Living in a Lean-To

Outside my window rain is falling, a typical December day in Oregon. I think of the story in my newest release, The Descendant’s Daughter, in which I relate part of the tale of my great-great grandfather who settled here in 1847.

The first winter he spent 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, Elijah 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. Not exactly high living.

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, enjoying it was relegated to a future life.

Visits to the Skinners, the family he’d first met when he arrived in the area, always produced a better meal. Even though they were fifteen miles away by horseback, my great-great-grandfather made the trip. A fine cook, Mrs. Skinner never let him go home hungry. 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?

Perhaps she was aware of the verse in Hebrews 13:2 which admonishes us to: “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by doing so some have unwittingly entertained angels.” My great-great- grandfather was no angel, only a hungry man, but at least he got fed.

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, though, wouldn’t happen for another two years and after 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

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.