Biography of William D. Stillwell

WILLIAM D. STILLWELL. – William D. Stillwell was born in Logan county, Ohio, on the 16th of November, 1823. While he was still quite young his parents moved to Michigan, and to Iowa in1838. After living there five years, he concluded in 1843 to emigrate to Oregon. Finding it too late to join the emigration trains, he stopped in Missouri until the following year, when he was among the first to camp at the starting point near Independence.

The emigration company were slow in their preparations for starting, and, as Mr. Stillwell was eager to be off, he started out on the long journey across the plains with a small company of ten wagons, believing that the regular emigrant train would soon overtake them.

The season was unusually wet; and many of the streams were swollen so as to make the crossing dangerous in the extreme. Many of them had to be forded; or, when timber long enough could be procured, they would make canoes and lash them together, ferry the families and wagons across, and swim the stock. In this way they proceeded for hundreds of miles, until finally it became necessary to halt, on account of the incessant rains and consequent high waters. They rested for twenty-one days; and still the rains continued, until the cattle were in danger of miring; and the wagons settled in the mud down to the axle trees.

At the earliest moment possible they moved on up the Platte to the dry lands, and thence on towards the Rocky Mountains. the cattle became afflicted with foot-evil from the sudden change from wet and mud to the dry, hot sand and alkali plains; and many had to be left along the way. The disease spread among the stock, and became so universal that it threatened to become a serious matter, and retarded their progress very much.

They had hoped to reach their journey’s end in the course of three or four months, and had started with provisions sufficient for that length of time. But here they found themselves scarcely half way to their destination, their teams jaded or wholly given out, and the supply of provisions nearly exhausted. Mr. Stillwell’s father was in poor health; and it seemed impossible that his mother could ride horseback in case they had to abandon the wagons, as she was a very large woman, weighing at that time two hundred and sixty pounds. Such anxiety was sufficient to cause the singular circumstance which Mr. Stillwell tells of himself. He was at that time in his nineteenth year; and his hair, which was coal black at starting, turned quite gray; but a few years in the Willamette valley restored it to its original color.

At Bear river they fell in with a company of Nez Perce Indians and a white man. One Indian in the party had been educated at St. Louis, and could talk good English. They traveled on to the upper crossing of Snake river, where their teams gave out; and they traded them off to some mountain men for pack-horses. When at Boise river they turned off with the party of Nez Perce Indians, going up the Platte across the Salmon river and down on the Clearwater to Lapwai to Mr. Spalding’s Mission.

Fortunately, Mr. Stillwell possessed a Hawkins’ rifle, and killed plenty of buffalo, antelope, sage hens, and other game, which was their only food for nearly half the way. They reached Mr. Spalding’s Mission in good season, the route being much shorter than that to Whitman’s station; and his mother and the horse she rode endured the fatigue wonderfully well.

They spent the winter at Mr. Spalding’s; and, as Mr. Stillwell had some knowledge of printing, he was employed to assist Mr. Fasey in printing the books of Matthew and Luke, which Mr. Spalding was translating into the Nez Perce language, as well as several hymn books and a dictionary for the use of the Indians. Mr. Spalding had procured a printing press such as was to be had at that time, and which was undoubtedly the pioneer printing press of the Pacific coast.

In 1845 they moved to the Willamette valley, settling at North Yamhill, where Mr. Stillwell lived for twenty-five years. At that time the settlers were few and so scattered that often it was many miles to the nearest neighbor. There were but few mills in the country, and many of them on streams which went dry during the summer months; so it was necessary to go to mill in the winter, when the water was high. There were no bridges; and the grist must be taken from the pack-horse and carried across on a foot log, while the animals swam the stream. He would then pack up again and go on to the next stream, where the programme would be repeated. It took several days, and sometimes even weeks, to make the trip to mill and back, as it was forty miles to Oregon City or Salem.

The big black wolves were plentiful in the mountains at that time; and it was a common occurrence in the winter for them to come down and kill a cow or horse. In comparing those times with to-day, Mr. Stillwell says; “I worked for Cook & Fletcher at Lafayette for half price to get cash enough to buy me an axe; for it required cash to purchase the article. Yet I could get from a dollar and a half to two and a half per day in orders on the Hudson’s Bay or Abernethy’s stores; but they could not furnish axes for the orders or wheat at from one to one and a half dollars per bushel, which was the circulating medium at that time. It required cash to buy an axe; and I journeyed to Oregon City to buy it. I was offered on several occasions a horse worth at that time twenty-five dollars for it.”

In the winter of 1846 quite a number of emigrants who came by the southern route barely got into the Willamette valley until their teams gave out; and they themselves were so worn out and ill they could not come over to the settlements, and in many cases were suffering for food. The settlers at North Yamhill contributed ten pack-loads of provisions; and Mr. Stillwell and a son of Chicamen Smith volunteered to take it and distribute it to those who were actually suffering, without pay.

They started in December, a time when all the streams were swollen out of their banks; and not one of them but the Lacrosse did they succeed in fording, having to pack their cargo over on foot logs, or ferry them across on rafts or in canoes, and swim their horses. Sometimes they would not be able to proceed more than a mile or two in a whole day’s travel. When they came to the Long Tom, they found a man and his family camping where his team had given out; and they were not able to move on. He told Mr. Stillwell they had had nothing to eat for two days. In reply he said; “You are the kind of people we are looking for. Bring something to carry it in, and I will give you something to eat.” After being supplied with flour and meal enough to last them several days, the poor man actually cried, as the relief came so unexpectedly; and he could not pay for it. He had started his son off to the settlements that very morning with the last dollar he had in the world, but promised to pay as soon as he was able. “Never mind,” said Mr. Stillwell, “this is for those who have nothing to eat, and nothing to buy it with.”

