Biography of Samuel Kimbrough Barlow

SAMUEL KIMBROUGH BARLOW. – Samuel Kimbrough Barlow was born in Nicolas county, Kentucky, January 14,1795. He was of Scotch origin, and inherited many of the sterling qualities of his ancestors. His race was remarkable for an unswerving fidelity to principles of right; and on every occasion these principles were disseminated or defended by courage which sometimes almost amounted to audacity. Freedom of speech and will and progression in all things were also marked characteristics of the ancestors of S.K. Barlow. Illustrative of these features of disposition in the Barlow family, a story is told of the fearlessness of the paternal grandfather of S.K. Barlow, who, just before the breaking out of the Revolutionary war, at the time that the hot-bed of dissolution was brewing, refused to take off his hat to one of the King’s squires; and, when remonstrated with and further aggravated by the squire cheering and shouting “Hurrah for King George,” audaciously knocked him down. It was the custom, at this time, for each man to raise his hat to the King’s officers; and to known one of them down greatly increased the magnitude of the crime.

This was no doubt the prime cause of the hero of this sketch being born in Kentucky; for the old gentleman, not wishing to encounter or to submit to such insolence, preferred to isolate himself from such scenes until the time came for him to take up arms in defense of the principles which he then so emphatically advocated. He therefore moved into the rural districts of Virginia, not far from the borders of Kentucky. This early insight into frontier life imbued into the minds of his descendants pioneer dispositions. His oldest son, William, the father of Samuel K., was the first one to leave the paternal roof. He followed the trail of Daniel Boone into the wilds of Kentucky. Here, for several years, he alternately fought the Indians and cleared his farm. In course of time he married a Miss Kimbrough, who had emigrated with her father at an early day from Virginia. Settling down on his newly-made farm, he lived there contentedly until the day of his death, and reared up sons and daughters. Among them was Samuel Kimbrough, his fourth son. Samuel, at an early day, espoused the cause of universal freedom, though his father at the time was an extensive slave-holder. Young Sam often argued strongly with his father against the institution, and its baneful effects upon society. He made several unsuccessful attempts to get his father to emancipate his slaves and emigrate to a free state. He said, “Some day the institution will shake the government from center to circumference,” and he lived to see his prophecy verified. He often declared his intention to never live under the influence of human slavery; and, upon reaching his majority, when he became master of his own will, he carried his inclination into effect. Bidding father, mother, brothers, sisters a long farewell, he started for the then territory of Indiana without anything but a giant spirit to carry him through. His father refused to give him anything unless he complied with his wishes by settling in Kentucky. It was anticipated that he would be back in a few months, or as soon as he wanted a new supply of clothes. But he did not return until after an absence of sixteen years, when his eldest son, the writer of this biography, was old enough to accompany him on horseback.

His father said to him after he had been there two or three days; “Well, Sam, have you given up your foolish notions about slavery?” “I never had any foolish notions on that subject,” he replied. His father resumed: “I have no money on hand but I have a very likely boy for whom I can easily get five hundred dollars. You are welcome to this sum, if you will accept it.” Of course the refusal was emphatic. At his father’s death, some years later, upon opening the will, it was found that he had made a one-thousand dollar provision for his son Samuel, to be paid out of real estate.

The history of S.K. Barlow’s movements in Indiana was not marked with any unusual event outside of a frontiersman’s life, such as felling the giant forest and hewing a farm almost out of solid timber, and at the same time depending upon his unerring rifle for the animal portion of his food. This was a very easy task at that time, as the whole country abounded in game of nearly every description, and honey flowed from almost every tree; while breadstuff was obtained from corn pounded in a mortar burnt out in the end of a big stump. A heavy swing pestle was suspended in the air by a spring pole, which was just stiff enough to raise the pestle, while the weight of a man would bring it down with great force on the dry corn in the mortar, and thus pulverize it as finely as powder. This, when sifted through a sieve made of finely cut, dressed buckskin strings, made excellent bread material.

