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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
Subscribers Edition
The most in-depth, comprehensive site about the Skagit

Covers from British Columbia to Puget Sound. Counties covered: Skagit, Whatcom, Island, San Juan, Snohomish & BC. An evolving history dedicated to committing random acts of historical kindness
Noel V. Bourasaw, editor (bullet) 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284
Home of the Tarheel Stomp (bullet) Mortimer Cook slept here & named the town Bug

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The saga of the Cornelius,
Wallace and Rudene families

By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal of History & Folklore, copyright 2002
(Covered wagon Sedro-Woolley 1939)
Pioneers Nellie Canavan and Mabel Meins, who moved here with their families while Washington was still a territory, rode the Territorial Daughters covered wagon in the 1939 Sedro-Woolley Fourth of July parade. This is similar to the wagon that the Cornelius family would have taken across the Oregon Trail in 1845.

Part 1 of 2:

Funerals and plans for moving west
      Ruthinda was introduced to a new bachelor in town. He was of even temper and she was willing to see more of him. William Wallace was a gentleman who worked fast. He had to, for women were scarce in those parts and Ruthinda was a pretty little thing. She already had two sons and was a good catch. That most horrible year of 1847 ended well for Ruthinda Mounts Browning Cornelius. On Christmas Day she became Mrs. William Wallace in Clackamas county, [in what would soon be] Oregon Territory. William was thirty-six and Ruthinda was twenty-nine. It was her third marriage and, under the circumstances, it was a good match.
      —My Ruthinda , Christopher Barnes

      The Northwest history of Ruthinda Mounts Browning Cornelius Wallace and her daughter Bessie Jane Cornelius Rudene goes back more than 150 years. Together they suffered heart-wrenching hardships, disappointments and family tragedies, but bounced right back, moving their grief to the back of the wagon as they carried on their responsibilities to their frontier families and communities. Consider that the scene above happened just months after Ruthinda buried her second husband and after she heard the news that her dear friend, Narcissa Whitman, had been brutally murdered in a massacre at the Whitman mission. But her life had barely begun. In the years ahead, Ruthinda would be the first white settler woman on Whidbey island and Bessie would be the first settler woman on mainland Skagit county. They are two of the most important women in Northwest Washington history.
      This whole chain of events started back in 1842 in Iowa when a widow and a widower met when they were both grieving. Ruthinda Mounts Browning's husband died in his 20s before she could have children, which she dearly wanted. Meanwhile, Isaac C. Cornelius married Elizabeth I. McDonald on Valentine's Day, 1839, near Des Moines and lost her after she delivered a baby boy, John Absalom, on Nov. 26, 1839. She never recovered from the rigors of childbirth. Young John's first memory was walking hand-in-hand with his father up to her gravesite on a hill. Father needed a wife and the son badly needed a mother. Early in 1842, Isaac visited the Mounts family and Eli Mounts suggested that his widowed daughter, Ruthinda, could care for the boy while his father traveled on business.

This is a "place-holder story." It was originally posted back in 2002 on our original domain, and since then we have discovered many more details about the families whose stories are interwoven. We plan to completely update and extend the story by 2010. For now, we leave it in its original state. We hope that readers and descendants of the family will suggest ideas and provide copies of photos and documents that will illuminate the story when we update it.

      A life-long love story started that day, but it was between the boy and Ruthinda. She was short of stature, described as having a round face with a complexion of peaches and cream. Her radiant smile captivated the boy and he soon played cupid for the two adults. Ruthinda and Isaac married on Nov. 15, 1842, just before John's third birthday. She wanted to have a baby immediately but her wishes were put on hold as Isaac organized a wagon train to take his parents and family friends across the plains to the Northwest corner of the United States. Letters from people who had moved there appeared weekly in the local press and the U.S. Congress was fashioning what would be called the Donation Land Claim Act, under which 320-acre parcels of government land out there could be claimed. Wagon trains started traveling west in 1843, but only lately had women started emigrating with them. Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding were among the small handful of women who traveled west before 1843; they went with their husbands to establish religious missions. In 1843, nearly 800 people left in wagon trains; 1,500 in 1844 and 3,000 would travel in 1845. Many who departed had tearful farewells with family who feared that their loved ones would move so far away that they would never see them again — or even worse, that they would die on the trail. But Ruthinda, who was born in Ohio in on March 8, 1818, looked forward to a better life. She was the second eldest in a family of six children and her baby brother Eli was born in the past year after his father married again following the death of Ruthinda's mother, Sarah.
      The Absalom Cornelius family embarked on the first leg of their journey to St. Joseph, Missouri, in late April of 1845. There they joined an ox-team caravan of 50 wagons of emigrants from Iowa, Missouri and Illinois. They chose oxen in favor of horses because — even though horses were faster, oxen were both less expensive and could haul heavier loads. Isaac's wagon was furnished sparsely, carrying Isaac's tools and a bedstead and a wagon box that contained a bare minimum of items to make the trip less onerous. They heard the stories of how some families before them packed treasured furniture and bulky items that now littered the plains after they were forced to dump them to ford rivers or cross mountain passes. Ruthinda noticed that the Cornelius family was the largest of the family groups with 25 and seemed to be the nucleus of the train. The 13 surviving children of the 15 they had together accompanied Absalom and Elizabeth Cornelius, Isaac's parents. Many of the family had children with them and some of those were infants, two of whom would die on the way. Isaac was the oldest surviving son of the family, having been born in North Carolina in 1820. Absalom's relatives, the Benjamin Cornelius family, added to their numbers. Ben's son Thomas R. would eventually found the town of Cornelius, Oregon. They soon fell in with another family headed by Josiah Osborne from Illinois; the two families would be bonded by common experience over the next three years.

