Alexander the Surgeon and Alexander Esson Of Oregon
Alexander the Surgeon and Alexander Esson Of Oregon
By Thomas Esson Ewing
Alexander and Christian’s second child, Alexander, was born on January 19, 1799 at Millhead. It appears that sometime between the years 1811-15, age twelve to sixteen, he attended King’s College, University of Aberdeen, in Aberdeen. He graduated in 1815 with an Master of Arts. He then began a medical “apprenticeship” between 1816 and 1824.
At least part of this training was subsidized by Alexander Anderson, Alexander’s maternal grandfather, who on his death in 1817 bequeathed to Alexander £100 sterling upon completion of an apprenticeship and another £100 thereafter.
He began as a “Hospital Assistant to the Forces” at Aberdeen under a Dr. Skene, Professor of Anatomy of the University of Aberdeen, for three years (1816-18). Skene instructed him in anatomy. He also studied chemistry and materia medica under Dr. Henderson of Aberdeen. During the latter two years, he served as “dresser” to a Dr. Barclay of the Aberdeen Infirmary.
In 1819 Alexander went to London. He became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in that year. He continued his education in London, studying anatomy under Joshua Brookes between 1819 and 1822, and midwifery under Dr. Davis in 1822.
Alexander was at home at Millhead in November 1822 when he received a summons to appear in court two days later. He had swapped horses with a David Mearns in August earlier that year at Lammas time. Doing so, he agreed to pay £1 to cover the difference in value between the two animals. Mearns was pursuing him for payment. Alexander defended himself, saying he had been happy to pay but prevented from doing so by an “arrestment order” made out in October. The finding of the court was he should pay the £1 plus 10 shillings and court costs,
More serious matters affected Alexander. In the late fall of 1822 he became intimate with a young woman named Isabel Ross, a daughter of Alexander Ross and Mary Glennie of Cottown, Strathdon. Alexander and Mary had married in May 1787 and had four daughters: Jean, Mary, Isabel, and Ann. Isabel, then 26 years old, was no doubt dazzled by this military officer and surgeon. Isabel gave birth to a child, Alexander, on July 10, 1823 at Strathdon. The Strathdon parish records report the following: “July 10, 1823, Alexr Esson. Surgeon in Millhead and Isobel Ross in Fornication had a child named Alexander.”
This was not, however, Alexander’s only indiscretion. On June 6, 1824 the Logie-Coldstone parish session (a local court of law) met. The parish register records that Mary Walker, an unmarried woman of Boultonstone at the top of the Braes of Coldstone, appeared voluntarily before the Session, acknowledged being with child and gave up Dr. Esson, late in Millhead as the Father thereof. The Session agreed to enquire of Dr. Esson’s friends for his address, and, as soon as that can be procured, appoint their Clerk to write to the said Dr. Esson and inform him of the charge laid against him, and the Session drop all further consideration of the case until they hear from Dr. Esson.
Eleven months after Alexander’s birth, Isabel died at Cottown (spelled also Coattown, also known as Eastertown of Culquhannie, Strathdon parish) on June 12, 1824, apparently of tuberculosis. Her parents placed a tombstone:
In memory of Isabel Ross, daughter of Alexander Ross in Cottown who died 12 June 1824 in the 28 year of her age done by her parents ARMG [Alex Ross, Mary Glennie] 1829.
It seems Alexander may have been away during these events. Upon successful completion of an examination before the Director General of the Medical Department (of the army, perhaps) and before the Royal College of Surgeons, London, he was formally appointed “Hospital Assistant by Commission” on March 18, 1824. He was then posted to Fort Pitt, Chatham, Kent.
He was there only about seven months when he was transferred to India with the rank of captain. On January 5, 1826 Alexander became Assistant Surgeon of the 48th Foot Regiment (the Northamptonshire). The particular appointment may have been influenced by the fact that his maternal uncle Dr. Robert Anderson (later 11th Laird of Candacraig and brother of Major John Anderson “of Waterloo fame”) was surgeon to the Regiment. Both Robert and John’s sister was Christian Anderson, Alexander’s mother. It appears Alexander served, at least for a time, at Fort Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He died on June 11, 1831, 32 years of age, at Cannanore, Madras, India (on the west coast of India above Calcutta). British military records, which incidentally spell his name “Eason,” describe him as “a casualty of war.” Alexander died in the arms of Robert and was buried in an unmarked grave (the British did not begin the practice of marking military graves until the 1880s) in St. John’s Churchyard at Cannanore. The next day Robert took charge of his personal effects, sending them to the family at Millhead. (Later, on the death of John Anderson, Robert returned from India to take possession of Candacraig.)
