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)

 

Blue Bucket Gold

The last two posts have discussed the first Robbins family to emigrate to Oregon (John and Dosha (Robbins) Herren and their children) and their barely-survivable “shortcut” across Oregon on the Meek Cutoff.  This post will focus more specifically on an incident which occurred during that ill-fated trip: the discovery of gold.

There are several versions of the story.  One of the most complete, though not error-free, accounts was written by Willard Hall Herren, son of William Jackson Herren, the eldest son of John and Dosha.  In 1922 W. H. Herren wrote an article which appeared in The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.).  Here are some excerpts:

Having noticed the several articles in The Oregonian regarding the Blue Bucket mine, some of my friends that know that I could give an account of its discovery have urged me to do so.  Both my father, W. J. Herren, and my mother were members of the company that Steve Meek undertook to pilot from the crossing of Snake river to the Dalles in 1845.

W. H. Herren’s account, The Oregonian (1922)

Several of the young men that had saddle horses scouted the country over and finally found a ridge that led to the summit of the mountain.  They concluded that if they could once get their outfits up on to this ridge they could make it over the mountains.  By hitching ten and sometimes 12 yoke of oxen at a time to a wagon they finally succeeded in getting them up onto the divide.  There was no water on the divide so they had to make a dry camp.  The captain of the company told all of the young people who had saddle horses to take buckets and go hunt for water.  My father, who was then 23 years old, and his sister, who afterwards became the wife of William Wallace, took their old blue wooden buckets and started out to find water.  They finally found a dry creek bed which they followed until they found a place where a little water was seeping through the gravel and while my father was digging for water his sister saw something bright and picked it up.

The account given me states that they found two good sized lumps or nuggets, and that there were many fine particles in the gravel.  He was quite sure that it was gold at the time, and when he arrived at camp he showed it to some of the older men, who told him that if it was gold it would be malleable.  So one of them took a hammer and hammered both pieces out flat into a sauce-shaped disc.  He had a tool chest with a secret drawer in it.  He hid the gold in the chest, therefore no one but the members of the family ever knew what became of it.  I well remember the old tool chest and its secret drawer.

It is not known for sure where this incident took place, but many researchers, including the research team gathered for The Meek Cutoff by Brooks Ragan, one of the books I mentioned in the last post, believe it occurred in the Crooked River country, south and slightly east of today’s Prineville Reservoir.

There are other, different, stories that have come down in the family.  One version holds that William J. Herren and his cousin Dan Herren picked up two yellow rocks while out tracking some lost cattle.  Taking the rocks back to camp they showed them only to their family.  They were not sure whether it was gold or not, but to be safe they agreed to keep the find a secret.  John S. Clark, nephew of William J. Herren, later said that the family was more interested in their lost cattle than the nugget.  Clark didn’t believe that the emigrants knew what gold looked like anyway.

Another version has Dan Herren discovering a large nugget of gold by himself in some muddy tracks made by cattle going to water.  Still another story is recounted by Lydia (Wallace) Steckel, daughter of William and Susan (Herren) Wallace.  She told how family members found an old blue water bucket, made of cedar.  Near the bucket Susan Wallace picked up some heavy yellow metal in the bed of a stream.  She reportedly said, “If this is gold, I can fill the old blue bucket!”

Willard Hall Herren

Who knows which is the true story, but the consistency of accounts indicate gold, in some condition, was found.  I tend toward the W. H. Herren story, as his is the most complete and he heard it from his father.  He went on to describe later attempts to find the gold:

My people have always hoped that some members of the family would eventually find the place where the gold was discovered, and many years ago my father gave me an old leather-bound memorandum book, with maps and diagrams showing the water courses and giving a general description of the country. I once did some prospecting in the immediate vicinity of where the gold was found.  I found some fine gold, but it was late in the fall and the ground froze so that I had to give it up.  I intended to go back some time and try it over, but have never done so.  Many parties have hunted for the place.  In either 1855 or 1856 one of my uncles in company with four others started for the place, but at that time the Indians were bad, and they got away with the horses and two of the party were killed by the Indians.

