by Dennis M. Larsen and Ken Keigley
The story of the Koontz family’s journey over the Oregon Trail comes to us courtesy of a member of their wagon train, one Edward Jay Allen. Just 22-years old and fresh out of college, Allen ventured west from his home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the spring of 1852. His goal was Puget Sound. Allen and the Koontz wagon train, which originated in Wapello County, Iowa, joined forces that May at the Missouri River and crossed what the maps of the day called “The Great American Desert” together. Along the way he kept a diary, which has been unknown to scholars until this spring (2010). He also wrote long letters home telling of his adventures. These letters, too, sat in obscurity for decades. For readers interested in Koontz family history, the importance of these discoveries is that they tell the story of the family migration across the continent from Council Bluffs, Iowa to the Willamette Valley of Oregon Territory. And quite a story it is. But first we must go back in time to the 1700s in Virginia. For this family has been traveling for a long while.
It started with a buffalo calf in, of all places, the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. In the early 1700s a few enterprising settlers had filtered over the Blue Ridge Mountains and set up remote homesteads in the valley. John Marlin, a peddler, wandered the valley in those early years selling his wares to the isolated settlers. On one trip he brought along with him John Salling, a weaver from Williamsburg. The two men had the misfortune of running into a roving party of Cherokees. Marlin escaped but Salling was captured and made a slave. For six years the prisoner wandered about with his captors traveling from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Mississippi River. Through good fortune he secured his freedom and returned to Williamsburg.
Here Salling met two men recently arrived from England, John Lewis and John Macky, who were intrigued with his description of the Shenandoah Valley. They convinced him to show them this new paradise. The three men headed to the valley, explored it and staked claims. In the spring of 1736 Lewis, on a visit to Williamsburg, met with Benjamin Burden, whom he invited to accompany him to his new home. Burden spent several months with his friend, exploring the country and hunting buffalo with Lewis and his sons, Samuel and Andrew. The party happened to capture a young buffalo calf, which Samuel and Andrew Lewis gave to Burden as a gift to take with him to Williamsburg.
This strange animal was then unknown in lower Virginia; the calf would, therefore, be an interesting object of curiosity at the seat of government. Burden presented the shaggy young monster to Governor Gooch. The governor was so delighted with this rare pet, and so pleased with the donor, that be promptly authorized Burden to locate 500,000 acres of land, or any less quantity, on the waters of the Shenando and James River, on the conditions that he should not interfere with any previous grants, and that within ten years he should settle at least one hundred families on the located lands. He was also given the privilege of purchasing 1,000 acres of land adjacent to every emigrant’s house, at one shilling per acre.
It was an offer Burden could not refuse. He returned immediately to England for emigrants, and the next year, 1737, brought over upwards of one hundred families to settle upon the granted lands. Most of Burden's colonists were Irish Presbyterians, who, being of Scots extraction, were often called Scotch Irish. These first emigrants were soon joined by others, some of which drifted into the valley from Pennsylvania and Maryland. These new settlers again drew others after them; and they all increased and multiplied, until eventually the valley was filled with their descendants. Among these early Shenandoah Valley families would be found the names Wood, Ruffner, Rickabaugh, and Koontz.
Martin Koontz, a descendant of these first emigrants, was born April 27,
1786 in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in the small village of Rockingham.
Born nearby in the valley, was Martin’s future wife Elizabeth Lydia
Rickabaugh (December 1, 1789). Another Rockingham birth was that of Susan
Painter (1771). Susan was the future wife of Nehemiah Wood. Also born in the
Shenandoah Valley, along the river, in the nearby village of Rileyville were
Nehemiah (1770) and Henry Wood.
The Woods were the first to marry. Nehemiah, age 23, and Susan, age 22, married in 1793. Susan died in 1800, seven years after her marriage, at age 29. Soon after Susan’s death Nehemiah, now 31 years old, married 24 year-old Eva Ruffner (m. January 18, 1801 in Kanawha, VA). Eva was also a Rileyville native (b. September 29, 1777).
