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Who Was Letitia Carson?

Letitia Carson was born into slavery in Kentucky between 1814 and 1818. Nothing is known about her early life, but in 1845 Letitia was living in Missouri. In that year, Letitia left Missouri toward Oregon along with David Carson, an Irish immigrant born in 1800 who had lived previously in North Carolina. It is not known when or how David and Letitia came together, or what Letitia’s legal status was at the time of their departure. However, Letitia was pregnant with David's child when the two began their journey west.

Letitia and David departed on the Oregon Trail in May 1845 with nearly 1,000 other emigrants. During the trip, along the North Fork of the Platte River in what would become Nebraska, Letitia gave birth to their first child, Martha Jane. The family reached Oregon in the fall of 1845. In December, David made a claim for 640 acres of land –the amount entitled to married couples– in Polk County’s Soap Creek Valley (today part of Benton County).

Letitia and David built their homestead near the creek beginning in the spring of 1846. They planted crops, including potatoes, and likely established an orchard. They also raised cattle and hogs, with Letitia acting as the primary caretaker of the cattle. The couple may have sold produce, meat, and dairy products to those traveling on the nearby Applegate Trail. In 1849, Letitia gave birth to their second child, Adam.

After the passage of the federal Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, David had to recertify his 1845 land claim. Letitia and David’s union was not a recognized marriage under Oregon law. Further, Black Americans were excluded from filing land claims under the Donation Land Claim Act. It is likely because of these factors that in 1850, David’s land claim was reduced by half to 320 acres, the maximum amount entitled to single white men.

David Carson passed away unexpectedly in September 1852. Because he had not made a will, a nearby Soap Creek resident, Greenberry Smith, was named administrator of David’s estate. Smith did not recognize Letitia or her children as David’s rightful heirs, either because she was Black or because he believed her to be enslaved. In early January 1853, Smith held a public auction of David’s land and all of the family’s possessions. Letitia had to spend $104.87 to buy back what she could of her family’s own possessions, including bedding, cookware, and a few head of cattle.

Letitia and her two children relocated to Douglas County, Oregon after their Soap Creek Valley home was sold. There they lived with a white family, the Eliff’s, near Myrtle Creek. Letitia worked as a domestic servant and a midwife and likely sold dairy products from the cows she was able to recover. 

In February 1854 a Corvallis attorney named Andrew Thayer filed a lawsuit on Letitia’s behalf against Greenberry Smith as the administrator of David Carson’s estate. It is unknown how Letitia came to know Andrew Thayer. The gist of Letitia’s complaint was that if Smith did not recognize her as David Carson’s legal heir, then she must have been his employee, and was, therefore, due back wages for the seven years she had lived with David. Her suit alleged $3,750 unpaid wages and damages of $5,000, later reduced to $1,000. David Carson’s nephew Andrew, and a son from a previous relationship, David Jr., were called to testify. In May 1855, the jury of all white men ruled in Letitia’s favor, although she only was awarded $300 plus court fees.

Attorney Thayer filed a second suit against Smith in August 1855 in the amount of $2,500, this time for the unlawful sale of Letitia’s cattle. During the trial, a neighbor confirmed that it was Letitia who had owned and raised most of the cattle. In October 1856, the court sided with Letitia. Judge George Williams issued a judgment of $1,200 in Letitia’s favor, plus court fees.

Although Letitia had won her legal battles and received some compensation, she and her children would never again live on the Soap Creek Valley land they had shared with David Carson. Instead, Letitia continued to raise her family in Douglas County. On June 17, 1863, she filed a claim for 154 acres in Douglas County under the federal 1862 Homestead Act. Unlike the Donation Land Claim Act, Black Americans were eligible to file Homestead Act claims. Interestingly, Letitia filed as a “widow”, rather than as a former slave. In 1868, Letitia’s claim was certified, making her the first Black woman to successfully file a Homestead Act claim in Oregon.

Letitia would live the rest of her life on her Douglas County homestead near Myrtle Creek. A neighbor's affidavit confirmed that Letitia had built a 1.5-story log home, a smokehouse, and a granary, and had planted approx. 100 fruit trees. The same year Letitia’s homestead was certified, Martha Carson married Narcissa Lavadour, the son of a French-Canadian fur trapper and a Walla Walla woman. The couple lived together on Letitia’s property until 1886 when they relocated with their children to the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Many of Letitia’s living descendants live in this area today. Adam Carson lived in Douglas County for the rest of his life. He worked as a wagon driver in Myrtle Creek and Canyonville until his death in 1922. He is buried in the Stephens family cemetery beside Letitia, who died in 1888.

The Carson’s Soap Creek Valley lands were sold in 1857. From that time, until the federal government purchased the lands in 1941 for the Camp Adair cantonment, they mostly were used for cattle grazing and haying. In 1948 Oregon State University acquired 6,200 acres of the former Camp Adair lands from the federal government, including most of the Carson lands and what became the Dunn Forest. Today much of the Carson land remains open prairie, used for beef cattle grazing by Oregon State University College of Agriculture's beef ranch. Today the Letitia Carson Legacy Project is working to use this site as a place where Letitia Carson’s incredible story can be told, and where future generations of Black and Indigenous farmers can cultivate the land as Letitia once did.