• Book chronicles slave ancestors

    Butte Falls native defied family to research roots
  • An inveterate historian, author and former resident of the Upper Rogue, Barbara Hegne had long heard stories of her black, slave ancestors who interbred with their white plantation masters in North Carolina, were freed and migrated across to country to farm around Butte Falls.
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  • An inveterate historian, author and former resident of the Upper Rogue, Barbara Hegne had long heard stories of her black, slave ancestors who interbred with their white plantation masters in North Carolina, were freed and migrated across to country to farm around Butte Falls.
    As she did research and consulted oral histories, area residents and aging kin slammed doors in her face, she says, and told her it's best to let sleeping dogs lie.
    But the persistent Hegne, now 78, dug up all the history and genealogy she could find, verified relationships with DNA testing and has now published "The Saga of the Mask Plantation, North Carolina — Slaves Journey to Oregon."
    It tells the colorful and tangled story of the earliest blacks in Southern Oregon, fleeing racism and lynching in the Old South, trekking by wagon train across the plains in 1853, and struggling with menial farm and domestic work to survive here, where blacks were barely considered human.
    Like "Roots" author Alex Haley, Hegne traced her kin back to "Jane," kidnapped from her tribe in Madagascar at age 13 and bought at auction in 1797 by North Carolina plantation owner Dudley Mask. Their daughter Penelope (Nellie) Mask was born in 1798, says Hegne, adding it was common that plantations were inhabited with mulatto slaves bearing strong resemblance to white masters.
    Described as a beautiful mulatto, Nellie mated with her father (also a common practice), in 1823, bearing Susannah — who married a prominent white politician in Tennessee, moved to Missouri, then, on his death, fled racial hatred in the South, trekked with her children here by wagon train and became the black matriarch of the Upper Rogue.
    "After being oppressed (in the South), and surviving the hardship of a wagon train ... (she and her sister) saw the lively town of Jacksonville," Hegne writes, "with wide-open welcome and decided to stay. Never in their somewhat sheltered lives had they seen such a sight. Here, in a place where women were scarce, and in such a great demand, regardless of color, these two young beauties were gladly accepted."
    Hegne describes Susannah with "high cheekbones, thin lips, cinnamon skin, snappy eyes and dark, lustrous hair ... petite, with natural feminine curves. These beautiful sisters would attract the attention of many, as they sashayed down the wooden boardwalks in a near-womanless town. The two ladies dressed in button-up gowns with high neck collars, adorned with lace, scarves and jewelry. Fluffy petticoats flared their gowns out from their waists. ... At their beck and call were many miners who sought the favors of these beautiful, well-kempt women."
    The family settled a mile west of Jacksonville in One Horse Town, surrounded by a few log cabins, a blacksmith shop and a trading post. "Gambling and whiskey joints" soon took over.
    Although Oregon was a free (not slave) territory, proper society did not welcome nonwhites. Susannah sent her daughter, Mary, 7, to Reverend Royal's school in Jacksonville, but he had to expel her — though he could not spot a nonwhite in the class — when one parent complained that his family would never be able to hold their heads up if it were known their child attended class with a Negro, Hegne says.
    Susannah's brother, rancher-farmer John Mathews (Mask had been changed to Mathews), had a similar life story. He led the wagon train, and many of his descendants, including his great-grandson, Charley Winkle, also ended up on the Upper Rogue. Winkle, who was a primary informant for the book, died in 1989. His descendants, says Hegne, still live in Eagle Point.
    Susannah moved her family to Little Butte Creek and a life of farming, ranching, sewing, odd jobs and raising children, some born without benefit of marriage.
    Her daughter Maranda, "a beautiful, light-skinned girl with clear, hazel eyes and long, auburn hair," married Jacksonville miner and reputed outlaw Lewis Geary in 1858. He became a partner in a flouring mill on Little Butte Creek. They had Mary Geary in 1865.
    Mary married John Smith and bore Nellie Smith in 1898. She married Sam Morehouse and they gave birth in 1937 in Butte Falls to the book's author, Barbara Morehouse, later Hegne.
    Hegne gathered data and stories for the book over three decades, and her father, she says, opposed its publication.
    About her prolific output of books and articles, Hegne notes, "I was born creative, and I love history — but no one wanted to talk to me about this one. Doors got slammed in my face. ... They didn't want to talk about dark blood in my family. They were rude, not like people today, who are more open. The madder they got, the more I wanted to research it."
    Hegne's book goes into depth about the dark details of divorces, murders and endless prejudice against her ancestors until, over time, "each woman married into a white family, so they got whiter and whiter. The dark blood breeds out. My percentage is way down. I haven't had to deal with prejudice on the Rogue."
    Hegne was executive director of the Historical Society of Eagle Point for 20 years and now lives in Sparks, Nev. She has published many books on subjects that include logging, settlers, outlaws, fitness, mining, the Chinese, railroads and vigilante hangings — all in the Northwest and Nevada.
    Her most recent book on slaves is available at Books-N-More in Shady Cove.
    John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.
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