These early pioneer families were a restless lot. By the early 1800s the Nehemiah, Henry, Harrison, and W. M. Wood families, the Ruffners, the Henry and David Rickabaugh families and the Martin Koontz family had moved across the future state of West Virginia and settled on new land in Racoon Township in Gallia County, Ohio. The county is near the southeast border of Ohio directly west of Charleston, West Virginia. The township is in the northwestern part of the county and contains the towns of Centerville, Adamsville, Harrisburg, and Rio Grande Village. Around 1792 Daniel Boone and others spent two years in the area hunting bears and trapping. In 1803 a cabin was built on the banks of Big Racoon Creek. The township was laid out March 24, 1805. The first election was held on the third Monday of April 1805. Here, in Racoon Township Martin Koontz and Lydia Rickabaugh married on January 4, 1807. Martin was 21 and Lydia had just turned 18.
The couple had eight children, all born in Gallia County, Ohio: Phillip (b. 1807), John (b. 1809), Riley (b. 1814), Mary (b. 18161) Elizabeth (b. 1822), Martin (b. 1825), David R. (b. 1829) and Ellen (b. 1832).
Also making the move from the Shenandoah to Ohio were the families of Henry and Nehemiah Wood. Five of the Wood children would marry Koontz children, creating a rather interesting and confusing mix. The following chart is offered in an attempt to clarify these relationships.
Martin and Lydia’s children married as follows:
It’s likely the families went west in stages. Ohio to their next known stop in Iowa was a big leap in those days. The Kitterman family has roots in Indiana. It’s possible that the combined families made an intermediate stop there as well as in Illinois. Some accounts place John Koontz, Martin’s oldest living son, in eastern Iowa as early as 1841.
The next known move west for these intermingled families was quite dramatic. Much Iowa land that included the future Wapello County had been previously closed to white settlement. A new treaty with the Sacs and Fox tribes opened the county up to settlement on May 1, 1843. In the days before the opening, some 2000 would-be settlers camped out near the county line awaiting the grand rush. U.S. troops and marshals guarded the line attempting, with some success, to keep the settlers out until the magic date. At 12:01 a.m. May 1 the land rush officially began. Among the 2000 or so who rushed in to stake claims were Joseph Kitterman, Peter Kitterman, Elias Kitterman, George Godfrey, Jonathon Davis and Nathaniel H. Gates.
Claims of 80 to 320 acres were marked by planting stakes or blazing trees. Often the boundaries were overlapping and confused. A claims committee was set up to settle these disputes and its decision was final. There was no appeal. One of the settlers who rushed into Wapello County that morning was James Woody [not to be confused with James Wood]. Martin Koontz, who came in after the initial rush, liked Woody’s claim and bought it from him paying $200 cash. A few days later Woody began to think he had sold out too cheaply and went back to the claim, built a cabin on it and moved in. Martin Koontz took Woody to the claims committee which ruled in Koontz’ favor. Woody was ordered off the property. Woody refused, and ignited the events that are known today in Iowa history as the Dahlonega War.
The Martin Koontz forces, led by Captain Jehu Moore and accompanied by 60 men, including Peter and Elias Kitterman, attacked the Woody cabin and drove Woody off in a hail of gunfire. In the process one man was killed. Woody tried to get the sheriff from a neighboring county to arrest the Koontz leaders and the sheriff dutifully rode over to the cabin where he was quickly captured, put on his horse, paraded around the neighborhood and told to be sure and make out his last will and testament if he every returned. He didn’t. Woody’s claim was dismissed when Wapello finally became a county.
In 1852 the families decided to head to the far west—over the Oregon Trail. Led by James Wood, who had previously traveled over the trail, 66-year old Martin and 62 year-old Lydia Koontz, the entire Koontz family and many of their in-laws started west on May 19, 1852 from Council Bluffs, Iowa. Edward Jay Allen and his three Pittsburgh friends joined the party there, and from Allen’s letters home to his family and his diary we now have a rather detailed account of that journey. At least three members of the wagon train died on the trip. Moses Hale died of cholera near Fort Boise, Idaho around August 15, 1852, David Koontz died near Echo, Oregon around September 10, and a child died at the Columbia River Cascades.
A brief summary of what we call the Wapello wagon train may be of interest.
This part is what we think happened, mixed in with a few things we know for certain.
