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Folsom a to z: General Bennet Riley

By: Rachel Zirin, Senior Reporter
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Editor’s note: Folsom A to Z is an intermittent series in the Telegraph where readers can learn facts and history about Folsom. Each week, the Telegraph will select a landmark, place, historical figure and major historical event that start with the next letter of the alphabet. This week we continue with “R.”

  • General Bennet Riley was born on Nov. 27, 1787 in St. Mary’s County, Maryland to an Irish-Catholic couple – Bennet Riley and Susanna Ann Drury.
  • His father apprenticed him to a cobbler.
  • Later, he served as a foreman in a shoe factory.
  • After his father's death in 1811, Riley signed up for service on a privateer.
  • Riley first volunteered for service in the War of 1812.
  • Riley married Arabella Israel, from Philadelphia, on Nov. 9, 1834.
  • Riley and Israel has eight children: William Davenport Riley and Samiel Israel Riley, twins who died in Fort King, Florida in 1841; Bennet Israel Riley, who served in the Navy; Mary Riley; Arabella I. Riley; George Riley; and Edward Bishop Dudley Riley.
  • During the Mexican–American War, he served as colonel of the 2nd U.S. Infantry and fought at the Siege of Veracruz where he was cited for bravery.
  • Riley was considered one of the ablest brigade commanders in the army during the war with Mexico. 
  • He was the sixth and last military governor of California before the territory gained statehood.
  • As military governor of California, Riley ordered the election of representatives to a state constitutional convention in Monterey, and handed over all civil authority to a governor and elected delegates at the end of 1849. 
  • The following year, California joined the United States as a state.
  • Ulysses S. Grant described Riley as “the finest specimen of physical manhood I had ever looked upon…6’2” in his stocking feet, straight as the undrawn bowstring, broad-shouldered with every limb in perfect proportion, with an eagle eye and a step as light as a forest tiger.”
  • In the years 1849 and 1850, Riley commanded the military department in Upper California and exercised the duties of provincial governor.
  • In addition to the influx of prospectors seeking fortunes, daily desertions of his own men depleted his troops. 
  • At the height of the Gold Rush, Riley had eight companies of infantry, two artillery and two dragoons stretched between San Diego and San Francisco. 
  • Joseph Folsom chose to name the streets of his town after the names of his friends, family and other important people in California.
  • Riley was one of those important men in Folsom’s life and California history.
  • Riley Street was named in his honor.
  • Riley died from cancer at the age of 65 on June 6, 1853 in Black Rock near Buffalo, New York.