William Hatchette Vaughan

"Uncle Billy"
Emigrant of 1843

Submitted by: David Vaughan

William was born on January 17, 1822 to James and Nancy Hatchette Vaughan in Rutherford County, Tennessee. As a young man, William's main goal was to attend West Point Military Academy and become a career officer in the state militia. An older brother and a Tennessee congressman were able to secure admission to West Point for William, but his father was strongly opposed to the idea. William's aspiration was crushed, but in retrospect this was probably for the best. After all, if he had attended West Point, it is entirely likely that William would have ended up serving as a Confederate officer in the Civil War. In the end, James Vaughan's decision to forbid his son from attending West Point almost certainly led to William's decision to emigrate to Oregon only a few years later.

James and Nancy moved the family to Christian County, Missouri in 1842, where William began to hear talk of the Oregon Country. As he neared his twenty-first birthday in early 1843, William was obsessed with the idea of the vast frontier opening on the Pacific coast. Word of good land, plentiful game, and a climate free of disease was appealing, but William was also intrigued by the idea that American settlers were needed to secure the United States' claim on the area. When Missouri Senator Lewis Linn's annual efforts to pass a bill granting free land to settlers in Oregon passed the Senate that year -- it would later fail in the House of Representatives, finally being signed into law in 1850 -- the opportunity seemed too good to pass up.

Word of the Great Migration of 1843, the wagon train that opened the Oregon Trail to widespread use, spread quickly as it became apparent that hundreds of settlers had made the decision to emigrate to the Oregon Country. William made up his mind to join them in May and hurriedly left his family for "Spanish Encampment" near Independence, Missouri. None of his immediate family chose to join him, and he would never see his parents, brothers, and sisters again.

In Independence, William somehow won an offer from Peter G. Stewart to join his family on the Trail. William was to help drive the two Stewart family wagons to Oregon, spelling the Stewart boys in the driver's seat and helping to tend to the oxen. It is fortunate that William was able to secure a place with the Stewarts, as the trip to Oregon required considerable resources. The cost of outfitting for the journey prevented many people who might otherwise have sought free land in the West from undertaking it.

The company departed Independence on May 22, 1843, and William very nearly died only four days out. When the wagons arrived at the Kansas River, they found it running high and fast with the spring runoff. A crude raft was built to ferry the wagons across, and William volunteered to help herd the livestock across the river. This was a big job, since there were over a thousand head of cattle accompanying the wagon train. During the crossing, the cold water immobilized William with cramps, and after a brief struggle he slipped under. James Nesmith came to his rescue, dragging his lifeless body from the river. His fellow pioneers revived him by laying him over a wooden keg and pumping his arms while rolling him back and forth on the keg to remove the water from his lungs. The near-catastrophe did not discourage William, and he was ready to go back to work after only a day's rest.

When the Great Migration of '43 split into two companies over concerns that the families with livestock would slow the wagon train and lead to the emigrants being caught in the mountains by an early snowfall, William Vaughan and the Stewart family went with the "light column" of emigrants. As it turned out, the concerns about the cattle were misplaced,. and the "cow column" was able to keep a steady pace about half a day behind the light column. The light column's journey was an eventful one, with such highlights as a buffalo stampede and a brief meeting with Lieutenant John Fremont and his surveying party from the US Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. Along the way, Peter Stewart's wife gave birth to a daughter. In the Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon, William was one of a party of volunteers who cut down trees to clear a wagon road through the forest.

As the Barlow Road from The Dalles to Oregon City wasn't opened until 1846, William and the Stewart family came down the Columbia River from The Dalles to Fort Vancouver by canoe. From there, Indians guided them along the Willamette River to Oregon City, where they arrived in early November. William immediately went to work for the Hudson's Bay Company splitting rails for fences and preparing boards for a barn raising. This gave him the income he needed to buy some supplies and livestock before setting off to claim some land for himself. In William's own words.

"My first work after I arrived in Oregon City was clearing out Main Street from down about Pope's tinshop to the [Abernethy Creek]. The bottom was covered with brush and heavy fir trees and vine maple. There was just a few cabins at that time in Oregon City near the falls. Old man Walker, the old missionary, lived in one of them, and old man Brown lived in another one, and they kept a kind of boarding house for us workers.

"[George Abernethy] had a flouring mill and a sawmill on the island, at the falls, called Mission Hill. I helped get out the timbers for Dr. McLoughlin's sawmill, and I believe his flouring mill, too, together with a man by the name of Horn. ...I saw the water when it was first turned on the wheel of the McLoughlin flouring mill."

While in Oregon City, William heard reports that there was some prime prairie land south of Oregon City near the Molalla River. As there was not yet a road leading south out of Oregon City, William was obliged to hoist his wagon to the top of the bluff overlooking the river, the first time anyone attempted such a feat. From there, he was able to work his way south. His destination was a risky choice, as two previous emigrants had attempted to settle there the previous fall and had been driven off by the Molalla Indians, who claimed the prairie as a hunting ground. William built a sturdy cabin in anticipation of trouble with the Indians.

During his first year on the prairie, William frequently found himself in trouble with the Indians, who quite understandably did not want white settlers plowing under their favored hunting grounds. On one occasion, all 16 warriors of the Molalla tribe came after him. Family lore has it that William managed a miraculous escape, but in retrospect, it may be that the Indians had no intention of killing him. After all, to do so would break the peace between the white settlers and the Indians, and that was not something that a small tribe would do lightly.