Nathaniel Gates and James Wood, each married to one of Martin and Lydia Koontz’s daughters, combined their households in Wapello County, Iowa, left their families, and took off for California, most likely in 1849. The two men spent over a year mining, trading, etc. and then gave up on California and went north to Oregon. In 1851 James returned to Iowa, leaving Gates in Portland. That winter the Woods, Koontz, Gates, Kitterman, Ruffner, Watkins, and several other families made plans to move to Oregon in the spring. They probably left Wapello County the first week of April 1852. (Allen says Wood had been to Oregon previously. There is also a “J. Wood 1849” inscription on a rock face in western Wyoming along the route the 49ers took to California Other sources put Gates in both California and Oregon.)
This we know for certain.
Around May 11 the Wapello wagon train lined up with some 400 other wagons at Council Bluffs, Iowa (Then called Kanesville) and waited for a chance to cross the Missouri River on a ferry. (Ezra Meeker’s book A Busy Life of Eighty Five Years has a description of the ferry. He was there at the same time as the Wapello train and probably ferried them across the Missouri River. It is available via inter-library loan if there is not a copy in your local library.) While they were waiting in line on May 14, 1852 four young men from Pittsburgh drove up and asked to join the train. Four rifles and four single men to help with guard duty etc. were welcomed with open arms. (The ferry is basically where today’s interstate highway crosses the Missouri River between Omaha and Council Bluffs.)
The Wapello train started west on May 19, (Electing James Wood to be their Captain and guide) following what is today called the Mormon Trail. They stayed on the north side of the Platte River all the way to Fort Laramie, Wyoming. The first real adventure the train faced was a raid by the Pawnee Indians who stole several horses forcing Elizabeth Koontz’s family to walk to Oregon, instead of riding horseback as they had planned. This happened five days into their trip. From Fort Laramie they took the newly opened Childs’ Cutoff to present-day Casper, Wyoming. From Casper they took a route via what is called Rock Avenue and Prospect Hill across open desert country and intersected the Sweetwater River at Independence Rock. From Independence Rock the Wapello train followed the main Oregon Trail to South Pass and a bit west. Then they took the Sublette Cutoff, which after crossing 45 miles of waterless desert and an 8400-foot high mountain range, ended at present-day Cokeville, Wyoming. Half way through the cutoff at a place called Names Hill the train stopped for a day and several members took the opportunity to carve their names into a nearby rock face.
The party members who carved their names at Names Hill, WY on July 7, 1852:
From this point on they followed the main Oregon Trail to The Dalles, OR, staying on the south side of the Snake River through Idaho. At Three Island Crossing (Glenns Ferry, ID) Allen and seven other men decided to turn wagon beds into boats and float down the Snake River. Martin Koontz, his wife Mary Ann and their two children were added to the crew, making a total of twelve. It was a boat trip from hell and the rafters were lucky to make it to Fort Boise alive. Just before the Wapello train reached the fort Moses Hale died of cholera. When the train arrived across the river from Fort Boise, where the rafters pretty much scared out of their wits pulled out, Mary Ann Koontz and the two children were sent on with the relatives. Martin stayed behind to help Allen run a ferry and make some needed money. Two weeks later Martin left on foot to catch up with his family. Allen stayed another week and took off on horseback.
In eastern Oregon, David R. Koontz died from injuries that occurred when he was thrown from his horse. (His grave is just outside of Echo, Oregon.) David R Koontz’ grave has survived the years and may be found today just outside of Echo, Oregon. His grave marker reads in part as follows:
“Oregon-bound emigrant James S. McClung passed the grave on September 27, 1862. Like Koontz, McClung was from Wapello County. He wrote, “traveled several miles & passed the grave of Mr. David Coontz from Dahlonega Wapello County Iowa he was buried about 4 rods on the right hand side on the side of a small hill the grave was covered with poles which were quite rotten the headboard was rotted off at the ground but still lying by the grave the letters were cut with a knife & were plain & distinct near here the road crossed the river where we camped after traveling 15 ms.” Boy Scouts found the grave in 1915, built a fence around it, and erected a headboard. The city of Echo has been instrumental in the restoration of the site and in placing a permanent marker there.”
After reaching The Dalles the train broke up. The time frame suggests that the Koontz’s remained at The Dalles for a couple of weeks, perhaps allowing Martin to catch up.
