Schools in Oregon in the 1840s

The first log cabin in Portland, built in 1844. This is how I imagine Jenny’s cabin outside Oregon City.

In my novel Now I’m Found, Jenny, one of the lead characters in the book, opens a school for some of the children on surrounding farms. She holds the school in her cabin. It’s a one-room cabin, and she has benches built for the children to sit on. Her only resources are two primers, three Bibles, a book of Greek mythology, three issues of Godey’s Lady’s Book, and four slates. Most emigrants did not bring many books from home.

I did some research on early schools in Oregon, and I was able to determine the dates some schools opened in Oregon City. One article said the first school opened in 1844 in town in someone’s home. According to the January 20, 1848, edition of the Oregon Spectator, a female seminary opened in Oregon City sometime that month.

But I didn’t find many resources describing how children living on the farms outside of town learned their three Rs. Most of what I wrote in Now I’m Found about how Jenny taught school came from my imagination and from what I’ve read in the past about other frontier communities, such as in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books.

Recently, I came across the following description of school days in the 1840s in Oregon:

I learned my a-b-c’s from Captain Waters the first winter we were here. He took a smooth board and printed the letters on it for me. A little later Mrs. Eugene Skinner came to Oregon and gave me a primer, which I prized most highly and that book was passed around among children until it was completely worn out.

On our claim, which we located on what is now known as Isaac Levens donation land claim, was built a little log cabin, . . . In this little cabin was held the first school in Polk county. It was built during the fall of 1845 or the spring of 1846. I went to school there. It was my first school and the teacher’s name was Mr. Green. [A neighbor’s little boy] walked to this school house . . . . The grass grew so tall on the prairie, that [the boy’s father] took his yoke of oxen and plowed a furrow from their cabin to the school house for his little son to follow so that he might not lose his way and become lost in the tall grass.

So my description of Jenny’s school being held in her cabin was not too far-fetched. I only wish I had read the story about plowing a furrow to the schoolhouse before I wrote Now I’m Found. That anecdote would definitely have made it into the book.

What stories do you know about your ancestors’ school days?

Elizabeth Markham: One Woman’s Perspective on the Oregon Trail and on Matrimony

I am surprised that in five years of writing this blog I have never written a post focused on women’s perspectives on leaving their homes and journeying west on the Oregon Trail. I’ve written about specific women—Narcissa Whitman, Jessie Benton Fremont, Elizabeth Dixon Smith, Keturah Belknap, and others—and quoted some of their words, but I’ve never focused on how they felt about making the trek in the first place.

I’ve thought about this theme a lot, first as I researched and wrote Lead Me Home, and now as I’m writing another novel about other characters in that same wagon company. For the most part, the women did not want to leave home. They only went because their husbands or fathers insisted.

In my current work-in-progress, one woman is pregnant with her ninth child. She left her family’s farm in Missouri to follow her husband’s wanderlust. This woman’s teenage daughter mourns the loss of the friends she left behind. Another woman in the wagon company is accompanying her bully of a husband, who believes he’ll have a better life—while her life is likely to be harder in Oregon. Another character who lost all her children in Illinois left their graves behind her forever.

On and on the women’s stories go. Each mourns people and places they will never see again.

Abert Beirstadt, Oregon Trail

And on the journey, they cooked over campfires instead of in brick ovens. Their meals were made with limited provisions and what they could glean along the trail. They washed with river water almost as muddy as the clothes, unless it was left to sit and settle. Their family members suffered illnesses such as cholera or yellow fever or pneumonia. Or they were injured in wagon or gun accidents. Or they drowned or were snakebit or suffered some other calamity.

No wonder the women viewed the land so harshly. No wonder some of them went mad.

