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The Louis Southworth Story

During a recent visit to Marshall Wyatt in North Carolina, I was introduced to “Days and deeds in the Oregon country: Ten-minute stories from Northwest history”, by John B. Horner. In so reading I became fascinated with the trials and tribulations of the old fiddler of whom you’re about to learn more from Peggy Baldwin’s “A Legacy Beyond the Generations”, a text published on the site of the office of the Secretary of State (Oregon).


These finding could have not come at a better time as Benjamin Hunter, Loren Ludwig and I continue to search for the stories that are to be included in the upcoming documentary “Black Fiddlers”. I would love to stay, and say more, but let the voice of Louis Southworth sing his own song, after all, that the intent and purpose of “Black Fiddlers”.


A Legacy Beyond the Generations, by Peggy Baldwin, MLS


Death takes us from this world, yet each of us hopes that somehow we leave a piece of ourselves here. We hope to have made a difference. We hope to have been truly seen for who we are and for that to make a difference in the lives of others. When we have children, we at least know that our legacy will go on. But when we are childless, that mark is more difficult to believe in. When a person is a member of a disenfranchised group, all that may be seen of them is what marks them. Because this could be said to be true of Lewis Southworth, what chance did he have of being seen, appreciated for his true nature, and to leave his mark?


Lewis Southworth, called Louie or Uncle Louie by many, was described as that "old cotton-headed fellow who for several years walked the streets of Corvallis leading a big stallion of which he was very proud." In earlier years he was know as a "good young man, quiet and peacable, and obedient to his master."1 All "good" and childlike qualities for a time when African-Americans were not allowed their full manhood. This is a mild expression of the attitudes that Louis encountered in Oregon, when he arrived. His life would take on a dynamics and sureness that belied the expectations of whites around him, who discounted the ability of African-Americans to prosper outside of slavery.

In 1853, Lewis came on the Oregon Trail with James Southworth, his master, and James' family, to the Oregon Territory, where the attitudes were about as primitive as the countryside.2,3 As the enslaved, he had no choice in the matter, at a time when Oregon was hostile to ethnic minorities. Many of Oregon's early settlers came from the South, via Missouri, and wanted to avoid the "trouble with negroes" they had witnessed in the places they had come from. Early settlers feared a backlash of violence from African Americans, joining with Native Americans. As a result, most people did not support slavery, or any other activity that would bring blacks to the Oregon Territory.


The first exclusion law was passed in 1844, not allowing blacks to settle in Oregon.4 Oregon has the dubious honor of being the only state to have an exclusion provision in the state constitution. Article 1, Section 35 from the Oregon Constitution, passed in 1857, and not repealed until 1926, reads:

No free negro, or mulatto, not residing in this State at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall come, reside, or be within this State, or hold any real estate, or make any contracts, or maintain any suit therein. . ."5

The hostility that many people in Oregon felt for African Americans was expressed vehemently by Asabel Bush, publisher of the Oregon Statesman newspaper. He objectified Blacks in an editorial:

Their assertions that Negroes are entitled to approach our polls, to sit in our courts, to places in our Legislature are not more rational than a demand upon them that they let all adult bulls vote at their polls, all capable goats enjoy a chance at their ermine, all asses (quadruped) the privilege of running for their General Assemblies and all swine for their seats in Congress.6

Not surprisingly, the African American population of Oregon was very small during the early years of the Territory and State. A mere 54 blacks were counted in the 1850 Census. The population of blacks in Oregon was 1870 was 346. The percentage of blacks in Oregon did not pass 1% until 1960.7

It's not that there was no one in Oregon in that time who believed passionately in the right of blacks to equality. Jesse Applegate, builder of the southern branch of the Oregon Trail, in his position in the State Legislature, was champion for the rights of ethnic minorities.8 But even those who did support blacks settling in Oregon wanted them in their place. Another supporter of the right of blacks to settle in Oregon said:

What negroes we have in the country it is conceded are law-abiding, peaceable, and they are not sufficiently numerous to supply the barber's shops and kitchens of the towns . . . If a man wants his boots blacked he must do it himself.9

Did Lewis Southworth have what it would take to survive in this environment? His name was sometimes written Lewis with an "ew" and sometimes Louis with a "ou." His full name was Lewis Alexander Southworth, but it could easily have been Lewis Adaptability Southworth, for that was the trait of this good natured man that helped him most to prosper in this hostile, primitive environment. As the Serenity Prayer goes, he would have the “serenity to accept the things he could not change; courage to change the things he could change; and wisdom to know the difference.” He would work around the limitations he was saddled with in this racially prejudiced environment. And lest we envision him a saint, he could also “dish it out” with the best of them, possibly another trait that ensured his survival.