Most of the Koontz family floated down the Columbia River to the Cascades (A series of rapids which they could not run.) They landed just east of present-day Stevenson, Washington, and made their way over the portage road to the foot of the falls. Allen caught up with the Koontz’s at the Cascades. One of the children in the train died here and Allen attended the funeral. But he does not tell us the name of the child.
On October 4 they boarded the steamer Multnomah at the foot of the Cascades and sailed to Portland. Below is a list of passengers who were in the wagon train who got off the Multnomah at Portland.
List of Passengers on the Multnomah
It is noted that Martin and Mary Ann Koontz are missing from the list. Someone got stuck with the job of driving the oxen the last 100 miles from The Dalles to Fort Vancouver. We think that was Martin, as Allen picked his cattle up from Martin in November. (Martin and family were living in a cabin just outside Fort Vancouver.)
Nathaniel Gates is not mentioned in Allen’s diary or in his letters. We assume (based on a published biographical sketch and his absence from the diary and letters) that he was in Portland or The Dalles waiting for his family to arrive. His wife and son, however, are mentioned several times in the diary and letters.
Edward Jay Allen stayed in the Portland area from October 4th when he arrived through November when he went north over the Cowlitz Trail to Olympia on Puget Sound. Jacob Resser settled in Corvallis (then called Marysville) and opened a tinery business. Carnahan ended up in Jacksonville and McClure in the Umpqua River valley.
Edward Jay Allen’s 1852 Oregon Trail diary supplies us with a watch list—the names of the men who guarded the grazing oxen and stock at night.
Names appearing on the watch duty list in Allen’s diary:
|Information based on the
1850 U.S. Census unless otherwise noted
(ages are adjusted for the departure from Kanesville, Iowa on May 19, 1852)
|1. Edward Jay Allen||age 22||1851 home: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania|
|2. J. William Carnahan||age 29||1851 home: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania|
|3. William T. McClure||age 28||1851 home: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania|
|4. Jacob Resser||age 30||1851 home: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania|
|5. John Barker||age 24||1850 home: Comanche, Clinton Co., Iowa|
|6. Richard Crist||age 25||1850 home: District 13, Wapello Co., Iowa|
|7. John Davis||age 36||1850 home: District 13, Wapello Co., Iowa|
|8. Martin Davis||unknown||unknown|
|9. William Day||age 28||1850 home: District 13, Wapello Co., Iowa|
|10. Absalom Dorr||unknown||unknown|
|11. William Gates||age 15||1850 home: District 13, Wapello Co., Iowa|
|12. Abe Godfrey||unknown||(Able Godfrey of Wapello Co., Iowa, listed in 1852 Iowa Census)|
|13. Moses Hale||age 31||1850 home: District 13, Wapello Co., Iowa|
|14. William Kitterman||age 27||1850 home: District 13, Wapello Co., Iowa|
|15, David Koontz||age 23||1850 home: District 13, Wapello Co., Iowa|
|16. Martin Koontz||age 26||1850 home: District 13, Wapello Co., Iowa|
|17. Martin Koontz #2||age 15||1850 home: District 13, Wapello Co., Iowa|
|18. Riley Koontz||age 37||1850 home: District 13, Wapello Co., Iowa|
|19. William Lyon||age 20||1850 home: District 13, Wapello Co., Iowa|
|20. Peter Ruffner||age 30||1850 home: District 13, Wapello Co., Iowa|
|21. Silas M. Titus||age 22||1850 home: Ohio|
|22. John W Watkins||age 26||1850 home: District 13, Wapello Co., Iowa|
|23. James Wood||age 39||1850 home: District 13, Wapello Co., Iowa|
Using the watch list as a starting point, and supplementing it with various other records, it has been possible to reconstruct several of the families that made up the Wapello train.