The Ewings have a very old box containing letters going back to the 1860s. Wrapped in a newspaper, dated 1871, are the braids of seven children, all blond. Tucked in the box are letters and a folded piece of brown linen paper, roughly legal size, with poetry written throughout. There is no date, only the signature of “Isabell Ross, Coattown, Strathdon.” The ink has faded and the writing is difficult to decipher but the penmanship and spelling suggest refinement and education. Most of the verse is dedicated to a “Charlotte,” perhaps a friend, who had died.
Tell her, ’tis not alone the favor’d rose
That drinks the nectar of the morning dew
the lonely field flower sinks with liquid pearl
and in the blessing . . [?] affliction . . [?].
Tell her, the . . [?] of the admiring throng,
whose verse her flattering kindness taught to . . [?]
by fortune banishes from the soothing smile,
but me no muses taught with skillful strains
to mock the harmony of heavenly spheres,
the muse of melancholy blots my verse
and brings me no other aid than sighs and tears.
on earth no garland grows for this sad brow
for me, alas! the fates unkindly move
the sable . . [?] of consuming grief
with thy sweet rosebuds, hope-deluding love!
A heaven, O charlotte! is thy matchless form,
where dwell those flowers that are more divine
there the illumin’d star of science glows,
the graces in a constellation shine!
I hear harmonious sounds—t’is Charlotte’s voice
I hear her strike the sorrow-soothing lyre’
ah! how persuasive is that melting air,
that makes my . . [?] with new desire!
but a presumptuous youth! . . [?] to tell
with what emotions thy . . [?] breast may glow
hie thee, vain youth, in some sequester’d shade,
. . [?] millions weep thy woe!
(of Joys departed, never to return
how painful the remembrance!)
Happy are we met
Happy have we been
Happy shall we part
Happy meet again
The surgeon’s thoughts on the subject of the birth of his son Alexander are unknown. We do not know, for example, whether he visited the child or made a financial contribution to his maintenance. It is also uncertain whether the true circumstances of his birth were ever revealed to the young Alexander. According to family tradition–presumably from Alexander himself–the surgeon married Isabel and took her to (alternatively later visited him in) India, where she contracted tuberculosis; she became pregnant and returned to Scotland to have the child, dying during childbirth on the high seas. In Portrait and Biographical Record of the Willamette Valley, Oregon, (Chicago, 1903), there is a biography of Alexander Esson. These biographies were purchased by subscription, so the honoree had the opportunity to write his own story. This one states that Alexander was “born at sea, off the east coast of Scotland, July 10, 1829” (curiously, his cemetery stone, erected by his children, gives 1823). Alexander of Oregon himself may have known the truth but perhaps preferred to pass on to his children a more decorous version….. We do not know.
Alexander Esson of Oregon
On the death of his mother, Isobel Ross, when he was just a year old, Alexander was looked after by his mother’s younger sister Anne, who also lived in Cottown. She was married to an Irishman John (“Jock”) Law, a farmer and handyman. John Law was then 19 years of age; Ann was 24. They had at that time no children of their own (they were later to have six). Alexander lived with them until he was about 14 years old; thereafter, according to the Portrait and Biographical Record, he was “thrown upon his own resources, working on the farms in the surrounding locality.”
This “locality” was the countryside between the mansion house of Candacraig, owned by his uncle, and the castle called “Newe.” He spent his boyhood in the country between these two estates. Both underwent some reconstruction during his youth (John Law, and perhaps even Alexander, worked on the projects). Many years later Alexander’s son Albyn asked Alexander what he would like to see were he to return. Albyn recorded Alexander’s answer:
Would ask first who occupies the farm of Millhead. His cousin, Alexander Esson, did the last he knew of him. Would ask for John Ross of Toly, also George Dom, blacksmith of Heughhead. Would inquire for Kellas family of Glen Carvey. Would look at Glackriach road near which he herded cows. Would take a look at the Mansion House of Candycraig [sic], a granite residence on the north bank of the Don with wooded hill rising above it. Also observe the Mansion House of Newe. His boyhood was passed in country between these then noted buildings.
