Biography of Lulu May Coverdale

A Short History of the Coverdale Family from 1859 to 1959
by Lulu May (Coverdale) Holmes in 1959.

One hundred years ago Zedoc Jackson Coverdale and Rachel Elizabeth Morrison were married in the state of Iowa. He was commonly called “Jack” by everyone except Rachel, to whom he was always “Zed”. Rachel Morrison was born in Monroe, Wisconsin. Her father was a Methodist minister. He died, leaving a young widow, Rebecca Elizabeth, with two small children, Rachel and her brother John James. Both were just old enough to remember how concerned they were when a few days after their father had been buried in the cemetery near their home, they heard someone pounding the board fence around the cemetery while mending it. They rushed to mother for her to come quickly for they thought their father was trying to get out of the grave. But this mistake caused them to hear the beautiful story of the resurrection, which they never forgot.

Sometime later their mother married Allen Broxson, a widower with several children, and later they had other children, so it was quite a large family, girls predominating. They moved from Wisconsin to Iowa. It was there that Rachel, a young lady of fifteen years, met her future husband. The family was returning from church, a wagonload of girls, when they met and passed Coverdale and another young man as both parties were crossing the bridge. Rachel, whose short hair nearly reached her shoulders because she had taken off her hair net, was sure the young man who looked at her so intently was criticizing her. But what he was really saying to his friend was, “There goes my future wife, the one with the black hair”.

It was not long after that decision that they were married. She was barely sixteen. He was running a blacksmith shop and as was the custom at that time a newly married man wore white shirts to his work every day. Poor Rachel, to uphold the bride’s side of the custom in the sight of all her neighbors, quite wore herself out as well as the shirts, to have them looking just so, as they hung on the line and were inspected by passersby.

Their first child, Theodore, was born in less than a year. His smallness caused one of her girl friends to ask why she did not carry him in her pocket. Playfully she sat him in one of the large outside pockets of her coat, which was plenty large for him. But Theodore was only three months old when he died. It was not long after that, when they decided to leave Iowa and head for the Oregon Country out west. It was a long journey, taking nearly a year. They traveled in the usual covered wagon. Their horses, Marg and Gamborine, were a fine team, but this fact came near to bringing them much trouble.

After they reached Independence, Missouri, they joined a large caravan. One morning when they were preparing for the day’s trek, it was discovered that their team was missing. But after much discussion the captain decided to lie over for just one day in order that the team might be searched for. Before night they were found securely tied in a thick grove of trees, miles from where they had camped. They never learned who hid them out, but it was evidently someone from the company they were traveling with, as there were not any Indians along the way.

Later they saw many Indians along the route, but they had no serious trouble with them. They often saw the bodies of dead Indians, usually children, wrapped in blankets and hung up very carefully in the top of high trees, to shorten their route to the happy hunting grounds. They reached the Oregon Country, September 17, 1861, and camped for the night on the banks of the Umatilla River. As a group of men sat around the Coverdale campfire that evening spinning yarns, they were very much surprised when it was announced to them by one of the camp women that a baby daughter had just been born to the Coverdale’s. At first her parents named her Umatilla, but it was shortened to Utilla, or Tillie as she was always called.

On hearing that there was need of another blacksmith in Walla Walla the family first settled there and Jack set up a gunsmith shop. Later on they moved to a homestead a few miles out of town on Russell Creek. They’re on the homestead or in the town seven more children were born to them: Marion, Ida, Bessie, Willie, Lulu, Birdie and Osa.

The summer of 1875 was spent out in the John Day Country on the Oregon side, where their many friends were all Indians who also camped there for the summer. This vacation was advised for the health of the oldest boy Marion, after a long siege of pneumonia. He and the father enjoyed the outing immensely as they both loved to hunt and fish and it sure worked miracles for the boy’s health. But it was very hard on the mother, who had five children by then. The youngest, Lulu May, a mere babe, who spent most of time lying in a basket watching and cooing at the rustling leaves much to the delight of the older children, who later talked of it so much that it was so impressed on the child’s mind that she grew up firmly believing that she could remember those days very clearly.

After selling the homestead the family moved up on Mill Creek and kept a dairy for two or three years. To the children this was a wonderful place with all its wilderness. Just before the last child, Osa, was born the family moved back to the Walla Walla country and the father took up his old trade. But about a year later, he moved his family and his business to Milton on the Oregon side. There had been so much sickness in the family; he was trying to get away from it. But here Bessie came down with typhoid fever and lay sick in bed for a long time.