A final account describes a search by M. B. Rees, kin to the Herren family, which appeared in the Blue Mountain Eagle (John Day, Ore.), which may explain the find:  “The Rees party followed the route so accurately that even the marks of the trail made by the immigrant wagons were visible.  They came to the camping place where the nugget had been picked up.  Mr. Rees was fairly well acquainted with mining and when the place was reached, he knew that the nugget which had been found was a mere chance discovery and that it had evidently been dropped there by some other agency than that through the working forces of nature.  This journey convinced Mr. Rees that the Blue Bucket Mines were destined to remain through the years as they had in the past – only a myth.”

Though the gold was never found again, the lure of a “lost gold mine” played no small part in the exploration and eventual settlement of eastern Oregon after the western parts of the state were filled with settlers.  Many of our family members went east to search for the gold and ended up mining, farming, or ranching, spreading our family throughout the inland Northwest.

(Jacob Robbins-William Robbins-Theodoshia (Robbins) Herren-William Jackson Herren-Willard Hall Herren)

 

Meek Cutoff and the Herrens

This post is a more in depth look at one aspect of the first Robbins-connected family’s trip to Oregon, as recounted last week, about the Herren family’s trek across eastern Oregon on the Meek Cutoff in 1845.

There have been a number of books written about the Cutoff.  The Terrible Trail: The Meek Cutoff, 1845 by Keith Clark and Lowell Tiller (1966)  and The Brazen Overlanders of 1845 by Donna Wojcik Montgomery (1976), look at the entirety of the 1845 emigration from Missouri to Oregon, and provide listings of every family they have identified as being on the Oregon Trail that year.  Two more recent books take a slightly different approach.  Wood, Water & Grass: Meek Cutoff of 1845 (2014) by James H. and Theona Hambleton takes a very pro-Stephen Meek position, claiming that the mountain man, by virtue of his frequent fur trapping travels across Oregon, was never lost and knew exactly where he was at all times.  This is a view not held by other researchers, including the group of researchers that came together to study and travel the Cutoff and who’s work is the basis for The Meek Cutoff: Tracing the Oregon Trail’s Lost Wagon Train of 1845 (2013) by Brooks Geer Ragen.  Anyone interested in the Cutoff is encouraged to find these books for the various perspectives they provide.

 

John Herren, the husband of Dosha Robbins, apparently kept a journal of the family’s trip west.  The only part that has survived is a portion beginning at Fort Boise on the Snake River on August 23rd and ending on September 8th and the Ragen book quotes the entirety of this journal, and uses it to help track the emigrants route and identifies the Herren family’s nightly camp sites.  This diary excerpt was first published in the Albany (Oregon) Daily Democrat in January of 1891.  In the introduction to that reprint was the following information:

“The following is an extract from a diary kept by Mr Herron, father of W J Herron, of Salem, and of J R Herron, a former Sheriff of Linn county.  The diary was obtained by Jason Wheeler, of this city, from J R Herron and copied.  Mr Herron afterwards lost the original.”  And at the end of the published extract was this note:  “Here the diary was torn and mutilated so that I could not proceed with it any further.”  An additional story is that the original of the journal was lost in a family house fire in 1918.

Stephen L. Meek

On August 23rd, 1845, John Herren wrote:

“This morning our company was called together, for the purpose of hiring a pilot to conduct us across the bed Boise River and over the Blue Mountains, down to the Dalles on the Columbia River.  This route will cut off the bend of the road that leads down Burnt River, and is said to be one hundred and fifty (150) miles nearer than the old route.  Price agreed on with Mr. Meek to take us through the new route was fifty dollars, so we got up our oxen and started about 9 o’clock, and travelled a northwest course to a beautiful stream of water called Malheur, about twelve miles from where we crossed the river; found plenty of grass and small willows to build a fire to get supper with, so there was no grumbling.”

In the days following Herren noted the rough road (“the worst road that they [oxen, cattle and horses] had traveled over yet, for it was uncommonly rocky and hilly” and “We had to remove some ten thousand stones before we could pass near the head of this ravine”), the presence of Indians (“the [Indians] stole one horse last night within thirty yards of our encampment”), the lack of food and water for stock (“found no water, only a small spring that did not afford water enough to drink, so our poor oxen, cattle and horses had to suffer for water another night”), and growing disenchantment with their guide and the emigrants decision to leave the main Oregon Trail (“I hope that no other emigrants will ever be gulled as we have been”).

