There's no way to pass by three children's graves without asking why.

There's no way to pass by three children's graves without asking why.

At the back of the circle, in the center of Jacksonville Cemetery, stand three nearly identical marble headstones, each lamenting the death of a son or a daughter of "C.W. and L.I. Savage."

Young John died in 1859, a few days after his fourth birthday. Julia was 6 years, 7 months in 1863, and Harry, just six days past his second birthday in 1867. Above the name on each headstone is the engraved word "LITTLE," and below, a few lines of mournful poetry.

Three children, alone and side by side, no parents and no siblings to keep them company. What happened?

Their father, Charles Woodbury Savage, came west with John Fremont's expedition in 1846. When the explorers reached Sacramento, Savage left the party and, with a group of eight families, headed north to Oregon.

By December 1850, he had met Albert G. Walling, the man who in 1884 would publish the first history of Southern Oregon. Savage and Walling formed a partnership with two other men, attempting to create a new town south of Oregon City, along the Willamette River. It failed.

By then, Savage had married Walling's sister, Phebe, and the couple had welcomed their first child, 2-month-old Flora.

"My mother died when I was 4 and my brother Charlie was 2 years old," Flora told respected Oregon historian Fred Lockley, in 1936. "My father, shortly after mother's death, married Louisa Hull, and we went to Jacksonville."

Not long after that 1855 move, something went wrong between the partners.

"When Uncle Albert (Walling) came to Jacksonville to see how I was getting along," Flora said, "he took me back to Portland with him."

Savage apparently didn't object. He even allowed the adoption of his son Charlie, Flora's brother, by an unrelated couple. Savage's and his new wife's son, John, was already born, and another boy was on the way. In all, they would have seven children and three would die young.

Savage became a socially prominent member of Jacksonville Society. He was elected county delegate to the Republican State Central Committee, served as U.S. tax assessor for the Southern District of Oregon and was town marshal. He owned a bar, a grocery store and a number of hotels.

In 1868, a teenaged Flora returned to Jacksonville, Savage believing it would be good for her to do housework in his home.

"I had had very little pleasure when I was a girl," Flora said, "but I nearly had a good time when I was in Jacksonville."

In December 1869, her strict father relented and said she could go to a town dance. Filled with excited anticipation, she made her own dress.

"But the very day the dance was to be given, someone broke out with black smallpox," she said. "The dance was called off. The town quarantined, and schools and churches dismissed."

Flora returned north.

The Savage hotel was destroyed in the 1884 New Year's fire that nearly wiped out all of downtown Jacksonville. Rather than rebuild, Savage sold his lot, and that summer he moved his wife and four children to Northern California.

We know so much, and yet, our answer isn't there. How and why those three, lonely Savage children died has vanished from memory.

Cemetery questions are easy — but answers are hard.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at