I keep finding new topics that I need to research as I write my historical novels. While I am finishing my current work-in-progress, I am also starting to think about my next book. That next book will begin in 1850, but I don’t yet know how long its timeline will continue. So far, I have only researched Oregon and California history between 1847 and 1850, so I will soon be spending more time in research.
In Lead Me Home, I wrote about 1847 emigrants traveling to Oregon in 1847. In Now I’m Found, I showed many of these emigrants settling into lives on land claims near Oregon City between early 1848 and late 1850. To write Now I’m Found, I had to speculate on what types of houses the emigrants built. I did some research, visited some pioneer reconstructions sites (mostly in the Midwest near my home), and found some pictures of log cabins that I used as models for my characters’ homes in Oregon.
On my main character Jenny’s farm in Now I’m Found, there were two residences. The cabin she lived in and a smaller cabin that the Tanner family lived in.
Here is a picture of what I imagined Jenny’s home to look like:
(There was a barn on Jenny’s property also, but I never fully described it in Now I’m Found.)
Now I’m Found also mentions several other residences. For example,
- Esther and Daniel Abercrombie and their children lived in a cabin similar to Jenny’s. They added on a room as their family expanded.
- Zeke Pershing built a house on his claim also, though I never described it.
But when I start to write my next book, which I think will take place mostly or entirely in Oregon, I am going to have to have a better sense of what these structures look like. So I recently went back to the internet to do more research on housing in Oregon in the 1840s.
I found an article by Liz Carter entitled “Pioneer Houses and Homesteads of the Willamette Valley, Oregon: 1841-1865,” prepared for the Historic Preservation League of Oregon, dated May 2013. This article, plus earlier research I’d done, confirms how I pictured the homes in Now I’m Found. It also gives me some direction on how my characters will construct future dwellings and other buildings in my next books.
Quoting University of Oregon Professor Philip Dole, Ms. Carter says:
“On a typical claim three successive homes would be built, each an improvement over the preceding one. The last was, of course, the lumber house, but for almost every farm that ‘real’ house was at least six years into the future. A home of the first type…is characterized by: the speed of its erection; the use of rails or poles (round logs); the small size (the term ‘pen’ implies a single room); and what it was called, as ‘shelter,’ ‘rail pen’ or ‘log cabin.’ Partly on the basis of the quality of its construction, this pen or cabin might be used only a month or it might be used for years. Following it and preceding the lumber house was the second type –‐ substantial, carefully built, emphatically distinguished from the first ‘log cabin’ by its designation as ‘hewn log house.’ The logs are squared to give a flat inner and a flat outer wall. Of one or two rooms, with a sleeping loft above, the house would have glazed sash windows, doors, a fireplace, a staircase and one or two porches. The building process would require at least a month’s time and a ‘raising’ crew.”
So the Tanners’ cabin as depicted above was a one-room “rail pen,” while Jenny’s cabin was a “hewn log house” (though I call it a “log cabin”)—one large room, with a loft above, and a couple of windows. Daniel and Esther lived in a house similar to Jenny’s, but with another room added on.
In my next book, some of the emigrants will build their “lumber houses” which will be larger and grander. But you’ll have to wait to see which characters come up in society far enough to build new houses.
It is nice to have my early speculations confirmed. It is even nicer to have a firm foundation for what I intend to write next.
What pioneer homes or reconstructed towns have you visited? What did you learn from them?