ORGenWeb Pioneer Biographies

Oregon Pioneer Biographies


This is the story of my husband Bill Awbrey's 2nd greatgrandfather. Kathy Awbrey.

Cornelius Joel Hills was born near Syracuse, New York, in Onodaga County on 16 Jan 1818. As a young man he learned the Cooper's trade (the making of shipping or storage barrels for the Syracuse Salt Works). His family moved from New York to Wisconsin, but having a good job that paid 50c per day for skilled labor he remained on with his work, even though the call of the west was ringing in his ears. Sometime later, he suffered a badly cut right foot. Unable to work he set out to walk to the primitive home of his parents which was near Sylvester, Wisconsin, several hundred miles distant. Doagries or (Dogerys) Saloons, were numberous along the rough and unimproved roads leading West and by keeping his foot wet with whiskey, he was able to walk with a fair degree of comfort. It appears that his heroic treatment was effective. At least he did not develop infection. This was between the years 1833 and 1855. He arrived sufficiently recovered to help his father, Joel Hills, build a house of hand-hewn timbers.

Joel's wife was Polly Fox, and there were 13 children in the family.The family table was kept supplied by hunting and fishing. It was during this time that Cornelius developed the skills and woodmanship that would prove so important in his later life. From Wisconsin, following the building of the house, he went to Michigan, and there worked with his uncle on the first railroad attempted in that part of the country. Levelling of the track bed was hand work and the rails were made of hard wood.

It was while Cornelius was working in Michigan that a man stopped over who was just returning from Oregon. His story was so fabulous that it resembled the Biblical version of the "Land of Milk and Honey!" Sections of land were unbelievably rich and could be had for the driving of the stakes that made their boundary. Cornelius' imagination was fired and he longed for the passing of winter. During that time he collected some good horses and the available rough camping gear. He haunted every place where the magic word "Oregon" could be heard and learned everything possible about the perils of crossing to this "promised land.

He was told that without a chain halter he would not be able to keep a saddle horse out of Indians hands, so he had a stout one constructed. By spring, the Oregon fever had spread and several other adventurous men were ready to join a wagon train. They started looking for an outfit to join. It needed to be someone who had some knowledge of the country, and this was solved when they found a train to be captained by Lester Hulin. He had spent considerable time in the West with John Charles Fremont, both as a scout and general helper as they mapped the far West.

It was a brisk day in Iowa with "considerable" sunshine on April 23, 1847, when the medium-sized wagon train, captained by Mr. Hulin, yoked up and headed for "St. Jo," Missouri, a distance of 250 miles. More than 20 days were consumed on that first leg of the journey.

When the wagon train reached the Willamette River and at sunset on November 3, 1847 pulled up to Eugene Skinner's log house. It was with great joy that they shouted greetings and exchanged news. After six months of hardship and many dangers they had reached the magic Willamette Valley and the land was theirs for the taking! Two days of heavy rainfall followed, but even so, the men started at once to look for possible locations for donation land claims. It was an exciting time. Cornelius Hills was in a fever to drive his first stakes. He went first to the Isaac Bristow cabin at Pleasant Hill and enjoyed having a meal while they talked over the many possibilities. He even had a homemade chair to sit on at the table and that was a real luxury! After long and careful discussion he was persuaded to stake a claim near Bristow's cabin. He later gave that one up and it was taken by Abel Layfette Bristow.

Thinking to find something more to his liking and where neighbors would not be so close (after all,he had not come west to rub elbows with other men), he and John Winters built a shaky raft and crossed the Willamette River near where the little village of Jasper now is located. When he saw the green, fertile valley with its own small but lively creek along one side, he knew his quest was ended and in a scarcely audible voice said, "I have found it! This will be my home forever." It was, all the days of his life.

In his old age, when asked if he had any complaint about his adopted land, he rubbed his chin thoughtfully and answered, "it's the greatest place in the world, and I wouldn't trade it. But," he added, stroking his beard, "what Oregon needs most of all is a hell of a big roof!"

