California Coast Range, none of its near neighbors rising to one-half its altitude.” A view from its summit at 4,500 feet would include San Francisco Bay, the Pacific Ocean, Mount Shasta to the north and the Sierras.

Here it was that RLS would share his attempt at self-rule in a domain he would claim with his new partner in life, since May 19, Mrs. Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne Stevenson. Thanks to their friends Virgil and Dora Williams, the newlyweds knew about the abandoned mining towns on and around Mount St. Helena, ripe for squatting, the act by which each new ruling class demonstrated their sovereignty. A storekeeper Louis called Kelmar was their guide. This Russian immigrant showed them the deserted Silverado mine halfway up the mountain at the treeline. Privacy there was guaranteed yet civilization, in the form of the Toll House, was at the lower end of a rugged footpath through a wooded hillside.

To help them get settled, Kelmar called up the Hansons. “Rufe” Hanson was a “bar” hunter. He and Mrs. Hanson ruled their part of the mountain from the Silverado Hotel, last standing structure in Silverado, the town. Hanson’s brother-in-law, Irvine, Louis declared to be “the most unmitigated Caliban I ever knew,” Caliban being the savage and deformed slave in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Of Irvine, Stevenson wrote, “I do not think I ever appreciated the meaning of two words until I knew Irvine — the verb ‘loaf’ and the noun ‘oaf’; between them, they complete his portrait.”

And somehow, even with Irvine involved, supplies including a stove were brought from Calistoga to the great triangular platform “like the proscenium of a theatre,” providing a view of the entire length and breadth of Napa Valley. “If the platform be taken as a stage, and the outcurving margin of the dump to represent the line of the footlights, then our house (an abandoned bunk house) would be the first wing on the actor’s left, and this blacksmith’s forge … the foremost on the right.”

“There were four of us squatters — myself and my wife, the King and Queen of Silverado; Lloyd (stepson — age 12), the Crown Prince; and Chuchu, the Grand Duke, a setter crossed with a spaniel.” Getting their realm in operational order would take some doing, and in such matters Fanny excelled. During the Civil War she had taught herself to make something from nothing when she was with her first husband, Sam Osbourne, in a rugged remote mining town in the Nevada desert called Austin. To start, Fanny made furniture from scraps of lumber, hung cotton in the sashless windows and cut strips of leather from some left-behind boots to make door hinges.

But first the place had to be cleaned up. “In a sea of red dust there swam or floated sticks, boards, hay, straw, stones, broken glass and paper; ancient newspapers above all. … (T)hrough a hole in the floor some poison-oak had shot up and was handsomely prospering in the interior. It was my first care to cut away that poison-oak. That was our first improvement by which we took possession.” A mine shaft nearby was cool enough for storing food and the milk Rufe Hanson was supposed to deliver, unless he went “bar” hunting or was playing poker at the Toll House. Water was easy. With a pick and shovel, Louis had deepened a pool from a spring behind the shaft.

Pretty soon the royal family was settling into their sky-filled domain for the duration, whatever that would be. Just one question hung over the squatters. Suppose the actual lord of Silverado, the owner, a Mr. Ronalds, came? The question went to Mrs. Hanson, who laughed out loud. “He could not find the mine to save his life,” she said, “without Rufe to guide him.”