Known family groups that were likely part of the 1852 wagon train:
Martin Koontz through Moses Hale were all related to the Koontz or Wood families by blood and or marriage.
|Martin Koontz||age 66|
|Lydia Rickabaugh Koontz||age 62|
|Elizabeth Wood Koontz||age 38|
|Elizabeth was the widow of John Koontz. In 1850 John and Elizabeth Koontz lived in District 13, Wapello, Iowa, next door to John’s father, Martin V. Koontz. Her brother, James Wood, became legal guardian of her children after John’s death on July 29, 1850. Elizabeth’s son Martin V. Koontz, having the same middle initial as the patriarch of the Koontz family, at times gets confused with the elder Martin.|
|Martin Van Buren Koontz||age 15||(This is likely the Martin Koontz #2 who appeared on Allen’s watch list.)|
|Francis Marion Koontz||age 13||(Celebrated his 14th birthday in the Blue Mountains of Eastern Oregon.)|
|Elizabeth Matilda Koontz||age 8|
|Mary Ann Koontz||age 5|
|John Koontz||age 3|
|Riley Koontz||age 37|
|Matilda Wood Koontz||age 36|
|Francis Koontz||age 12|
|Mary J. Koontz||age 9|
|Elizabeth Koontz||age 8|
|Martha A. Koontz||age 6|
|Catherine Koontz||age 3|
|The family had two more daughters after they settled in Linn Co., OR:|
|Nancy and Isabella Koontz.|
|Nathaniel H. Gates||age 41|
|Mary Koontz Gates||age 36|
|Sarah Ella Gates||age 16|
|William Harvey Gates||age 15|
|Mary Jane “Lydia” Gates||age 14|
|James Wood||age 39|
|Elizabeth Koontz Wood||age 30|
|James became the guardian of his sister Elizabeth’s children when she was widowed. To continue the confusion, his wife was also named Elizabeth.|
|John Wood||age 11|
|Lydia Wood||age 7|
|Robert Martin Wood||age 4|
|Mary Ellen Wood||an infant|
|Three more children were born in Oregon: Rhoda and James and Marion Wood.|
|Martin Koontz||age 26|
|Mary Ann Kitterman Koontz||age 24|
|This is the Martin Koontz that floated down the Snake River.|
|Caroline Ellen Koontz||age 3|
|William Harvey Koontz||age 1|
|This family had at least eight more children in Oregon: Sarah, Lydia, Virginia F., Frank, Jerushia A., David E., Emily, and George A. Koontz.|
|David Koontz||age 23|
|E. Wood Koontz||unknown|
|Peter Ruffner||age 30|
|Ellen Koontz||age 20|
|Moses Hale||age 31|
|Nancy J. Wood Hale||age 29||Married 1844 in Gallia Co. Ohio|
|Nancy Wood Hale was the sister of David Koontz’s wife. We don’t know the first name of David’s wife, only the initial. Allen loaned his oxen and the wagon running gear to Moses and Nancy Hale near Three Island Crossing, Idaho when he floated down the Snake River. Moses died a few days later of cholera. The widow Nancy Hale continued on to Oregon. James Wood was her brother, and no doubt he and his wife Elizabeth took Nancy’s family under their care. (They were also already caring for Elizabeth Koontz’ family. In frontier days these were common occurrences both at home and on the trails west.) Moses was the son of John Hale and Sarah Barton and he was born in Gallia Co. Ohio in 1821. He is probably related to the Milton Hale family that settled in Linn Co., OR but research has not been able to confirm this.|
|Mary O. Hale||age 4|
|John R. Hale||age 2|
|Richard Crist||age 25|
|Mary A. Crist||age 19|
|Mary Crist||age 1|
|The Crists had two more children.|
|John Davis||age 36|
|Hannah Davis||age 36|
|Suphia Davis||age 19|
|Robert Davis||age 17|
|Joseph Davis||age 14|
|Pally A. Davis||age 10|
|Eliza J. Davis||age 7|
|William Davis||age 7|
|John C. Davis||age 5|
|Elizabeth Davis||age 2|
|William M. Day||age 28|
|Aexa Day||age 22|
|John W. Watkins||age 26|
|Martha Watkins||age 23|
|Mary E. Watkins||age 5|
|David M. Watkins||age 3|
|Margaret Watkins||age 1|
Comments, corroborative, and/or additional information can be sent to Dennis Larsen, co-author of the above article, at .
Koontz family records say Mary was born in 1811, but her tombstone reads 1816. Phillip Koontz died at age 10.
Authored by Dennis M. Larsen and Ken Keigley.
Contributors: Richard Koontz, Alice Platon, and others.