But this state of isolation was of short duration, as the onward march of civilization soon began to fill up the country with people. Among the newcomers in 1817 was a most amiable young lady by the name of Susannah Lee. Our pioneer meeting her soon became convinced of her many good qualities, and, finally wining her affections, made her his companion for life. She lived to bring up a family of five boys and two girls, and to accompany and guide them with cheering heart and christian hand to the Pacific shore; and there, in the year 1852, in the sixty-second year of her age, she resigned her body to the earth, from whence it came; and her spirit, in its most triumphant christian glory, returned in all its purity to the God who gave it. No one has ever died more loved and regretted by all who ever knew her.

In the year 1836, the subject of our sketch moved to the State of Illinois with all his family; for as yet they were all in their minority. Here he resided on a newly made farm as a humble tiller of the soil until the year 1845, when he conceived the idea of “going west.”

Samuel K. Barlow was a personal friend and admirer of Henry Clay and his principles, and several times “took the stump” in advocacy of his friend and party. But when defeat came to Henry Clay, and the unknown James K. Polk of the opposing political school was elected President of the United States, S.K. Barlow declared his intention of never living under his administration. In pursuance of this declaration, he immediately offered his farm for sale, which sale being accomplished he was ready to seek a haven, where at least the isolation and obscurity of it would be some palliation for the offence under which he and his party were suffering. Accordingly, on the 30th day of March, 1845, he with all his household and many followers left the great State of Illinois, and commenced their journey to the Pacific shore. At that time it was thought that the nucleus of an independent government was springing up. But this belief with him was soon dispelled; for, seeing its fallacies, he soon became as strong an opposer of that idea as any man in Oregon. Though a man of much determination when he believed himself to be right, yet he was always glad to correct an error in his reasoning when convinced of the superiority of another’s belief. He derived all the advantages education offered in his own schooldays, and being a man of more than ordinary ability improved and profited by his early but limited lessons. A great characteristic of his life was strict honesty. Above all things he hated a dishonest politician. He was one with Henry Clay in the famous motto, “Rather be defeated all my life in the right, than victorious in the wrong.” He always held that “The office should hunt the man, but not the man the office.” Besides these principles he was a bold but consistent free-thinker. He believed in the paradise of right. He spoke his mind freely, but was open to conversion whenever honest opinion directed. Some of these characteristics made him unpopular with a class whom he utterly abhorred, – the dishonest, the groveling politician, and the swerving, vacillating ma of policy. But with the upright, honest and true man his words and character were an oracle upon which they could depend.

It is not necessary to describe the journey towards the Pacific, east of the Cascade Mountains, as that would be following in the wake of those “who had gone before.” Besides it has been well described and is too well known to reiterate here with any added interest. But, upon arriving at The Dalles, the then supposed terminus of the wagon-road, it was that the daring independence of the pioneer asserted itself. After resting a few days and recruiting his followers, teams and cattle, like a general refreshing his troops for a new fight, notice was given that the company’s captain, S.K. Barlow, was going to cross the Cascade Mountains with his family, wagons and plunder. An invitation was extended to any and all who felt disposed to join his expedition; but he wished none to follow him who had ever learned the adaptability of the word “can’t.” The old mountaineers, who had trapped all over the mountains, the missionaries and Hudson’s Bay men said it was a useless attempt, particularly so at this season of the year, it being fall. The rainy season would soon set in; and, with only jaded teams to undertake it, everyone said it would be hazardous. But not all discouraged by these revelations, the captain declared his belief in the goodness and wisdom of the Allwise Being, and said, “He never made a mountain without making a way for man to go over it, if the latter exercised a proper amount of energy and perseverance.” So on or about the first of October with a few brave followers, he began the hazardous undertaking.

William L. Rector, J.C. Caplinger, Andrew Hood and a Mr. Gessner were among the few volunteers in this adventure. Everything in readiness, orders were given to move forward, which was done with seeming good-will. Everything moved along harmoniously and without special incident for the first forty miles. But when cañons and insurmountable barriers began to confront them, discussion, discord and dissension arose. Some wanted to turn back; others wished to leave their wagons, then pack their animals with what they could conveniently carry and go over the Mount Hood trail, but the old pioneer told them if they would trust to him, he would carry them through the valley over a new wagon-road across the mountains, before the new year began. He thought to enliven their disheartened minds by reminding them of the wonderful achievement it would be, and of the great benefit future immigration would derive from it.

