Iowa Journal of History
Volume 27 October, 1929 No. 4
THE LEWELLING FAMILY—PIONEERS
The pioneers of Iowa were possessed of unusual courage and self reliance. There was no place among them for the weak and timid. Among the pioneers who gathered their belongings into covered wagons and traveled for hundreds of miles into an unknown land was Henderson Lewelling and family who came from Indiana to Iowa in 1837, and in the southern part of the town of Salem in Henry County a large substantial two-story stone dwelling still stands as a monument to the energy and enterprise of this man.
Henderson Lewelling, a skilled nurseryman, was soon supplying southeastern Iowa with the choicest of trees and vines. After ten busy years in Iowa, he again assumed the role of an adventurous pioneer and moved to Oregon where in his zeal as a nurseryman he helped lay the foundations for the great fruit industry of the Pacific northwest.
The Lewelling family originated in Wales and early history speaks of the members of this family as noted and powerful lords of the kingdom. They were a sturdy, independent clan who successfully resisted the progress of the Roman legions at the time of the Roman invasion, and in later days fought against the tyranny of the English kings.
At just what date the Lewelling family emigrated to America is not known, but there are traditions of the family in America for several generations prior to any recorded history of their activities. When the record of the Lewellings begins in North Carolina they were not like the chivalrous and warlike clans of Wales. Although they possessed many of the characteristics of noblemen, like William Penn, they had been converted to the peaceful ways of the Society of Friends or Quakers, and were living according to the tenets of that benevolent society. The grandfather of Henderson Lewelling was said to have been a pious, God-fearing man, well versed in Biblical literature. He named his three sons Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego. Meshack was the father of Henderson Lewelling, the Salem pioneer.
Meshack Lewelling was a practicing physician and a professional nurseryman; at the same time he also engaged in general farming. He rode on horseback to visit his patients and carried his remedies in his saddle bags as was the custom in those days. What the occupation of Meshack's ancestors was is not recorded, but it is believed that they were nurserymen for several generations. The Lewellings were located in Randolph County, North Carolina, which is in the southwestern part of the State. Many of the finest apples in the world are now being shipped to various markets from this locality, and doubtless the foundation stock of these orchards came from the Lewelling nurseries.
In 1825, Meshack Lewelling and a number of his neighbors, attracted by the glowing reports of the country in Indiana, disposed of their holdings in North Carolina and started on the long and dangerous trail over the mountains and through the Cumberland gap to the promised land of Indiana. Contrary to the general rule among the Quakers, Meshack Lewelling was a holder of slaves. When he sold the rest of his property in North Carolina, instead of selling his human chattels, he took them with him to Indiana and set them free. Another member of the family inherited two slave children in Louisiana. He went to that State, obtained possession of his human property, took them with him to Indiana, and gave them their liberty. These acts were consistent with the traditions and spirit of the Lewellings.
When Meshack Lewelling arrived in Indiana, he purchased land, started in the nursery business, and resumed the practice of medicine, which he followed to the end of his career. Henderson Lewelling was sixteen years of age when he arrived in Indiana with his family. He assisted on his father's farm and in the nursery for several years. On December 30,1830, at the age of 22, he married Miss Elizabeth Presnell, who came from North Carolina and was also a Quaker. He established a home of his own and in 1835 he and his brother John, who owned adjoining land, went into the nursery business together. Shortly after this the brothers heard glowing accounts of the Black Hawk Purchase in Iowa. Ever alert for something better, Henderson Lewelling determined to move to Iowa. This change was made in 1837 and he and his brother John secured land near the new town of Salem and opened up a nursery there. John continued the business in Indiana, while Henderson operated the Salem enterprise. The joint enterprise thus continued until 1841 when John disposed of their interests in Indiana and joined his brother at Salem. Here the business prospered. The country was rapidly being settled by the home building Quakers, and other citizens of like character who planted large orchards of apples, pears, peaches, plums, cherries, and fruit shrubs. Almost every homestead in the southern part of Henry County and the northern part of Lee County was bountifully supplied with fruit trees from the Lewelling nurseries.
The Lewellings were conscientious men, who took pride in their business, and during the ten years that Henderson Lewelling operated a nursery in Salem, he made fourteen trips to Indiana and the nurseries of the East to secure the finest fruit trees and plants then-known to the science of horticulture.