Elizabeth Markham was one such woman. On September 15, 1847, as they traveled along the Snake River (see the photo of Shoshone Falls on the Snake at the top of this post), Elizabeth told her husband Samuel she would not go on any farther. After some argument, Samuel took their five children and their wagons and left her behind. Later in the day, he sent their son John back to get his mother. Hours later, Elizabeth caught up to the wagon—alone. She said she had beaten John to death with a rock. Her husband went back for the boy. Stories vary as to whether John had been injured or not, but he lived. Samuel brought his son back to the rest of the family, only to find that Elizabeth had burned one of the wagons.

The rest of the story is that the Markhams’ traveling companions put out the fire, and the family did reach Oregon. They later had two more children. Their youngest child, Edwin Markham, became an acclaimed poet. The Markhams ran a store in Oregon City, but Samuel and Elizabeth later divorced, and Samuel set out for California alone. Elizabeth also later moved to California, remarried, and was divorced again.

Like her youngest son, Elizabeth was also a poet—the first published woman poet in Oregon. She had a poem published in the Oregon Spectator on June 15, 1948, less than a year after her episode on the Snake River. It reads:

A Contrast in Matrimony

The man must lead a happy life,
Free from matrimonial chains,
Who is directed by a wife
Is sure to suffer for his pains.

Adam could find no solid peace,
When Eve was given for a mate,
Until he saw a woman’s face
Adam was in a happy state.

In all the female face, appear
Hypocrisy, deceit, and pride;
Truth, darling of a heart sincere,
Ne’er known in woman to reside.

What tongue is able to unfold
The falsehoods that in woman dwell;
The worth in woman we behold,
Is almost imperceptible.

Cursed be the foolish man, I say,
Who changes from his singleness;
Who will not yield to woman’s sway,
Is sure of perfect blessedness.

Her note at the bottom of this poem in the newspaper read: “To advocate the ladies’ cause, you will read the first and third, second and fourth lines together.”

[Try it . . . The first stanza then reads:

The man must lead a happy life,
Who is directed by a wife
Free from matrimonial chains,
Is sure to suffer for his pains.]

This isn’t great poetry, but I have to marvel at the way she crafted two poems in one. And I have to wonder what Elizabeth was thinking as she wrote this multi-faceted poem—to which view of marriage did she subscribe? After her experiences on the Oregon Trail, did she think man better off with a wife or not? Given that both her marriages ended in divorce—still uncommon during her lifetime—I conclude she was fairly sour on the institution of matrimony.

What do you think of Elizabeth Markham’s poem?

News of California Gold Decimates the Population of Oregon

Word of the Sutter’s Fort gold discovery reached Oregon in the summer of 1848. Oregon learned of the gold finds indirectly, not from travelers arriving straight from California.

Ships from California came to Oregon after stopping in Hawaii that summer. They brought the news about the gold. In July 1848, the brig Honolulu docked at Fort Vancouver in Oregon. The captain bought all the mining supplies he could find, intending to hurry to California and sell them at a huge profit. He claimed to want to supply coal miners, but word of the gold mines leaked out.

Siskiyou Trail (from Wikipedia)

Siskiyou Trail (from Wikipedia)

Oregonians then flocked to the gold fields. Men traveled from Oregon City and other points north down the Siskiyou Trail to California. (Interstate 5 follows the same approximate route from the Willamette Valley to California’s Central Valley.)

Their journey took several weeks. The Siskiyou Trail began as Native American footpaths along river valleys. It was so rugged that at first only mules and horses could make the way through the Siskiyou Mountains (in southern Oregon and northern California). A good day of travel meant covering fifteen to twenty miles of the 600 miles journey.

But soon wagon trains as long as those that had followed the Oregon Trail made the trip to Sutter’s Fort and the burgeoning town of Sacramento. Wagons took even longer to make the trip—a couple of months at best.

Despite the rigors of the trail, by the end of 1848, two-thirds of all adult males in Oregon had left for California to seek their fortunes. These men were adventurers by nature. Most of them had made the dangerous journey from the East to Oregon within the past five years. Still, desertion of their new home of this magnitude left Oregon bereft.

