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)

Harvey Robbins and the Rogue River Indian War

A recent trip to southern Oregon got me thinking about cousin Harvey Robbins and his experiences in the 1855-56 Rogue River Indian War.  The route I traveled, along Interstate 5, is pretty much the same rugged route that Harvey traveled with his state militia company in rain and snow.  Today the freeway climbs and descends four passes between Grants Pass and Canyonville.  In Harvey’s time each of the intervening valleys had a fort that played a part in the war.

By 1855 the Takelma Indians were living on their treaty-established Table Rock Reservation in southern Oregon.  After a massacre by miners that year the Indians began taking revenge against miners and settlers in the area, which led the tribe to flee west down the Rogue River Valley and into the Coast Range.  Other related tribes to the north attacked isolated cabins in the valleys of Jump Off Joe Creek, Graves Creek, Wolf Creek, and Cow Creek.  The fear of Indians moved north into the Umpqua country and ultimately the Willamette Valley.  Governor Curry called up several companies of volunteers from the upper Willamette and Umpqua area counties.

Brothers Levi and Harvey Robbins (1850s)

Harvey Robbins, born in Decatur County, Indiana, in 1833, came across the Oregon Trail at the age of 19, with his parents Jacob and Sarah (Spilman) Robbins, all his siblings, as well as his cousin Nathaniel Robbins and his large family.  The family settled initially in Marion County, with some later moving on to Molalla, in Clackamas county.  Harvey, however, took out a donation land claim in Linn County, near Harrisburg.

As Harvey described the situation in the fall of 1855:

“By this time I had become of age and had taken up a parcel of land in Linn county.  When the call reached Linn County the news spread rapidly, runners going in all directions.  One came to me where I was plowing on the prairie and informed me of the urgent need for haste.  I at once unhitched my team from the plow and turned them loose to find their way home while I went to the claim of a young friend a couple of miles away.  He had two excellent saddle horses and I secured one of them and we rode hastily to the nearest assembly point.  We then met a number of other young fellows and all of us at once signed the necessary papers.  We were then ready to fall into line when called out.”  (Pioneer Reminiscences by Harvey Robbins).

We are lucky that Harvey Robbins kept a journal which survived and which was published in 1933 in the Oregon Historical Quarterly, as well as having written up his reminiscences.  In the journal Harvey describes the events of October 1855 to January 1856.

After marching south to Roseburg, Harvey described the “lack of respect” that the local residents affording the volunteers.  “The citizens of this place seem to treat the volunteers with but little respect.  One man has even forbade our cutting wood on his claim.  We just went to his wood that was already chopped and helped ourselves.”  The following day he reported: “Rained all night.  We have no tents yet.  The citizens will not even let us sleep in their barns.  A person may very easily imagine what kind of respect the volunteers begin to have for Umpquaians.”  (Oct. 29-30, 1855, in Journal of Rogue River War, 1855)

The various companies elected a battalion officer and then they were on their way south, marching to Fort Bailey (now the location of the historic Wolf Creek Tavern).  There Harvey and his fellow soldiers learned of the army’s defeat at the hands of the Indians at the Battle of Hungry Hill.

Oregon vigilantes

Harvey’s company left Fort Bailey for Fort Leland (today situated next to Interstate 5 in the Sunny Valley) and then they were marched west down Grave Creek to the Rogue River, and then down the rugged Rogue, where the river plunges into canyons inaccessible to anyone but foot soldiers.

“The spy of yesterday morning arrived at camp, reported that the Indians were, he thought from all appearances, preparing to fight.  Capt. Keeney’s company was ordered to cross the river with [the] Southern battalion.  While preparing rafts to cross the river we were attacked by the Indians from the opposite side of the river.  Killed one man, wounded 22 more, Capt. Keeney’s company.  The river runs here in a deep canyon.  The side on which the Indians were is covered with fir timber and brush so thick that we could not see them.  The side on which we were was open with the exception of a few scattering trees.  As soon as the firing commenced Capt. Keeney ordered his men, every one to choose a position behind something to shelter us from their sight.  10 minutes before he advised us, all that were not at work, to get behind something and keep a close lookout for Indians, but the boys disposed to laugh at him.  The firing commenced at about 1 o’clock, continued till 8 o’clock at night, when seeing it was impossible to accomplish our object or even do any good in any way, we left the field, carrying our killed and wounded with us to our camp.”  (Nov. 26, 1855, in Journal of Rogue River War, 1855)

The soldiers stayed where they were, firing back and forth with the Indians for several days, but after a storm left 10 inches of snow, and with provisions running low, the officers decided to return to the safety of the forts.  Once there the soldiers proceeded to vote for a Colonel and Lieutenant-colonel, Harvey writing: “The candidates have been shouting here today, telling us their views and what they would do if elected.  If they make their words good, woe unto the Indians.”  (Dec. 5, 1855, in Journal of Rogue River War, 1855)

Rugged Rogue River country near Indian battle sites

On December 16, Harvey reported that provisions were again running low.  “This morning we are out of meat, and having made several applications to the quartermaster for meat, and could not get it, Captain had discovered in the quartermasters house a keg of syrup which he called for, and the quartermaster swore that he should not have it.  Captain swore that he would.  He came to camp and took a few boys with him and just walked in, carried it out, and said “Here boys, take it,” and Mr. Quartermaster took care not to cheep.”

As the month wore on, and the weather worsened, and the supplies were running out, Harvey reported on Christmas Eve “Today there is considerable of murmuring in camp about the way we are getting treated here.  We are very poorly clad, and in fact we have no suitable equipment for a winter campaign and it seems there is no exertion used for our relief with the exception of Captain.”  On Christmas the soldiers received “a bucket full of brandy” from the quartermaster.  Captain Keeney asked for a furlough for his men, was denied, and he marched them anyway to Roseburg, for which he was temporarily suspended from command by the Governor.