Albany (Oregon) Daily Democrat, 2 Jan. 1891

After ten days of traveling west, north, and south through the arid lands of southeastern Oregon John Herren notes some tension in the wagon train.

“There is nothing here to cheer our drooping spirits.  We are making slow headway, the country here is so broken and rocky that we cannot get along fast, and we are rather doubtful that our pilot is lost for he has been seven days longer getting to the waters of Jay’s river than he told us he would be.  Some talk of stoning and others say hang him.  I can not tell how the affair will terminate yet, but I will inform you in its proper place…”

The following day Herren mentioned seeing a mountain which he thought was the Oregon Cascades and that they were on Jay’s River – now called the John Day River – when in fact they were far south on the Silvies River which flows south into the landlocked Malheur Lake.  The emigrants had a long way still to travel, even if they knew the direction to take.

“September 4th. – We started about 8 o’clock and traveled a south course about 4 miles, then turned southwest about 2 miles and passed down a very rocky hill or mountain into the valley of Jay’s river, here we turned a west course about 8 miles to a beautiful little rivulet of water but no wood except small willows.  Grass is very good.  This valley is on the river that we have been looking for the last seven days.  I hope the grumbling will cease now as our course appears to be west and the peak at the mouth of Jay’s river near the Columbia, is visible, and our pilot says it is about one hundred miles distance.  To-day 14 miles.”

The last journal entry finds the Herrens near the Glass Buttes not far off today’s highway 20 in desolate country:

“September 8th. – We started at 8 o’clock and traveled west about 10 miles over some of the best road that we have had since we passed the Rocky Mountains, but in the evening we had some rocky road for a few miles; here we turned about 2 degrees north of west for about 4 miles and found no grass and had to encamp in a patch of wild sage, where it was as high as our wagons.  About one mile south of where we are we found a little water, enough to cook supper with.  The stream of water that we stayed on last night runs out of the side of a mountain through a hole six feet in diameter; there is water enough within six feet of where it runs out to a drown a horse.  Passed some plains to-day that were covered.”

The party turned north, then west, and then more northerly again as they sought the Deschutes River, finally locating it near present-day Cline Falls.  Once on the Deschutes the emigrants were “found” and could follow that river down to The Dalles on the Columbia.  They were lucky to have not lost any family members during their misadventure, it is estimated that about 25 emigrants died on the route or after arrival in The Dalles.

There is another aspect of this story – while lost in central Oregon the Herren family found what later became known as the Lost Blue Bucket Gold Mine – but that tale will be told next week.

(Jacob Robbins-William Robbins-Theodoshia (Robbins) Herren & John Herren)

First to Oregon: John and Theodoshia (Robbins) Herren

The first of the Robbins-connected families to emigrate to Oregon was that of John and Theodoshia (“Dosha”) (Robbins) Herren, who crossed the plains in 1845.  They had already left Decatur County about 1838/39 when they moved to Platte County, Missouri, situated at the jumping off point of the great wagon trains leaving St. Joseph, Missouri.  John Herrens’ brother-in-law, the Rev. Enoch Garrison (married to Margaret Herren), had emigrated to Oregon in 1842 and probably sent letters back to the Herrens telling of the trip and the availability of free land in Oregon.

John and Dosha (Robbins) Herren

The youngest child of William and Bethiah Robbins, Dosha was married to John Daniel Herren on 13 June 1822 in Henry County, Kentucky.  Soon after they moved to Decatur County where John filed for 80 acres south of Gaynorsville, joining Robbins and Herren siblings.

In the spring of 1845, John and Dosha Herren and their large family of twelve children, one son-in-law, William Wallace, one grandchild, and John’s 20-year-old nephew Daniel Herren, gathered near St. Joseph, Missouri, to form part of the “St. Joseph Division” of one of the largest wagon trains.  John and Dosha held great hope for their new life in Oregon as demonstrated by the naming of their youngest daughter Elizabeth Columbia Herren.  While the majority of the trip passed without major incident, the Herrens were one of the families swayed by the mountain man Stephen Meek into crossing central Oregon over what is now called the Meeks Cutoff.  Anyone who has driven over this arid, hot, mostly treeless desert between the cities of Burns and Bend, can’t help but cringe at the thought of being there in a wagon slowly pulled by thirsty, plodding oxen. More details of Meeks Cutoff will be in next week’s post.