The biography does not explain why he left. According to family tradition, Alexander and John Law never got along, despite the fact that Law was the only father that Alexander had known. According to his son Milton, when Alexander was 14, he and Law got into a fight. The dispute was apparently over ownership of a watch. This watch had belonged to Alexander’s father (the surgeon), which Dr. Robert Anderson brought back with him from India. Perhaps the Anderson family held on to it until Alexander reached the appropriate age. John Law claimed the watch as payment for having cared for the boy over the years. Alexander wanted to keep it. Filled with rage, he stabbed Law. Alexander never forgot his hatred. In a letter written shortly before his death, he cursed Law and wrote: “I consider my aunt Ann as the most unfortunate woman I ever knew.” Throughout his life, Alexander bore a deep hostility towards the Irish, perhaps because of this experience. It was so fierce that Christina was afraid to confess to Alexander that she herself was half-Irish.
Alexander next joined the 79th Regiment, the Cameron Highlanders. (The 79th Regiment, formed in 1793, gained fame during the Napoleonic wars in Egypt, the Peninsular Campaigns, and at Waterloo. In 1873 it was honored by Queen Victoria with the title “The Queen’s Own,” and then in 1961 renamed the “The Queen’s Own Highlanders (Seaforth & Camerons).
He likely did so under an alias to avoid arrest (there seems to be no military record of Alexander’s service). The Portrait and Biographical Record states that Alexander was 16 years old when he enlisted. That would have been 1839. Between 1837 and 1841, the regiment was alternately stationed in Glasgow, Scotland; Edinburgh, Scotland; Dublin, Ireland; and then northern England. In 1841 it was transferred to Gibraltar where it remained until 1848 (Milton, Alexander’s son, recalled that his father did serve in Gibraltar). In 1848 the regiment was sent to Quebec, according to family tradition to quell a rebellion. Chill (another of Alexander’s sons) and Milton stated that Alexander served only six or seven years in the service, all at Quebec. This is surely incorrect—the 79th was in Canada for no more than three years. At Quebec the officers and men of the 79th erected in the Scots Presbyterian Church of St. Andrews a marble tablet to the memory of those who died during service in Canada.
Alexander’s roots in Scotland ran deep. His children always recalled with pleasure Alexander’s deep Scottish brogue, some (especially Leroy) incorporating it into their own speech. Scottish poets were his favorites, especially Byron; he memorized their verse often reciting them while working behind a plow. The Ewings hold a book, worn so badly that it almost crumbles at the touch, Cluaran Albannach, Repetory of Ballads, Ancient and Modern, published at Aberdeen in 1839, which Alexander surely brought with him to America.
Alexander tried to maintain contact with his relatives in Scotland. In 1865 “A. [Alexander?] Esson,” a cousin living at Millhead Farm, wrote Alexander, thanking him for some correspondence. The cousin recounted local happenings and then wrote: “I am very glad you succeeded so well with your Farm. You certainly beat us far in the pork department but think we can [compete?] with you in the beef department.” Alexander established contact with some Glennies in America: a Helen Glennie in Lancaster, Ontario, Canada and a Helen Milligen and her aunt Alice Glennie of Chateaugay, Franklin Co., New York. (The Glennies were, of course, the family of Isabel Ross.) But the most touching proof is a letter which Alexander wrote while ill in Woodburn just before his death. It begins with the salutation “To the Family.” In it he begged his children to investigate the status of his relatives in Scotland: “I am rather shaky as a scribe and this is the venture of an old man with slim hope of answer. Of course I would like to learn something of relatives as it would cost no more than a postage stamp.”
In 1851 the 79th Regiment returned to England. Alexander demobilized. According to the Portrait and Biographical Record, in 1852 he made his way to Livingston County, New York, where he “followed teaming and farming until 1857.” According to his daughter Isabel, he became a hired man to Tom Kearns, a farmer of the Genesee Valley and member of the New York State Assembly. It was there that he learned how to be a farmer, acquiring skill at making hams and sausage. On Independence Day 1854 he took the oath of allegiance to the United States at the village of Geneseo, New York, before the clerk of the courthouse.
But Alexander did not want to end up as a “croftsman” (tenant farmer) like his forefathers. Therefore, in about 1857 he left for Wisconsin, where he lived for a year “trying his fortunes.” Wisconsin did not work out. We next find him in Whitewater, Wisconsin, in February 1859, ready to cross the Great Lakes to New York, where he embarked upon the US Mail Steamer Illinois on March 7. His diary begins on February 28, 1859:
A Batch of observes
Matters of sense
Things that I saw
To see will convince
Believe it who pleases
He that does not
May go to blazes
Next notch to pot. AE
Alexander recorded that the trip down the eastern coast to the Isthmus of Panama was not altogether agreeable. He was repulsed by people crowding, pushing, jostling and cursing while crossing the gangplank to get on board. “Gods how I hate the public. Amen.” After getting underway, passengers became sick and vomited. An Irishman made the mistake of taking Alexander’s berth. Alexander jerked him out by his neck and heels and “threatened his dog’s life if ever I cutched [sic] him there again. . . Am beginning to hold my own generally,”
The Dutch and Irish were especially vexing:
What a lot of boots and breeches
stretched upon this crowded deck,
Did ever such forlorn wretches
fettered so together get.
