The Long Journey
Who were James and Elizabeth Stephens and why should you care? This is my first Blog Post about the Stephens family! I am Jimmy Dorsey the caretaker of the Stephens house, I along with my wife Joy have been working to open the house up to the public for the last six months. My family has owned the Stephens house for 15 years and the Stephens story is just starting to unfold for us. To be honest we didn’t care when we bought it, it was just a really, really old apartment building to my family. But over the last six months spending all this time curating the history for the website I couldn’t help but wonder who was this man? Who was the family who built it? I wasn’t sure I could find the answers as it had been too long. But just as peeling away the paint uncovers the wallpaper and the images locked away on it if you care to look its amazing what you will find.
“James B. Stephens was born in West Virginia in 1806. He was a cooper by trade, and a person of limited education. He had a strong mind and body, considerable experience in the ways of the world in the common walks of life, was a close observer, had a retentive memory, and was very resolute and persistent of purpose and opinion.” United States Circuit Court, D. Oregon. April 20, 1891
To many thousands of Portlanders the tombstones of Elizabeth and James Stephens is about all they know of the family. If you have taken a tour of the Lone Fir cemetery you might know that their daughter is buried in an unmarked grave there. Elizabeth their daughter, known as Lizzie, was the only child that outlived their parents. They lost four kids before they ever made it to Oregon. One of their sons drowned in the Wil-a-Mette River where they lived along the banks.
Uncle Jimmy as he was known has a rags to riches story when he embarked on the Oregon Trail in 1844 with his family. Not much is known about that trip to me yet but I can tell you that 900 people made it out to Oregon that year. This was the second year since it was widely publicized that people with ailments could get better if they could make it to the West coast.
Now I need to stop here. There are a lot of misconceptions of what the Oregon Trail was. Let me tell you what it wasn’t. It wasn’t the only way to get here. Sailors had been coming to west coast for hundreds of years. Sir Francis Drake sailed right by the mouth of the Columbia thinking it was another bay in 1579. He had no idea where he was per se but he was there. And so did many others trappers, explorers, adventurers and colonizers. And there were people here. LOTS OF PEOPLE with incredible skills and lots of culture. They were part Asian, Russian, Egyptians, Turks, Lebanese, Sephardic Hebrews and Mesopotamians. We call them Native Americans.
The Oregon Trail kicked off when the government needed to claim territory by sitting a family on every three hundred twenty acres. Each person could claim one hundred sixty acres and a married couple could claim twice as much. The idea was to create a patchwork of farms from Independence Missouri in a fan across the west to displace the Native Americans but more importantly the British. The advertisements were for people suffering from tuberculosis (then called “consumption”) and other respiratory diseases were often advised to move to the drier climates of the West for health benefits. The notion was that the fresh air, away from the crowded and polluted cities of the East, would be therapeutic. Some doctors and health experts of the time promoted this idea, and it became a part of the larger narrative of the West as a place of renewal and opportunity.
Unfortunately we have proof that the military was behind this movement as the U.S. Army established sanatoriums in the West specifically for soldiers suffering from tuberculosis. One of the most notable was Fort Bayard in New Mexico. Established in 1866, Fort Bayard served as a military hospital for soldiers with TB. The choice of location was based on the prevailing belief that the dry climate would be beneficial for those with respiratory ailments?
Some military doctors, recognizing the widespread belief in the therapeutic benefits of the West’s climate, did recommend that soldiers and veterans with TB relocate to these areas. These recommendations were based on anecdotal evidence and the prevailing medical wisdom of the time.
In 1841 only 70 people made the wagon trek kicking off the expansion. In 1842, 100 people. In 1843 1000 headed out from Independence. So the same year that the Stephens headed out west where it was a bit less than the year before, only 900. In comparison 1845, 3000 people made the trip. .
1844 was the year that the famous Sager family also left independence with their 7 children in tow. Both parents died on the journey (imagine that they got sick or were sick before they left). The kids made it to the Whitman mission only to endure the massacre. During the several weeks the children were held captive, 6-year-old Hannah Louise Sager died of measles. Once ransomed, the remaining four Sager sisters were split up and grew up with different families. Rosanna, the baby born along the Oregon Trail, died at age 26, killed by an outlaw. I highly recommend reading https://librivox.org/across-the-plains-in-1844-by-catherine-sager-pringle/. The movie Seven Alone based upon the book was not so good. There is a biography of Narcissa Whitman that is a great follow up to that book. I may even go by it to put into the library of the Stephens house. https://www.powells.com/book/where-wagons-could-go-9780803266063
So while there is no book on the Stephens family trip out west there is context that you can get by reading those accounts. Out of 900 people and most of those families traveling together, they started in April. I would imagine these folks new each other and got sick from each other. They all ended up at Fort Vancouver which was the plan to overwhelm the British with American settlers. But the region being what it was, the land that was most easily settled was the Willamette Valley, as good farming was to be had and easy trails on the Wil a Mette which meant spill or pour water in Kalapuya. And the channels of the Mult no mah meant still water. It was easy to travel up the banks of the river to good farm land.
And so that is how the Stephens family likely found their home in Oregon City that first winter. Making friends with John McLoughlin, James was able to buy barrel-making stock from William Overton. He started a cooper shop. He later turned down Overton to buy what is now downtown Portland for $200 which was a good move at the time. It was sold to Pettygrove for $50 and James ended up buying a claim from a frenchman in what is now East Portland. But it wasn’t called PORTLAND back then. You see, Pettygrove and Lovejoy (the other owner of the West Side) hadn’t flipped the coin yet. The natives called this place the Valley of sickness and the white locals called it stumptown. My friends from Central Oregon still call it “The Valley”. But back then it was called Stephens Addition.