Lewis would disprove the idea that many whites had -- that blacks were not resourceful enough to make their way in this world — by eventually raising $1000, the equivalent of $23,000 in today's dollars, to buy his own freedom.10 When asked why he bought his freedom, in a time in Oregon when slavery was not legal, he said that "his master had been good to him." We have no way to really know how Louis felt. It's obvious that avoiding discord was important -- to not encourage the wrath of whites, who had the law on their side. Besides, these words supposedly out of the mouth of Louis, were reported by J. B. Horner, who sometimes had words coming out of Louis' mouth that appear to have been heavily edited.11


In 1854, Benjamin Richardson allowed Lewis to settle on an Oregon Donation Land Claim that his son had taken up and abandoned, near Monroe, Lane County, Oregon.12 Donation Land Claims were only open to whites. He was not there long because he soon left for the gold fields of southern Oregon. Earning his way to freedom was pressing him to take action. He would earn $300 to bring back to James Southworth on this trip making freedom seem possible.13

As he traveled back from Jacksonville, he was accosted by soldiers fighting in the Rogue Valley Indian War, who threatened to take the rifle he had bought for $50, necessary for protection traveling through this isolated country. Lewis joined them, because as he said, "Feeling as if I could not part with my gun, which was the only means of defense I had, I joined the company."14


Colonel John Kelsay's Second Regiment fought in two skirmishes in March and April of 1856.15 Lewis was wounded in one of those battles. The irony of an African American fighting American Indians, one subjugated race fighting another, should not be lost on us.

He would head south again in the Fall of 1858 to Yreka, California. By this time he had discovered that he could make far more money teaching violin and playing for dance schools, than he ever could mining for gold.16 He earned another $400 toward his freedom and his life long dream. In 1859, after Louis had made his final payment to James Southworth to purchase his freedom, James Southworth circulated a petition in Lane County to protect "slave property", which was presented to the state legislature. It's obvious that Louis' dream did not quite coincide with James' action.17 In the end, James did not withhold freedom from Louis, but he never gave him formal papers.

The headiness of Lewis' new found freedom added a new-found joy to everything he did. He had worked for years toward this dream and it made all the difference in how the rest of his life would play out. All he accomplished created a life for himself.

He would finally settle in Buena Vista in Polk County, Oregon around 1870. He purchased land and established a blacksmith shop and livery stable, on the 100 foot wide Main Street in the heart of this little town of 183 people.18 By comparison with modern day quiet Buena Vista, on a bluff overlooking the west bank of a sleepy portion of the Willamette River, this town was thriving, with two hotels and stores in general merchandise, boots, and groceries. Other businesses included a grist mill for flour, sawmill for lumber, butcher, and saloon. The town had a doctor, a post office, and a two story school that served the 147 students that would be present in the district in 1880. The Methodist Church in Buena Vista could seat 150 people. This was an industrial town, the home of Smith's Buena Vista pottery, producing sewer piper, stoneware, flower-pots, vases, and firebrick, among other things, and employing 50 people in 1880. Steamboats, during a time of heavy dependency on river travel, carried Smith's Buena Vista pottery to its markets, and also

served to transport people from Buena Vista up the Willamette Valley. A Buena Vista ferry also operated then, as it does today, carrying people to the east side of the Willamette River.19 Lewis himself may have used that ferry to cross the river, when he courted and later married Mary Cooper on 16 June 1873 in Salem.20,21 Mary had adopted a boy, Alvin McCleary, who was born in 1866 San Francisco to Jamaican parents.22 Lewis would create a life for his new family that would have been impossible during his days of servitude. They lived on in Buena Vista for a few years, Alvin attending the two story school house, Buena Vista Academy.23 The principal of Buena Vista taught Lewis to read and write there.24 And then they took off for a more untamed place.