The Cornelius family embarks on the Oregon Trail
      The train left St. Joseph on May 24, 1845, and immediately crossed the Missouri river into Indian country. Soon afterwards the Indians made their presence felt. While the emigrants camped on the Big Blue river, a severe hail storm struck, during which Indians stampeded the livestock and killed a cow, which had 14 arrows in her when she was found; some of the horses were never recovered. Five-year-old John A. Cornelius was fascinated with all aspects of the trip and the Indians were fascinated with him. Isaac was constantly working, helping wagons ford every stream and river from the Missouri west to the Columbia, so Ruthinda's main responsibility was to keep her family fed and to try to keep an eye on John. The first specter of the possible horrors of such a voyage came into view soon after the train crossed the Green river and they saw the remains of the Sager family. Mr. and Mrs. Sager were on a train the year before and both died on the trail. Indians desecrated the father's grave and Ruthinda learned that seven children were orphaned until Dr. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman took them in at their mission near the Columbia river. By this point, Ruthinda was grateful that she was not pregnant. The wives who were in a family way suffered greatly for the rest of the trip. She learned, as all the women did, that the wagon trains were a constant test of your endurance. Women and children often walked beside the wagons for a thousand miles, and every day was monotonous, either hot or cold or wet, and everyone was dirty the whole time except for rare breaks when they were able to bathe in streams. Every night they fell into bed exhausted and sometimes in pain.
      There was no celebration on the Fourth of July because the two-month old son of George and Elizabeth Cornelius died. Soon thereafter they drove into the middle of a buffalo stampede, and then days followed when the only trail they followed was sets of ruts where hundreds of wagon wheels cut into the hard pan or rocks. They passed rusting bedsteads that earlier travelers discarded, along with furniture and keepsake chests. As the caravan progressed, they began looking for landmarks described in letters: Ft. Kearney, Platte river, Chimney Rock in Nebraska. Continuing northwest into Wyoming, they reached Fort John — now called Fort Laramie, and Casper. They were halfway now and turning west, southwest. The dust storms had subsided as they climbed in elevation. The only celebration they had on that part of the trip was when Rebecca Cornelius, Isaac's younger sister, married John Scott as they camped one night while descending the western slope of the Rockies. We learned about that and the trip in general from the notes of Nancy Osborne, who kept a diary that was published in a 1930s book, Told by the Pioneers. She recalled the wedding as one of the few truly happy moments on the trip.

