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Grandma John, ‘beloved pioneer woman’

It had been a long time since Mary Godfrey had seen her husband, but soon they would be together again.

Nearly two months earlier, all alone, she had left New York by ship, crossed the Isthmus of Panama on foot, mule and boat, and arrived in San Francisco in late 1859. She boarded a steamer for the two-day voyage up the California Coast to Crescent City, where Thomas would be waiting.

Thomas was an Irish immigrant who had made his way to Ohio. There he met and married Mary Morford in November 1855. When he left Ohio and how long he had been in the Southern Oregon gold fields isn’t known.

Reunited, the couple joined a pack train that was carrying mail and supplies over the mountains to Oregon miners. Because no extra horses were available, Thomas gave his to Mary and walked alongside through the melting snow.

Mary’s new home was a mining camp in today’s Josephine County, located in the foothills between Kerbyville and the yet to be discovered Oregon Caves. The population was primarily men, half of them Chinese. Only occasionally could Mary find another woman to talk to.

In December 1860, Mary and Thomas crossed eastward over the mountains and settled near Williamsburg in the Applegate Valley. They carried their 2-month-old baby girl with them in a basket.

Almost exactly a year later, Dec. 16, 1861, Thomas was crossing the Applegate River in a wagon at one of the worst times in Southern Oregon history.

Torrential rains had fallen for days. Newspapers described the flooded landscape as a huge lake with only a few islands of land poking up. Nearly every bridge in the area had washed away, including the one across the Applegate.

Thomas cautiously drove his team into the swiftly running water, lost control, and was washed away. The 30-year-old’s body was never found.

Life was hard for Mary and daughter, Eudora, but with the help of neighbors they managed to survive.

In July 1864, Mary married David John, a Williamsburg blacksmith. Born in Wales, David immigrated to America in 1859 and arrived in Southern Oregon in 1863. He settled near Williamsburg when gold mining was still flourishing. The couple would have four children.

David became postmaster for the Williamsburg area in 1880, operating the post office and a store on his homestead for 22 years. It had also been the stage station in those early days, before the miners moved on to other diggings.

By the early 1900s, David began to have a worsening heart condition and soon was suffering stomach trouble. In April 1907 he died at age 72.

Celebrated as “The First Lady of Williamsburg,” Mary was soon known as “Mother John” and, as she got older, “Grandma John.” Known by so many in Southern Oregon, she was never at a loss for company. She remained on the ranch, watching her children marry and sharing stories with friends and her many visitors.

When she was 88, she made her first trip to Crater Lake, and when she returned, she joyfully told anyone who came to visit that she had outwalked her daughters, and even her granddaughters.

She had hoped to live until she was 100; however, on Dec. 26, 1930, at age 93, her heart gave out and she died in the home where she had lived for 45 years.

Two days later, funeral services were held “for the grand old lady who watched the village grow and decay from the 1860s to the 1930s. Beloved pioneer woman.”

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including History Snoopin’, a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.