After crossing the stream, they met a company of ten wagons, who still had two or three days’ provisions, but were eager to secure all Mr. Stillwell had. Of course he would not sell to them; and they drew their guns and talked of taking the cargo by force. Young Smith kept driving the packed animals along; and he and Mr. Stillwell both cocked their guns, which caused the emigrants to change their minds. So they passed on, making only two or three miles a day, until they reached the spot where Eugene City now stands. After distributing their cargo among the needy, they took the women and children of two families on their pack-horses, the men and boys all walking and started back to the settlements. When they reached Sap creek their provisions were gone; but a party had brought some wheat for seed, which he let them have; and they hailed it for supper and breakfast, but began eating it as soon as it was hailed. They relished it without salt or anything else with it.

In the following March Mr. Stillwell returned to the upper valley with some of the emigrants to get their wagons and other articles they had left when coming in. Thinking it would be much easier to come down the river in boats, they made two or three canoes, lashed them together, and after loading on the wagons and goods started down the river. They had gone but a short distance when the boat struck a snag and upset; and they with difficulty got out on an island. After searching for some time they discovered a shallow place, and waded to the mainland. So, without provisions and wet to the skin they started for Belknap settlement being above the mouth of Long tom. Mr. Stillwell swam over and procured a canoe, and assisted his companion, Mr. Buckingham, across the stream, and then on to a point where they crossed the Muddy during the night. here he waded the Slacon creek for hours before he found the way out where he could get food.

In December of 1847 he joined Captain Thompson’s company in Yamhill. On the 25th of that month they reported to the governor at Oregon City in response to a call for volunteers to punish the Cayuse Indians for the massacre at Whitman’s Sta- tion. The company was ordered to a point on the Willamette where Albina is now located, and from there to The Dalles by way of Vancouver, and soon after to Des Chutes. There was a call for two men from each company to volunteer as scouts under Lieutenant lee; and Mr. Stillwell and Chicamen Smith, of Captain Thompson’s company, volunteered to go.

Starting out early in the morning, about three o’clock in the afternoon they saw a party of Indians riding directly towards them. it had been raining hard; and they were ordered to halt and re-prime their guns amid great excitement, as these were the first hostile Indians that had been seen. They were soon ordered to charge; and, as Mr. Stillwell did not hear the order, he stopped to reload and catch an Indian horse, changed his own saddle to it, and started to drive his own and Lieutenant Lee’s horses after the command.

Now, for the first time, he saw he was cut off entirely from his comrades, and was surrounded by Indians. He turned towards the Des Chutes river, though about forty mounted Indians had surrounded him; and it seemed only sport to capture or kill him. At any rate, they reserved their balls for more difficult game, and only showered arrows at him. Before long his horse was filled with arrows, and could go no farther; and Mr. Stillwell sprang over his head and ran two hundred yards, when he was shot in the hip with an arrow. He succeeded in pulling out the arrow; but the flint remained imbedded in the flesh. He ran down a cañon; and the Indians followed on both sides, sometimes coming within fort yards, when he would present his gun, but not fire, knowing that to reserve his fire would serve to keep them at a distance. Once he came near going over a precipice; and again a rifle ball passed through his hair just over his ear. It seems almost a miracle that he escaped; but after it was dark he lay by and rested, after which he resumed his journey, and arrived at camp at daylight, greatly to the surprise of his comrades, as he was given up as lost. He remained with the regiment, taking part in every battle, and was out with most of the scouts, living on horse-meat without salt or anything else to eat.

The Indians at the battle of the Des Chutes were the bravest men in that campaign, says Mr. Stillwell; “They never left their positions until we blew smoke in their very faces.” He says they overtook the Indians as they were driving up their horses; and he came in contact with a big warrior, who ran his horse against Mr. Stillwell’s animal. he asked permission to shoot the Indian; but it was refused, and the act was repeated several times before the Indian seemed satisfied. To this day Mr. Stillwell thinks the campaign was badly managed, and that they should have attacked the Indians instead of waiting for them to begin hostilities, which they did that night.

After this war was ended, he returned to the Willamette, and in 1849 went to the gold mines. He stopped at Redding’s diggings, where he did well at mining, but had a severe attack of cholera, and returned to Oregon and turned his attention to raising horses.

In 1851 he was married to Miss Elizabeth Baxter, a grand-daughter of Samuel Laughlin of Yamhill county. They were blessed with six children, two of whom died in infancy. Those living are Thomas G., Levi L., Minnie V. and Baxter. Mrs. E. Stillwell died the 12th of January, 1863.

Mr. Stillwell was first lieutenant in Captain Ankeny’s Company C of recruiting volunteers, and was in active service in the war of 1855-56. On one occasion, when they were short of ammunition, he was sent with an escort to The Dalles to procure a supply. They made the journey there (225 miles) in two days and nights, and the return trip with the ammunition in five days, making the round trip of 450 miles in seven days. On their return the bad roads and hard travel caused their horses to give out; and Mr. Stillwell took the ammunition on the saddle horses, and waling himself brought it to headquarters at the expense of badly blistered feet. He was only a short distance from Captain Hembree when he was killed while out scouting after Indians.

After the war closed he returned to his home in North Yamhill, and in 1864 was married to Miss Joanna Gubsen. Six children were the result of this union, – Willa, now Mrs. Ebermon, Arthur J., William J., Walter R., and two who died in infancy. Mrs. Joanna Stillwell died September 20,1879.

In 1870 Mr. Stillwell moved to Tillamook where he has since resided, serving the county as school superintendent, assessor and sheriff.


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

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