Staking out a claim seemed an unnecessary precaution, as the Indians roamed over the valley and did not claim squatters's rights. He paced the lines out and drove stakes, which mystified the Indians. This done, he decided upon a home camp, went back to Bristow's cabin and collected his horses and other gear and felt at home for the first time in his life! Tools were scarce, but he did have a small axe. With that he roughed out a table and with hittled-out pegs managed to put a bench together, so he did not have to sit on the ground, which by that time was constantly wet from rain. With the help of Winters and some tools borrowed from Bristow, he was able to build a lean-to with a semblance of a roof.

C. J. Hills, about 1847

About that time the gold strike at Sutter's Fort unsettled his whole life! It sounded so impossibly rich that he, like most of the able-bodied men in the valley, caught "gold fever." There was only one cure and that was to go! Such riches were reported that he could hardly wait to make the simple arrangements necessary. Fortunately he had little to leave, as he took his saddle mare, Dolly, over to leave with the Bristow family. Then, with saddle and pack horse, he headed down the Indian Trail that led to California. As far as Ashland, wagons had gone over the Indian Trail, but over the Siskiyous and into the California Valley, the route was completely unimproved. Camping along the way, he made good time, for he was not alone in the race to claim everlasting riches. When he arrived on the American River, all his hopes and dreams were realized. There it was quite possible, with the aid of a kitchen spoon, to go along the gravel banks and pick up gold nuggets worth from $200 to $300 per day without even bending his back! In fact, gold was so plentiful that the men agreed that it would be necessary to find a new medium of exchange. Gold at that time was worth $14 per ounce and the price was falling due to seemingly endless amounts to be had for the picking! Prices sky-rocketed with eggs at $1 each, if and when they were available, and all foodstuffs were outrageously priced.

The winter was spent working on the American and Feather Rivers, with his "poke" getting constantly heavier. There was little opportunity to spend the nuggets or "dust," except for food. Meals,when eaten at boarding houses, were for that date incredibly expensive, so the men batched most of the time. It was a profitable winter, but since gold was so abundant, they lost interest and by spring they were concerned about getting back to Oregon. With the rapid filling up of the valley, they were aware that their claims might be "jumped." This possibility seemed more important than the amount of gold they were finding so easy to accumulate.

By going into San Francisco, they felt it would be possible to get passage on a ship headed for Portland. In that way they would be able to take home some of the desperately needed tools and other farm equipment not yet available at Oregon City.

Cornelius bought a chest of simple tools for which the merchant weighed out $300 in nuggets. Warm clothing and other purchases reduced his gold supply to roughly $7,000, which at that time was a sizable stake. He felt he had learned a lot as well as assuring money necessary to complete his homestead and make it ready for his bride.

It was exceedingly difficult to find a seaworthy ship or one which would take the passengers. Finally, he was able to find a sturdy vessel called the HACKSTAFF. The "upcoast" winds were not kind and for several days they lay becalmed, and to add to their woes the Captain "lost his reckonings." In total there were 27 men, the crew was made up of 7 hardy souls and there were 20 paying passengers. Soon they were beginning to worry about their food and water supplies for a voyage not to exceed 14 days had been prepared for and under normal conditions they would have had a safe margin. Finally, they approached the mouth of a river which proved to be the Rogue. Here the captain declared that they must go in to where it would be possible to resupply their water barrels and tanks. It was touchy business to penetrate the mouth of a river to a point where they would be able to dip up reasonable fresh water, for at that time shoals or rocks were not charted and they edged carefully into the mouth of the river over the breakers of the bar. One man stood at the bow with a loaded line, which he dropped to test the depth of the water; another swayed in the Crow's Nest to try to penetrate the silty water and find the channel. Slowly they crept along and seemed to be doing very well until the tide turned when they found to their dismay that they were stranded on a sand bar. For two anxious days they waited hoping that a higher tide might float them free, but quite the reverse was true, for with each changing tide they seemed to become more firmly embedded in the soft and yielding embrace of a clinging mother nature. Indians, who were unfriendly, began paddling toward the stranded boat in long canoes and the men were forced to keep a stern watch to keep them from attempting to board.