Ah yet, gods! The Dutch and Paddies
swinish horde the steamship fills,
Anxious matrons, peevish daddies
share this worst of human ills.
Playing cards, the Dutch d–m them,
eating sausage by the peck
Would their Faderland still held them
or a rope had stretched their neck.
Paddies, quiet nor swears by Jesus
many find themselves from homes,
let them sigh for friends who pleases
in this crowd I feel alone.
On reaching Panama he was discomforted by the heat. His diary is silent regarding the train trip across the Isthmus although by family tradition Alexander along with other travelers shot alligators from the window. All the passengers disembarked at Panama City and took the train across the Isthmus. On the Pacific side, they reembarked on another ship and headed up the coast for San Francisco.
Alexander arrived in San Francisco on March 30. He stayed at the Pacific Temperance Hotel and then left the next day for Sacramento by steamer, a 12.5 mile ride for 50 cents. He was “foddered” at the U.S. Hotel, and on April 1 took a boat for Marysville, 44 miles away. The fare cost $4; he vowed never to pay the like again. He arrived at Marysville that evening, leaving the next day to prospect for gold. This adventure, however, began inauspiciously as he became lost after leaving Marysville. Henry Stafford, a returning Californian, accompanied Alexander on his journey from New York, his prospecting effort, and then later to Oregon.
Alexander was in California for seven months. We know nothing of his time there, although it is probably safe to assume his prospecting venture was unsuccessful. The diary picks up again on November 3, by which time he was planning to head for Oregon. (According to one family story he had heard that the landscape was more akin to his native Scotland.) His route is unknown but the evidence generally suggests that he traveled across the mountains: “Nov 3d. Snow fell on the Cascades and foothills last night. 6 Nov More snow and light frost. 16 Feb  Willamette valley. Frogs in full chorus croaking like blazes. 26 Feb. Mosquitoes busy this evening.” The diary ends.
Alexander and Stafford were on a “tour of inspection of the Willamette Valley on foot,” according to Alexander’s diary. They stopped for breakfast at the Engle residence, a white painted two-story house located on the west side of present 99E about one-quarter mile south of the village of Bellepassi, on or about April 10, 1858. According to family tradition, he also stopped at a stagecoach inn near present-day Gervais, operated by Sam Brown (Alexander’s daughter Elizabeth, “Betty”, was years later to marry the junior Sam Brown and to make that house her home), inquiring after work. He was told that the Shannons of Central Howell were looking for a hired man. The Shannons hired him.
It was at the Shannon home that Alexander met Christina Stevens, a domestic servant of sorts. Alexander was much taken with Christina. But she, according to Isabel, was not so keen on him. They were 21 years apart by age: she was 18; he was 39. Besides, Christina was sweet on someone else. The Shannons, however, were captivated by Alexander. They urged marriage, warning that she would be unlikely to find a catch like him again. They were married on Christmas Eve 1862 in a long, low house on the present-day Shannon road, just a little south of the west side. Justice of the Peace William Russell performed the ceremony, with Wesley Shannon and “Sarah I” as witnesses. The Shannons gave the couple a chest of drawers as a wedding present.
At this point it is worth pausing to reflect on the enduring influence of the Shannon family on the Essons, especially the unbreakable tie between Christina and Elizabeth Shannon, Wesley’s wife. Mrs. Shannon helped finance the college educations of Milton, Ida, and Albyn. Alexander named their children after the Shannons: Achilles Shannon Esson, Ida Esson (Ida Shannon was Wesley Shannon’s sister). That tradition continues.
The Shannons had become close to Alexander and Christina and wanted them to remain on their farm; indeed, they offered to give it to them on terms unknown (the Shannons were childless). Christina wanted to remain because she could be close to other members of her family. Alexander, however, did not like the flat landscape of Howell Prairie. By at least January 1862 he had come across a farm, then almost entirely unimproved and covered in woods. It so reminded him of his native Scotland that he set to purchasing it. This was “Maple Hill Farm”, then 320 acres a mile due west of Mt. Angel, a name that goes back as early as 1895, possibly given to it by Alexander’s children Betty and Leroy. It has been known as such ever since.