The Whitman mission at Waiilatpu
      The Whitman mission at Waiilatpu Isaac and the other men had learned to corral the cattle by leading them inside the circle of wagons every night and attaching the tongue of each wagon to the hind axle tree of the wagon ahead. Meat was plentiful by now, as buffalo appeared daily. But as the train continued west through Wyoming and Idaho, they lost time due to various calamities. As with almost all the trains, some argued about taking short cuts. Benjamin Cornelius, for instance, split off with his family, taking the Meek cutoff, and they almost died. In September, as they camped near Salmon creek, a Dr. Elijah White rode by, heading east, and expressed concern that they were far behind the other trains. Soon, the Cornelius family and the Tom Summers family and some others broke off from the main group. They sent two scouts ahead to obtain provisions from the Whitman mission. They returned with word from Marcus Whitman that Indians had burned his sawmill and that he needed millwrights to rebuild it. Ruthinda was pleased because she wanted very much to meet Narcissa Whitman. She was also concerned because Isaac's strength was failing. Marcus Whitman never turned away white settlers who were either sick or destitute and Isaac's health was failing more every day.
      Their small train reached the mission at Waiilatpu [Cayuse for "place of rye grass"] late in the fall. Isaac and some of the other Cornelius family decided to stay for the winter while Absalom and the main group decided to push on for Oregon. Isaac was finally able to rest and restore his strength while Tom Summers was welcomed for his blacksmith talents. Jacob Ryearson taught the Indian school that winter and Andrew Rogers from Illinois taught the school for the settler children. John attended along with Nancy Osborne and the seven orphaned Sager children. Quarters at the mission were cramped with all these extra people and provisions were low, but the Whitmans never let on about it to the emigrants, nor did Marcus share his increasing concern about the unrest in the nearby Cayuse Indian Tribe. The American Board of Missions were concerned for some time that the mission should be closed and the Catholic missions in the area wanted to take over the Indian work, but the Whitmans were determined to carry out their goals and jealously guarded the mission from the Catholics' grasp. Meanwhile, the Cayuse tribe saw how many emigrants were settling in and became even angrier with the Whitmans since emigrants were encroaching on land the Cayuse considered theirs. Marcus Whitman decided the gamble was worth it, partly because he needed volunteer labor to build the badly needed sawmill and a grist mill.
      Ruthinda was thrilled to stay for the winter because she and Narcissa Whitman bonded immediately. One Whitman child was near John's age so they compared notes about child-rearing, and Ruthinda helped Narcissa with the Sunday school. Narcissa confided in Ruthinda about her worries concerning the Cayuse and told her that Marcus's life had been threatened once before. Later she told her about the time that Marcus had traveled and a Cayuse snuck into the house and made it into her bedroom before her Hawaiian bodyguard chased him away. Narcissa also told her about losing her child, Alice Clarissa, who accidentally drowned at age two, and her sadness at not being able to bear more children. Ruthinda remembered Narcissa's kindness and wisdom the rest of her life.

The families settle in Oregon
      Nancy Osborne recalled that the families started on the trail again for Oregon in March 1946. They had four wagons between them and they stopped long enough at The Dalles on the Columbia to whipsaw enough lumber for a flatboat to send the wagons downstream. Her father built the boat with the tools he brought along from Illinois. She described how settlers proceeded from there:
      We drove the stock along the trails and swam the cattle across the river just above the Cascade Falls. There we unloaded the boats and made a five mile portage. So far, father had steered the boat and Cornelius and Summers had done the rowing, but they did not fancy the undertaking of shooting the Cascade Falls in that unwieldy vessel so hired some Indains to take it out and turn it loose in midstream above the falls. Other Indians caught it when it came to the eddy below the rapids. Here we loaded and resumed our journey to Oregon City, which was then the headquarters of the American settlers.
      By the time that the band of settlers reached Oregon City, they resembled beggars, some without shoes or hats, and they were ready to celebrate the end of their journey by sinking down roots. Absalom Cornelius took a donation claim just east of Oregon City during the winter, so he was already working with his family to set up a farm for the 50 Durham cattle that survived the trip. The Osbornes moved down to Salem, south of Oregon City to take their own claim. Isaac Cornelius hurried to file a claim of his own and build a cabin because Ruthinda was pregnant. She was overjoyed at the prospect of a child in their new home and the future looked very promising.
      Her whole world was thrown into upheaval again, however, on Oct. 13, 1846, when Isaac Cornelius died after catching a chill one night while clearing his land. His strength had never fully recovered. Now Ruthinda was really in a pickle. She had no real home; she could not return to Iowa even if she wanted to; she was dependent on her dead husband's family; the Cornelius family was discussing the prospect of sending John to live with one of his uncles since Ruthinda had never actually adopted him — and even worse; Isaac died without a will. She immediately started an inventory of their property, which consisted of: a wagon, three ox yokes, two heifers, two cows, an ox, a sow, two axes, two beds, furniture and their land claim.
      The next year went by in a blur. She considered returning to the Whitman mission to draw strength from her friend Narcissa, but that was not practical and might bring to a head the disagreement about what to do with seven-year-old John. She was committed to keeping him. Marcus Whitman came to Salem in the fall of 1847 to purchase the Dalles mission for the Presbyterian Board of Missions. While there he contracted with Josiah Osborne to move back to the mission and take charge of construction there and presumably at The Dalles. The Osbornes did not realize that they were stepping into a hornet's nest. When they arrived at the mouth of the Walla Walla river, they discovered that a measles epidemic had swept through the Indian villages. This was a death knell not only for the Indian children but for Marcus Whitman, who was a doctor after all and had weathered Indian hospitality because he did so much to try to keep them healthy. Nancy Osborne describes in her journal how two children in her family died after they reached the mission and how an emigrant family taken in by the Whitmans had unknowingly brought the measles with them. On Nov. 29, 1847, the mission school started up again, but that day a band of Cayuse swept down onto the village, inflamed by claims that the doctor was poisoning them. The Osbornes somehow survived the ensuing massacre by hiding under the floorboards of the Whitman home. They heard the gunshots above them, the sounds of bodies being hacked to pieces and the rape of Lorinda Brawley in front of the other settlers.
      All this was reported back to Ruthinda eventually. The Oregon newspapers filled daily and weekly with reports and Ruthinda went back to grieving again, this time for her friend. The Osbornes came back to Oregon City with the miraculous story of their survival and how they were saved when a Walla Walla Indian helped them escape across the river. Now that even the mission was no longer a viable option, Ruthinda realized that she had to get back to the business of living and that she needed a husband to father her two boys.