As the result of the work of the Lewellings, almost every homestead within a radius of many miles of Salem had in a few years an orchard filled with the choicest varieties of apples and other fruits. So abundant was the apple crop of this section, that the local market could not absorb the yield. Fortunately other markets were not too far away to be reached by ordinary wagon traffic. The hauling of apples became a regular business for teamsters from August to the freezing weather of winter. As soon as the summer apples began to ripen, the roads would be lined with covered wagons hauling the fruit to Ottumwa, Oskaloosa, Newton, Marshalltown, Cedar Rapids, and intermediate points. Thus the fruit grower had a good market for his product, and the teamster an opportunity to engage in a profitable business.
After the coming of Henderson and John Lewelling to Iowa, other members of the family followed. An older brother, William, settled in Salem and engaged in teaching. He was a preacher among the Quakers and a public speaker of great merit. A nephew, Jehu Lewelling, and a niece, Jane Lewelling Votaw, also came to Salem. Jehu was a Baptist minister, and Jane Votaw was a preacher for the Quakers.
The Lewellings became opponents of the institution of slavery, as were many members of the Society of Friends. The controlling body of the church was too indifferent to the demands of the anti-slavery element, and a separation in the church took place, caused by the difference of views on the attitude which the church should adopt on the slavery question. The new branch of the church was called the Anti-slavery Friends. The Lewellings were prominent leaders of this group. A branch of the new church was established in Salem, and Henderson Lewelling sat as head of the meeting.
William Lewelling, the older brother, was also a powerful advocate of the abolition of slavery. While in Indiana, engaged in lecturing on his constant theme, he was taken ill. He arose from a sick bed to fill an engagement. It is alleged that he addressed the audience with great power and energy, after which he immediately took to his bed from which he never arose. William Lewelling left a family of small children who were reared by the widow and relatives. The youngest son, Lorenzo Dow Lewelling, became one of the most illustrious members of the family. After a severe struggle for an education, and a short career in the army, he became a teacher in Whittier College at Salem. He was a reader of great ability. His powers of elocution and impersonation were unusual, and he was in great demand at all literary entertainments. His friends believed that if he had gone upon the stage he would have become a great actor; but having been reared in the Society of Friends, a career upon the stage was unthinkable.
The writer was a friend of Lorenzo Lewelling, and assisted him in many of his endeavors. Like most men of distinction, he met with many amusing incidents in his career. On one occasion we were giving an entertainment at a country church in the vicinity of Salem. The audience was large and appreciative. Lewelling was reciting a pathetic poem entitled "The Wounded Soldier" in which the attitude of the wounded during the battle was vividly portrayed. He was rendering this with wonderful skill and had produced a profound impression on the audience. When he reached the stanza which reads, "Raise me up, comrades, we have conquered I know, up, up, on my feet with my face to the foe", Lewelling unwittingly transposed a sentence, and rendered it thus, "Raise me up, comrades, we have conquered I know, up—up on my face with feet to the foe". No one saw the error quicker than he, but it was too late. The ridiculous attitude of the wounded was too much for the audience, and all the pathetic effect of the speaker was lost in a gale of laughter.
Later he was appointed superintendent of the girls' department of the State reform school. He held this position for several years, and then moved to Wichita, Kansas. During the Populist uprising in 1892, he was elected Governor of the State, and served in this capacity with great distinction. L. D. Lewelling would doubtless have had a brilliant career, but in the height of his triumphs, he died.
During the time that Henderson Lewelling engaged in the nursery business at Salem, he prospered, and acquired an adequate competence. He built the stone dwelling, already mentioned, and was a leading and influential citizen of the community. But this was not enough. He had read with deep interest accounts of the travels of Lewis and Clark in the Oregon country and of the later expeditions of John C. Fremont, and emigrants' reports of the wonders of the Willamette Valley. As early as 1845 he determined to go to Oregon. He began to dispose of his property with the thought of starting the following year, but not being able to close out his business until the season was-too far advanced, the starting was postponed until the following spring.
The writer's father, Joel C. Garretson, was a warm personal friend of Henderson Lewelling. They had worked together in the anti-slavery cause, and both had suffered the abuse heaped upon the abolitionists of that period. When Garretson learned of Lewelling's intention of going on the Oregon trip, he went to him and told him, in the way of mild reproach, that he thought that a man who had prospered as he had, and surrounded himself with so many of the comforts and luxuries of life, should be content to remain in his present situation. Lewelling replied in that plain deliberate fashion, peculiar to the Quaker, "Well, Joel, it makes no difference how much a man has around him if he is not satisfied he will go off and leave it." His face was set toward the West, and no argument or persuasion would avail. The time of starting was delayed by circumstances, but his mind was firmly fixed. It was during this period of delay that Lewelling conceived the idea of carrying living grafted fruit trees to the Willamette Valley, and the Pacific coast. The following account of the preparation for this enterprise has been related by his son, Alfred Lewelling.
