Applegate Family Preserves Pioneer Legacy

MIGRATION along the Oregon Trail was not only a mass movement of families but of clans, and no clan was more prominent than the Applegates.

Brothers Jesse, Lindsay, and Charles, together with their wives (two of whom were sisters) and a total of 22 children, were part of the first big wagon train in 1843. At the ripe old age of 32, Jesse was captain of the train, which included about 100 wagons and several thousand head of cattle.

The family met with tragedy on the last leg of the trip to the Willamette Valley, when a boat capsized in the rapids of the Columbia River and two nine-year-old Applegate boys were drowned.

This event, together with the threat of war with Britain over the disputed Oregon Territory, prompted Jesse and Lindsay several years later to lead a small group looking for a way into Oregon from the south.

They found it - a route that would break off the established trail from Fort Hall in Idaho and come up through northern Nevada and California. But the Applegate Trail, as it became known, was a very tough one through desert country, and it stirred considerable controversy among settlers. For years, people argued over the role and motives of the Applegates. There were verbal attacks in the press and challenges to duel.

On the way back home from blazing the new trail, the group passed through a valley that reminded the Applegate brothers of their old home back in Kentucky. "The grass was as high as their horses and, as they put it, `a mite bit bluish,' " says Shannon Applegate, great-great granddaughter of Charles and the family biographer.

So the clan packed their belongings aboard wagons once again and settled for good in what they called "Yoncalla" - an Indian word meaning "The valley of eagles." The three Applegate couples had 17 more children once they reached Oregon.

Today, Shannon and her cousin Susan Applegate are keepers of the family name and story. Shannon's 1988 book, "Skookum: An Oregon Pioneer Family's History and Lore," draws on journals, diaries, correspondence, and conversations with her elders. ("Skookum" is Chinook jargon for "strong, power, full of spirit.") The book is illustrated with artist Susan's drawings and paintings.

For a time in the early 1970s, Shannon and Susan (and an assortment of free-spirited friends) lived in the house built for Charles and Melinda Applegate in the 1850s. There, they absorbed the spirit of what Shannon calls "this heart place," the oldest house in Oregon still owned by its original family.

Soon, Shannon and her husband Daniel Robertson (who is director of the Douglas County Museum) will move into another house on the homestead.

"I'm just thrilled with coming back to Yoncalla," she says.

The Charles Applegate house, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is filled with historical objects: furniture, firearms, books, kitchenware, tools, rugs, baskets, photographs, musical instruments.

There is a drum used by Daniel Applegate (father of the three pioneer brothers), who was a drummer boy in the American Revolution. Outside blooms a pink "Mission Rose," brought by ship around the Horn in 1832.

More than a century later, the clan has pretty much dispersed. When "Skookum" was published, Shannon began hearing from long-lost relatives around the country, some of whom sent family documents and mementos.

"God only knows," she says, how many living descendants there are of those original Oregon Applegates.

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