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A look back: Remembering Tigard's pioneer roots

Tigard's founders trekked across the Oregon Trail for months, on a journey filled with danger, death and disease.


PHOTO FROM TIGARD PUBLIC LIBRARY'S LOCAL HISTORY COLLECTION - This photograph from the late 1880s shows the community of Tigardville, looking Northeast from Bull Mountain.Next weekend, longtime Tigard resident Curtis Tigard will celebrate his 106th birthday at a special party with the Tigard Historical Association, and you’re invited.

Curtis was born in 1909 and is the grandson of the city’s founders.

The Tigard Historical Association has turned the birthday celebration into one of its annual events, complete with cake and the chance to talk about Tigard’s history.

Curtis’ grandparents were some of the earliest settlers in the Tigard area. Wilson and Mary Ann Tigard, along with several other families, settled in the area in the mid-1800s. It was a long, rugged and often dangerous journey to Oregon, which Curtis’s grandfather recounted in a series of letters he wrote to friends and family in his native Arkansas.

To celebrate Curtis’s 106th birthday, The Times presents the story of Wilson and Mary Ann, who trekked across mountains, forded rivers and eventually settled in the area that would one day become the city of Tigard.

From Washington County to Washington County

“It is in and through the mercies of almighty God that I am permitted to make an attempt to let you all know that we are all alive and enjoying the best of health at present,” Wilson wrote in a letter to his family in 1853.

In truth, when Wilson finally made it to Oregon a year earlier, he was bruised, battered and had buried more than two dozen friends along the Oregon Trail.

Wilson TigardThree years before the start of his journey, Wilson was living with his wife Mary Ann Yoes and newborn son John in West Fork, a town in Washington County, Arkansas.

Wilson’s granddaughter Grace told the Tigard Historical Association that her family decided to leave Arkansas after a nasty flood washed away all of her grandfather’s crops, opting instead for the promise of land in the Oregon Territory.

Wilson and his wife gathered their 10 oxen, a cow and a wagon, and set off for Independence, Mo. — the start of the Oregon Trail — where they joined a company of 130 men, women and children headed for better prospects in the west.

Many of them died before they reached it.

Wilson’s letters are crude, with many misspellings, but they lay out the facts of the family’s journeys and hardships.

The caravan set out on April 12, 1852. Also on the journey were Wilson’s mother, brother, two sisters and their husbands.

The journey was mostly amiable, Wilson wrote, describing the majority of their journey as “more like pleasure than trouble,” but after passing the Green River in Colorado, the troupe encountered a series of hardships.

“We had some of the worst mountain that ever wagons rolled over,” Wilson wrote.

Things didn’t get better as they neared Oregon. The Tigards’ 10 cattle soon grew weak in the treacherous conditions.

“Grass was very scarce nearly all the way down the Snake River,” Wilson wrote. “Our cattle began to give out and a great many died. My teams all died or give up except three steers and one cow.”

Many in the company were forced to leave household items on the trail in an attempt to lighten the animals’ loads.

Other families on the trail with the Tigards were just as unfortunate. One man lost all but one head of cattle, and eventually, the families decided to pool their resources.

“We left two of our wagons and every other thing that we possibly could do without, and went on in one wagon,” he wrote.

Tempers were high, and the company later split up, Wilson and others deciding to cross the Snake River, while others continued traveling downriver.

But the going was hard, and with few resources to spare, the party began to wither away.

When he grew up, Wilson Tigard's oldest son John would run a stagecoach business from Tigard into Portland.“Our provisions give out and we had like to have starved to death,” Wilson wrote. “We were over five weeks without any bread. We had to kill our own cattle for beef, poor as they were, and eat them without bread or salt.”

At one point Wilson developed a fever and nearly died.

Wilson’s letter lists 24 deaths along the trail, many of them children.

Some were stricken by disease, while others were felled by tragic accidents.

“Nelson’s crippled girl got shot by pulling or moving a gun as she went to get in the wagon,” Wilson wrote of one death. “She lived about an hour.”

Broken ribs, sickly cattle

The caravan continued on, eventually, reaching The Dalles on Oct. 12, where they were able to purchase food and supplies.

“When we got to the Dalles we could scarcely walk, we was so near starved and like almost hundreds of others had like to have killed ourselves by eating too much,” Wilson wrote.

The families decided to travel by boat to rest their feet, selling their sickly cattle for whatever they could get. Piling onto rafts, they reached Sandy by Oct. 26, and traveled the rest of the way on foot.

“When I got to Milwaukie 20 miles from Sandy I had barely enough money to buy two days rations,” Wilson wrote.

The family decided to stay in the area to earn some money and Wilson found work on a logging team, driving cattle.

A run-in with an angry ox left him with broken ribs, and Wilson was forced to quit. After a few weeks of recovery, he set out on a weeklong walk around the area to find a place to settle down and build a farm.

“According to my judgment, Oregon is a great country,” Wilson wrote. “The people clear more money on two acres of land than you can on 10.”

PHOTO FROM TIGARD PUBLIC LIBRARYS LOCAL HISTORY COLLECTION - This 1905 photo shows Wilson Tigard's son Charles F. Tigard and family standing in front of the town's post office. The town was named Tigardville by Charles, though that name was later shortened to 'Tigard.'

From East Butte to Tigard

About 10 miles from Milwaukie he discovered a small community known as East Butte. The town did not have enough residents to build even a one-room schoolhouse. Grace Tigard, Wilson’s daughter, told the Tigard Historical Association that it was a local man named George Richardson who convinced Wilson to purchase land in the area and settle down.

Wilson’s growing family would bring enough children to the area that a proper school could be constructed, Richardshon told Wilson.

Wilson had little money, and Richardson gave him two Spanish cows, which he used to purchase 320 acres of land.

The Tigards settled in East Butte on Dec. 5, 1852. The community’s first school was built on Tigard’s land, Grace said. Wilson’s son John was one of its first students, along with the brothers and sisters who were later born in the area.

Wilson and his wife had 10 children. Along with John, the Tigards had Emeline, Josephine, Fannie, Abraham Lincoln, Conrad, Hugh and Wilson’s son Charles F. Tigard — whom Charles F. Tigard Elementary School is named after. Charles grew up to open the area’s first general store, adding a post office in 1886 and renaming the blossoming town “Tigardville.” That name was eventually shortened to “Tigard” in the early 1900s.

Charles’ son, Curtis Tigard, is alive today, and will celebrate his 106th birthday on April 13.

A special birthday celebration is planned for April 11 at the John Tigard House on Southwest Canterbury Lane and 103rd Avenue.

Curtis Tigard’s Birthday bash

Who: Curtis Tigard

What: 106th birthday celebration

Where: John Tigard House, Southwest Canterbury Lane and 103rd Avenue, in Tigard

When: 1 to 3 p.m., Saturday, April 11

How much: Free


By Geoff Pursinger
Reporter
503-546-0744
email: gpursinger@commnewspapers.com
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Reporter's Note: A special thanks to the Tigard Historical Association for opening their doors to us and making this story possible.

Reporting for this story comes form Wilson's letters, which are currently housed in the manuscript collection of the University of Arkansas Library in Fayetteville, Ark., as well as documents and interviews obtained by the Tigard Historical Association and the Tigard Public Library's Local History room.

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