3rd Great Grandfather William Chamberlain Gann Served Time in San Quentin State Prison

San Quentin State Prison 1891
San Quentin State Prison, 1891. Public Domain image Wikimedia Commons.

My husband Jeff and I are both big fans of Merle Haggard. It turns out that Jeff and Merle have more in common than just their redneck Bakersfield roots. I recently discovered that like Merle, Jeff’s 3rd great grandfather William Chamberlain Gann (1831-19893) served time in San Quentin State Prison.

About William Chamberlain Gann

William Chamberlain was born 22 July 1831 in Washington County, Tennessee to Joshua Isaac Gann (1795-1861) and Rebecca Jenna Frazier (b. 1798). Hew grew up in Livingston County, Missouri.

By 1858 William had emigrated to California, recently admitted as a state in 1850. I am not sure what year and with which specific Gann line he emigrated — the California Ganns came in several waves. William married Elmira Tucker (1840-1920) on 23 November 1858 in San Joaquin County, California (established 1850), with whom he had at least nine children. I have written about his oldest daughter, my husband’s 2nd great grandmother Pauline Adeline Gann (1860-1938), and his youngest son Walter Scott Gann (1875-1947) whose gravesites we visited this past July in Maricopa, California, just outside of Yosemite National Park. He was the first cousin of Margaret Daisy Gann (1830-1919), who emigrated to California via Ebbett’s Pass in 1858 with her husband and children, and also a first cousin with Margaret’s youngest brother Andrew Jackson “Jack” Gann (1837-1910), who I think was one of the Gann brothers that established Gann’s Meadow on Ebbett’s Pass.

William was a farmer who throughout his adult life lived all over California’s Central Valley, including San Joaquin County (established 1850), Calaveras County (established 1850), Mariposa County (established 1850), and Tulare County (established 1852). He died 11 November 1893 allegedly in Tulare, Tulare County.

Time in San Quentin

I am pretty sure that our William Chamberlain is the same William C. Gann who served time in San Quentin State Prison. Although William is a very common name among the California Ganns, the birth date and location, and county of residence at the time committed seem to jive with the information I have on William Chamberlain.

Gann William Chamberlain - San Quentin Record - Ancestry
Record for William C. Gann. Descriptive List of Convicts, 1884-1886, California, Prison and Correctional Records, 1851-1950, courtesy of Ancestry.com. Click on image for larger view.

Gann was committed to San Quentin State Prison on 22 April 1885 at the age of 53 and was discharged in 1889. He was sentenced to 6 years, but only served about 4 years, for 2 commits: larceny (the trespassory theft of personal property) and something that looks like “infringing a public jail”. William was still a farmer at the time, and the crime took place in Mariposa County.  His voter registration record for 1882 indicates that William was living in Lewis, Mariposa County just three years prior to incarceration in San Quentin.

The above prison record provides an thorough physical description of William Chamberlain Gann. I imagine this is because photography was still pretty rare in 1885 and too expensive for a prison to use to extensively photograph inmates for recognition and record. Gann was 5 feet 9-1/2 inches tall, with a light complexion blue eyes and grey hair. His feet were measured at 8 inches long. He is described as having broad rugged features and a high forehead. Gann was bald on the top of his head, had very heavy eyebrows and deep set eyes. He had a small scar on the left side of his forehead, a square chin and jaw, a small mole on the back of his left arm, a mole on his left side, a scar under his left arm, a scar at the base of his neck, 3 scars low down on the right side of his back, stooped shoulders, and a stout built.

Gann and his wife Elmira still had minor age children at home when he was incarcerated, the youngest at just 4 years old. I have no idea what happened to his family while he was in prison, how they survived financially or where they lived.

Of course, there is always the possibility that this William C. Gann is not my William Chamberlain Gann, but my hunch seems pretty strong.

San Quentin State Prison, 1865-1872
San Quentin State Prison, 1865-1872. Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

San Quentin State Prison was built in 1852 and is California’s oldest correctional institution.

When California became a state in 1850, the waves of prospectors rushing to the gold fields included those seeking opportunity and a criminal element as well. The need for a place to incarcerate criminals was at first met by prison ships, but that proved inadequate. Point San Quentin was chosen as the site for California’s oldest prison, San Quentin, which was built by prisoners held on the prison ship Waban and opened in 1852. It originally held men, women, and, since there was no reform school for youth, some boys as young as 12. In 1860, a reform school opened that took in boys up to age 18, but it wasn’t until 1933 that California’s first women’s prison would open at Tehachapi. – Source: Ancestry.com.

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  2. Barbara Ewing Powell

    Sent a note earlier this evening regarding William Chamberlain Gann and his
    going to prison. I only knew of the gun problem in 1878 “not guilty” Family moved
    from Stanislaus County to Calaveras County. Tonight I read your article of
    his problem in Arnold, Calaveras County and him going San Quentin.

    Thanks for the information

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