Having come to this standstill, he offered, with anyone who would volunteer to accompany him, to go ahead and blaze a route to the valley. In case they found it impracticable, they would return in time to reach The Dalles for winter quarters, or to go down the Columbia river to their destinations. To this they all assented; so the next morning with Mr. William Rector, the volunteer, they set out to select and blaze a route to the promised land. In the meantime, those who were left were to follow the marked pathway and cut out the road for their wagons, so that in case the leaders found a pass they would be that much nearer on their journey, or should it prove a failure, they would have a road on which to make the backward trip. But those left behind soon became disheartened; every day seemed like a week. When two weeks had elapsed, and brought no return of the road hunters, they began to despair of ever seeing them again. Some conjectured that they had been devoured by wild beasts, others that they had starved to death. But those who knew the pluck of the old man best did not fear either. They knew that he had been too successful a hunter in the backwoods of Indiana to allow himself and comrades to be devoured by wild animals or to starve to death where they were plentiful.

Nothing appeared to relieve the monotony of their fears until the sixteenth day after their departure, when the long-looked-for pilgrims saluted them by the keen crack of a rifle. This was returned with cheer after cheer from the whole crowd, with such vehemence that it seemed to shake the very tops of the tall pines and majestic firs that surrounded them. But alas! our leaders were completely worn out and exhausted. Having failed in several routes, they were compelled to retrace and then hunt new ones. Their clothes and boots were almost worn off. Being so determined to find the goal of their expedition, and having in mind the safety and welfare of those they had left behind, they did not go out of their way to even supply themselves with the necessary food, only killing that which chanced to come in their daily march. Consequently, they had suffered some from hunger, even living several days upon very scanty allowances.

The result of their trip and the outlook before the party was anything but flattering. Though they had been through the mountains, retraced and revised the route, and had declared it practicable, yet they were completely exhausted and in great need of rest. It had already begun to rain; and the days were almost at their shortest. Cattle were starving and dying from eating mountain laurel. Many of the immigrants who had arrived at The Dalles this year, 1845, were nearly destitute of provisions or means to procure them. This class the Hudson’s Bay Company sent down to Oregon City in their bateaux free of charge. But Mr. Barlow’s company were well equipped with provisions and money both for themselves and the few volunteers who joined them, and started out over the mountains well prepared for a journey of a few weeks. But this prospective trip had taken much longer time than was anticipated; and numerous delays and obstacles had lengthened the weeks into months. In consequence, their supply of provisions was almost exhausted. Women were disheartened; and children were crying from want of proper nourishment and care. It was getting very cold; and black clouds were lowering only a few feet above their heads, threatening every moment to cover them up with snow. Altogether it was a scene that would make the heart of the “bravest of the brave” grow weak in contemplating the prospects of the journey under such circumstances.

At this time William L. Rector and family retraced their steps and returned to The Dalles. But the warhorse said “No!” that he and his family were “going through or leave their bones in the mountains.” But he was willing, if the remainder of the company would remain with him, to go on to some suitable place and make a cache of the goods, build a house and leave two or three trusty young men with the wagons and plunder until spring, then pack out the women and children on the few animals they had left. As soon as work could be done in the spring, he said, he would return with a gang of men, cut a road through the mountains and carry everything out. Wagons were then worth from one hundred and fifty to two hundred dollars in the valley, and in fact were indispensable articles at any price. Our company owned twenty, which were well worth caring for. This proposition was readily agreed upon. William Berry, John M. Bacon and William Barlow volunteered to remain with the wagons. Very soon indications of the weather pointed out a decided change for the better; so all went to work with the cheerful hope of yet beholding the promised land of the Willamette valley.

