Trials and hardships of our early pioneers

Alexander family settles near Row River 170 years ago

Robert Alexander was born in Caldwell County, Ky., in 1806. He married Sarah Martin, born on Oct. 6, 1811, in Green County, Ohio, on Nov. 13, 1828, in Sangamon County, Illinois. On the 1850 census, Robert, Sarah and nine children were enumerated in Sangamon County, with Robert as a farmer. He was also believed to be a homeopathic physician. 

Less than a year later, in October 1851, Robert’s Donation Land Claim papers report that he and his family arrived in the Oregon Territory.

The Alexanders are said to have come to Oregon on a wagon train led by Carrol Jackson Sears of Tennessee. Jackson brought them through without mishap and settled near Row River in 1853. 

On Sept. 1, 1852, the family settled on their Donation Land Claim (DLC), number 70, which included parts of Sections 26 and 35 Township 20 South, Range 3 West.

It was bounded and described as follows: “Beginning at a point 28.56 chains North and 15.80 chains East from the corner of Sect 26, 27, 34 and 35, running thence South 80.00 chains:-thence East 40.00 Chains thence North 80.19 chains:-thence 40.00 chains to the place of beginning. Containing 320.38 acres, North half for husband and South half for the heirs at Law of his late wife Sarah Alexander, deceased.”

This is near the current BMX track on Row River Road, where the highway crosses the Row River. 

When a married couple received a DLC, half of the property was in the wife’s name, which was a provision in the Act. But, by the time the paperwork was begun, Sarah Alexander had passed away. Local lore tells us that she knew she was not going to live and chose the place she wanted to be buried, on a knoll that could be seen from her home.

On Feb. 8, 1853, Sarah died and was the first known burial at what later became Sears Cemetery in Cottage Grove. Just over three years later, one of their sons would be buried next to her.

In March 1853, a meeting was held at the "fork" of the Willamette River to discuss opening a new emigrant trail from the States into the valleys of Oregon.

In 1977 and 1978, Leah Collins Menefee and Lowell Tiller researched and published a series of articles in the Oregon Historical Quarterly called: “Cut Off Fever.” In these articles, the writers followed the progress of the road from conception through the last of the lawsuits. Robert and his son James agreed to complete the road by June 15, 1853, unless prevented by “Indians’. The bid was $12 per mile. 

Robert hired a crew and began construction of the road, following the markings of Robert Walker, acting road commissioner. In mid-July, Walker and his crew abandoned marking the road because of deep snow drifts and returned to the valley.

According to the researchers, Robert Alexander had moved the staging area for the new road from Willamette Forks to Pleasant Hill, Ore. If Walker had tried to notify Alexander that he had to abandon marking the road, Alexander wouldn’t be there to receive the information, as he was several miles away.

According to a statement offered as evidence in Lane County District Court, Alexander and his crew remained a few days at the end of the road for Walker. When he didn’t return, Alexander returned to the valley and dismissed his crew. 

On Oct. 5, 1853, District Court convened in Eugene City, to hear case number 29, the Road Commissioners versus Dr. Robert Alexander. Robert had taken two contracts to build the Free Emigrant Road and had not completed the task.

The doctor argued that he had the tools and men to accomplish the job, but the road had not been marked. The case was an “Action of Assumpsit” to recover the sum of $2,107.75 (worth $81,100.75 today), the cost of the lawsuit.

Robert’s defense attorney was David Logan, a future mayor of Portland. Robert lost the case, but the judgment was for $976.18. It wasn’t long after the court case began that the first wagon train tried to use the Free Emigrant Trail and nearly failed.

Robert married his second wife, Minerva Crabtree, on Dec. 23, 1853. Minerva’s maiden name was Lindley and she had three children from her previous marriage. Robert and Minerva had one child, Clara A. E. Alexander.

On Feb. 6, 1856, Robert’s attorney, Mr. Patterson, presented a petition for divorce to the legislature with these words: his client is “praying for divorce from the hands of matrimony existing between him and his wife, Minerva Crabtree.” The divorce was granted, and Minerva was successful in rescuing her stock from being sold to pay her husband’s debt on the Free Emigrant Road.

Minerva remarried a short time later to Boyd Maupin, but she died before 1860. 

In May 1856, Robert’s son Absalom, also a DLC claimant, died and was buried next to his mother in Sears Cemetery. Because Absalom was unmarried, Robert was appointed his lawful heir. Robert would work for several years on the legalities concerning Absalom’s DLC. 

On March 17, 1857, Robert married for a third time, this time Susannah V. (Strong) Long in Washington County, Ore.

Money issues plagued the family. In November 1858, Robert took out a mortgage to secure a debt of $800, due in three years. One year later, Robert and Susannah sold Absalom’s DLC to John V. Alexander, Roberts’s son, for $200. In October 1863, a complaint was filed for foreclosure of the mortgage, still unpaid. Claim number 70, Robert’s DLC, was sold at a sheriff’s sale to pay that mortgage, Sept. 1, 1866. Robert appealed to the court: that he was out of the state and unable to appear. The deed was issued from the sale of his land seven months later to J.D. Matlock. 

I was unable to find any more information on Robert and Susannah Alexander until January 1879, when Robert mortgaged his donation land claim to W.S. Beebee.

“This conveyance is intended as a mortgage to secure the payment of the sum of $100.00 note bearing date of 13 Jan 1879 due 90 days after date with interest rate of 1% per month and covering the following described premises: The Donation Land Claim of Robert Alexander, claim #70. Acknowledged in the State of Oregon, County of Multnomah, 13 Jan 1879 by Robert Alexander.”

It's possible he had forgotten that the land was sold at a sheriff’s sale 13 years earlier.   

 Robert passed away on Oct. 15, 1879, in Lane County, Ore. He was buried in Sears Cemetery near his first wife.
Susannah is enumerated on the 1880 census in Willamette, Multnomah County, age 61, living with her son William and two grandchildren. She lived until Aug. 4, 1892. It is believed that she died in Portland.  
For more information, the Cottage Grove Genealogical Society has all the Oregon Historical Quarterlies in their collection that cover the Menefee articles. You can also read more about “The Lost Wagon Train” in their library, open Wednesday through Friday, 1 to 4 p.m., inside the Community Center at 700 E. Gibbs Ave. To set an appointment, call 541-942-9371.