"When the next spring came, he (Henderson Lewelling) had secured the cooperation of a neighbor John Fisher for the prosecution of his plans to take the fruit trees. They had procured a stout wagon and made two boxes twelve inches deep and of sufficient length and breadth, that set in the wagon box side by side they filled it full. These boxes were filled with a compost consisting principally of charcoal and earth, into which about 700 trees and shrubs, embracing most, if not all of the best varieties in cultivation in that section of the country were planted. The trees were from twenty inches to four feet high and protected from stock by light stripe of hickory bolted to posts set in staples on the wagon box. Three yoke of good cattle drew that wagon, and all other arrangements being completed we started on the 17th day of April, and traveled about fifteen miles a day through the southwestern part of Iowa and northwestern Missouri, reaching the Missouri river ten miles above St. Joseph on the 17th day of May. Our train thus far consisted of three wagons for our family and goods, one for Mr. Fisher's family, two for the Nathan Hocket family, and the nursery making seven wagons in all." Soon after crossing the Missouri River, the Salem expedition joined a train commanded by a Captain Whitcomb, and traveled with it for several days, but this organization soon dissolved, and the Lewellings joined Captain John Bonser's part of the train, and traveled with it to the Platte River, where Mr. Fisher died. His death was a severe blow to the enterprise as Mr. Fisher had agreed to assist in caring for the nursery. Mr. Lewelling now had charge of the nursery wagon, and decided to carry it through in his own way and time, as he had already been criticized by some of his friends for attempting to haul that heavy load across the plains and over the Rocky Mountains. The trees had to be watered every day if possible, and thus the maximum weight of the load remained the same throughout the entire journey.
To all who sought to persuade him to abandon his "traveling nursery" Lewelling invariably replied that as long as it did not endanger the health and life of his family he would stick to his fruit trees. The following note from Alfred Lewelling will illustrate the firm and determined character of the man who was promoting this enterprise: "The last time I recollect any one trying to discourage him about the nursery wagon was on North Platte. The Rev. Mr. White suggested that it would be better for him to leave it as the cattle were becoming weary and foot sore, and that the continued weight of that load would kill all of his cattle and prevent him from getting through. Father's answer was such an emphatic 'No' that he was allowed to follow his own course after that without much remonstrance".
After this Lewelling decided it was best for the Salem group to travel alone or nearly so rather than in large companies. Subsequent events proved the wisdom of this decision. The story of the trip across the mountains has been related by his son as follows: "Instead of standing guard at night, we put bells on the cattle and watched them evenings until they had fed and would lie down, and father would invariably hear the first tinkle of the bell in the morning. "I have no doubt that father devoted himself to the enterprise with as much watchfulness as any man that crossed the plains that year.
"After losing two oxen on the Sweetwater River, one by poison and the other by inflammation caused by sore feet, we traveled pretty much alone; and our cattle began to improve, as two of the loads, being largely provisions and feed, were becoming perceptibly lighter.
"After passing over the great back bone of the continent at Pacific Springs, we crossed the desert to Green River, thence via Hams Fork to Bear River, passing Soda Springs and crossing the lava beds or volcanic district, we passed Hot Springs and over the Portneuf Mountains to Fort Hall. Then down through the sandy sage brush plains, crossing the Snake River twice, and through the Malheur and Powder River valleys, then through the Grande Ronde valley and over the Blue Mountains to the Umatilla River.
"Here we met Dr. Marcus Whitman who piloted us over by way of Birch and Butter Creeks and Well Springs to Rock Creek.
"There we changed the fruit trees to a lighter and better running wagon, by removing the two small boxes, and left the heavy wagon, doubling the teams in such a way that enabled us to get along quite comfortably, and thus to continue our journey, reaching the Dalles about the first of October. I do not remember the exact date.
"There father joined with others and constructed two boats to bring the wagons and other goods, as well as their several families, down to the Willamette Valley.
