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Diaries, letters tell of violence, heartbreak

From an account of a lethal clash between pioneers and Rogue Valley American Indians to a new wife's heartbreak over her husband's departure during World War I, diaries and letters can provide an intimate, firsthand account of historical events, said writer, artist and local history devotee Stephanie Butler.

"With letters, people often want to impart specific knowledge or information. They can be very intimate records," she said. "Diaries can be very intimate or very perfunctory. It depends on the person."

Butler will reveal stories contained in diaries and letters during a Windows in Time history talk at noon Wednesday, Dec. 9, at the Ashland library, 410 Siskiyou Blvd.

The Southern Oregon Historical Society Research Library in downtown Medford and the Hannon Library on the Ashland campus of Southern Oregon University are the final resting homes for many historic diary and letter collections.

In her presentation, Butler will talk about German immigrant Henry Klippel's firsthand account of an American Indian attack on a group of settlers near Merlin northwest of Grants Pass. A lone rider thundered into Jacksonville at midnight in the 1850s to summon help.

Within an hour, 14 mounted men were in the saddle. They rode 28 miles before daybreak, then found the charred remains of a woman and little girl. Seven American Indians were killed in a battle that followed, Butler says.

Following the lengthy Rogue River Indian Wars, local tribes were forcibly removed to reservations in northwestern Oregon.

Other diaries and letters reveal less tragic stories.

Early Jacksonville resident Cornelius Beekman sent letters while he was traveling by ship from New York to Central America after a visit with relatives back East. Travelers then journeyed by train across Panama, before catching another ship up the West Coast.

Upon his departure from New York, Beekman noted 750 passengers were crowded onto the ship — 200 more than the steamer could comfortably carry.

While Beekman journeyed in a relatively luxurious stateroom, poor passengers were crammed into steerage class. He wrote that 400 people were huddled together like hogs.

According to Beekman, one highlight of the trip included an entertaining fistfight among Irish and Dutch women, while a low point was dozens of babies all crying at once — much to the annoyance of single gentlemen such as Beekman.

Years later after Beekman had married and had children, he told of the heartbreak of losing his beloved daughter to complications from measles.

"It was common to have these infectious diseases sweeping through communities," Butler said.

Gold Hill resident Millie Hodges Walker kept diaries that told about daily life and events in the Rogue Valley, including her three-day camping trip to Ashland. She enjoyed fireworks in Lithia Park but also wrote she "got dreadfully sunburned."

Her husband, referred to simply as L.O. in her diaries, volunteered to serve in World War I. Walker's mother died at about the same time her husband shipped out.

"It's so lonely I can hardly stand it," the normally stoic Walker wrote.

While overseas, Walker's husband was hit with gas from chemical warfare as well as a shell.

Early Ashland physician Dr. Frances Swedenburg kept notes about his rounds and surgeries in 30 diaries, Butler said.

Victorian sensibilities prevailed and pregnancy and childbirth were mentioned obliquely.

"He called pregnancies 'stork cases,'" Butler said. "He would write, 'Had a difficult stork case.' This was a common way to refer to pregnancy."

For more information about her presentation, as well as upcoming monthly Windows in Time lectures, visit the Southern Oregon Historical Society's website at www.sohs.org.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.