When their wagon train finally straggled into The Dalles, they were in poor shape.  Dosha’s 10-year-old son Levi Herren, always remembered his first meal there which included fresh bread, fruit, and kegs of syrup.  The Herrens then rafted down the Columbia, taking on provisions at the Hudson Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver on the north side of the river.  They were transported across the Columbia on a Hudson Bay ferry and then followed the “Germantown” road to the Tualatin valley.

For the first winter the Herrens stayed at Whiteson in Yamhill County with the Rev.  Garrison, and then in March of 1846 John Herren and his family located about four miles east of Salem on land that already had a cabin on it.  They remained there for two and a half years.  The lure of gold was strong though, and in the fall of 1848 John, some of his children and son-in-law William Wallace, went to California where they had some success in the gold fields on the Feather River.  Spending about five months there (until the spring of 1849), John returned to Oregon by boat with $2,000 in gold dust.

That the Herrens continued to be in contact with the family in Indiana during this time, and likely in contact with brother Nathaniel Robbins and cousin Jacob Robbins is evidenced by the mention of a letter William Herren wrote to his uncle William Robbins:  “…I received a letter from John Herrens son William which told us that they was all well, the letter was dated May the 3rd. [1852]”  It is interesting that William Jackson Herren, writing letters to his uncle, had last seen William Robbins about 12 or 13 years before when the younger Herren was only 15 or 16 years old.  Obviously strong family ties remained even though the families were separated by a wide continent.

John Herren’s Donation Land Claim

After returning from California John Herren took up a new donation land claim of 635 acres six miles southeast of Salem in the fertile farmland near Mill Creek.  The claim was settled on 2 July 1849 and there John and Dosha remained until their deaths in 1864 and 1881 respectively, and were buried in the Herren family cemetery.

Their land claim, or part of it, was later sold to the state of Oregon and became the location of the Oregon State Penitentiary.  The Herren family cemetery is located on the penitentiary grounds – not in the highest security area, but rather on the “farm annex” – though the property still requires a prison guard escort to visit.  The cemetery, however, is one of the best maintained small family cemeteries I’ve ever seen, with the gravestones sparkling white and the grass kept mowed.

At her death in 1881 Dosha (Robbins) Herren left many descendants.  As reported in the Portland Oregonian at the time:

“Mrs. Herren was the honored and beloved mother of 13 children.  7 sons and 6 daughters, all of whom lived to man and womanhood and 10 of whom together with 104 grandchildren and great-grandchildren now live to mourn her loss and venerate her memory.”

It might be noted that Dosha’s passing was also reported back in Decatur County, Indiana, where her obituary appeared in the Greensburg Saturday Review in January of 1882.

(Jacob Robbins-William Robbins-Theodoshia (Robbins) Herren)

William Franklin Robbins (1816-1856)

William Franklin Robbins, not to be confused with another of the same name (the family historian in Decatur County who read his noted history at the 1922 Robbins reunion), was the eldest surviving child of Nathaniel and Nancy Robbins and an Oregon Trail emigrant of 1852.

No photographs were ever taken of William and for the longest time his personality and thoughts were hidden to us, with only his name, dates, and tragic death being passed down through family.  In 1999 while searching through Greensburg newspapers looking for any mention of my family’s trek to Oregon, I came across a letter written by William describing in detail the events of that trip.  Titled “Journey to Oregon,” the letter appeared on the front-page of two issues of the The Decatur Press in 1853.  Suddenly, I had an impression of a man who for so long seemed to hide in the shadow of his parents and much longer lived siblings.

William Franklin Robbins was born in Henry County, Kentucky, to Nathaniel and Nancy Robbins.  Nathaniel and Nancy were cousins – Nathaniel’s father William was the brother of Nancy’s father Absalom.  After a few short years in Bond County, Illinois, the family came back east and settled in Decatur County where they lived until the fall of 1851.