William immediately returned to his cabin to make it clear that he had not been frightened away. While he freely admitted in later years that he was scared of the Indians, at the time he refused to show it. As a skilled hunter, farmer, horseman, and builder, William Vaughan was entirely self-sufficient, and over time this -- along with his good luck and skill in eluding his Indian pursuers during his first year on the Molalla River -- won him the respect of the Molalla tribe. Once on speaking terms with his neighbors, he showed the same honesty and integrity with the Molallas that he did with his fellow settlers, and this formed the basis for friendships with many members of the tribe. He was even able to secure permission for the two settlers who had been driven off in late 1843 to return to their claims. Over the years, the Indians came to rely on William to resolve disputes within the tribe and between the tribe and the settlers moving into their ancestral lands. Likewise, William's white neighbors trusted and respected him. Among Euro Americans and Native Americans alike, William Vaughan came to be known as "Uncle Billy" out of both respect and affection.

In 1845, James and Evaline Officer brought their seven children -- one of whom was born in Wyoming, on the Oregon Trail -- to Oregon, and the family had the dubious distinction of being among those who arrived via the infamous Meek Cutoff through central Oregon. The Officers settled on the Molalla River about 3 miles downstream from Uncle Billy's claim in February, 1846. On August 26, 1847, Uncle Billy married Susan Mary Officer at a double wedding ceremony performed by Baptist missionary Reverend Hezekiah Johnson. The other couple was John K. Dickey and Martha Ann Officer, Susan's sister.

That fall, Uncle Billy heard of a family who had been stranded along the Barlow Road when their oxen died. On their own initiative, Uncle Billy and John Dickey brought a yoke of oxen over 40 miles from their homes to the slopes of Mt. Hood. By a happy coincidence, they met Robert Caufield, the family patriarch, walking off the mountain in search of help. Caufield led them back to his family, who had by then spent a week in their marooned wagon, and the Caufield family made it safely to Oregon City.

Following the killings at the Whitman mission in November, 1847, Uncle Billy and his father-in-law, James Officer, volunteered to serve in the army being raised to fight the Cayuse War. Uncle Billy was a crack shot with the Kentucky long rifle he brought with him from the East. He served as a mounted rifleman for four months, and during his absence there was trouble on the Molalla prairie. A Molalla named Crooked Finger was angered by the increasing number of Euro-American emigrants claiming land that had been historically used by his tribe, and he led a small band of warriors in raids directed against the settlers. Most of the Molallas favored peaceful coexistence with the settlers and did not believe Crooked Finger's warnings that the tribe faced extinction. Crooked Finger was able to gather some support among tribes to the south, enough that he must have believed that he could drive off the settlers with so many of the men away in eastern Oregon. Word of the raid reached the Mollala River settlers, and with friendly Mollala Indians fighting alongside them, they ambushed the renegades at a river crossing. After pursuing the Indians to their camp, the fighting ended in a bloody massacre of women and children. Crooked Finger escaped, but was reportedly killed by settlers in early 1848 as he headed home after a drinking binge in Oregon City. The remaining Molallas were removed from their ancestral lands by treaty to the Grand Ronde Reservation in 1856.

Franklin White Vaughan, the first child of William and Susan, was born on May 6, 1849. The couple raised eleven children over the years, and their names reflect William's southern roots: some of his sons were named for southern statesmen, three of his daughters had the names of southern states as their middle names, and the two sons which were born to the Vaughans during the Civil War were named in honor of the Confederate generals. Pictured above at a family reunion on March 3, 1903, are (front row from left) William Officer Vaughan, William Hatchette "Uncle Billy" Vaughan, Susan Florida Vaughan, Susan Mary Officer Vaughan, Cora Kuehn Vaughan, John Calhoun Vaughan, (back row from left) Mary Tennessee Vaughan, Isom Crandall Vaughan, Franklin White Vaughan, Viola Evaline Vaughan, Stonewall Jackson Vaughan, Hardee Longstreet Vaughan, and (center) Nancy Virginia Vaughan.

Seven years after Uncle Billy settled his claim, Senator Lewis Linn's Donation Land Act was finally signed into law. Uncle Billy filed a claim on his land immediately upon hearing that the Donation Land Act had been passed on September 27, 1850. It took ten years for the Surveyor General's Office to survey the claims in the Molalla prairie and perfect Uncle Billy's claim, but in 1860, William H. Vaughan received legal title to the land on which he had lived for 17 years.

To make his fortune, he raised cattle. Over the years, he bought property from neighboring claims, and by the 1880s his ranch was over 1000 acres. Uncle Billy was quite wealthy, particularly given that he didn't follow the Gold Rush to California for even a few weeks, and he built a large house on his property between 1882 and '85. Most of the lumber came from a small, portable sawmill Uncle Billy set up solely to mill wood for his house, and the trees came from his own land. The house still stands today and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also distinguished as a Century Farm, a state program which recognizes farms which have been operating for more than 100 years and are still owned by descendants of the emigrants who claimed the land. The house itself and 32 acres of the original Vaughan claim were outside family ownership for 33 years, but an adjacent 108 acre tract that has been continuously owned by the family qualifies the site as a Century Farm. The old homestead is now back in family hands, and the house is gradually being restored to its former grandeur.

Uncle Billy died on February 11, 1906, at the age of 84. He was one of the oldest surviving emigrants from the pre-Territorial period, and sufficiently prominent that the Vaughans' fiftieth wedding anniversary was reported on the front page of the Sunday Oregonian in 1897. One of the pall bearers at his funeral was E. G. Caufield, the youngest son of the family Uncle Billy helped rescue back in 1847. Susan Vaughan survived her husband by five years, passing away on April 11, 1911.

Updated 11 Jul 2004. © 2004 by David Vaughan for the ORBios Project.

Return to the ORBios Project