The Oregon Spectator, October 21, 1848, page 2

The Oregon Spectator, October 12, 1848, page 2

By September 7, 1848, The Oregon Spectator, the first newspaper published west of the Rockies, had to shut its operations for several weeks, just as the San Francisco papers had halted publication earlier in the spring.

Oregon farms could not harvest their crops. The families that remained in Oregon suffered from the loss of labor and a lack customers for their produce.

The Whitman Massacre was forgotten. The militia that had fought the Cayuse Indians was disbanded. It would take another two years before five Indians were hung for the crime.

All in the lust for gold.

When The Oregon Spectator resumed printing on October 12, 1848, the editors apologized:

The Spectator, after a temporary sickness, greets its patrons, and hopes to serve them faithfully, and as heretofore, regularly. That ‘gold fever’ which has swept about 3000 of her officers, lawyers, physicians, farmers, and mechanics of Oregon from the plains of Oregon into the mines of California, took away our printers.

The publishers went on to say:

Some of our fellow citizens express their fears that Oregon has been ruined, by the discovery of the late extensive gone mines of California. They ask—who will cultivate the ground when from $10 to $100 per day can be realized at the mines?

After waxing eloquent about the many advantages of Oregon, the editors said:

Oregon is temporarily injured by reason of so many of her citizens having left their farms, and shops, for the purpose of gold digging; but only temporarily.

The editors firmly believed in the bounty of Oregonian land, for not only the West, but for the nation as a whole. They argued that in the future Oregon would be seen for its great capacity to feed the nation.

[I]s such a country ruined, because gold mines are discovered in the neighborhood? Surely not; it should rather be regarded as a rich blessing, at the hands of the great, and wise Ruler of the Universe.

“All that Oregon has wanted, was a good market, the facilities for carrying her goods to market, and the protecting care of the home government; the home government, we trust, is about to extend her fostering care, the mines have already brought the desired market, the mines will bring facilities for carrying provisions to the mines; and the mines will materially contribute to make Oregon known, and develop her great resources.

Meanwhile, news of Californian gold reached back East. The St. Louis paper reported the gold find on August 8. The New York Herald reported the news on August 19. The Herald’s story was the first major East Coast mention of the gold discovery. However, its report was not confirmed, and did not immediately elicit any mass migration.

That would soon change.

Have you ever heard news that turned your life quickly from one path to another?

The Times, They’re Not A-Changin’

For those of you who want an update on my writing about the Oregon Trail, I just started delving into the first draft of my second novel in that series. Writers recognize this as a very dangerous point—will I hate every page or will I think it is all wonderful?

Neither of those perspectives is a useful frame of mind at this stage.

I need is the objectivity of a reader coming fresh to the page. It’s been a year since I finished the rough draft, so I think I have that objectivity. I also have the benefit of a wonderful critique group, who will read my newly edited chapters as I go.

I am finding I need to plug some holes in the plot and to even out the pacing, so I’m doing more research as I edit. I want to be sure I am grounded in the history of the places where the book is set, which has set me to reading old Oregon and California newspapers, month by month as my chapters move through time.

I’ve mentioned old newspapers as valuable sources of information before, and I am fortunate that the locales where my novel is set have papers from the 1840s and ’50s available online.

The newspapers of the day contained reports from the skirmishes of the nearby Cayuse War to avenge the Whitman Massacre and of the far-away Mexican-American War that would shape the boundaries of the southwestern United States.

These reports were often delayed for months after the events in question. Some of the reports of the Mexican-American War came to Oregon via the Sandwich Islands (known today as Hawaii).

Archbishop Francis Norbert Blanchet (from Wikipedia)

Archbishop Francis Norbert Blanchet (from Wikipedia)

Even a December 16, 1847, letter written by the Catholic Archbishop of Oregon City, Francis Norbert Blanchet, about the tragedy of the Whitman Massacre was not printed until the March 9, 1848, issue of the Oregon Spectator. Did the editor only just get a copy of the letter, or had he held on to it for several weeks before printing it? The paper was printed twice a month, so he could well have had earlier opportunities to print the letter.

As I launch into this reading project, I find not only military and political history, but gems of social history as well:

  • Whose wife would no longer be responsible for her husband’s debts, because he had left her hearth and home.
  • Which ships have entered port, and which stores have received new merchandise from their cargos.
  • The best times to plant which fruits and vegetables.

These gems tell us about the character of the people who populated Oregon City when my characters did. Some of them may even find their way into my novel.

Here are two nuggets I found in the Oregon Spectator. (My apologies to those of you who follow my Facebook Author page, because I posted these there a couple of weeks ago.)

The first is a joke printed in the February 10, 1848, issue of the Spectator, which is just about the time my novel opens:

— Well, Susan, what do you think of all married ladies being happy?
— Why, I think there are more that AIN’T that IS, than there IS that AIN’T. (emphasis in original)

As you can see, not much has changed in how we use humor about marriage in 165 years.

And in the February 24, 1848, issue of the Spectator, we find a letter to the editor, showing us that opinions of the press have also not changed across time:

From what I have seen in The Spectator, . . . You’ve given us what pleases you, and what you dislike you withhold. Your summary for two years amounts to a perfect aggravation, and nothing more. . . . you had no business to garble a single resolution that was stillborn, simply because it suited your purpose; in doing so you not only lowered yourself but perverted the press . . . .

Who among us does not find the press perverted at times and “a perfect aggravation”?

One of the great things about writing historical fiction is creating characters that are as real as the people who live today and setting them in fascinating places from the past. The characters can be as real as the people we know because the human race really hasn’t changed much in hundreds and thousands of years.

When has historical or family information made you realize that people have not changed throughout the generations?

Husbands, History, Trivia, and Corsets

My husband has always been a student of military and naval history. He spouts off bits of arcane knowledge – types of cannon, length of ships, dates of battles – which really don’t matter to anything or anyone (at least, they don’t matter to me).

On our recent visit to the Museum of the Oregon Territory, however, I was able to explain to my husband why Oregon City was located where it was, why John McLaughlin built the first mill at Willamette Falls, and why San Francisco’s first plat was filed in Oregon City rather than in California. This information was all available at the museum, but I was sometimes a step ahead of their display, or I provided more detail than was shown on the placards. I felt pretty smug about my grasp of Oregon Trail trivia.

IMAG0890 corsetBut one bit of trivia I saw at the Museum of the Oregon Territory surprised me – a detailed description of the impact of corsets on women’s health.

The display in the museum quoted The Medical Times of January 31, 1846. I found this same quote on Google Books, in Health and Beauty; or Woman and Her Clothing, by Madame Roxey Ann Caplin.

“The waist of well-formed women, of the average height, varies in circumference from twenty-seven to twenty-nine inches; and there is scarcely any difference in its proportional size between male and female. But such is the power of fashion, that the waist is seldom permitted to expand to the dimensions of twenty-five inches; the majority are within twenty-four; thousands are compressed to twenty-two; and some even to less than twenty inches; and by the aid of wood, whalebone, and steel, the capacity of the chest is very often reduced to less than one-half. The penalties attending this infringement of the organic law are as follows:—Shortness of breath; palpitation of the heart; cough, and pain in the side; headache, with a feeling of weight at the vertex; neuralgia of the face, and eruptions; edema of the ankles; dyspepsia and chlorosis. The temperature of the body partakes of the extremes; there is generally a chilliness of the whole surface; the viscera of the pelvis are liable to derangement, and in married women especially. The lateral curvature of the spine is a consequence, not uncommon, of this pernicious practice.” Medical Times

Another blogger has also written about the problems caused by corsets. And in Eight Cousins, Louisa May Alcott made the point as well.

It sounds as if almost any medical problem women encountered in the middle of the nineteenth century could be attributed to their corsets. Heaven knows I wouldn’t want to have the viscera of my pelvis liable to derangement! Nevertheless, despite the health issues of overly constrictive corsets, the fashion continued into the twentieth century.

My husband is a reader of history and I am a writer of historical fiction. He likes history for its own sake. I use history to add color and texture to the stories I write – one of the joys and perquisites of writing historical fiction is encountering interesting and useless tidbits of information. We both learned something on that trip through the Museum of Oregon Territory.

What strange bit of historical trivia sticks in your mind?

A Modern Day Trek to Oregon City: Two Museums and the Willamette Locks

Once Oregon City was a thriving town at the end of the Oregon Trail, the largest settlement in the Pacific Northwest. It was the first city in the U.S. west of the Rockies to be incorporated. Now it is overshadowed by Portland, which it once eclipsed in size and importance.

On a recent trip to Oregon, I took the opportunity to visit two museums in Oregon City dedicated to the Oregon Trail. The first, the End of the Trail Interpretive Center, was a disappointment. Unfortunately, this museum fell on hard times during the recent economic downturn, and is only now getting back on its feet.IMAG0875 Although the outdoor exhibits were open when I was there a couple of weeks ago, the museum itself had not yet reopened after a closure of several years. Nevertheless, I was delighted to stand at the official “end of the trail” – Abernethy Green – where the emigrants camped when they finally arrived in Oregon City after months of travel. Abernethy Green is much smaller than in 1847, but it has been commemorated with a plaque and garden.

When I told the staff at the End of the Trail Interpretative Center that I was writing a novel about travel on the Oregon Trail, they sent me to another museum in town, the Museum of the Oregon Territory, sponsored by the Clackamas County Historical Society. I worried when I learned that this museum was run by a county historical society, wondering whether I would find an unorganized mish-mash of cast-offs from people’s attics.

But the Museum of the Oregon Territory is a gem. It contains a nice collection of prehistoric Native American artifacts, and also features photographs by Ralph Eddy, whose 60-year career lasted from glass plates to color slides.


Log with rope marks from Barlow Road

Painting of Oregon City by John Mix Stanley (circa 1852)

Painting of Oregon City by John Mix Stanley (circa 1852)

More importantly for my purposes, the museum has a good overview of the emigrant history in the area, from the Hudson’s Bay Company fur traders through the American settlers. I saw a log marked by the ropes used to lower wagons down the side of Mount Hood on the Barlow Road. I saw a painting of Oregon City by John Mix Stanley (circa 1852), which I could compare with the 1846 map I had found in my earlier research.

These museums also gave me more names to research for my second novel about the Oregon Trail emigrants, which takes place after my characters arrive in Oregon in late 1847. Some of these founding fathers of Oregon City may show up when my book is finally edited – people like Portland founder Asa Lovejoy, Methodist minister Alvin Waller, and the tanner Daniel Lownsdale.

Willamette Falls today

Willamette Falls today

Oregon City is situated at the falls on the Willamette River, because John McLaughlin built a lumber mill at the falls in 1829. Moreover, the falls stopped the settlers traveling up the Willlamette by boat. According to the Museum of the Oregon Territory website, the Willamette Falls are the second largest waterfall by volume in the United States. My novel features steamboat travel between Portland and Oregon City, but the boats of 1848-1852 could not travel beyond Oregon City, because there was no way to take the boats upriver beyond the falls.

Willamette Falls today

Willamette Falls today

On our visit to Oregon City, my husband (who likes all things nautical) and I also looked for the locks on the Willamette River. These were the first locks in the United States to have multiple lifts, and were made a National Historical Site in 1974. They operated from 1873 until 2011. Since McLoughlin’s first mill opened in 1829, the Willamette Falls have been a commercial site. Now, the area around the falls is heavily industrial, and many of the buildings are decrepit.

(For more on Oregon City and Willamette Falls, see my post Oregon City: End of the Trail, from last October.)

This modern-day visit to Oregon City helped me place many of the events in my novels in geographical and political context – from the mountains and lakes and weather in the area to the provisional and territorial governments.

My visit reinvigorated me, and I am ready to tackle the next draft of my novels. I’ll be posting more about my trip to Oregon in the weeks and months ahead.

Writers, what nuggets of information have you found as you have done research for your books?

Oregon City: End of the Trail

Drawing of Oregon City with Mt. Hood (1848), by Capt. Henry J. Warre

If the emigrants on the Oregon Trail were fortunate, they reached Oregon City in the Willamette Valley sometime in October – about six months after they began their journey from what was then the United States.  The dangers of their trek continued even through the last weeks, when the travelers had to choose between rafting the roiling Columbia River, or trekking up and down the horrific Barlow Road around Mount Hood.

But finally, in the Willamette Valley, the emigrants found a land of beauty and bounty.  They were often out of supplies and money, and their health was spent. Everything they owned had gone into the journey.

Willamette Falls, picture from Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife website (NOTE: this is a more modern picture – see the bridge in the background)

Oregon City sat where Willamette Falls stopped all boat traffic up the Willamette River from the Columbia. It had been a Native American trading site before the white settlers arrived.

Dr. John McLaughlin, Chief Factor of Hudson’s Bay Company at nearby Fort Vancouver, had started a fur trading post at the Willamette Falls site in 1829, and also built a mill harnessing the power of the falls. Methodist missionaries from the United States came to the area in the 1830s, and the missionaries encouraged other Americans to follow, including George Abernethy, who established a store competing with Hudson’s Bay Company.

Dr. John McLoughlin, from National Park Service website

Oregon City was incorporated in 1844, the first incorporated city west of the Rocky Mountains. In 1845, Oregon City became the seat of Oregon’s Provisional Government, with Abernethy as the first governor. The town opened a library and a jail. By 1846, the town had a population of over 500 people.

The Oregon Treaty in 1846 established the boundary between the U.S. and Canada in the West at the 49thparallel, effectively ending the Hudson’s Bay Company’s rights in the Oregon Territory. Nevertheless, McLoughlin gave the American travelers provisions and carried their accounts on the Hudson’s Bay Company books until they filed their land claims and got their first crops in. If it weren’t for this British citizen, the Americans might not have been so successful in established their foothold in Oregon.

But with McLoughlin’s help, Americans in Oregon thrived. By 1849, the population was over 900, even though one-quarter of the male population left Oregon City for California in the Gold Rush (which hit Oregon in 1848, a year ahead of the famous Forty-Niners.) Oregon City had the only federal land claims office in the West, so in 1849 the plat for San Francisco had to be sent to Oregon City to be filed.

It is against this backdrop that the events of my Oregon Trail novels take place. I found some fascinating resources on Oregon City history.

Map of Oregon City, 1846

One resource was a hand-drawn map of Oregon City in 1846.  This original part of Oregon City is only two or three blocks wide, but from this narrow footing, much of the Pacific Northwest was settled.

Although this picture is too small to see, the map shows the location of the mills at the Willamette Falls, where the two churches (Methodist and Catholic) were, and a variety of other buildings. The map shows also that Oregon City was trapped between a  bluff of 120 feet and the river, which led to many floods throughout the town’s history.

Oregon Spectator, October 14, 1847, page 1

Another resource was the archives of the Oregon Spectator newspaper. The Spectator, which started publishing in 1846, was the first American newspaper west of the Rockies. Many of the online digital archives are nearly illegible, and many of the articles are advertisements (not much has changed in 160 years). Still, I could read enough to ground some of the events in my novels in the newspaper accounts.

The edition portrayed in this picture was published on October 14, 1847, the same week that the wagon train depicted in my novel arrived in Oregon City. Most of the first page of this edition is a letter sent by Oregonians to the federal government in Washington, asking for assistance and protection.

And another resource was the diaries of people who settled in Oregon City. In November, I’ll write a post featuring the story of one of these settlers.