Melvina (Myers) Robbins

William was married in 1836 to Melvina Myers, a woman whose sad photo does survive, the daughter of George and Margaret Myers of Decatur County.  The Myers had a large family, and one of George’s descendants was Dale Myers, long-time historian of Decatur County and a good friend.

Not found in the 1850 Decatur County census, it is possible that William was already en route to Missouri with his family, where he was going to rent a place to winter over before moving to Oregon.  In the fall of 1851, Nathaniel and Nancy and all their children, in-laws, and grandchildren, arrived in Missouri and stayed at the son’s rented farm.

While not a day by day journal of the trip, it is a very complete account, and William describes in detail the events, not to mention the daily health issues, of the members of the family.  The biggest event, of course, was the death of three of his sisters from cholera in Nebraska, and I’ll post more excerpts from William’s letter in later articles about this tragic event but today I’ll just describe William’s heartbreaking description of the death of his 11-year-old son Gilman once the party arrived in Oregon in November.

“Gilman was able to walk out of doors without help, which he had not been able to do for some time, and he appeared to be a little better until Thursday morning, when he was taken with a severe diarrhoea, and he being very weak with the fever it soon ran him down, and Friday morning about breakfast time he died.  This was the hardest stroke that ever fell on me, he was such a good boy in our train; he received several presents as a reward for his good behavior and attention to business.  When I found he was dying I ran for some of the neighbors to come in, I went first to old Mr. Moors, Mrs. Moor went back with me, and the old man went for others, in a few minutes Mrs. Divas came; Mrs. Moor closed his eyes, when she came to me and asked me if we had any clothes to put on him, I told her that we had none but what was dirty and ragged, and nobody able to wash any, she told me to cheer up and she would be my friend.  She went home and brought clothes clean, washed and ironed, that fitted him, then her and Mrs. Divas laid him out.  She gave me money and told me to go to Mr. Barnes and get a coffin, and Nat went to Willamette city to get his uncle Dow and Norvil to dig a grave as there was no chance to get help here.  Dow and Norvil came back with Nat, all as wet as they could be.  It was as hard a days rain as I have seen in Oregon; it rained so hard, and was so late in the day that there was no chance to get a grave dug that day; the days being very short, much shorter then they ever get in Indiana.  This was the 17th day of November; next day they dug a grave and buried him on a bench in the bluff above Lynn city, in a beautiful spot that had been selected by the citizens of Lynn city as a graveyard; there had been two or three buried there before.” [note: no cemetery has survived and Gilman’s grave is now lost].

Once in Oregon, the job of building a new life began.  William joined his family members in taking out a Donation Land Claim west of the Willamette River in the current area of Wilsonville and Tualatin.  But a long life was not to be for this intrepid traveler.  In 1856, in one more tragedy for this family less than four years after arrival in Oregon, William lost his life in a hunting accident.  His daughter Melissa wrote years later of that event and William’s funeral:

“But how soon happiness can be turned to sorrow for when I was but four years old Father was taken from us by death in the accidental discharge of his gun while trailing a Bear in company with his Brothers, tho so young I could always remember seeing his body carried from the forest and of being lifted up to view him for the last time as he lay in his casket.  There being no horse teams in our community except Grandfathers [Nathaniel Robbins] which  hitched to a wagon in which was placed the casket and in which Mother [Melvina], baby sister [Artemissa] and I also rode with the rest of the crowd walking we proceeded to the Cemetery one half mile distant and there without a Minister of God to offer a last prayer or to speak one word of comfort to the grief stricken ones his body was laid to rest and while I was too young to realize my loss yet Mother’s heart broken sobbings at that time has followed me through life.”

Fatal Accident

William Franklin Robbins may have died before his time, but his legacy lives on in one of the largest groups of descendants of Nathaniel and Nancy Robbins.

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

Seven Families West

One of the topics I’ll be covering over multiple posts in this blog are stories about the Oregon Trail and the Robbins families who crossed the continent.  I’ve researched and written about them for a number of years so there is a lot to share.  For those who aren’t familiar with which family groups left Indiana, or Missouri, or Iowa, for the Pacific Northwest, this post will serve as a general introduction.