So ends Harvey Robbins’ involvement in the Rogue River Indian War.  But we’ll be hearing more from Harvey later – he also participated in the Yakima Indiana War, ran a freighting service in eastern Oregon, mined and ranched in Oregon and Washington, and late in life returned to Decatur County, Indiana, to attend the 1922 Robbins Family Reunion.

(Jacob Robbins-Jacob Robbins II-Jacob Robbins III-Harvey Robbins)

Nathaniel Robbins and Oregon’s Constitutional Convention

On February 14, 1859, Oregon was admitted to the Union as the 33rd state.  Two years before, a Constitutional Convention was held in Salem, the state capitol of Oregon Territory, to write a constitution for the new state.  Nathaniel Robbins, son of William and Bethiah (Vickrey) Robbins, born in Virginia, raised in Kentucky, living his adult life in Decatur Co., Indiana, before emigrating to Oregon in 1852, was the oldest member of the Constitutional Convention at 64-years of age.

Nathaniel was elected with 169 votes to represent Clackamas County at Oregon’s Constitutional Convention in June of 1857.  He had been nominated by the Clackamas County Democratic Party in April.

Nathaniel Robbins (1793-1863)

At this time newspapers were strongly associated with particular political parties, so while the Salem Oregon Statesman was a Democratic party newspaper, the Oregon City Argus was a Republican one.  This explains why some news was reported in one newspaper and not the other;  it depended on the political persuasion of the individual(s) involved.  The Argus would sometimes report that Nathaniel Robbins was a member of the “locofoco” party, which was a derogatory term at that time for the Democratic party.  When Nathaniel and others were nominated by the Democratic party the Argus had this to say:  “Upon the whole, we think this is about as good a ticket as could have been manufactured out of the material of this miserable party, although some of it could have been bettered a good deal.”

And it seems that there was some negative campaigning during the election, and Nathaniel Robbins, as an apparent “free-thinker”, came in for his share as the Oregon Statesman reported:

“BIGOTRY PROPERLY REWARDED—We are told that an opponent of Mr. Robbins, who was running on the democratic ticket of Clackamas for the Constitutional Convention, electioneered against Mr. R. on the ground that the latter was an infidel.  In one precinct where he urged this objection were quite a number of liberalists, politically opposed to Mr. Robbins, intending to vote against him, but who changed and voted for him, when they heard him opposed on account of his religious belief, actually giving him more votes than he received majority, and electing him.  When a man, competent and worthy, is opposed on account of his belief upon the subject of religion, we hope it will ever be with the same success as in Mr. Robbins’ case.”

The constitutional convention had been called by the people as the first step to statehood.  The convention convened on 18 August 1857 in Salem; presiding was Judge Matthew P. Deady.  On August 20th Dr. Robbins was appointed to the Education Committee, serving with delegates Peebles, Boise, Maple, Shattuck, Starkweather and Kinney.  This committee drafted the portion of the Oregon Constitution dealing with education and school lands (Article VIII, which can be viewed online, in its original handwriting).  This article was passed by the Convention on September 15th.  Three days later the Convention voted to adopt the new Constitution, it was signed by the delegates, and the Convention adjourned.  Later that fall the Constitution was accepted by the voters of Oregon.

Debates about education reveal a few general characteristics about the convention: Its delegates favored a solid fund to pay for a basic system of common schools; many wanted to exclude non-whites from attending school; and they were deeply ambivalent about the value of higher education and the wisdom of providing state support for it. The delegates made “liberal and abundant provision for the education of the rising generation” by setting up a common school fund. The fund would be based on the sale of public land as well as other money that accrued to the state in the form of forfeitures and escheated property such as estates without heirs. The interest and other revenues from the fund would be distributed to school districts around the state. These provisions caused no significant debate.

However, disagreements soon arose over who should attend the public schools. The committee draft simply referred to “children.” David Logan objected, worrying that someone could “wring in a nigger or an Indian under the provision as it stood.” He wanted the text to read “white children.” But the realities of living in a frontier territory led others to oppose banning non-whites. John White of Washington County noted that “there were many half-breed children in his county.” J.C. Peebles from Marion County agreed, adding that “there were many voters in his county whose children had Indian blood—half-blood or less. They paid taxes, and their children ought to enjoy the benefits of common schools.” The final version of the constitution referred only to “children.”

Another debate centered on funding higher education, especially in relation to religious influence. In the 1850s, a university education was very uncommon, usually associated with a religious denomination, and often seen as a symbol of elitism. Nathaniel Robbins, who was a country doctor, “read” medicine with a local physician in Indiana to learn about doctoring – he did not go to school for a medical education.  Many delegates distrusted higher education and thought it was unnecessary for building the mostly agrarian society they envisioned for the state.

Others supported a university, saying that “children wanted to learn more than was taught in common schools.” Likewise, one delegate said there was enough money for both common schools and a university and claimed that “it was the poor who wanted the university, not the rich. The rich could send their children anywhere.” In the end, the delegates postponed the decision on founding a state university until ten years after the passage of the constitution.  It is not known what Nathaniel Robbins views on these issues were – there are no records kept of how individual delegates voted.

Sadly, and to Oregon’s dishonor, the Convention passed to the voters the choice of (1) allowing or disallowing slavery and (2) allowing or disallowing free blacks to reside in Oregon.  Oregonians voted strongly against slavery, but they voted more strongly against allowing free blacks to live in the state.  Free African-Americans would have to look north, to the Puget Sound region in Washington State, for a place to reside.  That part of the Constitution wasn’t removed until 1926.

(Family line:  Jacob Robbins-William Robbins-Nathaniel Robbins)