In the meantime someone had told him at the shop what a wonderful healthy place the Wallowa country was, so he decided to move over there the next year. For some reason they did not get started till rather late in the fall. When the family started out, all but Tillie, who had lived near Milton with an aunt and uncle for several years, finally marrying the uncle’s partner, William Wesley McQueen, left for Wallowa.

The father rigged up a covered wagon like they had crossed the plains in years before, and with the rest of the family started for the Wallowa country. This was in 1881 and the roads were still very bad. Large rocks protruding out of the ground would all but shake the wagon apart, the hills were very steep and the grading poor.

When they reached the Minam Hill descent, the children who could walk were sent ahead, down a steep path that wound around rim rocks all the way down. The father cut down a fir tree, perhaps twenty-five feet tall and tied it behind the wagon to help as a brake, going down the steep road. When the bottom was reached, the people at the toll bridge showed them the almost perpendicular hill across the Wallowa River, where the first people to go into the Wallowa Valley to settle, had drawn their wagon up piece by piece, as well as all their other possessions; using blocks and tackle, then following the ridge down till it sloped into the valley.

But the family later found, much to their consternation, that the narrow road following the nine mile river canyon was almost as frightening, much of it on high banks overlooking the river. A short time before they went through, a team and wagon had been pushed off over the bank into the river by a herd of cattle being driven into the valley to be put on open range.

When the Coverdale’s met a large herd being driven out to market and they tried the same trick by trying to rush in above the team and wagon, the father stood up on the wagon seat and with a horse whip beat the leading cattle over their heads, fighting them back till they turned below. After that Marion was sent ahead to worn teamsters and cattlemen that a wagon with a family was coming on the road. That was necessary because there were only a few places where even teams could pass.

They had been warned by the people they had met all along the way against a certain man. They said, “He always tries to rope in all new comers and keep them until he got most of their money”. Before they reached the upper end of the valley for which they were headed; it began to snow so hard they could not see the road, so they stopped at the first house they came to and asked for shelter; only to learn later it was the very place they had been warned about. But they were glad, not only to be sheltered by him for the night, but for the small house they rented from him for the winter. And also for the privilege of buying such fine vegetables and meat from him.

The first place the family went after they got settled in their little house was to view Wallowa Lake. They took the team and wagon and rode as far up the lake hill as they could. Then they walked on to the top of the hill, carrying the youngest child who was only two years old. The beautiful sight was well worth the climb. The high mountain on the other side was clearly reflected in the blue waters for the full four-mile length of the lake. The snow capped showing its clear reflection far out toward the center. There was no road beside the lake in those days and the view was open for miles. The father and oldest son rolled several rocks the size of a large range down the hillside to splash into the waters below.

It was a hard winter, the coldest they had ever witnessed, but the children enjoyed getting out to play in the deep snow. But as usual the mother did not have such a good time, first having the care of a sick child, and then all the winter having to cook for seven members of the family over a fireplace. But the wonderful loaves of bread that were turned out of the Dutch oven in its bed of coals, were long remembered,. In the spring, after the snow was gone and ground covered with butter cups, the family moved on up to the head of the valley and camped in two large tents while a home was being built on the forty acre tract of large pine trees that had been bought to build a home on.

Pine trees were felled, cut into lengths of the lumber required and hauled to a nearby sawmill; extra logs being exchanged for the work of sawing the lumber for the house and blacksmith shop. A place was cleared for a large garden, which produced carrots, potatoes and rutabagas to the wonderment of all. Some rutabagas were so large they wouldn’t go inside a large milk pail and were so crisp it was fun to cut them up into small pieces to feed the cow as well as the family. And early Rose potatoes perhaps averaged ten inches in length. The deep warm snow that lay on the ground so may months seemed to add great vitality to the soil. But only the hardiest vegetables could withstand the late frosts. The vegetables were stored in pits, or holes dug in the earth lined with dry grass or straw, and the vegetables also covered over with the same, then covered with a foot or more of dirt. When the pits were opened up in the spring the vegetables were like fresh ones from the gardens. Like everyone else in the valley, they also had an underground cellar for storing food to use during the winter. They were only entered on the warmer days and then only through a passageway.

