A Woman’s History in the Siuslaw

(From left) Ray, Fay, Mother Coleman, Irene, Marie and (front) Kay Coleman Thurman are shown on the Coleman Homestead up Maple Creek.

Pioneer Mattie Coleman leads her family to the Siuslaw Valley in hopes of a better life in 1911

March 30, 2022 — For 37-year-old Mattie Coleman, a discarded newspaper describing homestead land in Oregon was enough to lure her to embark on a 2,000-mile journey from El Reno, Okla. Mattie’s husband had deserted her and their family of five children. The oldest child was 12 and the youngest still an infant. Their only possessions were a team of work horses, a wagon, shotgun, bedding and a few cooking utensils. With $10, they set out for Oregon in April 1911. 

Resourceful, determined and with a true pioneer spirit “running through her veins,” Mattie and her children camped where they could. Along the way, Mattie took on work helping farmers can fruit, clean, wash, cook and did jobs at working camps. Her family hunted for their meals – usually rabbits, quail, squirrels and doves. 

The journey was far from easy. It took three months to reach Laramie, Wyo., where they stayed for the winter. Mattie found work there, and in the spring, they continued the journey westward. Traveling through Idaho and the Cascade Range, their wagon overturned while crossing a river and were fortunate to have been saved by cowboys who carried the family to the riverbank. 

Despite their food supply dwindling, the last sack of flour was traded for feed for the wagon team. Two months later, they arrived in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. 

It is said by the end of the trip, 30 cents was all they had spent on meat for their sustenance, using most of their money for other provisions. 

Shortly after their arrival, the Colemans stopped at Wise Villa, where Mattie found work as a cook in a railroad camp on the Siuslaw. It was there she learned of an abandoned homestead on upper Maple Creek. 

The children were temporarily left with a family in Drain, Douglas County. Mattie borrowed a saddle, mounted one of her horses, and set out with her remaining 80 cents, determined to locate and lay claim to the homestead — if not that one, perhaps another one suitable for her family. 

On horseback, she rode from Drain to Scottsburg, then journeyed by boat (on credit) to Gardiner and Florence in order to find the abandoned Maple Creek homestead. She learned that, although occupied at one time, it was presently abandoned and located 12 miles from the Glenada post office, with 70 acres, 12 of which were in the valley, tillable, and had at one time been cultivated. A one-room cabin and lean-to existed on the land. She applied for a claim to the homestead with a forest ranger. 

Unsure whether she would be awarded the claim, Mattie set out north that same day from Florence towards the Heceta Beach lighthouse area in search for other homestead land she heard was available. She spent the night with the lightkeeper’s wife and the next day journeyed to Waldport, up the Alsea River, onto a forest trail to Toledo, then Corvallis, then back to Drain. In all, a 200-mile trip on horseback in the winter, alone on unforgiving trails. 

In the spring, Mattie and her children moved into the homestead on upper Maple Creek. 

Along with her children, the Colemans felled trees, built fences, planted a garden and started an orchard. They struggled with the hard work, but in their second year managed to purchase a cow. Luck was not with them however, for despite their best efforts, the cow died during a cold snap. The family raised grain the following year, and five acres were cut by Mattie and her daughter using a scythe. They added chickens and the family hoped to begin saving to pay the required homestead claim fees.

Realizing their situation was desperate and that she needed to continue working to survive the winter, Mattie gave her 10-year-old daughter Irene the family’s remaining 50 cents to enlist help. 

Irene set out for Eugene with 50 cents and a letter to a minister asking for help for the family. She managed to hitch a ride from stagecoach drivers Billy (William Hamilton), Bert (Bert Barney) and Charlie (Charlie McCann) who refused to take her 50-cent piece for the trip and instead bought her dinner once they arrived in Eugene. 

A minister gave Irene $1 then sent her to Juvenile Court for assistance. At the courthouse, Irene

described the family’s struggle on the homestead and the desperate need for money to get through the winter. She told them of her siblings Faith Fay, 13, Arthur Ray, 8, Muriel Marie, 6, and 2 year-old Kathyleen Roweena. A heartfelt newspaper article first published in Eugene led to other news articles that spread throughout the state telling of their hardship. 

Local resident Mrs. W. R. Lawson took Irene in for a time, while women’s committees established an “Irene Coleman fund” at Christmas, raising $200. In Eugene and Cottage Grove, funds were raised to purchase the family two cows, plows, a harrow, feed, chickens and a lamb.

In the fall, Mattie worked picking hops at the Seavey Farm in Springfield to earn enough money to support the family through the coming winter. She returned to her homestead in late September. Sadly, their horse died two weeks later.

On Nov. 12, 1916, while Mattie was out milking cows, a fire started in the cabin and flames quickly spread upstairs to where her youngest daughter slept. Mattie braved the stairway, nearly suffocating, in order to rescue Kay. Mother and child were able to exit safely, but the house burned to the ground and all the contents were lost.

Word of the Coleman family’s misfortune spread. Women’s committees in Florence and Eugene raised money and contributed household goods and articles to replace those lost in the fire. With kind folks in Eugene and Florence contributing lumber, neighbors built the family another house.

On May 29, 1918, Mattie was granted the land claim. With the generous help from others throughout the years of hardship, their courageous journey was a fulfillment of a dream and hope for one woman and her family. In the end, their new life in Oregon was well worth the struggle and hardship. Though lacking in monetary wealth, Mattie Coleman and her family’s lives were rich in pioneer history.

Learn more local pioneer and regional history at the Siuslaw Pioneer Museum, 278 Maple St., and www.siuslawpioneermuseum.com.

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