A few days travel brought them within five miles of the summit of the Cascade Mountains. Here they found a suitable place to leave their heavy goods and wagons. A house was soon constructed to hold the goods that would be likely to spoil from dampness or from a heavy weight of snow. Everything being nicely put away, preparations for moving began. Packing had to be studied with an eye to economy of space. Each woman attended to her own domestic affairs, cramming her wardrobe and indispensables into as small parcels as possible. The number of horses was very limited; and it was not known, as yet, how the oxen would stand the pack saddle. The stock cattle had been sent to the valley long ere this. The next thing for consideration was, how could the limited supply of provisions be divided with the men who were going to stay in the mountains all winter. The company was now reduced to a very small allowance, – only enough to keep them alive till they reached the “land of milk and honey.” This dilemma was soon satisfactorily arranged by one of the volunteers, William Berry, consenting to stay alone, and that the other two should go through with the families, thus adding two more willing hands to alleviate their hardships. They would return soon to the lone mountaineer and bring back provisions to last during his hermitage. All being ready, the start was made; but they moved very slowly, having to cut a trail most of the way and to keep a vigilant lookout for the safety of the women and children packed on the horses. At this rate it was very hard work to make more than three miles a day. A snowstorm coming up covered the ground with a foot of snow, thus leaving the animals nothing to eat but the poisonous mountain laurel. This was discouraging. They counted and turned the cattle and horses out at night, but could make no calculations upon the number they would get up in the morning. Before reaching what is now known as Laurel Hill, some of the women and children, and all of our men, were compelled to walk. They were out of provisions of any kind save the steak they had cut from the hams of the horses that had died from the effects of eating laurel. They soon found that its poisonous qualities were not transmissible, and for awhile partook of it voraciously. The greatest discontent about it was that it would give out before they reached the settlements.

A little incident that occurred one evening will serve to illustrate the courage of some of the ladies of the party. One of the ladies was weeping in contemplation of the final result, in case all the horses and cattle should die, and starvation be their fate. “Cheer up,” said Mrs. Gaines, Mr. Barlow’s oldest child, “There is no danger of perishing as long as we have such a fine fat dog as good old Bruno.” “O, dear!” cried the lady, “would you eat a dog? “Yes, if he were the last dog in the world,” said Mrs. Gaines. The courage of all the ladies ascended a few degrees when they realized that there was in camp such a wonderful relief fund.

It was evident that something must be done to obtain relief before long; so it was agreed that John M. Bacon and William Barlow, the son of the leader of the party, should start immediately for the valley on foot, and return as soon as possible with fresh horses and provisions for the families. In the meantime the company was to make an effort to reach the foot of Laurel Hill, which was about three miles away. The two volunteers were supplied with a camp kettle, an axe, a very little ground coffee, and their allowance of the laurel-fed horse. They had no idea of the many trials they were to encounter. But, had they anticipated them, their overflowing ambition and buoyant hearts would have nerved them to baffle anything for the success of the enterprise. In this self-satisfactory mood, they continued till they reached the last crossing of the Big Sandy river, which was up to its winter stage. Its waters were as cold as ice, and ran over sleek boulders with the rapidity of lightning. Something must be done; the stream had to be crossed. it was getting late in the evening; and eight or ten miles had to be made before they could reach the first house, should they be fortunate enough to get across the river. Being very tired and weak they thought they would not attempt to ford it that evening; so they hunted for some dry conveyance, a fallen log or drift lodged in a gorge; but none was to be found. Just above the point where the bridge now stands was an island of solid rock, on one side of which was a deep, narrow canon, through which all the water passed. On the bank, just opposite, there was a tall tree, which they thought, if felled, would reach the island. After working with the utmost energy for some time, with the only axe they had it finally fell. To their dismay, it broke in twain and went down the torrent, pitching and jumping like a mountain buck. After this they were compelled to suspend further operations until morning. It seemed almost suicidal to plunge into this boisterous stream; but recollections of the suffering condition of the helpless women and children, and perils of life the old pioneer had endured for them, called forth their keenest sense of duty, and doubly renewed their feeble energies. William told his companion that he proposed to cross that stream at the risk of his life, but that he did now wish him to attempt it nor to sacrifice his life for his people. William who had a father’s, mother’s and two sisters’ lives at stake, felt it his duty to rescue them or perish in the attempt; and so they struck camp. Their bodies and spirits soon enlivened by a cheerful fire, they were ready for their coffee and a piece of old Gray’s laurel-stricken ham. At this point, Bacon, who had been entrusted with this burdenless part of the luggage, said that he had lost the meat out of his pocket in the river. They had crossed the Big Sandy at least twenty times. William accused him of eating it, knowing from his own appetite what a temptation it was. But he said he had really lost it, but, fearing that the knowledge of it would discourage Barlow, had refrained from telling him before. So, after partaking heartily of coffee, they lay down under the wide-spreading boughs of their improvised mountain house, and were soon fast asleep.

