John and Hannah Dodson of Douglas County, Oregon

John and Patience "Hannah" Dodson were Oregon Trail pioneers who left their home in Missouri in 1852 to join thousands of others in the settling of the West.

John was born April 17, 1791 in Virginia, and Hannah on November 4, 1807 in North Carolina. Hannah's parents and siblings are unknown, but John was the child of Samuel and Sarah Dodson of Pulaski County, Virginia. John had seven siblings – Joel, Claiborne, Samuel, Sallie, Ruth, William, and Abner.

Sometime before John turned 14, his family migrated to northwestern Tennessee and settled on Indian Creek in Grainger County. Several Dodson families with roots in Virginia were living in the area at this time and may have been related to the family.

Settlement of this region had begun as early as 1785, so by the time the Dodsons arrived, Grainger had become a county with the town of Rutledge as its seat of justice. By 1830 Rutledge had grown to a population of 150 and boasted a school, church, tavern, blacksmith, hatter, tanner, and several general stores.

As settlers moved into this area, they encroached on Creek Indian territory provoking numerous hostilities. The Creek tribe, already a formidable adversary, was further aided by agents of the British. This subversive activity by the British, in addition to their refusal to withdraw from territory along the Great Lakes, lead President Madison to declare war against Great Britain in 1812.

War of 1812

Tennessee viewed the declaration of war as an opportunity to finally rid its borders of the Creeks, and wholeheartedly supplied more than 28,000 troops to the effort. John was among the volunteers. He traveled to Rutledge in November of 1814 and was mustered into service as a private under Captain Riches Company in General Colter's Brigade. Other Tennessee volunteers included Davy Crockett, who died at the Alamo, Samuel Houston who became the first president of the Republic of Texas, and Andrew Jackson ("Old Hickory" as he was known to his troops), who went on to the presidency. John must have particularly admired Sam Houston, as he later named his youngest child after him.

John's unit was first marched to Knoxville, Tennessee and then to Mobile, Alabama to join General Jackson's forces. Under Jackson, John likely participated in the last and most famous conflict of the war – the Battle of New Orleans. In January of 1815, Jackson and his ragtag troops inflicted a crushing defeat on a veteran British army killing 800 men and wounding 1,400 others, while suffering only eight casualties themselves. Despite having occurred 15 days after the signing of the peace treaty with Great Britain, the Battle of New Orleans was a brilliant victory and launched Andrew Jackson on the road to the presidency. Three months after the battle, John was discharged and returned home to Grainger County.

John and Hannah's Families

Before going off to war, John had married his first wife, Mary. When he returned, they settled on a farm in Grainger County, where they raised their family of ten children. In 1830 they left Tennessee for Newton County, Missouri, where Mary died sometime between 1833 and 1837.

Meanwhile Hannah and her first husband, Thomas J. Anderson, were raising their five children in Warren County, Tennessee. In 1834 they moved to Washington County, Arkansas. Thomas died there in 1837. Although almost 100 miles separated John in Missouri and Hannah in Arkansas, they met and were married in Benton County, Arkansas on January 15, 1837.

They settled in McDonald County, Missouri with their "mine, yours, and ours" household. Although John's four oldest children were probably out on their own, there were still eleven younger children in addition to the five they had together.

John and Mary Dodson's Children
Born Married
Mary 1814 TN John Brown
Sarah 1817 TN (1) Ethan Brown
(2) Samuel Liles
Matilda 1818 TN (1) Thomas Boles
(2) Samuel Hunter
Susan 1822 TN Sampson Elam Boles
William 1823 TN Julia Falby
Isabella 1824 TN John Windle
Emmy 1826 TN Joachim Pace
Malinda 1829 TN Absalom Cooper
Lucinda 1832, TN Elam Green "Clem" Darnall
John, Jr. 1832 MO Adeline Ingram


Hannah and Thomas Anderson's Children
Born Married
Thomas 1827 TN
Rebecca 1829 TN (1) John Dewesse
(2) Ben Kirk
Daniel 1830 TN Mary Fitzhugh
Andrew 1833 TN
Enoch 1835 AR


John and Hannah Dodson's Children
Born Married
Nancy 1838 AR John Jackson Whitsett
Margaret 1839 MO Frances Ingram
Martha 1841 MO Thomas May
Lydia 1846 MO Jackson Kelly
Samuel 1849 MO Martha Hervey

It is remarkable that all twenty of these children survived to adulthood, and went on to have large families of their own. Even more remarkable is that most of John and Hannah's children would join them in the largest human migration in history.