The farm was originally the western half of the John C. Carey donation land claim acquired by Carey in 1850. In 1854 Carey sold the western part of his claim, 320 acres, to William Parker (founder of Parkersville, then a flourishing albeit very small town two miles away, with the heady ambition of becoming Oregon’s state capitol; that of course did not happen) and Milton Young for $1800. William Parker died and Young (somehow) acquired his interest. Young had arrived in Parkersville in 1853, living there until 1855, when he moved onto the farm. While there, he and his wife had three or four children. Young had cleared about 27 acres by the time he sold it to Alexander for $1800 in 1866. The county’s Assessment Roll of October 1862 records that Milton Young owned 320 acres with a value of $500; his personal property was valued at $400.
It is unclear where Alexander lived between 1860, when he came to Oregon, and the date (somewhat in question) he moved onto the farm. The Portrait and Biographical Record states that he lived on a farm in “Howell prairie” for four years. That is likely the farm of Wesley Shannon. The Marion County’s Assessment Roll of October 1862 records that Alexander possessed $500 in personal property but no land; in 1864 that he had $300 but no land; and in 1865 that he had no real property but did have personal property valued at $425 (4 hogs and 4 head of cattle) and one female [Inez] under 10 years of age. For that same year, however, the Abstract of Assessments and Census shows that a “Esson & Lyon” owned 628 acres, 85 under cultivation, with a value of $3,400 and personal property of $300.
(The Abstract indicates that the farm produced 1000 bushels of wheat and 1700 bushels of oats in the previous year. They had 17 hogs, 2 head of cattle, 40 bushels of potatoes, and 200 bushels of apples. The location of the property is not identified).
This appears to have been a joint venture with a certain C.C. Lyon, mentioned in Alexander’s diary. But he also farmed the lands of Wesley Shannon and Wm. Helms between 1863 and 1865, raising wheat and oats. Alexander was becoming sufficiently prosperous that he was able to lend money. The latter practice was, at least in one instance, not especially successful:
On the 14th day of June 1863 Levi M. Herren paid me four hundred and fifteen dollars in Greenbacks and thirty dollars in Gold on a note in hand for Three hundred and sixty four dollars $360.00 eleven months from date. I foolishly imagined I would get four hundred and fourteen dollars in gold. Sold the Greenbacks for 61 cents on the dollar—thus 415 at 61 = 253.15
the 30 in gold 30.00
Extent of swindle $130.85
The date of Alexander’s move to the farm is uncertain. Milton Young said that he remained on the farm until 1866. According to Alexander’s biography in Portrait and Biographical Record, he moved onto the farm in 1864. However, he testified in a lawsuit (discussed below) that he moved onto the farm in December 1867. In later years, other smaller parcels were acquired.
Alexander immediately set about clearing more land. By the turn of the century, approximately 73 more acres, or 100 in total, had been made available for farming: the bottom land south of the creek and about eight acres of the Northfield (total 45 acres). The field between the farmhouse and the cemetery was cleared by around 1905. There was no forest there, only maple and oak trees. There was, however, a grove of old-growth fir trees at the south end of the field. A fire destroyed the grove except for one fir tree, still standing, now about 450 years old. Isabel recalled seeing lightning strike the tree, splitting it at the top. The split is still visible.
The lumber harvested from the farm represented not an insignificant addition to the family income. For example, in 1893 Alexander formed a partnership with his sons Chill and Hugh for a logging enterprise, although it did not endure very long. Albyn was able to send himself to divinity school back east with money earned from logging. Trees would be cut, hauled by horse to the Pudding River, lowered into the river near the lane leading up the hill to the present farmhouse, and floated downstream to the Parkersville mill (two miles distant from the farm). The boys were helped by their sisters. In summer the trees were cut, taken to the river, and tied up; in fall, when the rains came, the logs were floated down the river.
The success of Alexander’s logging enterprise depended, of course, on the Parkersville mill, which makes the following story particularly interesting. Beginning in the 1860s a flour and saw mill had operated on the Pudding River near Parkersville. There was a dam around 300 feet above it. Vallier Wattier had owned the mill since at least 1866. It had washed out several times in the past, always rebuilt. But over the years, the dam had fallen into disrepair, and Wattier wanted to reconstruct it. Alexander feared that the dam would raise the river above its banks, change the river’s course, and flood his farm, resulting in loss of his crops and encouragement of malaria (“ague”). The latter was not an immaterial concern. In the 1850s malaria was a common illness because of the dampness of the climate. Land clearing and draining helped to keep it in check. But the farm adjoined “Poison Lake”, which was probably the swampy field on the south side of Waypark Drive, from the lane west to the bridge over the Pudding River.