"The boats were completed, loaded and started down the Columbia River, about the first of November. They went down as far as Wind River, where they were unloaded and used to ferry our cattle and horses across to the north side of the Columbia River, then reloaded and taken to the Upper Cascades, again the boats were unloaded and the wagons set up and hauled to the Lower Cascades. The boats having been turned adrift at the Upper Cascades went bumping and tossing down the scathing current and were captured below. (As the Salem expedition carried no row boats, it has been suggested by later writers that Indians with their canoes were employed to capture the heavy barges.)
"At the Lower Cascades the boats were reloaded and worked down the Columbia River to a point opposite Fort Vancouver, reaching there the 17th day of November, just seven months from the day of starting. Those of us who drove the cattle down the trail did not get there until the 20th of November.
"The fruit trees were taken out of the boxes when the boats were ready to start from the Dalles, and carefully wrapped in cloth to protect them in the various handlings, and from the frosty nights."
Lewelling had now reached the goal of his expedition. He had arrived in the long cherished Willamette Valley with his cargo of precious trees. The story of his journey shows with what matchless energy he persevered in his enterprise, and what infinite care he bestowed upon his trees.
He next had to find a home for his family and a permanent lodgment for his traveling nursery. He spent several days exploring the country and on the 10th of December moved his family into a cabin opposite Portland, now East Portland. From here he made another survey of the valley, and finally purchased a tract of land where some clearing had been done adjoining the town site at Milwaukee.
On February 5th, he moved his family to this place and began the making of a permanent home. The land was densely covered with heavy fir trees, but by a vigorous application of the ax and torch, a clearing was soon made sufficiently large to plant the orchard and nursery. Lewelling's ambition was now fully realized. He had brought his cargo of living trees across the plains and over the Rocky Mountains to the Willamette Valley, the first cultivated, or grafted fruit to reach the Pacific Northwest.
About half the trees he loaded at Salem, Iowa, survived the arduous transportation, and were now securely planted in the soil of Oregon. Lewelling's fame and fortune were assured. Emigrants were rapidly pouring into the Willamette Valley and around the Puget Sound, and the demand for fruit trees was unlimited. He was in a position to supply this demand with the choicest fruit trees America could furnish. He had taken the pains to transfer to Oregon the same variety of apples that had proven so popular in Iowa. There can be but little doubt that the superior quality of the apples supplied by his nurseries established the reputation of the Oregon fruits, and helped lay the foundation of the great apple industry of Oregon and Washington. A few years ago, when the writer was touring Oregon, he was shown the locality of the original Lewelling nursery, and he found growing in that vicinity the same varieties of apples he had known when a child in his father's orchard near Salem, Iowa.
Prior to his emigration to Oregon, Henderson Lewelling had watched with great interest the controversy between the United States and Great Britain over the Oregon question. It will be remembered that the boundary line between the British possessions and this country was in dispute for many years. It was greatly feared that the controversy might result in war. The Hudson Bay Company, which was a British organization, had established forts and trapping and trading stations throughout the country, and Britain claimed possession on that ground. The claim of the United States was founded in part upon the discovery of the Columbia River by Robert Gray, an American navigator, who had sailed up the stream for many miles and had taken possession of the country in the name of the United States. A very strong element in the United States claimed that 54 degrees 40 minutes was the rightful northern boundary and raised the uncompromising slogan, "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight".
Lewelling, who like his friend, Dr. Marcus Whitman, the missionary, knew the value of the region, was a strong advocate of securing as much of the Oregon country as was possible to obtain by fair and honorable means. He was not, however, one of those who raised the cry "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight". His Quaker training led him to believe there was a better way. He was greatly pleased when the final settlement secured to our country the Puget Sound, for he believed that these waters would some day be a powerful factor in the commerce of the world. Soon after he established himself in Oregon, Lewelling formed a partnership with William Meek, a man from Bonaparte, Iowa, who had crossed the plains the same year, but not in the same train. This firm not only engaged extensively in the nursery business, but organized the Milwaukee Milling Company, and operated several saw and grist mills. At the same time they carried on several other enterprises.
When Lewelling and Meek were selling trees in all parts of Oregon and Washington, John Lewelling left Salem, Iowa, in 1850, and located in California, buying property at San Lorenzo, Alameda County. Here he started in the nursery business, obtaining his foundation stock from the Henderson Lewelling nursery, at Milwaukee, Oregon. The enterprise was successful. He reared his family here, and his descendants are occupying prominent positions throughout the State to-day.
In 1853, Henderson Lewelling sold all of his interests in Oregon to his partner William Meek, and he and his son Alfred moved to California, purchased land in Alameda County, and engaged in the fruit and nursery business. Alfred named the locality Fruitvale. Soon a large population gathered in that locality, and Fruitvale became a beautiful little city adjoining Oakland.