With food nearly gone and no water remaining this was a desperate situation. Their life boats were inadequate, but it was finally agreed that they had no choice but to abandon ship. Under cover of darkness they managed to get every man off the ship and onto the river bank, which was on the opposite shore from the hostile Indian camp. The pitifully small supply of food was divided as evenly as possible and the ship-wrecked group headed north and east in an effort to reach the Oregon-California trail that paralled the coast several score of miles inland.

Some of the men, being hungry, ate all of their food at once, so they would not have carry it on their backs. A few carried as many personal belongings as they could stagger under at the start. Their trail of wandering could be traced by the articles that they discarded, one by one. Day followed weary day as they wandered in a state of slow starvation. One small deer was killed but it lasted only a day, as the men broiled it with sticks over their camp fire. As in all such groups the less reliant thwarted the efforts of those who might have been able to hunt and get some sort of game. Cornelius said later that it was pretty difficult to kill a deer with starving men all trailing along, shouting "Wait for me."

Each day they grew less able to travel until by chance they crossed a small fresh water stream that was filled with crawfish. All cooking utensils had long since been dicarded, so the men, frenzied with hunger, turned over the rocks, caught the back-peddling crawfish and made a meal of them then and there. It was later agreed that raw crawfish were not strictly recommended, but under the circumstances they were just about the finest food any of the group had ever eaten. They stayed on at the stream until the supply was gone. During this time Cornelius decided the gold he was carrying was too heavy. He carefully dug a hole under the roots of a large oak tree and buried his nuggets and free gold in a buckskin pouch. In later years he often mentioned the gold cash but felt it would be a waste of time to try to find it. He laughingly said that same day a most amazing gold strike would be made down in that country which wauld probably start a stampede, for some squirrel in burrowing down might dig under that very oak and scatter the shining gold out where it would be seen. After 24 days they reached the trail they had been seeking, saw their first people, and had the most real food they had eaten for more than 20 days.

Cornelius' trip to the gold mines was a year of hard work, starvation plus the loss of his farm machinery, and his $7,000.00 in gold, which, when he weighed it in the balance, did not seem nearly as important as the saving of his own life.

The following year was spent in fencing the 640 acres, half of which would be his bride's upon her arrival.

After crossing back across the mountains and prairie for the second time. Cornelius was ready to marry and go back to Oregon. In April with his bride's family, two of his brothers, Elijah and Putnam, and several other families, Cornelius was ready to start back. There are many stories about the trip west, but they had many of the same experiences as other wagon trains. They separated off the Oregon Trail and took the southerly route called the Applegate Trail. There were several dangerous places, but the most dangerous was known as "Bloody Point" at an area by Tule Lake, California. The Modocs were not exactely happy to let them go through, but as the train was heavely armed, they were allowed to continue.

Crossing the Greensprings mountain range was very difficult as wagons had to be let down with ropes at times, but they finally made it. They reached a fine fertile valley, later to be known as Orchard Valley. Here the Briggs family decided they had reached the end of their long search. For the last time they outspanned their oxen and prepared to settle down and make their permanent home. The home site which they chose was near to where the small town of Canyonville is now located. Some of the other families were happy to stay but others' hurried on before all of the land in the: fabulous Willamette Valley might be taken up by home seekers, like themselves. CJ and Sophronia had 8 children. Their names were Mary, Henreitta, Jessie, Jasper, John, Phillip, Joel, and Elijah.

After a life filled with the adventures of pioneer living, Cornelius went to ride his horse out to look at some fencing. A heart attack felled him and he died as he wished "with his boots on," in the year of 1898, at the age of 80 years. Sephronia survived him by ten years and she too died at the age of 80 years. Both are buried in Mt. Vernon cemetery near Naton.

Submitted June 15, 2000, by Kathy Awbrey.

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