Oregon Pioneer Biographies - Lutilda Rice Huff

Oregon Pioneer Biographies


Lutilda Rice HUFF, 1812-1857

The trip west in 1852 was the defining event in the life of Lutilda Rice Huff. We can't know for sure whether she was enthusiastic, simply willing, or reluctant to move her family to the Oregon Territory, but the decision was made and the journey commenced. However, as six of her beloved children died, one after the other, she must certainly have questioned the wisdom of such an undertaking. As a result, only incomprehensible sorrow could possibly accompany her the rest of her life.

Lutilda Rice was born about 1812 in Kentucky. At this writing we have not learned the names of her parents or anything of their history. Most likely she was born to a typical American farm family caught up in the westward movement of the times. Her given name, Lutilda, is different, not common at all even in that time.

When she married Jefferson Huff in Putnam County, Indiana, Lutilda was about eighteen. He must have been a dashing young man and quite a catch. He was twenty-three years old, six feet tall, with a ruddy complexion, brown hair, and blue eyes. Atypical for his time, he was educated and a physician by occupation. One can see how Lutilda was attracted to him! From his perspective he had his pick of the young ladies in the county, and Lutilda must have stood out as exceptional amongst them. No picture or description of her has been passed down. Frequently a daughter will resemble her mother, especially later in life, so we can imagine how Lutilda may have looked by examining a picture of her daughter, Elizabeth Huff Byars, taken when she was about fifty. Elizabeth had wide, deep set eyes that even in an old black & white photograph appear light, perhaps they were blue. Though unsmiling as was common in that era of photography, she had a kind expression. Her hair was dark and straight; her features regular and well proportioned. She was a fine looking woman who was probably quite pretty as a girl.

After marriage Lutilda and Jefferson made their home in Boone County, Indiana which was just northeast of Putnam County where they were wed. Although he worked as a physician, Jefferson Huff was also a farmer. The 1840 census shows that a young man age 20-29 lived with the household. He cannot be accounted for as a member of the family, so perhaps he was an employed farmhand, necessary help as Jefferson must have been called away from home frequently to care for the sick and injured. That year, at age twenty-seven, Lutilda was a busy mother of four, the wife of the local doctor, and mistress of a productive farm household. Seven of their children were born in Boone County: Henry ca 1833, Sarah Elizabeth 1834, Philip ca 1839, Dinelia ca 1840, Ellen ca 1842, Thomas Jefferson 1844, and Gilbert H. ca 1846. Then, about 1849 the family moved, seeking richer land and opportunity in Iowa.

Jefferson purchased over a hundred and sixty acres of land in Hartford, Richland Township, Polk County, Iowa in March 1850. The family had moved to Iowa before this purchase date. When they were enumerated at their new home for the 1850 census, the latest addition to the family, Ruben M., was listed as born in Iowa in January of that year. The census taker didn't understand Lutilda's first name and spelled it 'Matilda' in the record. Times were restless, and Jefferson sold this land a year and a half later in October 1851. They were still listed in Richland Township in the 1852 Iowa State census taken in the early spring before they set off for Oregon.

Westward fever was rampant in the neighborhood, and Jefferson was determined to go to Oregon where a man could claim free land free, 320 acres for himself and another 320 acres for his wife. Lutilda was about thirty-nine years old that spring and had at least eight children ages about eighteen to two years. Their ninth child, a baby girl, was probably born to them sometime in 1852. Lutilda either started for Oregon with a nursing infant, or she was pregnant and the baby was actually born on the journey. As is typical of other pioneer stories, this little detail has been left out of the story as it was passed down.

In all the considerations for the journey, Lutilda must have felt confidence for the health of her family because her husband was a physician. We don't have a list of the items they packed, but amongst the medical supplies they probably carried were laudanum (tincture of opium), camphor, quinine, hartshorn for snakebites, citric acid, opium, and whiskey or rum. These were the typical medications of the time, as well as some patent medicines of dubious aid. Unfortunately they were inadequate for the disaster that was to come.