Manifest Destiny

"Eastward I go by force, but westward I go free. This is the prevailing tendency of my countrymen. I must walk toward Oregon."
Henry David Thoreau

Throughout the 1840s the federal government was beating the drum for manifest destiny – the notion that America was to span the continent. Newspapers were featuring glowing reports about the paradise waiting beyond the Rockies. "Out in Oregon Territory" ran one rumor, "pigs trot about under acorn trees, round and fat and already cooked, so you can cut off a slice whenever you're hungry."

In 1850 Congress further fueled the fever of western migration by passing the Oregon Donation Land Act. Under the terms of the act, a married couple could claim 640 acres. Half of the acreage was in the name of the husband, and half in the name of the wife. The only requirement was that settlers arrive between December 1, 1850 and December 1, 1853 and live on their claim for four years.

Hannah and John's decision to make the arduous journey to Oregon Territory, could not have been one they made lightly. Hannah was 45 and John more than 60. Missouri had been their home for more than 20 years, and they still had five young children at home, including a baby.

Maybe Hannah's sons Thomas and Daniel, who had made the trek in 1850, convinced them that Oregon really was the land of milk and honey. Maybe they saw all this free land as an opportunity for their large family to settle together. Or maybe it was something less tangible – the wanderlust described by Thoreau – a continuation of their journey west from their beginnings in Virginia and North Carolina, to Tennessee, to Missouri, and on to its ultimate conclusion in Oregon. Whatever their reasons, John and Hannah packed up their family one last time for the six-month journey to Oregon Territory.

The Oregon Trail

In addition to strength and bravery, the necessities were food (flour, bacon, beans, coffee, sugar and salt), clothing, firearms, oxen, and a wagon. The typical wagon box measured only four by ten feet, but when loaded to the brim, could carry over a ton of cargo. Many also found room for family heirlooms, thousands of which were later discarded on the Trail, sacrificed to make emergency shelters, caskets, or firewood, or to lighten the load of bone-weary animals.

The average party was underway by seven each morning and covered 12-15 miles by dusk. Their haste was well warranted as demonstrated by the Donner Party tragedy. After provisions were packed, there was little room left for passengers, so able-bodied children of any age walked, usually without shoes. My great-great-grandmother Martha, then just a girl of 11, likely walked the entire 2,000 miles.

The family set off for Oregon in 1852, one of the heaviest migration years on record which happened to coincide with the hottest and driest summer any of the emigrants had encountered. The large number of horses and cattle passing on the trail soon grazed off most of the vegetation leaving little for those that followed. The route was marked with the carcasses of the many animals that had died from thirst and starvation. Those that survived were often so enfeebled that they slowed the emigrants progress, and the human food supply also began to run out. Cholera, along with the lack of food and water, lead to the deaths of one of every ten emigrants. Settlers in the Willamette Valley, hearing of the newcomers hardships, donated large amounts of food, set up relief stations in The Dalles and the Grand Rounde Valley, and hauled supplies out to the approaching trains.

Because John and Hannah were joining relatives in southern Oregon, they probably took the Applegate Trail which broke off from the Oregon Trail at Fort Hall, Idaho and crossed through northern Nevada and California before heading north into Oregon. This trail had been blazed in 1846 by brothers Jesse and Lindsay Applegate who vowed to establish a safer route to Oregon after two of their children tragically drowned in the Columbia River in 1843. The Applegate Trail passed right through Douglas County crossing a low saddle in the mountains between Myrtle and Roberts Creeks near what is now Dodson Butte, which was named for the family.

The Dodsons survived the hardships of the trail and arrived in Douglas County on October 30, 1852. They likely spent that first winter with sons Thomas and Daniel in Deer Creek Township. The winter of 1852-53 proved just as inhospitable as the summer. Heavy snows were followed by a deluge of rain and then flooding. Many of the pioneer's animals survived the trail, only to die in the floods. After the difficulties of the trail, and the harshness of that first winter in Oregon, Hannah and John were probably wondering what they'd got themselves into. Maybe the future looked more promising with the coming of spring.