Alexander was concerned about a resurgence of the problem. In 1891, joined by a couple of other plaintiffs, Alexander (over Christina’s objection) sought to enjoin Wattier from rebuilding the dam.
A trial was held in Salem. The outcome turned, at least in part, on the question of whether the Pudding River was navigable. In Alexander’s complaint, he (and others) described the Pudding as a “stream for public navigation with boats carrying freight and floating logs” to the Willamette River.
Anyone who has lived on the Pudding River knows that this is—to put the matter gently—implausible. The court thought so too as the decision was affirmed on appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court, Esson V. Wattier, 25 Or 7 (1893).
Alexander therefore lost and had to sell part of the farm (“Back of Beyont,” on the other side of the North Field) to pay attorney fees. There was another consequence: Isaac Stevens, Christina’s brother, testified against Alexander. The latter later wrote: “I don’t feel hate, but everlasting Contempt is the feeling—To give a partisan evidence against me—and when asked on any subject in my favour “he did not recollect.” [Original emphasis.]
Alexander’s principal occupation was farming. He grew field crops, primarily wheat and oats; however livestock was his real specialty, raising Shorthorn and Holstein cattle, Cotswold sheep, and Poland and China hogs. A ledger dated 1887 indicates that most of his crops were sold to the Goodman Brothers of Gervais.
In around 1908 Alexander and Christina moved to Woodburn, leaving the farm in the care of their youngest son Leroy (my grandfather), where they purchased a small bungalow on Young Street. They bought the bungalow from the McKees (it seems the same family after which McKee road is named), who had been friends (and probably neighbors) of Alexander and Christina for many years. By this time Alexander’s health had deteriorated considerably. He had suffered a stroke, which affected his mental capacity. One day, for example, he was walking with the family dog, Buck, on the farm when he saw an animal disturbing the sheep in the field. He sicced Buck on the animal and walked on. When he returned, he saw Buck playing in the field and decided it must have been Buck that had aroused the sheep. He took a shotgun and summarily shot him. Wounded, Buck hid underneath the house; it required all of Isabel’s persuasive skills to entice the dog out for treatment. Kenneth Brown, then a boy, recalls visiting Alexander on Young Street. Alexander would sit silently, almost comatose, wearing a black skull cap. His handwriting, once exquisite, lapsed into a scrawl and the content of his letters took on a rambling, somewhat incoherent character.
Isabel moved in with Alexander and Christina to help care for her father (after his death she moved in with Mabel, also living in Woodburn, to help during Mabel’s troubled pregnancy with Winnifred). He began suffering seizures and would fall; one side was paralyzed. Alexander contracted pneumonia. He died on May 7, 1914. Albyn made the following entry in his diary: “Pa died 2:30 p.m. at 90 years, 10 months, 27 days.” Two days later he was buried on the farm beside his beloved daughter Ida. The funeral procession was made up of wagons and buggies; Sam Brown, Betty’s husband, drove the only car. It took two hours to travel from the Christian Church on Lincoln Street in Woodburn to the farm. Chill arranged for the acquisition of a tombstone, which came from Alexander’s native Scotland, to grace his final resting place. Albyn wrote of the funeral:
We buried Pa as he wished, on the home place beside Ida. E.S. Muckley conducted service in Christian Church in Woodburn. Floral tributes were abundant and beautiful. Friends old and new were the soul of kindness. Six sons bore dear old Daddy’s body to the grave. The weather was beautiful and the honored career of the dear old Scotsman came to a close with every mark of respect. “Help me h-o-m-e” in characteristic Scottish phrase, was his last coherent utterance in my presence. May Heaven bless his dear memory.
(Muckley was a board member with Albyn of The Oregon Christian Missionary Convention).
