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!