Between 1845 and 1865 there were seven family groups that crossed the continent, comprising 77 family members.  Nine of the 77 died en route or upon arrival in Oregon.  Over the course of twenty years, the jump-off point moved north from Missouri to Iowa, and the organization and make-up of the wagon trains changed, from large formal groups with elected officers and hired guides, to solo family wagons traveling loosely with other family wagons.

The first family to make the trek was that of John and Theodoshia (Robbins) Herren.  The couple were married back in Henry Co., Kentucky, and moved up to Decatur Co., Indiana, with the Robbins migrations in the 1820s.  By 1840 they had moved to Missouri, settling in Platte County just north of Independence and Kansas City.  In 1842, the Rev. Enoch Garrison, John Herren’s brother-in-law, emigrated to Oregon, and John was determined to follow.

In 1845 the Herrens joined one of the largest wagon trains, the St. Joseph Division, and set out from Missouri.  William T’Vault was elected captain and John Herren was elected to the Committee of Safety, responsible for drafting wagon train rules and regulations.  This year became infamous as the year of the “Meek Cutoff.” The Herrens joined a group of emigrants who followed mountain man Stephen Meek across eastern and central Oregon on what he promised was an easier route.  It wasn’t.  It may have been easy for fur trappers but wagons with oxen and families were different.  The party got lost, then got hungry, and barely made it alive up to Fort Dalles on the Columbia.  A surviving portion of John Herrens’ diary covers this route and will be the topic of a future post, as will the stories of the Herrens’ discovery of the Blue Bucket gold mine while stumbling around the Oregon desert.

The next groups to cross the continent were the families of Nathaniel and Jacob Robbins.  Nathaniel’s large family group of 31 got an early start by leaving Decatur County in September of 1851 and wintering over in Randolph County, Missouri, at a farm rented for the winter by son William Franklin Robbins.  During the winter Nathaniel returned to Indiana to take care of some business and when he came back west he was accompanied by his cousin Jacob Robbins and his large family, bringing the party up to 42 family members.

This was the family group that was hit so severely with cholera in southern Nebraska, losing four members of Nathaniel’s family.  They had left Missouri late, probably the last people on the trail for the year, and by the time they arrived in Oregon it was November.  Illness took another four members, two of Jacob’s sons and two of Nathaniel’s grandchildren, once in Oregon.

The following year they were followed by Marquis Lindsay Robbins.  He was the son of John Robbins and was born in Henry County, Kentucky.  John and his family lived in Decatur County only in the 1830s, moving on to Missouri and Iowa by 1840.  (Another of John’s sons was the steamboat captain William Robbins covered in an earlier post.)  It was from Chariton County, Missouri, that Lindsay began his trip west with his wife and four children.  Strangely, he encountered two orphan boys, Orlando and Aaron Robbins, along the trail and brought them west to be taken care of by Jacob Robbins.  It is not known if they were “born” Robbins or took the name from their adopted father.

The remaining three emigrant parties were brothers of Lindsay, who had all been born in Decatur County.  John Hudson Robbins left Iowa in 1862 with his family, losing his wife Hester and a still-born daughter in eastern Oregon, and three years later in 1865, he was followed by Samuel and Moses Riley Robbins also leaving from Iowa.  Their treks are the least documented.

There were other family members coming to the Pacific Northwest in the following years but by the time of the Civil War the Oregon Trail years had come to a close.  Future travelers were more likely to come by train or, much later, by motor car!

John Milton Hamilton – A Rough, Western Life

After first appearing in the 1850 census as a 2-month-old, Milton Hamilton next appears in records when he was run over by a covered wagon.

“…about 5 oc this afternoon Milton hamilton fell out of the wagon and 2 wheels run over his brest but it is thought he will recover…”

Picture3

So wrote John N. Lewis, a young man hired by John Milton Hamilton’s grandfather Nathaniel Robbins, in his 1852 Oregon Trail journal.  Miraculously the toddler did survive the accident on July 8th and the trip across the plains that took the lives of three of his aunts, one of his uncles, and several of his cousins.

