Adam Robbins – Farming the Desert

I was looking for Adam Robbins, a Posey County, Indiana, resident, trying to determine when he might have died or where he was buried.  As far as I knew he was, after being born in Kentucky, a life-long Hoosier.  Imagine my surprise to discover that about 1890 he moved to Harney County, Oregon.

Posey County, Indiana, is located in the southwest part of the state, a green farming area, nearby to the city of Evansville.  Harney County is a wide open high-desert region in south-eastern Oregon.  What made Adam Robbins move to such a dramatically different place?  It was probably the opportunity to obtain land, but we don’t know for sure.

First some background.  Adam was the son of Micajah and Elizabeth (Vickery) Robbins, born about 1822 in Henry County, Kentucky.  The family soon after moved north to Decatur County, Indiana.  That’s where Adam married his first wife Mary Stevens and they appear in the 1850 census.  By the 1860 census Adam and Mary and their children are in Posey County, Indiana. According to the 1860 and 1870 census, Adam and Mary had seven children:  Mary E., William H., Rebecca A., Margaret C., Charles, Adam Jr., and Mary (“Polly”) E.  After first wife Mary’s death, Adam Sr. married Margaret Williams in 1878 and they appear together in the 1880 census.  With the 1890 census non-existent, my hope was to find the family in 1900.  I did – at least, I found Adam Robbins Sr. and son William H. Robbins living in Harney County, Oregon.

Subsequent research located Adam Robbins Jr. as living in Harney County too (though not found in the 1900 census).  Adam Sr.’s daughter Rebecca was married to Joseph Armstrong Cash in Indiana, had two sons, died, and her widowed husband and sons moved to Grangeville, Idaho, in the 1890’s too.  Did they all move west together? or did one move first, and then report back about available land?

The upshot is I have not found when or where Adam Sr. (or Adam Jr. for that matter) died.  I did find that son William H. Robbins moved to Idaho near his Cash brother-in-law and nephews and died there in 1914.

I ordered the federal land records from the National Archives for both Adam Robbins and received a lot of information about their home in the desert.  Adam Robbins Jr. appears to have arrived first, in 1889, while his father Adam Sr. arrived in 1890.  Both are listed as unmarried.  Adam Jr’s land is located southwest of the town of Burns, in the well-watered (sometimes flooded) area north of Malheur Lake.  Adam Sr.’s land was directly south of Burns, in poorer land, on the road between Burns and Frenchglen, not far from the infamous Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters where 2016’s anti-government militant standoff took place.

In his 1898 “Testimony of Claimant” for his homestead, Adam Robbins Sr., who couldn’t write, reported about his arrival and improvements: “In the fall of 1890; Established residence about the 20 of October; House 12 by 13, addition 7 by 13, 2 miles barb wire fence; Corralls; valued at $300.”  He further stated that he was “unmarried” and one unmarried son lived with him (probably William H. Robbins). Further, Adam Sr. stated that there was about 40 acres cultivated “except for one year on account of high water” [Malheur Lake varies widely in extent and depth between dry and wet years] and the land was used for growing hay and grazing.  A survey map from 1896 shows a “JH Robbins” located where Adam’s property was – as I cannot find any evidence of a J.H. Robbins here, this seems to be an error.




Adam Robbins Jr.’s property and house is clearly marked on a survey map for his location.  His neighbor “witnesses” reported in their 1898 “testimony” for his homestead that the land is “used exclusively by claimant for farming and grazing purposes,” that he is a farmer with 6 acres broken for grain and vegetables, and that “he worked for himself most of the time [and] worked for a neighbor [haying] a few days.”  Further, that he had a “lumber house” (built by a previous occupant in 1886) of three rooms 16 x 20 feet with shingle roof and plank floors and one window and “habitable all seasons of year.”.  And Adam Robbins Jr. reports that he has no family.

Adam Jr. doesn’t appear in the 1900 census; Adam Sr. and William H. do.  William H. Robbins appears in the 1910 Idaho census and dies in 1914.  What happened to Adam Sr. and Jr.?

(Jacob Robbins-Absalom Robbins-Micajah Robbins Sr.-Adam Robbins Sr.-Adam Robbins Jr.)