Bob Zybach is one of the biggest contributors to the uncovering of Letitia Carson’s story. For over one hundred years it was largely ignored by newspapers, museums, historians, and Oregon media in general. Bob Zybach, with the help of many other connections, authors, and researchers, brought Letitia Carson’s history to light and fought to bring her name into the main stage of Oregon's historical knowledge. Following a 20-year career as a successful reforestation contractor, Dr. Zybach returned to school and obtained a Ph.D. in the study of precontact Indian burning patterns and historical catastrophic wildfires of the Oregon Coast Range.
Dr. Zybach was an OTA (“older than average”) undergraduate student, rather than a graduate student, working for OSU Research Forests conducting historical research in Soap Creek Valley when he first researched Letitia’s story in detail. He also has an MAIS and a BS from OSU, each in the field of Forest Sciences. His MAIS thesis includes information on plans to restore the Carson DLC and native plants of the Soap Creek Valley, aided by field trips and consulting with Phil Hays during that time. Current efforts to restore native plants on the DLC and other locations in Soap Creek Valley have been undertaken by Bob Hansen and a number of his fellow native plant enthusiasts.
On February 25, 1990, OSU Forestry and OSU Black Student Union co-sponsored a Benton County Black History tour. Dr. Zybach worked with Jeff Boyd, then President of the OSU Graduate and Professional Students to create and lead this tour, which also included Kathryn Bogle, fellow student Angela Sondenaa, and professor Wil Gamble, the first Black faculty member at OSU. The event included one of the first public presentations of Letitia’s story at the Tampico stop and culminated with the planting of a tree on the OSU quad that commemorated the lives and achievements of Benton County’s Black pioneers
Dr. Zybach has been widely published and interviewed in the public media on the topics of forest history, fire history, reforestation, wildlife habitat, Oregon Indian history, Oregon black history, and scientific peer review methodology.
1990 Benton County Black History Tour Cover
This is the cover of the 1990 Benton County Black History Tour that Dr. Zybach put together, including information on Letitia Carson for the Tampico stop. Dr. Zybach states that the original is likely at OSU Archives.
1990 Benton County Black History tour tree planting
This photo shows Wil Gamble assisting Kathryn with help planting the commemorative tree. According to Dr. Zybach, the photo was probably taken by Jeff Boyd.
Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center
According to Dr. Zybach, they either began or ended the tour at the Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center, which is depicted in this photograph by Kathryn Bogle.
In 1991, Bob Zybach was interviewed by Kathryn Hall. She inquired about his journey to Letitia’s story, the following excerpt allows us insight into Zybach and Meranda’s methods.
Zybach: “Around 1985 I was engaged in tracing the routes of Jedediah Smith's 1828 travels in western Oregon. Assuming that he brought his horses down the western side of the Willamette River on his return to Fort Vancouver during the fall of that year, I began to research the original land surveys and maps made during the 1850s for clues as to where he may have traveled. An entry for north Benton County, titled variously as "Claim 44" or "Estate of David Carson," caught my eye. Virtually every other claim in the territory was listed by the man, woman or heirs of record. Why this particular claim had gone into a state of disputed ownership intrigued me. I sent away to the Oregon State Archives for an answer and was sent nearly $30 worth of copies regarding a series of legal actions that had taken place between 1852 and 1857! These actions revolved around David Carson's widow, a former Kentucky slave named Letitia Carson. David Carson was a white, Irish mountain man that had come with Letitia to Oregon in 1845. On the overland journey west, a daughter, Martha, was born to the couple. David subsequently played an important role in the establishment of the Barlow Trail during his family's migration to their homestead along Soap Creek, a few miles north of present-day Corvallis. At the time of his death in 1852, slavery was illegal in Oregon, and so was being black. In fact, black people were not legally allowed to reside here until the 1920s, and interracial marriages were illegal until the early 1950s! Carson's widow - Letitia - wasn't considered to be a member of his family (or even his property) by unscrupulous white neighbors that were interested in obtaining the family's land and possessions for themselves. Letitia fought for her rights through the courts and received a small measure of satisfaction after a battle that lasted nearly 5 years.”
Kathryn: “How did you find her gravesite?”
Zybach: “In 1987, I entered Oregon State University and resumed my college education. A project undertaken in one class involved researching the history of Tampico, an early ghost town established near the location of "Claim 44" in 1857, and vacated in 1860. During the course of the study my research partner, Janet Meranda, came across an article printed in 1981 regarding Letitia Carson's life in Douglas County during the 1870s and 1880s. A footnote to the article describes how a government forester had discovered her gravesite in a pioneer cemetery near the town of Myrtle Creek. The footnote also listed the legal description for the site. Last summer, Jan and I took a trip to Douglas County in order to find Letitia's grave. The family that now owns the land was extremely helpful in directing us to the grave's location, as well as encouraging us to take whatever steps are necessary to see that the cemetery is properly recognized and cared for.”