Milton was born in 1850 in Indiana, to John Henry Hamilton and Mary Jane Robbins, both from large, well-known Decatur county families.  At a little over one year old he was taken by his parents on the beginning of their trip west, and the following year suffered his wagon wheel accident.

After the Robbins family arrived in Oregon, Milton grew up in the very northwestern part of Clackamas county, where Nathaniel Robbins and his family members settled.  John and Jane Hamilton’s 328-acre Donation Land Claim was situated on the north side of current Advance Road, between S.W. Stafford and S.W. 45th Drive, near Wilsonville, Oregon.

About 1872, all of the Hamiltons, parents and children, left the Willamette Valley and moved to Grant County, Oregon, settling in a high dry valley along Deer Creek.  The Hamilton family gave their name to the area and the small settlement of “Hamilton” grew up along the stage road.  Despite living in the back end of a remote county, they traveled a lot more extensively by horse and wagon and foot than we can imagine today.  They returned occasionally to western Oregon and on one trip in 1879 Milton married Adaletta (“Lettie”) Foreman at the home of Jasper Fuller in Portland.  His brother Sebastian Hamilton was a witness, as was his cousin Margarette Sharp’s husband John Cairns.

Father John Hamilton ranched, raced horses, and was elected to serve in the state Senate from Grant County before losing nearly everything after some bad investments.  The Hamilton boys did what many pioneers did in eastern Oregon at this time, ranched and mined.  Milton’s 160-acre ranch was located east of the family settlement.

He appeared in the local Canyon City newspaper at times, for mundane reasons such as being associated with new roads, as well as getting into, well, scrapes:

“From Mr. Henry Welch who came over last Monday from his home on the North Fork we learn just the meagre particulars of a cutting scrape that occurred at Hamilton on Saturday night last.  What the row was about we do not know but Walker Hinton cut Milton Hamilton with a knife quite severely in the arm, face, and the right side.  The preliminary examination was to have been had on Monday, but as the authorities have not arrived at the county seat with the prisoner it is presumed that he gave bonds or was acquitted.”  (Grant County News (Canyon City, Ore.), 28 March 1889)

A week later we learn:

“Hinton who stabbed Hamilton last week was placed under $1,000 bonds, we are informed, for his appearance before the next grand jury, Hamilton will soon recover, it is thought.”  (Grant County News, 4 April 1889)

While no further information on Walker Hinton was found, this was in a late June issue of the newspaper:

“Milt Hamilton who was so very severely cut and stabbed last spring is now being treated by electricity for the recovery of his injured arm.”  (Grant County News, 20 June 1889)

Milton Hamilton recovered once again and continued to ranch and work the mines.  But in 1894, at the age of 43, Milton’s luck ran out and he was killed in a mining accident.

Milton Hamilton death 1_NEW.jpg

According to the article Milton was killed at the Dunlap mine, while family stories only remembered that he died in “the mines at Fox Valley.”  Fox Valley is about 10 miles south of Hamilton.  I wasn’t sure I’d ever find the exact location of Milton Hamilton’s death, but then I came across a court case, found through Google books, in Reports of Cases Decided in the Supreme Court of Oregon, Vol. 27, in which the location of the Dunlap mine is listed.  From that I was able to determine that the location of Milton’s death was on the south side of Fox Valley, where there are still some mines to this day.  A contemporary map doesn’t name the Dunlap mine but does list others, as shown here.

Grant Co Map

As an epilogue:  Milton’s widow Lettie Hamilton is found in the 1900 census, having been married for five years to Jacob Legler.  The census also sadly notes that Lettie had had two children, but neither were living in that year.  So Milton Hamilton died in 1894, his children died sometime between then and 1900, and his particular family line died out.

Hamilton Cemetery

Hamilton Cemetery, and in background site of Hamilton community

(Jacob Robbins-William Robbins-Nathaniel Robbins-Mary Jane (Robbins) Hamilton-John Milton Hamilton)

Letters about Letters: An Example of Serendipity

Anyone who has done family research for any length of time has experienced serendipity, that totally unexpected and fortunate occurrence which brings forth some marvelous source or record or photograph or family connection.  So it is with three letters which unexpectedly appeared one day, describing other letters which reported a sad story of the Oregon Trail.