Henderson and Alfred Lewelling sent out from this place not only thousands, but hundreds of thousands of fruit trees all over California. Again Henderson Lewelling was in no small measure responsible for the beginning of the great fruit industry of another Pacific Coast State—an industry which has brought more wealth to California than all the gold the State has produced. Henderson Lewelling built a fine residence in Fruitvale which in later years was occupied by a Governor of the State.
After these achievements, and having acquired for himself both wealth and an enviable reputation, he seemed to have reached the limitations of his work on the Pacific Coast. But he could not be content to stand still, and look back upon past achievements. He must still press forward, and be a leader among men.
About 1858, he conceived the idea of founding a colony in Central America. He had crossed the Isthmus of Panama in 1851 in his travels back and forth to the eastern States. He was much impressed by the mild climate, the cheap land, and the luxuriant growth of vegetation in that semi-tropical climate. He enlisted several others in the project, and in 1859 sold his valuable property in Fruitvale, purchased a ship and all necessary supplies, and he and his two younger sons together with his partners and their families, embarked for Honduras.
Prior to this, Lewelling had been successful in his every undertaking, but in this project he met defeat. The enterprise was a disastrous failure. He was the principal capitalist in the scheme and he lost heavily. Returning to California, he engaged in the fruit business again; but by this time he had lost his former vigor, and he never regained his former financial standing. A part of the Lewelling estate in Fruitvale was sold to a man by the name of Diamond. This tract was later donated to the city, and is now known as Diamond Park.
On February 23, 1924, a memorial meeting, sponsored by the Women's Clubs of California, was held in Diamond Park in commemoration of the great work of Luther Burbank, the plant wizard then living, and Henderson Lewelling, the nurseryman long since passed away. Appropriate speeches were made to the assembled throng, and a Sequoia or Redwood tree was planted for each of the two men and suitable tablets erected to commemorate their tinselfish work.
Prominent among the pictures hanging on the walls of the rooms of the State Historical Society of Oregon will be found the portraits of Henderson, Seth, and Alfred Lewelling, all pioneers of Iowa, who moved on to wider fields of usefulness in the undeveloped West. Other members of the family in later years followed the pioneers to the western coast. Asa Lewelling, a nephew of Henderson and a brother of L. D. Lewelling, the Governor of Kansas, was superintendent for a number of years of the boys' department of the Oregon State Reformatory. Jonathan and Jane Lewelling Votaw moved to Washington. A son, Henry L.Votaw, became postmaster of Tacoma. Another son, Moses, entered the banking business, and became a prominent citizen of the State.
How many of the original trees carried by Henderson Lewelling from Salem over the plains and mountains to Oregon still survive is difficult to ascertain. There is one tree, however, whose history has been accurately recorded and is worthy of mention here. In 1845, Lewelling planted a cherry pit which sprouted and grew. In 1846, he grafted this seedling with a Black Tartarion Scion. In 1847, he carried this tree on his seven months journey to the Willamette Valley. In the spring of 1848 this tree was planted in the soil of Oregon at Milwaukee. In 1849 the tree was sold to David Chamberlain for five dollars. Mr. Chamberlain carried the tree by canoe, down the Willamette River to the Columbia River, then down the Columbia to the mouth of the Cowlitz, thence to Cowlitz landing where Toledo now stands, thence by horseback, seventy miles to Chambers Prairie, four miles from Olympia, Washington. Here the tree was planted and it is still bearing fruit. It is an immense tree now, and three feet from the ground it measures nine feet in circumference. Its limbs have a spread of sixty feet.
George R. Haines, Curator of the Oregon State Historical Society, in speaking of this tree said: "I stood under its branches in 1853. In 1854 I ate cherries from the tree, and for many years thereafter. In 1895 it bore a crop of forty bushels of cherries. In 1920, the crop was 1200 pounds."
Moses Votaw, a great nephew of Henderson Lewelling, visited this tree in July, 1928. It was after the cherry season, but he found many dried cherries still hanging to the branches, and many dried cherries on the ground. One of the lower limbs had been removed by the saw. A measurement across the saw kerf showed that the limb had a diameter of sixteen inches. That this little cherry sprout, originating at Salem, should withstand the risks of transportation across the continent and the hazards of frequent transplanting, and still live, a towering monument to commemorate the energy and enterprise of a Salem pioneer, is to the writer a fact stranger than fiction.