For the past 25 years, Zybach has conducted forest science and public education research as president of his family business, NW Maps Co. From 1996 to the present he has served as program manager for ORWW.org, a 501c(3) educational website focused on the scientific management of Oregon’s natural and cultural resources.
In 2010, Zybach was elected to the Board of Environmental Sciences Independent Peer Review Institute (ESIPRI), where he co-authored a comprehensive peer-reviewed guideline for transparent public peer reviews of federal environmental science regulations. He has written and lectured extensively on reforestation planning, wildfire history and economics, Oregon history, and the state's cultural and resource management. His most popularly cited book is titled, The Great Fires: Indian Burning and Catastrophic Forest Fire Patterns of the Oregon Coast Range, 1491-1951.
In 2014, Dr. Zybach's website, Oregon Websites & Watersheds Project, Inc., launched an educational website about Letitia (still incomplete), featuring Jan and John’s scans and transcriptions of the historical Carson legal documents uncovered in 1989. This website became the basis for a Master’s degree by Stephanie Vallance during the pandemic, and a formal 4th-grade curriculum developed by Portland teacher, Sarah MacPherson: http://www.orww.org/History/Letitia_Carson/
In the realm of this project, Dr. Zybach serves as the primary historian, resource, and expert on Letitia Carson’s life, legacy, and history. Since 1989, he has been working with writer and genealogist Janet Meranda to develop a comprehensive history of Letitia Carson. Bob and Janet have been working for the last 30 years researching and compiling information on Letitia, her children, lawsuits, and her incredibly important role as a Black Pioneer in Oregon history. This research has culminated in many successes including Jane Kirkpatrick’s novel A Light in the Wilderness, and Jan Meranda’s book, Freedom’s Light: The Letitia Carson Story Begins. Additionally, Dr. Zybach has published several articles and genealogical society publications which detail Letitia Carson’s extensive history. A full list of his editorials that pertain to the Letitia Carson Legacy Project is listed below and more of these sources are linked on our resources page.
Bob Zybach Bibliography
Zybach, Bob 2016. "Strangely Absent from History: Carson vs. Smith, 1852 - 1857," Oregon State Bar Bulletin, Vol. 77, No. 1: 24-28. [PDF_2_MB]
Zybach, Bob 2015. "The Search For Letitia Carson in Douglas County, Oregon: Part II. Letitia Carson and the Homestead Act, 1862-1869," The Umpqua Trapper, Douglas County Historical Society, Vol. 51, No. 1: 3-23. [PDF_12_MB]
Zybach, Bob and Don Ivy 2013. Coquelle Trails: Early Historical Roads and Trails of Ancestral Coquille Indian Lands, 1826 - 1875 (2 vol.). Coquille Indian Tribe, Inc., North Bend, Oregon and Oregon Websites and Watersheds Project, Inc., Philomath, Oregon: 202 pp. [Vol. I: PDF_10_MB; Vol. II: PDF_8_MB]
Zybach, Bob 2012. The 1855-1856 Oregon Indian War in Coos County, Oregon: Eyewitnesses and Storytellers, March 27, 1855-August 21, 1856. Coquille Indian Tribe, Inc., North Bend, Oregon and Oregon Websites and Watersheds Project, Inc., Philomath, Oregon: 259 pp. [PDF_5_MB]
Zybach, Bob and Kevin Sherer 1995. Wanda Marcks Cook. The Story of the Sulphur Springs Stock Ranch, Benton County, Oregon: 1904-1939. Soap Creek Valley History Project, Monograph #12. Oregon State University Research Forests and College of Forestry, Corvallis, Oregon: 100 pp. [PDF_4_MB]
Zybach, Bob and Angela Sondenaa 1994. Charlie Olson. Biographical Sketch and Early History of Sulphur Springs, Benton County, Oregon: 1900-1920. Soap Creek Valley History Project, Monograph #07. Oregon State University Research Forests and College of Forestry, Corvallis, Oregon: 185 pp. [PDF_4_MB]
Zybach, Bob 1990. Lorna Grabe. Family History and Story of the Soap Creek Schoolhouse Foundation, Benton County, Oregon. Soap Creek Valley History Project, Monograph #01, 2nd Printing. Oregon State University Research Forests and College of Forestry, Corvallis, Oregon: 67 pp. w/appendix and index. [PDF_1_MB]