A Pioneer Mother’s Story
The year 1852. The immigrant train on its way to the West paused en route somewhere near Willow Creek in the John Day Country, Eastern Oregon. Why this delay when there was always the need to press on as expeditiously as possible, even though no Indian trouble had as yet interrupted its westward trek?Draw near, you who would turn back the pages of history, and stand by the open grave that holds one more of Life’s tragedies on the Oregon Trail.
A young mother, too frail to withstand the rigors of the long trek from Missouri to Oregon–the land of promise–is being lowered into a lonely unmarked grave. A grief-stricken husband and six wide-eyed, wondering children stand by while friendly hands of other members of our party perform the last rites.
The clods fall on the rude coffin. The earth is smoothed over. No stone is raised to mark the spot, in fact every precaution is taken to obliterate any indication of an interment there. A hymn is sung. A prayer is said. The train moves on. Young Mr. Thornton must now accept the role of both father and mother to his little brood, the eldest of whom is thirteen, the youngest is a year and a half.
Several days more of slow travel brought the party, after five months’ weary plodding, to its destination: the Willamette Valley in Yamhill County, Oregon. How their very souls were gladdened as they viewed this beautiful valley bathed in the golden September sunshine, and realized that it was now to be their home.
To induce worthy settlers to come to the Willamette Vally, the Federal Government had promised a section of land here to every man and wife. Mr. Thornton, being now a widower, was allotted only a half section. Bereft of his helpmate, and burdened with the physical and spiritual development of his six children, a less Spartan soul might have given up in despair. But the blood of Revolutionary fore-bears (one, Matthew Thornton, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence) flowed in young Thornton’s veins and he accepted the challenge of adversity.
Each family must raise the food for its own sustenance. So the ground was plowed, and the grain sowed. The harvest foods were supplemented with plenty of wild game: deer, grouse, pheasants, quail, ducks and geese. When the second Spring had come, the Pioneer Settlers, assured of the permanency of their settlement, began to plan for their children’s educational advantages.
A Subscription School was organized, costing five dollars per child. To increase the attendance and to make it worthwhile for some competent person to teach the school, Mr. Thornton sent five year old Surrilda, the heroine of this story, along with her four older brothers and sisters.
As each settler had built his home somewhere near the center of his allotment, the families lived rather remotely from each other, necessitating a walk of three of four miles for many of the children in order to reach the centrally located school house. However, little Surrilda grew sturdy as she trudged beside her older brothers and sisters.
Social events were few and far between, but Husking Bees, Quilting Parties, and Cider-making gatherings served to draw the growing boys and girls together and gave opportunities for choosing life partners. In those far-off days girls married young. Surrilda was fourteen when she married James Lemuel Ballard. For a young couple, they were content to make their home near where they’d been reared, for a couple of years; but after the first child was born they decided to move to California.
Leaving Oregon in 1868, Surrilda, together with her husband and one small child Perry, came to Montgomery Creek near Millville in Shasta County. Two years later they moved up on Pit River where they built and operated a Toll Bridge about four miles below the present site of Portland General Electric Power Plant Pit One. Where a second tragedy came into Surrilda’s life when the waters of the Pit River claimed the life of her first born, five year old Perry.
Perry and his younger brother Simeon were playing by the riverbank. Simeon complained of being thirsty. Perry, who had been trained to look out for his little brother, got a can and reached over the bank of the turgid river to get water. He lost his balance and fell into the swirling river. Little brother’s screams brought his parent running to the spot, but they could see no trace of Perry. For several days, Indian divers assisted the frantic father in vain to attempt to recover the little body. It never was.
Surrilda’s grief was so great that she could no longer endure the scene so fraught with tragic memories. Once more she and her husband and family sought a new location. 1872 found them in Lower Goose Lake Valley. In this valley and the surrounding country, the grass grew thick and tall while the Upper Sacramento Valley was suffering a drought. Stockmen drove their cattle to the mountain valleys to get pasture and hay. Surrilda’s husband got a job feeding a band of cattle through the winter. He moved his family to Joseph Creek so he might live near his work.
In 1873 lumber was needed to meet new settlers’ demands for homes. Capitalizing on this demand, the Ballard family moved to Canyon Creek, twenty miles south-west of the present site of Alturas and built the first saw mill in that part of the valley. During the summer the family lived in a tent and cheerfully put up with the many discomforts of camp life, dispensing hospitality to any chance wayfarer. But when a rattlesnake attempted to make himself at home behind the cook stove, they felt this was presuming too much on even Pioneer hospitality.
By September enough lumber had been cut to provide for the erection of a house near the mill. When winter storms necessitated the closing of the milling operations, it seemed advisable to move to the small village of Centerville about eight miles down in the valley. There, a hastily constructed house proved inadequate to keep out the winter storms. Many a morning, the family, now growing numerically as well as physically, awoke to find their beds blanketed with snow that had sifted through the cracks.
Old timers still tell that the winter of 1873-74 was the coldest and stormiest ever experienced in this mountain country. Wood fires were kept burning night and day and still the houses were cold. Winter lasted from November through March. Snow fell three feed deep on the level and the drifts were much deeper. There was not much hay on hand. A scourge of grasshoppers destroyed the hay crop the preceding summer, so there was very little to feed the starving, frozen livestock. Many cattle and nearly all sheep in the area perished.