The Murder of John Dow Robbins

John Dow Robbins was the second eldest son of Nathaniel and Nancy Robbins.  He was born in Bond County, Illinois (see previous post) in 1819 and never married.  He was about 32 years of age when he accompanied his parents, siblings, and other relatives west to Oregon.

No photo or physical description exists of Dow Robbins.  He was likely bearded like his brothers and probably weathered and muscled from years of working on the family farms.

JD Robbins land in survey

1860 Survey (T3S R1E: Clackamas County, Oregon) showing location of John Dow Robbins’ Donation Land Claim (note that brothers-in-law Hamilton and Sharp have claims just to the south)

Once he arrived in Oregon, Robbins applied for a Donation Land Claim.  Single individuals who arrived in Oregon after 1850 were entitled to a quarter-section, or 160 acres.  His property was located northeast of today’s Wilsonville, bounded on the west by Stafford Road and on the south by Homesteader Road.  Today much of this beautiful rolling farmland has been turned into estates for the Portland area elite who have built their mini-mansions on our ancestors’ farms.  We don’t know where on this quarter section Robbins’ cabin was, but it was in that cabin that he was found dead on May 2, 1873.

A neighbor and his son (though Dow’s niece Kate Sharp Jones claimed it was her brother Oliver Perry Sharp) discovered Dow’s body lying on his bed, underneath some clothes.  He had been shot between the eyes, the ball lodging in the back of his head.  His own rifle had been used to kill him.  A detailed news article on his death appeared in the Oregon City Enterprise:

A FOUL MURDER – On last Tuesday morning the news reached town that Mr. J. D. Robbins, a bachelor living alone on the Tualatin about four miles from this city, had been murdered.  The brother N. N. Robbins resides about two miles beyond the house of the murdered man, and on last Saturday passed the house, but not seeing anyone about, left his mail matter and went on home.

Mr. Shaw who resides close by, had not seen Mr. Robbins since Friday evening, on Monday, he concluded that all was not right, so he went to the house with his boy and finding the door locked, raised the boy up to the window to see if he was inside.  He could not see anything but the bed clothes were piled up as though somebody was under them, and he saw papers and trunks scattered about the floor.  This created the suspicion that Mr. Robbins was dead and covered up under the bed clothes.

Mr. Shaw immediately sent the boy after Mr. Robbins and when he came they effected an entrance through one of the windows which happened not to be fastened down.  When they got in they soon discovered that a foul murder had been committed.  The deceased was laying in the bed with a ball through his forehead which had entered between his eyes and lodged in the back part of the head.  His rifle had been discharged and the ball extracted from his head shown that it was the same size as the ones used in his own gun.

There is no clue as to the perpetrators of this terrible deed.  Mr. Robbins was a man universally esteemed by all who knew him and there is no doubt but he was murdered by someone who expected to get money which we learn they probably got but very little of it if any.

On Friday evening as Mr. Shaw was going to his house, he met two men going in the direction of Mr. Robbins on foot, and a short distance this side he met another on horseback.  The party on horseback was going in the same direction of the footmen and kept the road but never saw them, and it is supposed they must have gone to the house of Mr. Robbins and stayed there.

He was probably murdered while asleep with his own gun and the murderer then ransacked the premises for money or other valuables, very little of which they could have obtained as we are informed that Mr. Robbins hardly ever kept any money by him.  They then covered him up and locked up the house and taking the keys of both doors with them.

These two men have not been heard of in any direction since they were seen by Mr. Shaw and there is strong suspicion that they perpetrated the terrible deed.

An inquest was held on the body by Justice Bailey and a verdict rendered that the deceased came to his death by a gunshot wound from some unknown hand.

Mr. Robbins was about 53 years of, highly respected and has one brother residing within two miles of his late residence and another somewhere in the state.  His relatives live in Decatur County, Indiana.  We hope that the perpetrators of the terrible deed be discovered and brought to justice.

Over three months later another article appeared in the Oregon City Enterprise regarding the murder.  It seems that two men were arrested for the crime but released when it was discovered that there was no evidence to hold them and that they were apparently wrongly accused.