In the 1914 probate of Alexander’s estate, the farm was described as follows: 296 acres in the John C. Cary Donation Land Claim, value $14,800; 5 acres; 5 acres in Felix Coonse DLC, $250; 24 acres in T6S, R1W of Willamette Meridian, value $1200; and 3 acres in Felix Coonse DLC, value $150. In a will, witnessed by Jennings Smith and his wife Mary, dated 1893, Alexander had left all his property to Christina. The will may for some reason have been invalid, because a county probate document states that his property was divided among the entire family, suggesting that he died intestate. His estate was valued at $14,907, of which Christina received 28 percent ($4,157). The remainder went to the children (including Inez’s and Florence’s) in equal portions. Later in 1917, for reasons unknown, all the children quitclaimed their interest in the farm to Christina for $10.00.
Alexander was by all accounts an extraordinary man. He had a prodigious memory. He loved poetry, both to recite and to write. His diary is lavishly decorated with verse—perhaps doggerel would be more accurate—of his own composition. He had such an influence on his children that many of them wrote poetry themselves. Alexander had a marvelous sense of humor. Milton wrote: “His wit and sense of the ridiculous, too, were part of this exceptional personality.” This was another of Alexander’s legacy to his children. His children must have forgiven his lack of attention to them in their childhood: “Fools and children,” he said, “always ask questions.” He was interested in current affairs and forthright in expressing his opinions. Although a native Scot who had adopted American citizenship, he remained loyal to Britain. This is reflected in a letter from Albyn to Alexander reporting on an incident that occurred on a train. Albyn had engaged a fellow traveler on the “Irish Question.” He reported back to his father that he victoriously defended the British interest in this debate.
Alexander’s iconoclastic attitude toward religion is possibly best remembered. In contrast to Christina, who was fiercely committed to the church, Alexander viewed preachers with a rather jaundiced eye. Asked why he did not attend the services of itinerant preachers who came to Parkersville, he replied: “Why should I go to hear a man as ignorant as the horse he drives?” In 1895 he commented in a letter to Albyn about Methodists being “rampant” at North Howell: “Brother Taylor indulges in the Methodist plan of shouting and losing the perspicuity of speech in the volume of sound.” It is not that Alexander was irreligious: In letters to Albyn, he occasionally spoke of religion, not in the language of the convert but as something which is quietly part of one’s life. Nor is it true that he was opposed to church life. In October 1895 the Christian Church of Parkersville was established at the school. Alexander was elected deacon, a matter which he reported to Albyn with some pride. Nevertheless, he did not ordinarily join the family at church services. Rather, his communion with God was in solitary walks every Sunday on the farm beyond the creek, where he recited poetry to himself. But his pleasures were not limited to the quiet walks. He kept a bottle of whiskey, from which he would take a “wee drapie” (one jigger) every day.
It is really quite impossible to describe the lasting influence that Alexander—always “Pa”—had on his family. The name “Alexander” continues to be passed down through the generations (my brother, my oldest son, others). Decades after his death his children in letters to each other frequently invoked his memory. Those same children, and their children and grandchildren, have made Tarland the object of pilgrimage. Two of his sons visited the Genesee Valley. In a letter to Leroy, they wrote: “With all—reviewing the scenes of Daddy’s early manhood touches the emotions which is hard to describe.”
Christina Stevens Esson
Christina Stevens was born in 1844. She came across the plains in 1852 with her parents Hanson and Lavina Stevens and their children when she was eight. She had a fairly uneventful youth, until after her mother died. Hanson remarried. His new wife was Elizabeth Fuller. According to family tradition, she was an uneducated and rather mean-spirited woman. For example, at her instructions, Hanson killed the family dog, which had come across the plains, because it fought with Elizabeth’s dog. Elizabeth evidently made it clear that the girls were not welcome. One by one they left. Elizabeth then induced Hanson to cut down two oak trees, favored by the girls, at the front of the house so that they would not want to return. Although it is unlikely that he had ever met Hanson, Milton expressed only contempt for his grandfather, likely on the basis of these stories.
Christina heard that the Shannon family, whose farm was only a couple of miles from the Stevens place, needed a servant. It is said that, on arriving at the house, she was met at the front door by Elizabeth Shannon, a powerful woman both in stature and personality: “How can a little girl like you help me?” she asked. “Just try me,” Christina answered. Elizabeth liked her spirit and accepted her. Thus began a deep relationship between these two women which continued for the rest of their lives.
Physically, Christina was a petite woman. By temperament and personality, she was thoroughly at home in the nineteenth century. Unlike Alexander, she had little sense of humor. On the other hand, she was gentle, neither critical (except in matters of faith) nor antagonistic. Her method of child-raising was hardheaded, raising her children on “turpentine, cleanliness, and prayer.” In a letter to Betty, Mabel recalled how Christina taught them “fear and punishment.” She did not want to be kissed and never demonstrated any affection toward her children. She bristled when Alexander referred to her as “wife darling.” Christina was always busy working. She rose at 5:00 each morning to start the kitchen fire, and spent the day sewing, washing, making soap, and so forth. She baked bread every day. Once a week was laundry day, no mean task then. Christina was particularly sanitary, and every week the home was thoroughly cleaned.