Jim Doty would suggest to Lewis that they look for land to homestead in the Alsea River Valley. Jim appears in many stories about Lewis, and must have been a very good friend. He was white, and 36 years old in 1880,25 while Lewis was 50 that year. Lewis, in his own brand of humor, showing a deeply felt connection to Jim, said "Jim Doty and I were the first two white men on the Alsea Bay."26

According to Alvin McCleary, Lewis' stepson, "In 1879, Lew made a trip up the Alsea river with Jim Doty . . . and they decided to homestead. After travelling up and down the river they selected some land lying on both sides of the creek. Jim Doty, who had brought Lew, offered his companion first choice of land. Lew refused and the Jim selected the north side of the creek and Lew took the south side., which he said he preferred anyway as being on slightly higher ground. Then and there they homesteaded...A year later, in 1880, Lew brought his wife and me and we settled on the land."27

The valley begins, on the west side of the 1230 foot Mary's Peak summit of the Coast Range, as the Alsea River tumbles vigorously out of the mountains. The Coast Range serves to keep most of the rain in the valley, with an average rainfall of 60 inches each year.28 Moss hangs like light green 10 inch icicles from the limbs of trees. Mustard colored lichen and lime green moss clings to the limbs of trees – a 1 inch thick coating on all sides of the branches, giving the impression of leafed-out spring trees in all seasons. The narrow Alsea River Valley, with a strip of bottom land south of the river, and then north, opens up into the broad Alsea Bay on the Pacific Ocean. The west end of Lewis' homestead would abut the east end of Alsea Bay and extend down the valley to the east, on the south side of the river. Jim Doty's family would homestead directly across the river. The river would be their transportation, because a reliable road did not traverse the length of the valley until the 1920s, keeping them in a bucolic time warp.

Lewis would clear land, plant, and build structures at a record breaking speed. Over a period of six years, he cleared 10 to 12 acres each year, with animal

power and a wooden plough. Between February 1880 and October 1885, when his homestead was “proved up”, he built a 18 x 24 foot house, with a 16 foot square wing. He had 10 or 12 acres fenced and in cultivation, a small barn, orchard, and about 27 acres cleared and sown in grass.29

Alvin, speaking admiringly of his step-father:

My foster-father, Lou Southworth, took up a place on the Alsea river about four miles above Waldport. Lou ran a scow here in early days and put people across the river or took them up and down the river, letting the tide do most of the work, through the course he had a pair of sweeps to help the progress of the scow. Lou was a good worker. He used to go out into Benton county, around Philomath and Corvallis, every summer to the hay harvest and wheat harvest. In this way he earned money for the winter supplies. When it came to meat there was no expense except for powder and lead. Lou had a good rifle and was a crack shot. We always had plenty of deer, elk and bear meat, and we always had enough bear grease to fry the venison and elk in. Lou also would kill lots of wild geese and ducks as well as grouse and American pheasants. There was plenty of salmon, trout, clams and crabs here; so we lived well.30 Lewis knew how to enjoy life, and lived with enthusiasm, humor, and generosity. Lewis was very fond of his master's brother William's grand daughter, Rhoda Ann Southworth Beem, who he "almost raised." Rhoda Ann's daughter Nettie Beem, my great aunt, told me a story about Lewis. Lewis told small Nettie and her brother Dewey, that if they could catch a horse that he was training, they could have him. They ran and ran, trying to catch that horse. Nettie laughed about that in later years. Lewis knew that there was no chance that the horse would allow them to catch him.31 That may have been the horse he later called Dewey; that he trained to do tricks in Oregon State Fair shows.32

Lewis A. Southworth was about 5' 6" tall,33 wiry and lanky, built for hard work. No pictures survive of the athletic man he had been as a young man. Two photographs, taken in his later years, show a balding man, with white, kinky hair fringing the back of his crown. He sports a white beard with no mustache. In one photography he's dressed in a dark suit, with worn dusty boots, and sits in a rocking chair, gazing at a portrait of Lincoln, hanging over the mantle of a dark, expan