ARRESTED-Two men named David Wright and Warren were arrested last Saturday on a warrant issued upon the affidavit of John Dougherty, charging them with the murder of J.D. Robbins, who was killed in this county last May.  There is a great deal of feeling in this community to get the person or persons who committed this murder, and no sooner was the fact known that the arrest had been made than our citizens became very much excited, and hoped the right ones had been arrested.  But they became thoroughly disgusted when the examination took place and this man Dougherty had not the least evidence against the men he had arrested, and they were promptly discharged upon motion of the District Attorney.  the same as in the other cases.  This man John Dougherty professes to be a detective and is calculated to deceive the people.  He has shown his hand in this matter, and the general verdict is that he is unfit for the character he assumes, and unworthy of any confidence whatever.  The two first men he knew were innocent and what his object was in having them arrested we cannot tell.  but the supposition is that he was working for the reward and would as soon have hung an innocent man as a guilty.  We are informed that he offered $100.00 to one of the men to swear against the other, but failed to find a tool to help him in his foul work.  John Dougherty is well known in Oregon, and where he is it would not be well for him to attempt to establish a reputation.  The result of all is that the County will be called upon to pay the expenses of this preliminary trail amounting to about $100.00 and three men against whom this Dougherty could not produce the least evidence have been held under arrest for a most foul and bloody murder.  Dougherty had better hire his witnesses next time before he swears out a warrant.

No one ever discovered who killed Dow Robbins, but some of his clothes later turned up in a second-hand store in Portland.

Dow’s brother Norval Robbins was appointed administrator of his estate.  In his final report on the estate, Norval explained: “…the money he borrowed in the early part of his incumbency was to employ detectives and others in the effort to secure the arrest and punishment of the murderers of deceased.  He at one time believed success would crown the effort made, but all such hopes are blasted and the criminals have escaped at least for a time.”

JD Robbins estate

One of many receipts in J. D. Robbins Estate File (Clackamas County, Oregon); in this one my great-grandmother Artamissa Robbins receives her share of the estate: $2.79

On a side note about his estate, the inventory of his property describes the fairly typical rustic Oregon household of a bachelor farmer.  Among his belongings: one wagon, one yoke of oxen, one cow and calf, two steers, stove, grindstone, plow and other farming implements, axes and hatchets, bedstead, chairs and three books.  One wonders what three books he owned.  His heirs were his surviving brothers and sisters, or in cases where they were deceased, his nieces (such as Artamissa above) and nephews.  His death, coming twenty-one years after arriving in Oregon was one more tragedy that this family faced in their new western home.

(Jacob Robbins-William Robbins/Absalom Robbins-Nathaniel Robbins/Nancy Robbins-John Dow Robbins)

“Rufe” Robbins

Last week I had a post about Nathaniel Norval Robbins.  This is a short post about his son Rufe Robbins who died at the age of nineteen.

Rufus Merritt Holman Robbins was born in 1873, while Norval and Permelia were still living in the Stafford area, just west of Oregon City.  It was an eventful time in the life of the Robbins family.  His uncle John Dow Robbins was found murdered on his nearby land claim one month after Rufe’s birth and Norval Robbins was the administrator of his brother’s estate.  Rufe’s aunt Nancy (Robbins) Barstow had passed away in 1872.  Nancy Robbins, his grandmother, was getting older and in 1870 was living in Norval Robbins’ household and was probably still there when Rufe was born.

We don’t know much about Rufe’s short life.  In the 1880 census he was 7-years-old and not listed as attending school.

Rufe Robbins

Rufus Holman Merritt Robbins

Sadly almost the only official notice of his life was a short death notice in the Oregon City Enterprise in February of 1893:

“Died:  Rufe Robbins died as a result of an accident while working on the new sash and door factory in Oregon City.  It happened between 3 and 4 weeks ago.  He was 19 years old.”

Was he injured three or four weeks prior and had finally died? or was the newspaper reporting three or four week old news?  We don’t know.  So far I’ve been unable to locate other newspapers that might have reported an accident.  We do know he was buried in the Robert Bird Cemetery, named for his great-grandfather.

Rufus Robbins gravestone

Gravestone of Rufus Robbins

We do have one other story passed down about Rufe Robbins and a fiddle he owned.  Apparently after his death, his nephew Norval Kirchem (son of Laura (Robbins) Kichem) went to a local market to sell butter and while there purchased a fiddle.  He showed it to his grandfather, Norval Robbins, when the elder man came for his daily bucket of milk.  Robbins identified it as formerly belonging to his son Rufus as Rufus’ name had been scratched into the case and then scratched off.  Norval Kirchem would get it out every now and then to play for his grandfather, Norval Robbins.

