Almost lost to history

Presenter Mariah Rocker from the Oregon Black Pioneers (OBP). 

The story of Black Americans is one full of triumph and tragedy, though through learning about those stories we can more strongly grasp what life is like for all people, regardless of status. 

In an effort to do just that, Mariah Rocker from Oregon Black Pioneers (OBP) gave a presentation at the Chemeketa Community College’s Woodburn Center on March 21, highlighting the trailblazing yet complicated life of Oregon’s first black, female homesteader, Letitia Carson. 

Rocker, the Public Programs and Exhibits manager, was dressed in garb of the time, and gave the presentation before a mixture of students, school staff and those interested in hearing about history, as a part of the Letitia Carson Legacy project and to honor Women’s History month.

Rocker gave an in-depth review of Letitia’s life, noting multiple interesting facts about her life such as traveling the Oregon Trail while pregnant, managing and improving hundreds of acres of land in the Polk County area and winning two legal cases in racially exclusive Oregon over a decade before slavery was abolished.

The Letitia Carson Legacy project was created in an effort to help highlight the stories of people of color, whose tales are often lost to time.

Little is known of Letitia’s early life due to a lack of records, however, based on best estimates and reviews of documentation of the time, her birth was between 1814 and 1818. 

Her trail can be found in Missouri where she lived with David Carson, an Irish-born immigrant who fathered both of Letitia’s children, however, also likely met her through purchasing her due to her position as a slave at the time. 

After David’s death in September 1852, Letitia retained the last name of Carson, and later claimed to have been a free person as well as his domestic servant, according to Rocker, adding more complexity their relationship.

David was born in 1800 and emigrated to the U.S. in the 1820s, receiving his citizenship by 1844.

In Oregon at the time, settlers in the Willamette Valley created a provisional government so as to establish a guideline for those claiming land in the state. 

The conditions for land claims in the area revolved around being a white male , maintaining a residence as well as cultivating the land or having plans for at least four years. 

Unmarried men received 320 acres of free land while married men received double that at 640 acres. 

In May 1845, David began his journey from Missouri along the Oregon Trail with thousands of others. 

David kept an inventory of cargo and passengers, traveling with one wagon, one cow, eight oxen, two horses, four guns, 600 pounds of bacon, 600 pounds of flour, and three men. 

Despite keeping such a thorough inventory, he made no mention of Letitia traveling with them, nor the fact that she carried their first child, Martha Carson, throughout the trek. 

Martha was born along the trek at the north fork of the Platte River in what is Nebraska today. 

Interestingly, despite little record of Letitia making the journey, she would have been amongst the 3% of Oregon Trail travelers that were Black, which is around 15,000 people who made the trip west.

The group arrived in Oregon in the fall of 1845 where they made their way to the southern end of the Willamette Valley and made a claim for 640 acres of land in the Soap Creek Valley. 

While there, they built a homestead near Soap Creek in 1846 where they raised cattle, swine, planted crops like potatoes, created an orchard as well as selling produce and other products to travelers on the Applegate Trail, another arterial thoroughfare near their claim. 

They tended their plot for the next several years, adding another to their family, Andrew Carson, born Adam. 

In 1849, Oregon passed another Black exclusionary law which invalidated David and Letitia’s marriage as their union was not legally recognized, which halved David’s land claim to 320 acres.

A motive for this reduction becomes clearer when understanding that a true law banning interracial marriage wasn’t created until the 1860s, and wasn’t rescinded until 1951. 

The 1850 donation land Claim Act, being a program that benefited only a certain race, disallowed Black people from laying claims to land similar to white people.

The year 1850 also brought the first census count in Oregon where Letitia, David and their children were recorded as residents. 

This is also one of the only written records of Letitia’s existence. 

Two years later in 1852, David passed suddenly without leaving a will that named an heir to his estate. Due to this, the county chose Letitia’s neighbor, Greenbury Smith, to manage the land. 

Smith began taking an inventory of the property in order to sell it off to both pay for David’s debts as well as making more money for himself and David’s beneficiaries, primarily his living relatives in North Carolina not Letitia nor her children. 

A public auction was held in January of 1853 of the Carson estate where Letitia spent around $105 in order to buy back what she could. 

Documentation from the auction revealed Letitia was able to win back a wash tub, a pot and skillet, a lid, six plates, a bed and bedding as well two cows and a calf. 

Everything else was sold off to the highest bidder. 

Not one to take a loss lightly, Letitia brought her fight to the Oregon Territory court system in order to seek damages based on the losses she incurred from having a farm she raised taken away from her. 

Letitia was represented by Corvallis lawyer Andrew Thayer who issued a letter to Smith about Letitia’s intent to sue. 

In the letter, Letitia provided her reasoning for suing as the land that had been taken was in fact promised to her by David Carson. 

In June 1844 while on the Oregon Trail, Letitia stated that David made a verbal promise to leave their entire estate to her should she live and work with David for the entirety of his life. 

In her claim, Letitia sought around $11,200 in damages which would be around $445,596.31 today, according to the CPI inflation calculator

Smith made a counterclaim that Letitia’s claim was frivolous, with court records of the time recalling a contentious battle between the two parties. He partnered this defense with the notion that as a former slave, Letitia had no real right to make her claims. 

Her case appeared in the Benton County probate court in October of 1854, nearly 11 years before the official abolishing of chattel slavery in the U.S. 

Though despite her being a free woman, the case appeared to be primarily balanced on whether or not she was a legal citizen. 

Testimonies were sought from those who journeyed with David and Letitia on the trail to Oregon and while no court records of their testimonies remain, an all-white jury was split with nine siding with Letitia and the other three sided with Smith. 

The trial was recalled due to the split jury and a new slate of jurors was found the following Spring. This new jury, again all white, found in favor of Letitia on May 7, 1855. 

Despite winning the case, however, Letitia was only awarded $230 as well as court fees. The sale of the cattle herd she raised was not factored into the judgment. 

The money she was awarded represented back wages she was owed for her time working on the farm. 

Letitia did not waver though and filed another lawsuit against Smith in 1855, this time specifically for the illegal sale of her cattle.

For this case, another neighbor, William Walker, was called to testify as to whether or not David owned the cattle that had been sold off. 

Walker described visiting the property a month before David passed, noting that the large herd of around 32 cattle was impressive.

He described how only seven belonged to David with the other 25 belonging to Letitia and being under her care. 

The jury found this argument compelling as in October of 1856, they awarded Letitia $1,200 in damages alongside court fees which today would be around $47,000.

Despite winning the case, Letitia was never able to recapture the initial land claim in the Soap River Valley, though in June 1863, she reappears in official records when she enters a claim for a homestead of 154 acres in Douglas County. 

When President Abraham Lincoln expanded the Donation Land Claim Act in 1862, it allowed first women and then people of color to also make land claims in the area. 

Letitia, along with three other women, became the first women homesteaders in Oregon, with Letitia also being the first Black woman in the position. 

Her claim was approved on June 19th, 1868, another important date in Black history, albeit for entirely different reasons, namely the destruction of Black-owned neighborhoods in Tulsa, Okla. 

Today there are no visible remnants of the Carson estate left as most of the original land parcel was sold off. 

Currently, part of the area is owned and used by Oregon State University (OSU) as land used for cattle grazing and haying, according to the OSU website. 

Letitia Carson’s daughter Martha Lavadour whom is often confused with Letitia herself 
A layout of the Carson claim as well as those surrounding it
Documentation of ownership for the land parcel owned by Letitia and David Carson

Contact Quinn Stoddard
[email protected] or 503-390-105

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