Ruthinda marries a third time and they pull up stakes again
      While sorting out the problems left by Isaac dying without a will, Ruthinda was introduced in the fall of 1847 to William Wallace, a dashing young bachelor who emigrated from Missouri to Oregon City sometime in early 1847. Wallace was born in Vermont on June 27, 1811. His parents were both Scots with an English grandmother thrown into the mix. William's older brother Victor left for Missouri while William was still in school and did well out there, marrying a woman named Isabel Roy and opening a shop in 1835 to repair guns, along with patenting the first breech-loading pistol. William was restless tending the family store back home in Vermont and he and his younger brother Leander joined Victor in St. Louis in 1845. William and Leander emigrated to Oregon first, probably in 1846, and Victor followed in May 1847, saying that his family was forever getting sick in Missouri. On the way, they stopped at the Whitman mission and missed the massacre by only a few days. They brought with them Lorinda Brawley, who had been raped by the Indian Five Crows. They also brought first-hand news about the mission and Narcissa's fate to Ruthinda when they arrived that winter and that might be what led to her meeting William. The family story was that William worked very fast; they married on Christmas Day, 1847. Their joy did not last for long because Absalom Cornelius soon demanded that Ruthinda give up John to the Cornelius family. Although Ruthinda hoped that William would argue against them, he explained that she had no right to John and she would have to transfer her love and caring to baby Isaac. After all, one child in the house was enough for him, especially when neither boy was his. On May 15, 1848, Absalom Cornelius was bonded as John's legal guardian.
      Victor Wallace settled down quickly in Oregon City and soon had the first threshing machine in Oregon as well as the first printing press. But William vacillated, one day tending to the farm and the next day, talking about donation claims in the land north of the Columbia, which would become the separate Territory of Washington in 1853. Victor actually moved there first, settling in Cowlitz county, where he would be one of the founders of Kelso. On June 14, 1849, Ruthinda gave birth to her first baby with William, a girl they named Betsy Jane after his mother (known when an adult as Bessie). William was starting to feel the bite of the gold bug, but Ruthinda absolutely refused to move there. Then that summer, William's brother Leander was killed during a fracas with Indians at Fort Nisqually up north. Betsy still hated Indians after the Whitman massacre, so she could not understand why William wanted now even more to move them up to that desolate land, but he was committed. Regardless, she relented and sent for John, now ten, to see him one last time before they moved and for him to see his baby sister for the first time. That would be the last time they would see each other for 12 years and Isaac's brother George would soon become his guardian. As if Ruthinda had not grieved enough over the past ten years, this last time with John just added more.

