Friday, April 20, 2018

Pioneer Preacher Puts Gospel in Gospel Swamp

Rev. Isaac Hickey
Isaac Hickey was born to John and Sarah Hickey in Marion, Tennessee on May 29, 1819. At the age of 20, he married Malinda Jane Marshall in Tennessee and the couple soon moved to Titus County, Texas where they began their family. Over the course of 25 years they had 15 children.

Sometime between early 1863 and the beginning of 1866, Rev. and Mrs. Hickey and some of their many children trekked from Texas to California along with twenty-five other families in ox-drawn wagons. The arduous trip took nine months. They initially stopped in San Bernardino and and settled in the Rincon ranch area near Chino in 1868. Isaac, an ordained Baptist minister, became the founding pastor of a Baptist congregation that met in the El Rincon schoolhouse.

Soon thereafter, the family uprooted to Julian, California, where Isaac again served as a preacher.

In those days, unclaimed public land was considered open for homesteading. The Santa Ana River - which had long been used as the boundary line for several ranchos - had changed course in 1825, leaving ownership of the rich and damp land between the new and old channels hazy. In 1870, the Hickeys, like many other families, saw an opportunity for free land and moved to this apparent no-mans land.

Specifically, Isaac and Malinda Hickey moved to the marshy southern outskirts of the new township of Santa Ana. Some of their children settled on adjacent parcels. Together the property was known to locals as Hickey's Settlement.

Isaac Hickey listed himself as a “Trader” on his voter registration entry, but he made his mark in the community as a bible-thumping preacher. Hickey, said historian Jim Sleeper, "sloshed his way into this rich over-flow land" to bring salvation to anyone who'd accept it. He had a fire and brimstone style of preaching, which he said was his way of "paving the way for the kid-glove men who would come in the future." Hickey volunteered his services without pay at a small nondenominational church that served most of Santa Ana and he was said to be the first to preach a sermon in the town.
Malinda Jane Hickey
He would also serve as the first pastor of what became the First Baptist Church of Santa Ana, where the parishioners called Isaac and his wife “Father and Mother Hickey.” There were initially only thirteen Baptist Church members: Rev. Isaac and Malinda Hickey, son John Hickey and hiswife, a young “Miss Hickey,” G. L. Russell and his wife, Robert English and his wife, Mrs. William Tedford, Mrs. Orma G. Vance, Miss Annie Cozad (Santa Ana's first school teacher), and Mrs. Lizzie Sears.

Until March 1871, when services began to be held in the newly built schoolhouse at Sixth and Main St., most services were held in members' homes. After one of these animated residential gatherings, a well-known local grumbler named George Lynch declared that "Gospel Swamp" would be a good name for the community. The name stuck and was reinforced by others (mostly Southerners along with some Reorganized L.D.S.) who also came to the marshland and preached, held revival meetings and practiced their faith among the tule weeds. Even today, one occasionally hears the name Gospel Swamp attached to the South Santa Ana area (or sometimes erroneously to less gospel-y/swamp-y parts of Fountain Valley or Huntington Beach).

The Hickeys and their neighbors came in for a rude awakening when the Stearns Rancho Co. claimed ownership of the land they'd be living on. The company owned the Rancho Las Bolsas, from which the river had cut the disputed territory. Largely fruitless attempts were made to shoo the squatters off the land. Finally, in 1877, the federal government decided that the land between the old and new river channels was still part of the Rancho Las Bolsas. Legal challenges raged for several years until eviction notices were issued in October 1879. A few squatters were able to buy the land they'd lived on, but most moved away. One of the most popular resettlement spots was Julian, where the Hickeys had lived prior to Santa Ana.

But the Hickeys weren't headed back to Julian. From at least 1878 through at least 1882 they lived and farmed just outside Phoenix, in Arizona Territory. In July 1879, Isaac and Malinda were called as witnesses in the trial of their teenage son, Price L. Hickey, who had been arrested for robbing the Wells Fargo stagecoach. (Price was not found guilty, went on to become a prospector, and returned to Santa Ana prior to 1900 to raise his own family.)

Isaac Hickey died on January 11, 1893, in Creston, California. A street in Santa Ana was named for him, but has since been renamed 8th Street.

A 2013 Orange County Register article declared that Hickey was "a man lost to time," and that "his existence is now condensed to a few passing references in history books and essays." Let's hope this blog post helps raise his profile a little.

[Addendum: Anyone wanting to do further research on Isaac Hickey would probably be well served to check with the Santa Ana History Room at the Santa Ana Public Library. When the First Baptist Church of Santa Ana was closing up shop, I helped shepherd their records over to SAPL. I'm not sure if that collection is processed and available for research as of this writing, but if not, it should be someday soon. Another good resource would be historian Carolyn Christian, who's done a great deal of good work on Gospel Swamp, albeit more often from the RLDS side of things.]

1 comment:

Dann said...

Erroneously tied to Fountain Valley? WHAT? That 's preposterous!! How dare you good sir! I'll have you know that I have searched high and low for any evidence proving that preacher Hickey was NOT affiliated with fountain Valley too. My search even included asking SIRI, twitter, Instagram, Facebook and you tube. There is no video evidence proving his interactions with Gods favorite OC town didn't happen.