Christina was the disciplinarian of the family. She punished the girls; Alexander punished the boys—but only if Christina made him do it. She used a switch. If it broke, she would get another. Isabel recalled how, when she was a young woman, Christina reached for the switch to deal with her. Isabel took the switch out of her hands and said “No more.” That was the end of switching.
Christina never received a formal education beyond the third grade. Indeed, her letters are always easily identified by their childlike penmanship and phonetically spelled words. She was acutely aware of her shortcomings. It was she, not Alexander, who pressed the children to obtain all the education they could. Christina was eminently successful—most of them not only graduated from high school but went on to college, rare in those days.
In religion Christina was a Christian fundamentalist and member of the Christian denomination. Her religious views were simple, sharp and strident, grounded as they were in a literal interpretation of the Bible. Faith, not happiness, was life’s objective. But, with the exception of Albyn, the oldest son, who became a minister, Christina’s proselytizing efforts on the other children left no mark (she unsuccessfully tried to persuade Leroy to join the cloth). In her late years, anticipating death, she became especially active, writing each of the children both admonishing and beseeching them to become Christians:
I have writen to each one of you seperately. Now I speake to you all togather. I have been praying for these many years twice a day on my nees for you all that you might be Christians. I often think how glad I wold be to here your voises in the church singing praises to God and meeting around this tabel in memry of him that he had died that you might be saved.
She wrote Isabel urging her to control her tongue, and Leroy advising him to control his temper. However, her evangelism and fears for the secure afterlife of her family had a less tender side. In 1914 Christina sent Leroy an article entitled “Christians and Tobacco,” cut out from the Christian Standard. She wrote in pencil beside it: ”You wold not listen. to this while I lived. Mabe now when I am ded you will listen. Read this and teach your children beter.”
Alexander was not overlooked. He was distraught over the death of his daughter Ida in 1891 and blamed himself in no small part for her fate. Christina told him that Ida would want him to be baptized. He reluctantly agreed. It was a baptism of the Christian-denomination variety—full submersion. It took place in the Pudding River near the sawmill at Parkersville. People came from miles around to witness this extraordinary event, Alexander being well known for his irreligious views. While under water, it seems that he reconsidered the matter for he emerged in a rage, water and sand flying everywhere. Christina later repented of the way she got him to receive baptism and God.
Perhaps the most poignant story comes from Isabel. Isabel had a young child, Petie, two years old. She once told Christina how much she loved that child. Christina chided her for loving a person more than God. Petie died shortly afterwards and was buried on Maple Hill Farm. While leaving the cemetery, Christina came up to her and said that Petie’s death was the consequence of her misguided love. Seventy years later Isabel continued to anguish over her mother’s apparent lack of warmth or caring.
Christina lived out the rest of her years at the home on Young Street. That house, incidentally, was devised by Christina to the Christian church; however, Albyn, in some manner which is not entirely clear, gave it to the Northwestern Bible College. In any event, it still stands, now set back from the street. In 1923, then 79 years old, she took ill and was taken by Isabel and her husband Harry to the Oregon City hospital, then administered by Christina’s cousins, the Mounts. She died in Isabel and Harry’s presence. Isabel recalls that, at the moment of her death, both she and Harry felt a presence in the air. Christina was buried on the farm beside Alexander.
Christina truly was the rock of that family. Her deep love for her children, and their deep love for her, is undeniable. Their letters prove that. If Alexander shaped his children’s style, she shaped their substance. No better proof of their devotion is the day of her burial. It was a hot summer’s day. Christina’s grave was decorated with a large wreath of flowers fashioned in a horseshoe shape. The casket was lowered, the service performed, and then the dirt replaced. Isabel recalls the horror of the event—the silence of the moment broken by clods of earth falling on the casket. By the second shovel everyone was upset; Isabel, Mabel, and Betty were stricken.
This concludes my story of Alexander and Christina Esson, my great-grandparents. The original document, written in 1990, included the biographies of their children. However, that probably exceeds the purpose of this website. My thanks for inviting me to publish it here.
Thomas Ewing, great grandson of Alexander Esson of Oregon 2019