Joseph Ballinger Chiles

by Tim Gaughan, 2018

There are many pioneers who settled in Napa County–like George Yount and James Clyman who led exciting lives before coming to Napa. But none of them continued to behave like a pioneer for many years after arriving in Napa like Joseph Chiles, for whom Chiles Valley is named. With 32 other people in a wagon train Chiles crossed much of the middle of the continent and went over the Sierra Nevada. That party ultimately became the first wagon train to enter Mexican Alta California over the Sierra Nevada. Immediately after arriving in California and spying what would eventually become Chiles Valley, Chiles went back to where he came from in Missouri. This would be the first of seven round trips he took between California and Missouri It’s doubtful that anyone else ever made that many such trips in wagon trains, traveling in a wagon, by mule or horse or by foot in the history of the country. As it is about 2,000 miles from Independence, Missouri to Napa, California Chiles logged approximately 30,000 miles between the two states in his life time.

Oakland Tribune, January 9, 1955

Joseph Ballinger Chiles was born on July 16, 1810 in Clark County, Kentucky. He was the grandson of Revolutionary War Captains John Chiles and Richard Ballinger, both of Virginia. He could trace his lineage back to Walter Chiles of Jamestown, Virginia who arrived in America in 1637. Chiles moved to Missouri around 1830 and fought for the United States Army in the Seminole Wars. In 1841 Chiles found himself widowed and with a case of wanderlust and he placed his children with relatives to join the Bartleson-Bidwell Party that was heading from Missouri to Alto California over the Sierras. In addition to being in the first party to make it to Alta California before he was done he had a couple of other “firsts” to his credit. Crossing from Missouri to Alta California seven times, of course, erecting the first grist mill in Northern California in 1845-1846 (Stockwell, 2018) and bringing the first Missouri mules to California.

After separating from the Bartleson-Bidwell Party, Chiles came to the Napa Valley and met and stayed with George Yount who was a neighbor of Chiles in Missouri. It was on this visit Chiles first laid his eyes on the future Chiles Valley and decided that he would return to Missouri to take care of some business and eventually return to build a house and live in the valley. Upon finding out from Chiles that his wife back in Missouri had divorced him and remarried, Yount asked Chiles to contact his children and ask them to join him in the Napa Valley. Yount event gave Chiles some mules for his children to ride on the trip. Chiles indeed did entice Yount’s daughter and her husband to accompany him on the long trip back to the Napa Valley. Oakland Tribune, January 9, 1955

The grist mill mentioned above was constructed in Chiles Valley which Joseph Chiles acquired from the Mexican government for $10 by becoming a Mexican citizen and petitioning General Mariano Vallejo, the military commander of the territory in Sonoma. His land grant was two square leagues in size, and was named Rancho Catacula, which was the Indian name for the valley. When Chiles returned to Missouri the first time he not only brought George Yount’s daughter and son-in-law with him on his return to California, he also brought a long-time Missouri friend and expert mill builder Billy Baldridge. He originally was going to come to California with Chiles in the Bartleson-Bidwell Party but didn’t come because he had obligations to build mills in Missouri. Chiles also brought mill equipment in the wagon train but had to abandon it east of the Sierras. Chile’s original plan was to have Baldridge build a lumber mill, but he eventually changed his mind and build a gristmill to grind wheat. That decision eventually made Chiles diversify his mill’s production.  He made wheat grain but he also made another byproduct–whisky make from wheat which he eventually got a license to sell, which he did.

Chiles was also a great friend of John Charles Fremont “he sent supplies to the Bear Flag rebels, led by Fremont in 1846, and escorted Fremont’s children to California on his 1848 trek. Chiles testified for Fremont at his court martial in Washington on charges of insubordination following the Mexican War, after one of his trips back east from California. Fremont led U.S. forces from Sonoma to southern California after the Bear Flag Revolt and eventually became the first Republican Party candidate for president in 1856.

Although Chiles spent his later years living and working in the Chiles Valley, his name also appears north of Napa in the city of Davis. Chiles Road in Davis immortalizes Chiles name because Joseph Chiles was a business partner of Jerome C. Davis for whom the city of Davis was named, and Mary Chiles, Joseph’s daughter, eventually married Davis.

While doing the research for this blog I stumbled across the fact that a book about Joseph Chiles’ life entitled Trail-Blazing Pioneer was written by Helen S. Giffen and was published in 1969. I found a copy of the book online and purchased it for the Historical Society. It is in the stacks at the Goodman Library and fills in some holes about Chiles’ life because he did not keep a journal or write anything about himself during his long and eventful life.


Hines, Joyce. May 27, 2004. Joseph Chiles, 1843 emigrant.

Joseph B. Chiles Papers. The Society of California Pioneers.

Stockwell, Tom. March 19, 2018. Chiles Mill bed stone donated to the Napa Valley’s Bale Mill State Historic Park. St. Helena Star.

People Files, Chiles Folder, Napa County Historical Society, 1219 First Street, Napa, California 94559.