Using Lillian Schlissel's book, Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey (New York: Schocken Books, 1982), we can learn much about the experiences of a typical American woman crossing the plains in 1852. If the Huff family kept a diary, to our knowledge, it has not survived to the present time. We find only brief glimpses of their journey recorded in the short biographical sketch about Elizabeth Huff Byars written by the Oregon Pioneer Society and from the obituary of Thomas Jefferson Huff. They left Iowa with three wagons, four yoke of oxen per wagon, and other valuable stock, in a company of fifty-two wagons. Lutilda must certainly have appreciated the help and companionship of her daughter, Elizabeth age 17. Her son, Henry at age 18 or 19 was old enough to do a man's work and Jefferson also hired a young man named Irijah Byars to drive one of the ox teams. Compared to many other families, Lutilda was fortunate to have some children old enough to help. However, it was mainly her responsibility to plan the work and delegate the duties appropriate to each child's age and ability. Her jobs included baking, washing, cleaning, cooking, and childcare. She must have had to get up before sunrise, start a fire, boil water, and prepare a hearty breakfast of beans, bacon, bread, pancakes, and coffee. They probably had a cow to milk and she may have delegated that job to one of the older children. Then the dishes had to be washed and the wagons packed up for the day. She also collected herbs, berries, roots, and buffalo 'chips' for the cook fire as she walked beside the wagons. At noon they stopped for about an hour and ate food she would have prepared previously; crackers, bacon, beans, stewed dried fruits, and bread. She took care of mending and laundry whenever she had a chance. In the evening she would have to unpack what they would need from the wagon, cook another meal, and lay out the bedding. Unfortunately the spring of 1852 was very rainy and wet. The published diaries describe times when clothing and bedding never had a chance to dry out. This couldn't have been comfortable, and was certainly not a healthy situation.

The emigration of 1852 was a very large one, and noted for the number of deaths due to cholera. This disease hit Lutilda's family extremely hard. Six of her children died before they arrived in Oregon: Henry her firstborn and oldest son age 18 or 19; Philip about 13 years old; Dinelia probably 11 or 12; Gilbert H. about 6; Ruben M. just over 2; and the baby girl whose name we have never learned. Only Elizabeth age 17, Ellen 10, and Thomas Jefferson about 8 years old were spared. None of them would ever forget this terrible journey. We cannot imagine how Lutilda managed with all the work, the daily travel, caring for everyone who was ill, and mourning the loss of each dear child buried along the way. She was quite possibly ill herself.

The Huff family wasn't alone in their troubles. They and others in the company were often compelled to drop out while tending the sick, then later join with another group coming up behind them. Thus they leap-frogged across the plains and mountains to Oregon, never staying consistently with the same wagon train. The Huff's arrived in Oregon with only three families from the original party. We do not know who these families were. According to Elizabeth's biographical sketch, they traveled by way of The Dalles and came down the Columbia by raft.

The sad depleted family arrived in mid November near Portland, Oregon. They camped for the winter not far from the Columbia River on land that would one day become the site of the 1905 Lewis & Clark Exposition. The following spring Jefferson staked their claim in Clarke County, Washington Territory. The land he chose was at a lonely place on the North Fork of the Lewis River, near present day Woodland. Besides building a cabin and starting a new farm, Jefferson opened a store and post office, naming it Pekin. Elizabeth married Irijah Byars and they settled on their own place not too far away. Many of the duties of postmistress, store keeper, gardener, and of course homemaker, fell to Lutilda. Jefferson became involved in the political life of the community. He was elected to the first Washington Territorial legislature and therefore would have traveled to Olympia frequently for business. He participated in an early agriculture experiment to see if grapes would grow in Washington and was elected Vice President of the Agriculture Society. There is no evidence that Jefferson ever practiced medicine again after the deaths of their children.

In this region the Native Americans were not content to have their land overtaken by Americans. The relationship between the two races was tense and Jefferson joined the Army from mid October 1855 through the end of January 1856 to help protect the settlement. The biographical sketch of Elizabeth Byars tells us: "There was a mission at the Cascades and upon a 30 minute warning given by the government agent to move, the Huff family did so." Later Jefferson stated in his donation land claim papers that on 27 Mar 1856 "...he was compelled to abandon his claim temporarily in consequence of threatened danger from hostile Indians... it being some distance from help in case of danger, he considered it unsafe to return with his family who were apprehensive..." Of course Lutilda was frightened! Jefferson was often away from home. In the event of real trouble, she and two children would be no match for unfriendly Indians. We can imagine that when they returned to the area near Portland, Oregon, it was at her insistence.

Lutilda died on October 3, 1857, age 45, probably in St. Johns, Multnomah County, Oregon. The cause of her death was given as Puerperal Fever, a condition pertaining to childbirth. This would have been her tenth child that we know of. The baby did not live. Perhaps it was premature or stillborn. Her death was reported at the time by brief notices in three Oregon newspapers. The little family was again crushed by sorrow, this time loosing the main rudder of their existence. Jefferson set aside the southern half of their land in Washington for Lutilda's heirs, as this land was hers by law. The Donation Land Claim file records: "That the said Lutilda died 3 Oct 1857 leaving one married child, Elizabeth, and two minor children, Ellen and Jefferson, issue of the said Jefferson Huff and Lutilda." On 5 July 1858, Elizabeth Huff Byars named a baby girl, Mary Lutilda, in memory of her own cherished mother.

Contributed by Jackie Savage Marshall, 24 Feb 1999

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