One real cold winter day, as the father was starting out to tour the forty acres on his snowshoes, Osa asked to go with him ‘pick a back’. He told him to go in the house where it was warm and when he came back the mother would wrap him up good and warm and he would take him for a ride. But the child misunderstood and rushed right in the house to be wrapped up warm so he could go for a snowshoe ride at once. An hour or two later the father returned and came into get the child only to find him gone out in the cold and snow. It took sometime to track him down for he had followed different snowshoe tracks going in different directions. He had wallowed through brush and over logs, leaving a shoe here and a stocking their and many torn bits of clothing’s clinging to the brush. He was finally found caught between two lower rails of the line fence trying to get to the road. His legs were frozen up to his knees. They brought him in and immersed his legs in a deep five-gallon can filled with right cold water. Then he was lifted out with a coating of ice which formed perfect stockings on his legs. This ice was peeled off and again his legs were put into cold water till another coating of ice formed to be peeled off. Then his legs were poultice with scraped raw rutabagas.

This shows the faith and ingenuity of those early pioneers often living far from a doctor. This simple care worked wonders for the boy never suffered any bad results whatever from being frozen. The Wallowa Country, while proving its healthy climate, did dispense many accidents, which called for quick and wise handling.

The whole family helped out with the food proposition. They divided, part of them going down to camp by the Wallowa River and catch red fish, as they were called, as they came up the river in large groups called ‘schools’, to spawn in the lake. They were about the size of small salmon, and much better flavored when caught in the river. One morning when the run was extra good, Marion refused to leave the river to go to camp for breakfast, so Lulu May carried his breakfast to him in a milk pan for a tray, and stood out to tell him when the water began to look red below. Every time he would leave his breakfast, he would grab the spear and catch five or six of the fish out of that school. That particular morning he caught twenty-five just during the breakfast feed. The fish were carefully cleaned and salted down in barrels, generally a thousand pounds or more.

As for the other part of the family, they stayed home nights, but spent the days in the mountains picking huckleberries. Two five-gallon cans were strapped on one of the horses, back of the saddle; besides the other horses carrying the pails to pick in. They left home about daylight to get to the berry patches in good time. The air was so pure, the sky so blue, and eagles and hawks soared above so gracefully, that they enjoyed the hard work of picking the berries even though they were so small. The girls in going from patch to patch often routed out a bear that was getting his early breakfast. When they reached home in the evening the berries were carefully spread out on paper on the big upstairs floor to dry. It took several fifty pound sacks filled with dry berries to tide them through the year, with only a few strawberries, currants and goose berries beside. But the huckleberry pies were the delight of the family.

And another provision was garnered in from hunting. The mountains were full of deer and for the first several years there were no restrictions as to the time of killing them. Much of the venison was dried so they always had a supply on hand even when the weather would not permit hunting. There were also many grouse, pheasants and fool hens to furnish a change of diet; and even better than that, were the wonderful Mountain trout caught in the lakes and streams.

Another much appreciated luxury, was the ribs and backbones of the many hogs that were raised in the valley just for bacon for home use and for hauling to the outside market to exchange for flour, sugar, tea, coffee, salt etc. When the meat was prepared for the process of bacon curing, each neighbor loaded up the wagon box on the bobsleds with the backbones and ribs that they had no use for and distributed them around to all the families. Later the compliment would be returned in like manner. Outsiders felt sorry for the pioneers that had gone into that country to settle, but they fared better than many. It took work, lots of it, but no one seemed to mind it.

In a few years the father with what little help he got from his children who had grown up and were working for others, had cleared the forty acres of ground and had it in wheat. Before the stumps were burnt out, the younger children were sent out with tin cans and old case knives to collect the coating of pitch from each stump. This was boiled and used in making a boat watertight for use on the lake. Nothing was wasted, for those early pioneers had learned that everything was useful for something.

The first school house consisted of one large room, and one small room to accommodate nearly a hundred children, ranging in age from six years old to twenty one and over, especially in the winter time when work was slack. Even with the strictest discipline, it was a noisy place, but somehow they all seemed to learn and were a cheerful, happy lot.


Biography, Women,

An Illustrated history of Union and Wallowa Counties: with a brief outline of the early history of the state of Oregon. Western Historical Pub. Co., 1902.

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