Samuel j. Hensley

By Hensley Resident, Nick Gonzales

Members of the Hensley Historic District, in the heart of San Jose, have a good reason to be proud of the name "Hensley". Samuel J. Hensley, for whom the stately Hensley House and Hensley Street were named, was a prominent citizen of San Jose.

According to SIGNPOSTS, Patricia Loomis' book on San Jose street names, Hensley came here as a kid from Kentucky. He was a major under Fremont in the 1846 Bear Flag Revolt, was a gold miner, merchant, and a pathfinder. Loomis is surprised that he "never had a mountain pass or a trail named for him." His last days were spent in San Jose, where he died a millionaire on January 7, 1866, at the young age of 49. Loomis has much interesting information on this colorful man.

Apparently his son and the first husband of his daughter managed the estate after Hensley's demise. They subdivided and sold the original four blocks of the home place. Unfortunately, the original Hensley home burned on December 26, 1870. Hensley never saw its eventual lovely replacement - presently a bed and breakfast facility which now graces what was once the heart of his domain (on the corner of Hensley and North Third Streets).

Hensley first came west with the Chiles-Walker party, leaving in the spring of 1843. Poorly provisioned, the wagon train was running out of food by the time it reached Fort Hall, so Joseph Chiles took 12 men, including Hensley, and Peirson R. Reading (for whom the town of Redding was originally named), and leaving most of the food for the women and children with the wagon train, set off on horseback.

They took a new route around the north end of the Sierra and down past snow-capped Mt. Shasta to Sutters. But the trip took longer than expected, and by the time they arrived snow was deep in the Sierra and efforts to take supplies over the mountains to the wagon train had to be abandoned.

The main body of the party limped into California via Walker Pass, so named earlier by its founder, Joseph Walker, who had remained to guide the wagon train.

Once in California, Hensley was swept up in the events that led up to the conquest of California. He was in Sutter's army during the Micheltorena campaign, he managed Sutter's Hock Farm, and he helped to organize the Bear Flag incident where he served as Major. He also testified at Fremont's court-martial.

Hensley spent some time at Sutter's mines before opening a store in Sacramento. In the 1850's he became founder and president of the California Steam Navigation Company. At the time of his death, Hensley owned a business at the corner of Santa Clara and Market Streets, plus the Music Hall on First Street between Santa Clara and St. John streets.

Hensley was married to Mary Helen Crosby, daughter of Elisha O. Crosby, delegate to the first Constitutional Convention. Crosby was also a member of the first state senate, which met in San Jose in December 1849. Mary Helen was very active in early California politics.

"Although he stood as tall as others of his time, only a four-block long street in San Jose preserves the name of Samuel J. Hensley today" laments Patricia Loomis in her interesting book explaining the origin of many San Jose Street names. The book is a compilation of articles featured in the San Jose Mercury News, written by Loomis when she was a reporter for the News in the 1970's.

The neighborhood of historic homes in the vicinity of the original Hensley estate was designated a National Historical District in 1982.