[Jacob Robbins-William/Absalom Robbins-Nathaniel/Nancy Robbins-Nathaniel Norval Robbins-Rufus Merritt Robbins]

Nathaniel Norval Robbins (1832-1926)

Nathaniel Norval Robbins, usually called Norval but sometimes listed as N. N. or Nathaniel, was the youngest son of Dr. Nathaniel and Nancy Robbins, and was an Oregon Trail pioneer in 1852.  Born in 1832 he started out on the trail as a teenager and upon arrival in Oregon City had just turned twenty years of age.  He became one of the longest lived of all the pioneers.

His name comes up several times in the reminiscences and stories of the wagon train trek.  The most entertaining, though somewhat fictional, was the story Destination Oregon written by his niece Kate (Sharp) Jones.  Kate began her story with a reimagining of the Robbins family at breakfast during their last day in Decatur County.  Here is an excerpt:

Early one morning in October, 1851, the family of Dr. Nathaniel and Nancy Robbins was seated around the breakfast table.  It was to be the last meal in the comfortable big kitchen of their Indiana home.  For on this day they were leaving it — leaving to join the great westward migration that was slowly wending its way over mountains, plains, and deserts toward the land of great promise, the Oregon Country, where they hoped to establish new farms and homes that might in time prove to be more prosperous and comfortable than the ones they were leaving behind.

A hearty meal had been prepared that morning by Zobeda and Nancy, the two younger daughters, a good old Hoosier family breakfast of griddle cakes made with buckwheat, honey fresh from the hives, sweet potatoes, and homemade sausage.  Jane, the third daughter of the family, hovered around the table filling the heavy mugs with fresh sweet milk and urging them all to eat a good breakfast.

Norval, 17 years old and the youngest boy, ate only a few mouthfuls, then pushed back his chair and left the table.  Taking his hat from a peg by the door, he danced a few steps around the kitchen, whistling a gay tune.  “Don’t forget to bring my fiddle,” he called to the girls as he scooted through the door.

“What is Norval so excited about?” Mrs. Robbins asked, eyeing her husband suspiciously.

“I didn’t notice that he was unusually excited,” he answered her, “probably in a hurry to get his cattle yoked up.”

“Do you mean to say you have given that boy permission to drive a team of oxen all the way across the plains?” she asked looking worried.

“I mean to say he is going to make the attempt and I think he will succeed very well.  Why, he has been breaking in oxen since he was 15 years old.  Don’t worry about Norval, he will be a full fledged bull whacker by the time we cross the great mountains,” he answered, laughing at her concerns.

OxenNorval next appears in the stories as causing the wagon train to slow or stop due to illness not long after the family left their wintering place in Missouri.  His oldest brother, William Franklin Robbins, later wrote a long story that was published in the Decatur Press the following year:  “We started from Randolph county, Missouri, the 15th day of April last, (1852.)  Brother Norval was sick, and we had to lay by with him, one place or another, near two weeks, before we reached the Missouri river.”  This was supported by cattle drive John N. Lewis’ diary entries which recorded on April 20th of that year “this day we laid in camp on the account of Norvel Robbins being sick” and on the following day “his day we crost a very broken part of the country far about 7 m. and put up on the acount of Norvel being sick…”

All of the accounts tell the story of a cattle stampede that occurred causing some of the wagons to overturn.  Kate (Sharp) Jones reported a recovered Norval whose experience with oxen came in handy.

After a few days of travel the cattle were becoming more and more restless and hard to control.  At last the leaders, a pair of sleek young steers, raised their heads, sniffed a few breaths of the cool, damp air and made a run for it.  The others quickly followed.  Many of the wagons were overturned, some on their sides and some bottom side up.  The one in which Zobeda was riding with the two little orphaned boys, Norval and William Barnes, was one that turned completely over.  They escaped, however, with only a few minor scratches and bruises.  It was during the stampede that 17-year-old Norval proved his manhood.  He ran in front of his cattle, whipped and lashed their heads and held them until they quieted down.  His was the only team that was held back.

