The KKK Took My County Away: Meet the Klansman Who Helped to Found Orange County

In the musty bookcases of the Santa Ana History Room, two vastly different depictions of Dr. Henry William Head emerge. Tell the kind librarian overseeing the city’s archives that you’re looking for information on Head, and he’ll place before you a few obscure, rarely opened tomes, including Adalina Pleasants’ 1931 three-volume History of Orange County, California and Orange County Medical History(a 1927 compendium of famous local doctors).

These texts hail Head as an Orange County pioneer: a Confederate veteran who served a term as a California assemblyman during the county’s preliminary efforts to free itself from evil, evil Los Angeles; a Garden Grove School District trustee for 28 years; a beloved Santa Ana doctor whose son Horace served as Orange County’s district attorney during the 1900s. There are mentions of Head personally delivering to Sacramento the bill that allowed Orange Countians to secede from Los Angeles County, of the good doc at the rowdy conventions that appointed OC’s first Board of Supervisors.

“For four years [during the Civil War], he had seen so much of human misery and suffering,” Horace C. Head gushed in his dad’s Orange County Medical Historyentry, “that he had determined to study medicine and do what he could to alleviate the ills of humanity.”

The last book the Santa Ana History Room caretaker will hand you seems out of place, almost an insult. Annie Cooper Burton’s 1916 pamphlet, The Ku Klux Klan,is an unabashed celebration of the Invisible Empire, an organization whose purpose she describes as “to scare into submission the unruly free negroes and the troublemaking carpetbaggers.”

“In preparing this sketch of the Ku Klux Klan,” Cooper added, “I have been most fortunate in having Captain H.W. Head . . . now a popular physician of Santa Ana, California, a former Grand Cyclops of one of the Nashville dens, to draw upon for material.” Included in The Ku Klux Klan is a picture of Head in full Klan regalia.

And we wonder why Orange County has such a racist reputation.

How Head’s KKK membership was wiped from the Orange County history books is really a story of how local scholars highlight selected parts of our story. The Klan’s rise in Anaheim and other cities during the 1920s is well-documented—as a stand by good people against racist terror, an easy narrative to write and honor. The misdeeds of Head and other notorious county moments in race relations such as the Citrus War, the 1906 burning of Santa Ana’s Chinatown and the lynching of Francisco Torres? Not so much.

Head was a Tennessee native, born on Jan. 1, 1840. He began to study medicine but dropped out of school in favor of joining the Confederate cause shortly after Fort Sumter. Rising to the position of captain in his infantry company, Head saw action in some of the Civil War’s most brutal battles: Shiloh, Atlanta, Chickamauga and Murfreesboro. After the war finished, Head resumed his studies at Nashville Medical College and graduated in 1868.

The above information comes from Head’s biography offered by the Civil War Round Table of Orange County, a local nonprofit dedicated to preserving and promoting the county’s ties to that episode (more than 700 veterans of the Blue and Gray are buried in county cemeteries). But the group conveniently skips ahead in Head’s entry to 1876, when Head and his wife relocated to present-day Garden Grove, where “many of the first settlers to this area owed their health and happiness to Dr. Head, who often took his patients home with him to be nursed by him and his wife.”

It’s up to Cooper to fill readers in on Head’s hooded days. According to Head, he joined the Ku Klux Klan to defend Southern honor shortly after the group’s inaugural 1867 Nashville convention. He didn’t dwell on any actions committed during his three years but freely admitted to serving as Grand Cyclops, Klan terminology for the leader of a klavern. The doctor quit only after the Klan’s leader, ex-Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, ordered KKK members to burn all “uniforms, oaths, and rituals . . . because it meant death to a Klansman to have them found in his possession, so strong had grown the feeling against the Order, due to unscrupulous outsiders who committed horrible deeds in the guise of the Klan,” according to Burton.

Not everyone followed Forrest’s orders. By the time of Burton’s interview, Head, then in his mid-70s, still had his robe and a copy of the group’s founding documents. At Burton’s urging, Head posed for a shot in his costume. “It was strange how the old feeling came back to him,” she wrote. “He felt, he said, as if he were breaking his secret oath in thus displaying his uniform. Certainly, he did look guilty and a little self-conscious as he emerged from the funny-looking garment.”

It’s not known if any other of Orange County’s pioneer Confederates—among them early county Treasurer Josiah Clay Joplin and John Alpheus Willson, who was a pallbearer at Robert E. Lee’s funeral before becoming an OC judge—ever joined the Klan, but circumstantial evidence places at least one other fairly prominent figure in the KKK. Victor Montgomery was one of Orange County’s first lawyers and the man who wrote the bill that eventually allowed Orange County to win independence from LA. He also happened to be a Nashville native who served as Forrest’s scout and fought in two battles alongside Head. In the 1890s, long after the War Between the States, Montgomery fretted to a friend that California was “becoming Yankeeized.”

There you have it, folks: Orange County was founded by racists. Surprised? Of course not. Surprised that Orange County historians don’t bother with these disquieting factoids? If you were, you have a lot of reading to do—and don’t bother with the Orange Crate Label school of history.

This article was adapted from a post on our blog, Navel Gazing, where you can read more alternative OC history under the “Gunkist Memories” label.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *