Story Keeper #4–A Wilderness Home


leantoThe first winter my great-great-grandfather spent on his homestead consisted of a miserable existence. Proving up a land claim to meet the requirements of the Homestead Act and later the Donation Land Act of 1850 meant living on it for four years, constructing dwellings, and defining boundaries to make the acreage habitable. But it didn’t begin that way.

One friend had traveled west with him and together they erected a lean-to with a semi-sturdy roof, borrowing tools from his closest neighbor, Bristow, who had arrived a year earlier. My great-great-grandfather whittled out a chair so he wouldn’t have to sit on the muddy ground and constructed a table to go with it.

He hunted wild game and bought wheat from the first crop raised by Bristow. He boiled the grain, sometimes all night, until it was palatable and ate meat without any salt or seasoning from the animals he shot. Food merely kept him alive, but wasn’t necessarily enjoyable.

Visits to the Skinners, even though they were fifteen miles away by horseback, always produced a better meal. Mrs. Skinner never let him go home hungry and he reported she was a fine cook. When I discovered these details, I had to laugh. Some things never change—what mother today would send a handsome bachelor away on an empty stomach?

The winter lingered with heavy snows and an abundance of rain, making the job of securing his claim that much more difficult. He continued on in spite of the elements, splitting logs to make fence rails, and later erecting a cabin. By spring, three hundred twenty acres were secured. Adding a flock of sheep and a herd of cattle would be his next step—he couldn’t survive here without them.

Considering all the hardships and the hunt for food he’d endured crossing the Plains, my great-great-grandfather thought he’d arrived in Utopia. Everything he could want waited here for the taking, including an additional three hundred twenty acres he staked out for an important next step in his life—a wife. That part of his story wouldn’t happen for another two years and after another crossing the Plains a second time.


All The Way West, H.H. Huntington, 1984

The Golden Frontier, The recollections of Herman Francis Reinhart, 1851-1869, edited by Doyce B. Nunn, Jr. 1962

Photo courtesy of free stock photos online

Story Keeper #3–A Friendly Face

Rain dropped from the heavens like a pitcher pouring water when my great-great-grandfather and his party entered the Willamette Valley on November 3, 1847. Six months on the trail had left him weary and arriving in the midst of fall’s annual deluge didn’t help his spirits. Astride his horse, he followed the river’s edge seeking the cabin of one of the first men who’d settled here.

Replica of the Skinner Cabin

Replica of the Skinner Cabin

Eugene Skinner, for whom the city of Eugene would later be named, had arrived a year earlier with three other men seeking Donation Land Claims of their own. Skinner chose land west of a butte that would also later bear his name. The site paralleled the Willamette river where he would run a ferry service in future years.

He built his cabin on the butte, overlooking the water, but avoided any potential flooding. The cabin, a mere four hundred square feet, housed him, his wife and one daughter. Though not much room for strangers, the dwelling was a welcome sight for exhausted travelers, especially those like my great-great-grandfather who were drenched to the skin.

After spending the night with the Skinners, the men saddled up and rode to the homestead of Elijah Bristow, who had staked out his land near Pleasant Hill, about ten miles away. Bristow tried to persuade my great-great-grandfather to claim the acres adjoining his property, but he decided he wanted more isolation. Felix Scott, who had come north with Bristow, had claimed a spot on the south bank of the McKenzie river near the place where it met the mouth of the Mohawk. William Dodson’s claim lay northeast of the Bristow land.

Bristow told of many acres of fertile soil across the Willamette, an area traversed by Indians, but who didn’t stay . Using a small boat, my great-great-grandfather and a friend crossed the water at the middle fork of the river and found the land which would become his home. As a single man, he could only start with 320 acres, but down the road could add 320 more when a wife joined him.

While a teenager, I lived with my family on a five-acre parcel of the original land claim, passed down through the generations to sons, daughters, and their children. The piece remains in the family today.



Story Keeper#2–Barreling Along


When my great-great-grandfather left his family on the east coast and headed west, he brought two important skills with him. He had apprenticed as a cooper, working for the Syracuse Salt Works, making fifty cents a day. He had logged in the woods as well, learning the skills a frontiersman would need to tame the virgin land he sought.

A copper was an important, if not revered, tradesman in the early 1800’s. This was the fellow who used curved wooden staves to make the barrels, casks, and buckets needed to transport just about everything imaginable. These containers usually bulged in the middle, kept round with hoops strategically placed around the outside to bind the vessel together.

Before the days of boxes and plastic packaging, dry-tight coopers made barrels and flasks to encase goods like flour and gunpowder, while wet, or tight, coopers made containers for long-term storage or transporting liquids. White coopers made straight-staved washtubs, buckets and butter churns, useful for holding water or other liquids, but these items weren’t useful in shipping. Settlers crossing the prairie needed well-built cooperage to carry the foodstuffs critical for survival in the days ahead.

My great-great-grandfather had remained in Syracuse when his family moved to Wisconsin, but an injury to his foot prompted him to join them a little later. He helped his father build a house of hand-hewn timbers as well as feed a family of thirteen siblings. The dinner table was kept stocked by hunting and fishing. A short time later his uncle needed assistance building a railroad in Michigan, a venture that would ultimately fail, but an experience which honed my great-great-grandfather’s logging skills.

He arrived in the wilds of Oregon with valuable knowledge necessary to prove up his donation land claim. Four years in untamed territory wasn’t much time to make a home, but many adventures awaited him when he rode into the Willamette Valley.

Story Keeper #1–Lust for Land


The promise of free land in Oregon Territory in the early 1800’s lured many settlers westward. Entrepreneurs like John Jacob Astor, who founded the Pacific Fur Company in 1811, moved to the region and sought to establish their businesses almost as soon as Lewis and Clark finished their overland expedition to the Pacific Ocean. By 1818 interest in the area led to the pact between the United States and Britain to share occupancy of the Oregon Country.

Growing tensions over slavery between the North and the South made moving to Oregon a tempting alternative to the possibility of war between the states. In 1838 Methodist missionary Jason Lee petitioned Congress for legislation to secure titles to acreage the settlers occupied and to extend jurisdiction of United States laws over the territory. With the assurance the land claimed could become a permanent home, larger numbers of settlers arrived in the Willamette Valley by 1840.

My great-great-grandfather heard the call. He’d left his childhood home in Syracuse, New York and gone to work for his uncle on the railroad in Michigan. A fellow laborer filled his head with tales of the new territory, telling him the land was a place of “milk and honey” much like the Israelites were told before they entered Canaan (Exodus 33:3). A man could claim 320 acres in the Willamette Valley and if he were married, his wife could claim an additional 320 acres.

All for free.

After gathering as many facts as he could find about surviving such a move, my great-great-grandfather invested in livestock and equipment to make the journey. He and a few other young men joined the Hulin wagon train in 1847. He crossed the prairie on his faithful mare, Dolly, and even though a new easier route coming up from California had been established for wagons, avoiding the arduous path taken by fur trappers and miners earlier, the trek took six months. My great-great- grandfather’s adventure had just begun.

Author’s note: This is the beginning of a series of stories about my grandfather’s heritage as I research his adventures in the 1840’s. More excerpts to come.

Do you know your family’s history? What have you learned?

Gift Writers’ Works at Christmas

I hate to bring this up. Don’t throw anything at me. But Christmas is fewer than ninety days away. If you have any readers on your list, why not gift them with a book about the past? Experts claim reading is an escape, but reading historical fiction is like climbing in a time machine. Between the front and back cover is an adventure in another era, another place. Here are some authors I’ve recently read and can heartily recommend.

Karen Barnett writes about love and romance in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century. What was it like to live during the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake? Two books in the Golden Gate Chronicles have been released, with a third due next spring.  signed timesheet December071BeyondTheAshes3DShadow





Laura Frantz explores life at the time of the Revolutionary War. Set in early Virginia and the territory of Kentucke, Laura’s characters deal with life and love in fledgling America at a time when Torys and Patriots fought for power.laura frantzlaura frantz 2





Sarah Sundin, author of three series set in World War II, uses meticulous detail about the period to bring her stories and romances to life. Her descriptions of military personnel, music of the era, and the changing political front will make the reader believe they have been transported into the 1940’s.Sundin023Sundin-With-Every-Lettter-194x300





Lauraine Snelling is well known for her tales of Norwegian immigrants Roald and Ingebord Bjorklund, who answer the call to free land in Dakota Territory, only to find the virgin prairie will exact its price on their lives as they tame it. Building a family legacy by trusting in her God sustains Ingebord through many difficult untamed heartan untamed land





Rebecca DeMarino tells the story of her ninth great grandfather who left England to escape persecution, tearing his new bride away from her family. Mary Horton struggles to find love as the second wife in a marriage of convenience to her strong willed husband.


To capture her heart





Lori Benton is another author whose books center around life at the time of  the Revolutionary War. Interesting details emerge about how native Americans and early settlers co-existed in a land both wanted to claim.







Tamara Alexander sets her books in the south, specifically the Belle Meade Plantation and the Belmont Mansion, in the aftermath of the Civil War. A fascinating look at life as it changed in the wake of conflict.TWHFEndorseRLHABSRFramed


If I had more room, I could recommend even more. But these suggestions should get you started.

Take time to explore the writings of these Christian authors and make Christmas merrier with a gift of historical fiction.