Douglas County, Oregon

The pioneers who arrived in Oregon Territory in the 1840s and 50s were not the first whites to reach the region. The earliest may have been survivors of a Spanish trade galleon that shipwrecked in Nehalem Bay sometime between 1620 and 1650. Next was British mariner Robert Gray who entered the Columbia River in 1792, followed by Lewis and Clark's arrival in 1805. The first whites in Douglas County were likely members of the Hudson's Bay Company who ventured in around the mid-1820s. For thousands of years before them, the area belonged to the Cow Creek branch of the Umpqua tribe.

The first settlers were surprised to encounter wild bands of longhorn cattle which were the remains of a herd of Spanish cattle that Ewing Young, of the American Fur Trading Company, had driven through the valley in 1830. The settlers were able to tame some of the cattle, but most of the animals were so aggressive that they had to be shot.

In 1852 there was only a handful of settlers in the whole Umpqua Valley, so there was plenty of good land left when John and Hannah applied for land claim 246. It consisted of 320 acres of good bottom land on Roberts Creek, just southeast of the township of Deer Creek where Hannah's sons had settled. At this time Jesse Roberts was the only settler on Roberts Creek, having arrived in 1847. Hannah and John were fortunate to get this land, as most of the good claims were taken up by the end of 1853. On March 3, 1855, Congress passed the Scrip-Warrant Act which allowed John to claim additional land as a War of 1812 veteran.

We don't know much about the first few years on the Dodson's homestead, but can assume that it involved the usual efforts of building a cabin and planting crops. The mild climate and fertile soil of the Umpqua Valley made it ideal for farming. Many families grew grain which required a day's journey to the grist mill in Winchester to be ground into flour. The settlers were helped out at harvest time by members of the local Umpqua tribe, who were friendly despite having been forced into giving up most of their land.

The Dodsons were said to be particularly kindhearted in their dealings with the Umpqua. The family learned to speak the language and gave food and clothing, when there was any to spare. One young Umpqua man, Jim Pierce, spent so much time with the family that Samuel began calling him his brother. With five older sisters, he was probably glad for the male companionship. Being so poor themselves, the Dodsons may have sympathized with the Umpqua's plight. Martha recalled that they couldn't even afford a comb, so made do with one her uncle had carved from a cow horn. She said it pulled on her hair something awful.

In 1852 a post office and school were established at Deer Creek Township. School sessions were short, and teachers qualifications were measured only by their ability to read the bible and cipher. Children usually only attended school after they'd finished with their farm work and other chores.

In 1857 Deer Creek became the county seat of Douglas County and was renamed Roseburg, for Aaron Rose who had donated the land for the township. By 1860 all four of the Dodson girls had struck out on their own. Nancy married John Jackson Whitsett, had ten children and remained in Douglas County. The others left Oregon with their husbands, drawn by the land that was opening up in other territories. Margaret married Frances Ingram and headed for Washington Territory, as did Martha who had married Thomas May, a carpenter from Pennsylvania. Lydia married Jackson Kelly and went to Montana Territory. Samuel, the youngest of the twenty children, married Martha Hervey and eventually took over the old homestead.

Four of John's children from his first marriage also moved to Oregon, although how many of them made the 1852 trip is unknown. Those who settled in Oregon were Mary and her husband John Brown and ten children; Isabella and her husband John Windle and their eight children; Malinda and her husband Absalom Cooper and their six children; and John Jr. and his wife Adeline Ingram and their three children. Hannah's three sons – Thomas, Daniel, and Enoch Anderson – also settled in Douglas County. Daniel married Mary Fitzhugh, and had nine children. Thomas and Enoch remained bachelors.

On December 17, 1871, almost 20 years after their move to Oregon, John died at their homestead on Roberts Creek. He was 80-years-old and had lived to see the area transformed. By this time there were 3,000 settlers living in Douglas County. Roseburg had grown to a town of five churches, twelve saloons, three hotels, seven fraternal lodges, two grist mills, stables, harness shops, dry good stores, and a brewery.

At the time of his death, the Dodsons owned about 700 acres of good land consisting of their original Oregon Donation Land Claim, 160 acres John had claimed as a War of 1812 veteran, and 120 acres they had purchased in 1864. In his will John left the estate to Hannah and $50-$100 to each of the children.

Hannah lived for another nine years. She died intestate October 25, 1880 in Roseburg at the age of 72. Her oldest son, Thomas, administered the estate. The proceeds from the sale of her 160 acres and assorted livestock were divided among her nine remaining children.

Both Hannah and John were buried in the Gillmore Cemetery in Roseburg.

A special thanks to Marjorie Pace of Portland, Oregon for providing many of the materials for this story.

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