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  • Kalyn McCall

Ahead of His Time: H.W. Head

Updated: Jan 7, 2022

After the Civil War, Southerners grappled with the reality of Reconstruction and adjusting to Black freedom. On December 24, 1865, a group of six former Confederate soldiers an organization called the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in Pulaski, Tennessee. By 1866, local branches of the KKK spread throughout Tennessee, including the city of Nashville. Although the Ku Klux Klan was one of many groups devoted to white supremacy founded in the aftermath of the Civil War, over time, this group became known for infamous acts attributed to them and is widely regarded as one of America's first domestic terrorist groups.

Despite popular misconceptions of Klansmen being lower class or uneducated, many of the original Klansmen were businessmen or professionally trained. In addition to attracting rural farmers, the organization also appealed to former plantation owners, lawyers, doctors, and other members of the emerging professional classes.

Among the Klan's earliest members was future Orange County founding father Henry W. Head. An Obion County native, Head volunteered to join the Confederacy as soon as Lincoln announced he expected Tennessee volunteers to fight for the Union. Before the outbreak of war, Head - the son of a doctor - intended to train as a lawyer. For years, Head proudly served with the Obion avalanche, fighting with esteemed generals including Albert Sidney Johnston (revered California general who resigned his position as commander of the US Department of the Pacific to join the Confederacy). After the war, driven by the suffering he had seen during the war and in post-war Tennessee, Head switched professions, opting to follow his father's footsteps and become a doctor. With a new drive, he entered Nashville Medical College.

The Heads did not head out West until 1876. Between the founding of the Klan and the passage of the Enforcement Acts in 1870 and 1871, Head actively served in the organization, holding leadership positions as an officer in the Obion County chapter and as a former Grand Cyclops in one of the Nashville dens. Head firmly believed in the need for law and order, and believed the newly freed Negroes needed firm control. When the federal government came down on the Klan, Grand Cyclops Nathan Bedford Forrest ordered members to destroy their memorabilia and all evidence of their participation. Driven by conviction, Head could not obey. Instead, he buried his uniform, oaths, and documents, digging them up before leaving for California and carrying them with him across the continent.

Arriving in California, Head may have believed he would live a quiet life, but immediately, he was pulled into action. Head quickly gained prominence as one of Orange County's earliest frontier doctors. Before Orange County was a county, he served as a prominent member of the Squatter's Rights league, affirming their right to settle as the government sorted through former rancho lands. As Head rallied, so did his wife, Maria Caldwell. Like many Southern women, she participated in various women's clubs, was a founding member of the Santa Ana's Emma Sampson Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), and eventually campaigned against women's suffrage (other Southern women were more supportive of the 19th amendment). By the 1880s, he along with fellow ex-Confederate and Tennessean Victor Montgomery (who had served as a scout for Nathan Bedford Forrest during the war) led the charge to help Orange County secede from Los Angeles. According to the Anaheim Gazette, Head was dogged in his efforts, even going so far as to threaten to lynch any resident of Gospel Swamp that went against secession. In 1889, after failing to secede from the Union, Head was victorious, assisting Orange County's successful secession.

Woodcut illustration of a mother bear (representing California) greeting her new cub (representing the new County of Orange). This image originally appeared in a Santa Ana newspaper called the Free Press on Nov. 29, 1889, after the State Supreme Court upheld county division.
Birth of Orange County Woodcut (Courtesy of the OC Archives)

By the time of his death in 1919, Head had lived a long and colorlife life. There were moments in his Orange County life during which people tried to shame him. His penchant for violent threats often made the papers. Once, he was ridiculed for suggesting Orange County adopt his Klan uniform and subsequently wearing it about town for several days afterwards. When early Orange County pioneers sought a solution to their horse theft problem - blamed on indigenous and Mexican communities, Head recommended they adopt the uniform that worked exceptionally well back home in Tennessee. He pulled out his Klan garb he had safety transported to the Pacific coast much to the shock of his neighbors, some of whom were Union men. They didn't go for the uniforms. Once again, Head hid it away. While they agreed with his politics, they did not endorse his methods.

Nevertheless, he was far too important to be disparaged or cast aside. The frontier doctor and former member of the California state legislature was widely regarded as both a founding father of Orange County and a founding father of the city of Garden Grove where he held an education position for several years. Upon arriving in the region, his sister Maggie married to Sidney D. McKelvey of Garden Grove. Eventually, his son Horace C. Head became Santa Ana's District Attorney (serving during the burning of the city's Chinatown in 1906). During visits back home to Tennessee, he was applauded as a hero of the War Between the States and a pioneer who helped settle the West.

Even though his endorsement of extra-legal violence was disparaged at times, when necessary, Orange County adopted his methods. While the name of his brother-in-law Sidney D. McKelvey is not often discussed in Orange County histories, that of his half-brother William McKelvey is a mainstay. In 1892, William McKelvey was foreman on Helen Modjeska's ranch, where he was killed by a Mexican laborer by the name of Francisco Torres. After a manhunt, Torres was caught and brought to the Orange County jail in Santa Ana. One night, a group of men believed to be from Garden Grove broke into his cell, removed him, and hung him for all to see. Torres became the victim of the last officially recorded lynching in Orange County. Newspapers across the state noted how well done the lynching was, from the quality of the knots fastened to the rope to the efficiency of the whole ordeal. Did H.W. Head lynch Francisco Torres, the man who killed his brother-in-law's brother? No one knows and there is no evidence. Did he give the men from Garden Grove tips on how to carry it out? Again, no one knows. As with other lynchings, the case was dropped. But in 1892, Orange County demonstrated that if necessary, they were open to the ways that worked so well back home in Tennessee.

Photo of Francisco Torres, last recorded lynching victim in Orange County, CA
Francisco Torres (Courtesy of Santa Ana Public Library)

Head's final accolades and recognition came about in 1915 after the release of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. Fifty years after the Civil War's end, the nation set its eyes on Reconciliation. North and South joined one another in brotherhood, united against the common threats of Negro aggression and lawlessness. To celebrate the film and the history it represented, many people in all corners of the nation were inspired to see if they had any connections to the noble Klansmen of yore. By fate, Annie Cooper Burton, a historian in the Wade Hampton Chapter of the Los Angeles UDC, set about trying to located any living Klansmen and came across Orange County's H.W. Head. Not only could he furnish her with the original documentation of that first Klan, but he could also show her a genuine Klan uniform. It took awhile for the people in his adopted home to embrace this part of his life and legacy. But they did. Head just happened to be ahead of his time.

H.W. Head as Klansmen (from Annie Cooper Burton)

Check out Annie Cooper Burton's Ku Klux Klan (1916) here.

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