Kate also reported that both her uncles Norval and James were fiddle players and somewhere near the continental divide put on a concert: “One night when they made camp near the summit, the sky was so clear the stars and moon seemed close at hand.  Norval and James brought out their fiddles.  ‘We are going to serenade the moon and stars,’ they said, ‘we will probably never be any nearer to them.’”  He was probably one of the several young members of the wagon train who inscribed their names on Chimney Rock, which they rode and walked out to after the wagons camped for the night by the Platte River.

Norval and Permelia

Norval and Permelia (Bird) Robbins

After the family arrived in Oregon, Norval took out a Donation Land Claim near other family members in the Stafford area, north and east of present-day Wilsonville.  There he met and married Permelia Bird, a member of another pioneer family: she was the granddaughter of Robert Bird, the namesake for the Bird cemetery where many of the Robbins family are buried.  The were married in the winter of 1858 and again Kate (Sharp) Jones has the story:  “It was the coldest day they had seen in Oregon and Benjamin Athey, one of the wedding guests, remarked that he thought the Robbins and Birds were mating out of season, since the guests nearly froze on their way to the wedding.”

On October 15, 1855, Norval Robbins enlisted as a private in Samuel Stafford’s Company in the 1st Regiment of Oregon Mounted Volunteers.  In his enlistment papers he was described as being six feet tall, with dark hair, hazel eyes, and light complexion.  His occupation was given as farmer.  Norval was sent to the Simcoe Valley in south central Washington where the Yakima Indian war was beginning.  Years later in Norval’s pension application, a friend named Caspar Hinkle stated that Norval “received a wound or hurt of some character and was sent by the sergeant with me to Oregon City.”  Norval saw little action, therefore, as he took sick on 22 November, a little more than a month after enlisting.  He never missed a reunion of the Indian War veterans however!

Norval and Permelia had five children, of whom four lived to adulthood.  The oldest son was named Oren Decatur Robbins, in honor of his father’s birthplace.  Next came Absalom Allen Robbins, named after a grandfather; little Absalom died at just under one year of age. Next in the family was Laura Leanna Robbins, then Christopher Carll Robbins, and finally Rufus Merritt Robbins.  Oren, Laura, and Chris were married but only the latter two had children.  Rufus died at the age of nineteen.  You will note similarities between the names of Robbins family members in Oregon with those back in Indiana; the family carried their naming patterns with them.

After living in the Stafford area until 1877, Norval and his family moved to eastern Oregon and were said to have settled about thirty-five miles east of Canyon City.  When the Snakes, Bannocks, and other local Indians began attacking settlers Norval removed his family from area.  They sought refuge at Heppner (perhaps with their Herren cousins?), and then returned to western Oregon for good.  In 1880 they settled in Logan east of Oregon City.

Norval and Permelia older

Norval and Permelia (Bird) Robbins

In 1899, the following “personal mention” appeared in the Oregon City Enterprise:

“N. N. Robbins, janitor at the Barclay school had his leg broken on July 4th.  He attended the celebration at Logan and during the day his horse got loose and in attempting to catch him Mr. Robbins was kicked on the leg with the above result.”

I have some notes compiled by Robbins family historian Margaret Davis who was able to interview Kate (Sharp) Jones, as well as Lulu (Kirchem) Ward and Irene (Kirchem) Doust, granddaughters of Norval, in the 1960s.  Among the stories are the following, which provide a small flavor of the man.

Norval was a great practical joker, but like many practical jokers he couldn’t take a joke on himself.  He loved to tease his grandsons.  One day two of his grandsons tied a crow in a tree and ran yelling in the house for grandpa to get his gun.  Norval came running and shot the bird.  When it didn’t fall from the tree he realized he had been part of a ‘joke’, but he didn’t think it was very funny.

Another time he had been having trouble with animals getting his chickens.  Hearing a ruckus one day he went running to the chicken coop, where by the noise coming from the coop he realized that the animal was still inside.  Permelia had followed him and kept yelling at him not to get near as she was sure it wasn’t a weasel but a skunk, but, Norval was down on his stomach reaching into the hole to pull the animal out.  It was a very sad Norval a few minutes later when he found to his regret that it wasn’t a weasel but a very potent skunk.