Morning came. With firm nerve and determined will, which were to carry him to the opposite sore of the river, or to that unknown shore from whence no traveler returns, William slowly advanced to the turbulent, icy waters. Taking a hearty leave of his friend, Bacon, not a word was afterward spoken till he reached the middle of the stream. Here, standing breast-deep in the water, his limbs numb with the water, his limbs numb with the cramp, his heart failed him. He sang out to Bacon a farewell message to his mother. All was desperation! A few more steps and then – the waters grew more shallow, new hope sprang up! A minute more and he was safe on the land. A hurrah of joy reached his ears from the opposite shore which was returned by, “All is well.”

Quick time was made over the remaining ten miles to Phillip Foster’s. Here James and John L. Barlow were recruiting themselves and cattle, having arrived here some time before by the Mount Hood trail. William was detained here two days, waiting for horses to be brought from Oregon City. In the meantime, Bacon was faring sumptuously on coffee, while William, being foundered after the first meal, was denied even that luxury. The detention was very opportune to him, as he should not have been able to start before. with good stout horses well packed with provisions, the deep crossing, the bane of his pedestrian trip. passed in safety, he joined his trusty friend Bacon; and they were very soon well on their journey towards the anxious waiters in the mountains. To their great surprise they found the company encamped only a few miles from the last crossing of the Big Sandy. The health of the leader of the party, who was taken sick on the summit of the Cascades, and which impeded the daily march, was much improved. They could now see their way clearly. The remainder of the journey was passed in the best of spirits.

On December 25,1845, they arrived in Oregon City, having accomplished the journey from Illinois to Oregon in a little over nine months. Their wagons still remained in the mountains under the supervision of William Berry, who was waiting with that trusty confidence that brave men and stout hearts confide in. No time must be lost to relieve him. As per agreement, and by order of S.K. Barlow, the writer of this article was sent back during the first week of January with the necessary supplies. Bacon, one of the partners in thus undertaking, disposed of his interest; and the service of J.E. Eaton was secured to assist on the journey. In four days they reached is mountain camp, and found him “enjoying himself hugely,” as he expressed it, living on rabbits and pine squirrels. However, he was not long in showing his appreciation of flour, bacon, sugar and coffee.

Having arranged with Berry to continue on alone in the care of the property, Eaton and Barlow commenced their homeward journey. The weather was very cold, and the snow deep. The monotony of the homeward trip was varied only by now and then digging a horse out of the snow, or shoveling the snow from the trees to find the road-marks. They arrived again in Oregon City in just eight days from the time they had left there.

Further action was now suspended on the mountain road till spring. Then our pioneer, true to his promise, buckled on his armor, rallied forces at his own expense, and started forth to hew out the first road over the Cascade Mountains. After many weeks of hard labor, interspersed with an unusual number of troubles, the road was finally completed and established under what is now known as the Barlow road.

The original Barlow Road was eighty miles long. It began at the extreme western side of what is known as Tygh valley, and followed the Indian trail to within ten miles of the north side of Mount Hood. At this point, one year before, William L. Rector and Mr. Barlow had taken observations and discovered a natural gap in the range of mountains, and here determined to blaze the path and afterwards construct a road through to the valley. Here all traces of human footsteps or wild animal trails disappeared; and from here on to Phillip Foster’s, the first settlement, the road was made through thick forest, fallen logs crossed and recrossed upon each other, rocks, creeks, canons or barriers of some kind. It required a large force of men and an expenditure of twenty-five hundred dollars to construct it. It was the old gentleman’s object to build a good road which would make a continuous route by land clear across the plains, and also lessen the expense from The Dalles to Oregon City, which was very considerable to immigrants. Transportation by water from The Dalles down to the valley was very high; and, even if the rates of travel had been lower, many of the immigrants had no money at all to pay for such service. Their sole capital sometimes consisted of teams, wagons, cattle, a few implements, willing hands, hopeful hearts, and a brave determination to gain an honest living with them.

