Kean was casually browsing the shelves of the Hospice of the East Bay Thrift Shop in Antioch last October – the shop has since relocated to Martinez – when she came across a box of old books. She gently sifted through the box and discovered that one book, despite its appearance, wasn’t a hardbound novel like the rest but a diary written by a woman named Myra Kirker.
“I’ve always loved going into these shops and looking for treasures,” said Kean, a teacher at Jack London Elementary in Antioch. “You never know when you’re going to find something truly unique and special. When I found the diary, I couldn’t resist, and it only cost $1.”
Kean wondered if Myra Kirker had any relation to James Kirker, for whom Kirker Pass is named. She logged on to Ancestry.com and signed up for the two-week free trial to see what she could find out. After countless hours of research on the genealogy site and some lucky Internet searches, Kean was able to locate Myra’s granddaughter JoAnn Kinyon in Red Bluff, Calif.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Kean said. “Myra lived in Northern California up in Butte County. That’s nearly 200 miles from the Delta, so I have no clue how her diary made it to Antioch, but I knew I had to get it back to the family. I did some searching through Ancestry.com and found some of Myra’s living relatives. I found her granddaughter and wrote her a letter explaining that I found the diary. When she called me, we were both in shock.”
Kinyon confirmed that her maiden name Kirker was connected to the James Kirker legacy, but she was unsure of the direct connection, explaining that her Kirker heritage was not something her family celebrated.
James Kirker came to New York from Ireland in 1809 when he was 16. According to “Boarderland: The Life of James Kirker” by Ralph Adam Smith, Kirker lived a modest life as the owner of a grocery store after serving in the War of 1812. He later traveled to St. Louis to join a fur trapping expedition out west. His growing reputation as a frontiersman, hunter and scout took him southwest to the New Mexico territory.
Through his work, Kirker became familiar with the Apache tribe. While in Mexico, Kirker was hired by the Mexican government to capture and kill Apaches raiding areas of Chihuahua for livestock. To show proof of the kill and get paid, Kirker was required to bring back Apache scalps.
Kirker became one of the most notorious scalpers in the country. Over the course of five years, he turned in hundreds of scalps and captured women and children as prisoners. When the Mexican government could no longer pay him, Kirker left for California. The area where he settled is now known as Buchanan Park in Pittsburg. Kirker Pass is the stretch of road that leads from Railroad Avenue in Pittsburg to Ygnacio Valley Road in Concord.
Kirker lived on land owned by the Mexican government until it was bought by Contra Costa County founding father John Marsh. According to Smith, when Marsh bought the Los Meganos property where Kirker’s homestead was located, Marsh allowed the frontiersman to stay as long as he helped defend the land from thieves looking to steal cattle. The partnership lasted until Kirker died in 1852.
Kirker had six children. While living in New York, he wife Cathrine Donigan had a son named James B. Kirker. When James Kirker ran off west, he took a second wife, Rita Garcia, and together they had five children: one daughter, Petra; and three sons, Rafael, Santiago Jose and Roberto. According to Smith, there are limited records on a fifth child who was stillborn, but no gender was recorded. James Kirker’s extended family came to America but spread throughout the East Coast and Midwest. Many settled in Ohio, where Myra Kirker and husband David Coleman Kirker were born. David Kirker could have been a nephew or second cousin to James Kirker.
While that mystery remains, Kean is glad she was able to get Myra’s diary back to Kinyon. “I feel like I was meant to find that diary,” said Kean, who has never kept her own diary. “It was like it was calling to me. When I started my research, I learned that Myra and I have the same birthday. It seems like this was just meant to happen. I know that if someone found a diary of family history by one of my relatives, I hope they’d take the time to try to find me. I knew it was the right thing to do.”
Myra’s diary contains short entries written in 1931 when she would have been about 50. Since Myra died when Kinyon was young, she has little memory of her grandmother. In the diaries pages, Myra wrote “inconsequential things which would interest no one but myself,” yet her confessions of loneliness following the death of her husband and her struggle to raise her five children as a single mother seemed the most interesting to Kean.
“From the entries, you find out that David died about four year before, and she still seems lost and unsure what to do,” Kean said. “She talks about visiting the doctor to discuss her grief and he suggests a getaway. She travels to Oregon to visit her sister and returns home by the end of the year. These are just little notes to herself about her life, but it tells her story.”
Kean was able to send the diary to Kinyon in December – just in time for Christmas.