Norval Robbins, the tough pioneer that he was, died on Christmas Eve 1926 at the age of 94, while his steadfast wife Permelia lived until 1932, dying at the age of 93.  Both are buried in the cemetery named for her grandfather, the Robert Bird Cemetery.

(Jacob Robbins-William/Absalom Robbins-Nathaniel/Nancy Robbins-Nathaniel Norval Robbins)

The Last of their Line: The Barnes Family

Occasionally a family dies out.  Not in the sense that there are absolutely no connections to a particular person or an ancestral couple, but in the sense that they no longer have any direct living descendants.  So it is with Absalom and Bethiah Emiline (Robbins) Barnes.

Absalom Barnes was married to one of Nathaniel and Nancy Robbins’ daughters, Emiline, as she was called by the family, in 1848 in Decatur County, Indiana.  In 1850 the Barnes, with one son, were living next door to Emiline’s parents, her siblings, and her grandfather Absalom Robbins.  The Barnes were another large family in that county.

The young couple joined Nathaniel Robbins’ family as they left Indiana in the fall of 1851, now with two little boys, wintered over in Missouri, and then set out on the Oregon Trail in mid-April of 1852.  About a month out on the trail the Barnes’ wagon tipped over, reportedly only spilling some molasses and breaking some small things.  But sadly this would not be worst thing to happen during the trek, as both Absalom and Emiline died of cholera in Nebraska, along with two of Emiline’s sisters.

Hired man John Lewis recorded in his diary of the Emiline’s death on May 31st:  “…this morning found the ill no better & we remaind in camp Mrs Barns d6ied at half past nine…” and then Absalom’s on June 3rd:  “…we laid in camp on the account of the sick being worse A Barns died at 5oc in the afternoon & was beried at 6oc he was beried on a high gravel point on the bank of the little blew R. 5 m. west of the place whare his wife was…”  Both of the little boys would be taken in by their grandparents.

The oldest boy, Nathaniel Norval Barnes, was born in 1848, while the younger William Zachew Barnes (the middle name probably coming from his grandfather Zacheus Barnes), was born about 1851.  Both were born in Decatur County.  After arriving in Oregon, Nathaniel Robbins, the boys’ grandfather, went to the Clackamas county court and was named guardian of the two boys.  For the rest of the 1850s and into the 1860s they lived with their grandparents.  Again, sadly, William was not destined for a long life.  He died at age 16 in 1867.  In 1870, Nathaniel Barnes, the last of the Barnes family in Oregon, was living with his bachelor uncle John Dow Robbins, working on his farm in western Clackamas County, near the location of today’s Wilsonville, Oregon.

N.N. & Annie Barnes, with daughter Etta Viola

The following year he was married to Annie Mary Walker, and they had two children, Ettie Viola and Frederick Elijah Barnes.  Again an early death would strike the family.  Nathaniel Norval Barnes died at age 37 in 1886.  He joined his brother in the nearby Robert Bird Cemetery.  That left his widow Annie, and children Ettie and Fred.

Annie lived until age 56, dying in 1910.  Fred, the only son, never married.  He enlisted at Vancouver Barracks in 1917 in the 116th Aero Squadron, based at Kelly Field, Texas, and served overseas from December 1917 to May 1919.  The unit was re-designated the 637th in 1918 and was involved in the construction of the 1st Air Depot on the Western Front.  After returning from the war, Fred died of cancer in 1921, age 46.

The remaining member of the Barnes family, Etta Viola, married John Seth in 1926.  Fifty-six years old at the time of her marriage, she and John never had any children.  They weren’t married long either: she died in 1933 at age 61, having outlived all the rest of her biological family.  Her husband John only survived her by two years.

Etta Viola (Barnes) Seth

Frederick Elijah Barnes

And this ends the line of Absalom and Emiline (Robbins) Barnes.  We probably wouldn’t even have photos of them today except that Etta Viola corresponded with her second cousin Hallie May (Lee) Jaques, a granddaughter of Nancy (Robbins) Barstow, Emiline’s younger sister.  Hallie passed photos on to her daughter, genealogist Margaret Davis, who in turn passed copies of the photos, and photocopies of others, on to me.  This family line died out, but they are not forgotten.

(Jacob Robbins-William Robbins/Absalom Robbins-Nathaniel Robbins/Nancy Robbins-Bethiah Emiline (Robbins) Barnes)