Tuly Singh Johl (April 18, 1878 - February 13, 1978) deserves special recognition among the early pioneers in the Yuba City area. Born Thakar Singh Johl, he was affectionally known as “Tuly.” Mr Johl was one of the first five Punjabi pioneers to settle in Sutter County, and he was the last of the “old timers” when he passed away just two months shy of his hundredth birthday in 1978.
Youth in India
Tuly Singh Johl was born in the village of Jandiala in the district of Jalandhar, Punjab in British India. He was born into a farming (Jat) Sikh family, and he received no formal education. He taught himself Punjabi and some English. He was physically strong, excelling in wrestling. He also possessed natural leadership qualities. Even though Tuly was the youngest child in the family, his opinions were sought out and listened to by his elders. Mr. Johl married Basanti Kaur of the village Rurkee in the district of Jullundur in 1903 and had a son whom they named Lakha Singh.
Journey to the US and Early Years in California
At about the age of 28 years old, Tuly Singh Johl traveled from the Punjab to Vancouver, Canada along with four other men from his native village — Nand Singh Johl, Basant Singh Johl, Puran Singh Johl, and Munshi Singh Johl. According to his son, Dr. Gulzar Singh Johl, these men were the first Punjabi pioneers to settle in the Yuba City area when they arrived in 1906. They first came to the Yuba City area to help build the Southern Pacific Railroad line. One day when the men took rest under the shade of a tree, a local farmer named Mr. Bill Eager asked if they needed work on his farm. Mr Johl and the other four friends returned to the Eager Farm where they worked. Mr. Johl eventually became the foreman and in this capacity managed all aspects of the farm, including the recruitment and care of dozens of fellow Punjabis and other farm workers. He continued to work at the Eager Ranch (later owned by the Frank Poole family) on Eager Road in Marysville for the rest of his life.
Return to India
In 1914, Mr. Johl returned to India. Because many Sikhs who returned to India at this time during the Gadar movement were viewed suspiciously by the British colonial government, Mr Johl was placed under house arrest and close government surveillance. Tuly Singh Johl and his wife had three surviving children: a son named Kartar Singh born in 1916, a daughter named Kartari Kaur born in 1919 and another son named Gulzar Singh born in 1923. In 1924 Tuly Singh decided to leave his family to make the perilous journey back to the US. He would be separated from his family for many years.
Return to the US
When Mr Johl returned to the US in 1924, immigration from India was illegal, so he re-entered the country via Mexico. According to his son, Mr Johl was walking on a street in Mexico about to make arrangements to pay for his passage across the border when he heard a man shout, “Tuly!” It was Mr Johl’s good fortune to be recognized by one of the farm workers from Mexico whom he had supervised on Eager Ranch. The young man drove him over the border and safely back to the Yuba City area. Soon after his return, Mr Johl resumed his work as a foreman on the farm. In 1946, he was able to purchase property shortly after the Luce Cellar Act restored the citizenship rights of South Asian Americans. Eventually he and his family became successful peach and walnut farmers owning hundreds of acres of land. Gradually, he was also able to sponsor his family members to join him in California, including his son, Dr Gulzar Singh Johl, in 1948 and later his wife, Basanti Kaur, in 1958. Today there are hundreds of members of the Johl family who live in the Yuba City area. In 2003, a street in Yuba City honoring Tuly Singh was proposed. He maintained his independence — driving his car and working on the farm — throughout his life. Many of his children continue to live and work in close proximity to the original site where Tuly Singh Johl rested under the shade of a tree on Eager Farm.
All photographs are courtesy of the Johl Family and the Punjabi American Heritage Society.
Brar, Balwant Singh. “The East Indians in Sutter County,” Sutter County Historical Society News Bulletin, Part 2, April 1978, Yuba City Library.
Coats, Robert T. Statement in Support of Application to Name a Proposed Street Tuly Street, May 18, 2003. Provided by Dr. Gulzar Singh Johl.
Interviews with Gulzar Singh Johl by Nicole Ranganath, June 9 & July 15, 2016, Marysville, CA.
“Sutter Sikhs,” Sacramento Bee, November 5, 1965.
Dr JOHL’S REUNION WITH HIS FATHER
Dr. Johl describes reuniting with his father, Tuly Singh Johl, for the first time as an adult in Yuba City, CA.