The road was made a toll-road by a charter form the Provisional (territorial) government, and the rates of toll fixed at five dollars for a wagon and team, and fifty cents for a single animal. The old gentleman himself kept the toll-gate two months of each year, during the immigrant seasons of 1846 and 1847; but, for at least four months in the year, men were constantly constructing and repairing new and better roads. Many, many immigrants were unable to pay the toll; and in every case they were allowed to pass free and use all the privileges of the road. The brave spirit of many of the pioneers of those days would not permit them to accept the privilege as a gift; and this class insisted on leaving their names and a promise to pay in the future. It was always the intention of the builder of the road to turn it over to the territory without charge or any restriction as soon as he had collected enough to reimburse himself. Making an estimate of cash collected and a total of all the notes on hand, he found at the end of two years that the time had come for him to make this donation, which he accordingly did.

After several years, by reference to the cash accounts of the Barlow Road Company, it was found that many of those who had desired to pay had been unable to do so; and their notes, running out by limitation, quite a margin was left to be charged to the individual loss account of S.K. Barlow. It was never intended as a money-making scheme; neither did he intend it as a losing one; and, had he anticipated the non-payment of so many notes, he would have patiently run the road himself till he had all the cash in hand for his outlay. But few of those who had made their way over the mountain path with Mr. Barlow followed him in this laborious undertaking of road-making. Though all had an interest in the wagons and plunder, they preferred to wait till the road was finished before venturing again into the wilderness. One return the old gentleman asked of the wagon owners was that his oldest son might drive the first team over the first road across the Cascades.

After the acceptance of the road by the government, it was leased to other parties and for several years was a paying institution. Later, on account of smaller immigration and therefore limited finances of the toll-man, it was not kept in as good repair as formerly. But for over twenty years it was the principal passport over which thousands came to cast their fortunes in the far Northwest, and become proud Oregonians. The road is now, 1889, owned by a corporation, Mr. F.O. McCown, of Oregon City, being one of the important members. It is yet run as a toll-road, and is now kept in an excellent state of repair. It is not only used by people going to and from Eastern Oregon, but by many tourists and pleasure-seekers. It leads into a delightful mountain country; and, as it is on a natural pass, it is on the line of the proposed railroad to the timber line of Mount Hood. It is still known as the Barlow Road, which for nearly forty-five years has been a noteworthy testimonial of the forethought of its founder and builder, S.K. Barlow. It has been said that the construction of this road contributed more towards the prosperity of the Willamette valley and the future State of Oregon than any other achievement prior to the building of the railways in 1870.

Nothing outside of the daily routine of life occurred in the history of our pioneer till 1847, the breaking out of the Cayuse Indian war. He was one of the first to shoulder his gun and rush to the defense of women and children on the frontier. As an independent high private, he would be under the control of none, and asked no pay for his services. He said he would go out and keep back the Indians until the young men were equipped and in the field; that he would resign and go home. This he did as soon as the volunteers arrived in the field. It was generally conceived that he and a few of his comrades who went at the first alarm kept back the inroads of the Indians upon The Dalles, and prevented their coming into the valley. After this he lived a very retired life. His love of mountain scenery and exploits never left him. Every year that he was able to go, up to the time of his death, he took a mountain pleasure trip, which he enjoyed as keenly as he did similar trips in his pioneer days.

A marked characteristic of the old gentleman was his most inveterate enmity to intoxicating drinks. It is believed that he would have sacrificed his life for the annihilation of alcohol. He had no sympathy for a man who drank. “The first drunk,” he said, “I would take a man our of the mire and care for him until he became sober; the second, I would let him lie there; for the sooner he was gone the better.” The last few years of this pioneer’s life were spent in and around Oregon City, where he died July 14, 1867, at the age of seventy-two years and six months. He died as he had lived, – calmly and composedly.

He never made any profession of religion; yet he believed firmly in a great God; that a pure spirit would be everlastingly happy; and in the progression of happiness both here and hereafter. He also believed in the punishment of the wicked, but that it would not be eternal, but according to merits, – progressive until the standard of right was reached. He was buried at Barlow’s Prairie, named in commemoration of its founder. His final resting place is marked by a monument on which is inscribed an expressive epitaph composed by himself, and
embodying in concise terms the precepts of his life on earth and his belief in the future.


History of the Pacific Northwest Oregon and Washington. 2 v. Portland, Oregon: North Pacific History Company. 1889.

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