Local Register of Historic Resources

William Boyd Secrest, March 14, 1930 - May 8, 2019

A native and lifelong resident of Fresno, William Boyd Secrest was born at the old St. Agnes Hospital not long after its 1929 opening, and passed away 89 years later at the Fresno Veterans Affairs Medical Center, a little less than three miles from his birthplace. Death resulted from advanced dementia and associated complications.

He was the son of Carl M. Secrest, a longtime Fresno dentist, and his wife, Amanda Malmgren. Working his way through the local school system, he graduated from Fresno High School in 1948 and from Fresno State in 1956. In between high school and college, he served with the United States Marine Corps and was a combat veteran of the Korean War. He married Shirley Jo Godden in 1953. She survives him, along with a son, William B. Secrest, Jr.

While he held a teaching credential, he spent most of his professional career as a commercial artist, mostly with Fresno's Cliff Davis Advertising firm (1957-1998). But he achieved nationwide renown as a California historian, selling his first article to True West magazine in 1960. Well more than one hundred articles and more than a dozen full-length books proceeded to flow from his pen until 2013-a second career that lasted for more than fifty years. Among other publications, he wrote for Frontier Times, Old West, Wild West, Westways, Montana, and The American West.

At the beginning of his career he collected materials on the life of James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok (1837-1876), one of frontier America's most memorable characters. He intended to do a book on that subject, but discovered that a researcher-writer in England, Joseph G. Rosa, was working on the same project, and elected to assist him instead of producing his own work. He developed a decades-long friendship with Rosa and was a major contributor to They Called Him Wild Bill (1964), which remains the definitive Hickok biography.

An intriguing footnote to this story is that years later, Rosa reported that the daughter of a man who knew Wild Bill was living in Fresno. Secrest went over to interview her and discovered that her father, Joseph Foster Anderson, had left behind a memoir describing his life with Wild Bill, Calamity Jane, Buffalo Bill and other major historical figures. The book that resulted, documented and annotated by Secrest, was I Buried Hickok (1980) and it represented a major discovery in American history.

As the years progressed he shifted his interest to two major subjects-early California crime and the California Indian wars. In those areas, he produced groundbreaking books which contained photographs and information that had never before seen by the public. Among his notable books on California crime are: Lawmen and Desperadoes (1994), a biographical dictionary of California peace officers and outlaws; Dark and Tangled Threads of Crime (2004), a biography of Isaiah W. Lees, the San Francisco Chief of Detectives and one of the West's great criminal catchers; and The Man from the Rio Grande (2005), the first full-length biography of Harry Love, captain of the California Rangers, who in 1853 tracked down and killed the internationally-famous outlaw, Joaquin Murrieta. This last-mentioned work won a 2006 award from the National Outlaw-Lawman Association. (Interestingly, the Love-Murrieta battle took place at the Arroyo Cantua, in western Fresno County.)

He also wrote California Desperadoes (2000), which sold more than 30,000 copies, highly unusual for a California history book; California Disasters (2006), a survey of notable fires, earthquakes, explosions and other calamities that took place in the Golden State before 1900; and Day of the Grizzly (2008), a history of the interactions between humans and the state's official animal. Perhaps his most significant book-length contributions were When the Great Spirit Died: The Destruction of the California Indians, 1850-1860 (2003), the first general history of that subject ever published; and Behind San Quentin's Walls: The History of California's Legendary Prison and Its Inmates, 1851-1900 (2015), which was also the first complete study of its kind. Secrest was also active in local history circles. As a member of the Fresno Historical Society, he contributed articles on local crime to its journal, Fresno Past and Present, and he also belonged to the Garden of the Sun Westerners Corral. After his formal retirement, he also worked part-time at the Fresno County Public Library, assisting professional and amateur historians with their projects. His expertise in western history brought scholars literally to his doorstep, and he kept up voluminous correspondence with some of the most noted writers in the field; prominent among them were Roger McGrath of UCLA, George Harwood Phillips of the University of Colorado, and John Mack Faragher of Yale. Credit lines to him can be found in dozens of other books, dissertations and articles. Secrest left a lasting imprint on California history, and his writings are certain to be consulted by scholars and readers well into the future.

Obituary written by William B. Secrest, Jr.