A distant cousin in Wyoming, Abbie Current, sent three original letters (two from 1852 and one from 1861), to cousin Barbara Stinger in Oregon, because she thought the letters were important in our family’s history of the Oregon Trail.

All the letters were addressed to Elizabeth (Robbins) Wadkins (sometimes spelled Watkins) of Scott County, Indiana.  One letter is dated August 21, 1852; it is from William Robbins (father of James Gilman Robbins of last week’s post) of Decatur County, Indiana, to his sister Elizabeth Wadkins.  The next letter is dated August 27, 1852, and it is from Elizabeth’s niece Nancy B. Anderson of Greensburg, Indiana.  The third and final letter is also from Greensburg, dated January 18, 1861, and is from Abram and Charlotte (Robbins) Anderson to Charlotte’s sister Elizabeth.  (Abram and Charlotte were the parents of the middle letter sender, Nancy Anderson.)  This post will deal with the two 1852 letters.

By the time these letters were sent to Elizabeth (Robbins) Wadkins, her brother Nathaniel, with his wife and family, had been gone from Decatur County for eleven months, and were still on the road to Oregon.  They had left in September of 1851 and arrived in Randolph County, Missouri, to “winter over” before leaving for the Pacific Northwest in the spring.  While in Missouri, they were joined by their cousin Jacob Robbins (sometimes called Jacob Jr. but more accurately Jacob III).   We know from family reminiscences that the Robbins party sent letters back “home” to Decatur County when they arrived at a place that had a post office.  Fort Laramie (in what is now Wyoming) was such a place.

But, no such letters have ever come to light.  They could have all been lost or destroyed over the years, or they could still be sitting in a wooden chest in someone’s attic or barn.  What we do have, are two letters which mention letters sent by Nathaniel Robbins.

In the first letter Nathaniel’s brother William reports to their sister Elizabeth (spelling and punctuation has not been corrected):

“I received a letter from Nathaniel on last Saturday it was dated Ft. Laramie Nebraska Teritory July the 3rd it stated that him and his family was all well that was alive.  He lost 3 of his Daughters on the 30th of May with cholera.  Mahala Died half past 7 oclock Emeline half past 9 and Amand half past 12— they was all interred in one grave on a high mound one mile west of big Sandy, they then moved forward some six or seven miles to little blew river thair Absalom Barns Died and was buried on a high mound on the road side.  I have received a letter from John Herren son William which told us that they was all well the letter was dated May the 3rd…..”

Explanation:  Nathaniel’s three daughters and one son-in-law died of cholera in southern Nebraska, a few days before reaching Fort Kearney.  William Herren of Salem, Oregon, was the son of Dosha (Robbins) Herren, another sibling of William, Elizabeth, and Nathaniel.  The Herrens had moved to Oregon in 1845.

In the second letter Nancy B. Anderson, Elizabeth and Nathaniel and William’s niece, reports:

“My granmother and aunt Mary Kirkpatrick has both departed this life since you was to see us and we have received a letter from uncle Nathaniel dated July the third he has seen a very serious time since he left he has lost four of his family Amanda Emaline Mahaly and Absalom barns with the colary but now he writes that the rest of the family are all well and he is going on his journey”

Explanation:  Nancy is referring to her grandmother Bethiah (Vickrey) Robbins who died in December of 1850 and Mary (Robbins) Kirkpatrick, who died in June of 1851.  Even though Elizabeth only lived about 50 miles to the south, she hadn’t seen her family in some time.

The source of these letters, Abbie Current, is not a descendant of any of the families mentioned in the letters.  How did they come down to her?  The letters were sent to Elizabeth (Robbins) Wadkins in Scott County, Indiana.  None of Elizabeth’s siblings lived in that county.  There were, however, many other Robbins cousins there, including several named Nathaniel Robbins, who were Abbie’s ancestors.  It is most likely that someone in the Wadkins family came across the letters, saw a reference to Nathaniel Robbins, and assumed they were connected to the Nathaniels in Scott County.  All the Robbins’ in Scott County are related to the Decatur County families, but the connection is a generation or two earlier.  Whatever miracle resulted in the letters being  preserved, we can be grateful that they survived and were shared a century and a half later!