Madera County Historical Society
James Phillips Dixon.
He was a family pioneer, and he couldn’t give up
The story of how the Mordecai Ranch, also known as Refuge, was brought into being is by now a well-known story. It involves George Washington Mordecai, the Alabama Colony, and Harry St. John Dixon. The roles of these major participants in this slice of local history have been abundantly explored, but there is one that has fallen by the wayside, historically speaking — James Phillips Dixon.
We know that those pioneers who settled the Alabama Colony came in 1868. We know that among the first to arrive were two brothers from Mississippi, Harry and Jimmy Dixon who founded Refuge and were joined by the rest of their family in 1870.
Harry, however, didn’t stay on the land long. Within a year he went to Millerton and got himself elected Fresno County Clerk. That left Jimmy to till the soil of Refuge until the rest of the Dixons arrived two years later.
Jimmy put his shoulder to the wheel. He lived in a tent and slept on the ground on some coarse blankets covered with ticks. He had only a “wretched little lamp” for light.
Jimmy’s day began before daylight with breakfast that was warmed sometimes on a “pocket stove,” but most of the time was eaten cold. He went to work just as soon as he could see the plow in the furrow and “except long enough to take a lunch at noon and let the horses rest and eat — stayed in the field until dark.”
When it rained, he got soaked. When it was dry, the wind filled everything with dust. Still he persevered. In 1869, Jimmy got some help when his brother Edward joined him. Then in May of 1870, the rest of the family came, and in that year they constructed a house on Refuge. For awhile Judge Dixon, the family patriarch, and his wife Julia were happily situated on Cottonwood Creek with most of their children. Harry continued as county clerk, and Jimmy continued to farm.
Things remained like that until 1872. The Judge feared that the pioneer environment of the Alabama Colony did not provide a suitable society for his daughter and three younger sons, so he moved to San Francisco with Julia and the children. Edward Dixon moved to Merced, and with Harry in Millerton, that left just Jimmy to hold the ranch together. This he accomplished by purchasing several bands of sheep.
In 1873, Jimmy, while working with his sheep on an extremely hot day, ruptured a blood vessel in his lungs. He began to hemorrhage and never regained his health.
In the fall of that year, the family returned to Refuge from San Francisco, where they remained for the next two years. In 1875, the Judge took charge of the Buena Vista Ranch for the Ralston estate near Bakersfield. Meanwhile things turned worse for Jimmy.
The judge, counting on Jimmy’s sheep profits, decided to mortgage Refuge in order to buy more land. Unfortunately, the value of sheep plummeted, and by 1880, he sold the ranch to his son-in-law, George Washington Mordecai who nurtured it for the next 40 years. Jimmy went to live with his parents on the Buena Vista Ranch.
On March 25, 1882, the Dixon family gathered around Jimmy’s bed. He was dying of consumption. So painful was his death that he begged his brother Edward, who had become a pharmacist, for morphine to relieve his intense suffering. With Harry standing at the head of the bed holding his hand, Edward, who stood facing him from the foot of the bed, told him that if he gave him enough to relieve the pain, it would kill him. Jimmy answered, “That’s — just — what — I want — it — to — do.”
Edward said he couldn’t do it, so Harry said, “I will give it to you brother—I will give it to you.” The Judge, however, intervened. He cried out that he would die for his son, but he couldn’t be a party to giving him medicine that would kill him.
Jimmy then turned his head and said, “That ends it. I will suffer it for you and Mother.”
For 20 minutes, Jimmy did suffer, and then he spoke his last words, “Don’t forget me.”
The family never forgot him, but most everyone else did. Lots of attention has been given his brother, Harry, but very little to Jimmy.
So today, we remember the kid who followed his big brother to California and kept Refuge alive until George Washington Mordecai could transform it into the historical treasure it is today.
Somehow I think he deserves it.