The Wallace family heads overland towards Puget Sound
(Christopher Barnes's book, Bessie)
      In 1849 the only real settlement on Puget sound was a hundred miles south at the southern end of the sound at Tumwater. When William Wallace packed his young family off overland in July 1945, he was headed in that direction but would keep his options open about where they would wind up. While most emigrants were heading towards California and the gold fields that year, the Wallace family went against the grain and headed in the opposite direction. In Chris Barnes's book, My Ruthinda, she describes how the Wallaces traveled with another family, riding in Indian canoes and bateaux-style boats on Cowlitz river. In a 1932 interview that Bessie gave to the Mount Vernon Herald, she said that the family took an ox team with Ruthinda's brother James Mounts. By the time that the party reached a crude wharf that had been built at Cowlitz landing, Ruthinda and the children were exhausted. She was thrilled to find a crude hotel called the Jackson House where they could fall into an actual bed. The next morning they arrived at a little burg called Smithfield and she was shocked to see that it was really just an Indian village, without even the amenities of Oregon City. Smithfield was on a claim staked by Levi Smith in 1846 and ownership passed on to his partner, Edmund Sylvester, after Smith died and Sylvester returned from the California gold fields. The leader of Tumwater, the small community to the south, was Colonel Mike Simmons, who received his honorary title by leading a wagon train out to Oregon Territory in 1844 after selling his Kentucky mill. In July 1845, Simmons explored Puget sound as far north as Whidbey island, but decided to settle at the south end of the sound on Budd Inlet, near the mouth of the Deschutes river. The natural falls there were perfect for a grist mill and the next year, he built a hydraulically powered sawmill. Although Ruthinda hated the primitive conditions of the Smithfield area, William was soon hired because of his carpenter credentials to help build the first woodframe building, a customs house for the federal government. The border with the British territory to the north was settled in 1846 and of course the tax man was close behind. Bessie said in the 1932 interview that the family lived at Jackson's Prairie that first winter and then moved to Smithfield the next spring. Landmarks in the area were named Jackson for J.R. Jackson, who disputed Collins's claim to be the first settler in the area. Jackson Courthouse, his log cabin, was the site of the famous Monticello Convention in October 1852, which was called to present a petition for a new territory north of the Columbia.
      Over the next few months, William helped build several cabins in the area and Ruthinda was pleased that conditions improved. In the summer of 1849, Simmons sold his Tumwater mills to Clanrick Crosby, Bing's grandfather, and Edmund Sylvester offered him free lots and land if he would move two miles north to help build the new town of Olympia. William could have easily stayed there, too, but his original plan to take a donation claim was back in the lead now that he had met Colonel Isaac Ebey, who was in town in the summer of 1850 for provisions on his way back to Whidbey island, where he was to be the U.S. Collector of Customs for Puget sound district. Ebey stayed around long enough to file his own donation claim on Oct. 15, 1850, and to suggest to Sylvester that Olympia was a better name than Smithfield. Ebey returned to Whidbey and the young Wallace family soon followed because Ruthinda decided that a fresh start on that island would be preferable to the muddy town on the inlet. As she stepped into the scow that would be their vehicle, she had no idea that she would be the first settler woman on Whidbey island, that she would give birth to the first settler child there, and that her daughter Bessie would be the first white settler woman in future Skagit county. Nor did she know that her beloved stepson John would come back into her life in a very big way.

The first white settler family of Whidbey island
(John Cornelius survey crew circa 1872)
John Cornelius survey crew circa 1872, Cornelius in the center. Photo courtesy of the 1906 Illustrated History of Skagit and Snohomish Counties

      William and Ruthinda Wallace took their children, Isaac — then four, and Betsy — then just over one, north from Olympia in 1851 on a slow route. Their destination was Whidbey island, but they made a stop or two along the way. The first recorded stop was at what would be known soon as Alki point, on the west side of the peninsula that is now West Seattle. Chief Sealth welcomed them to his campground there, and he showed them land on Elliott Bay that was on a series of seven hills. Bessie recalled many years later that her father politely refused the offer:
      I have often heard my parents tell of their visit at the Indian village . . . how kind and hospitable the chief was, generously offering all the land they would accept if they would only stay; but they were still under the spell of Col. Ebey's enthusiasm and proceeded on their way.
      They continued in a scow and canoes through the maze of islands in the San Juan archipelago until they reached Whidbey island in the summer of 1851. Capt. George Vancouver originally named the island for his sailing master, Joseph Whidbey, when they explored the sound for the British in 1792. But Joseph Wilkes, a U.S. Navy captain who drew maps during a West Coast expedition in 1841, spelled the name, Whidby, and Ebey and some newspapers adopted that spelling. At the time, that island and others in the chain were being advertised as far away as London as the "land of dreams." for the good soil, excellent stands of timber and open plains ready for farming. Vancouver named Deception pass by mistake because he thought that the narrow passageway at the north end of the island was a cul-de-sac. Whidbey discovered that the land was actually an island and he and his men landed in a cove that would later be named for Granville Penn, who witnessed Vancouver's last will and testament back in his native city of King's Lynn, north of London.

Settlement of Whidbey island
(John Cornelius survey crew circa 1872)
Penn Cove Indian camp. Photo courtesy of a great website about Whidbey history:

      The Donation Land Claim Act, passed by the U.S. Congress on Sept. 29, 1850, accelerated settlement of the islands and William staked one 320-acre claim in his name and another in Ruthinda's name. That act was one more step by the U.S. government to encourage brave people to settle in the territories that had been added since Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The Preemption Act of 1841 allowed people to purchase 160 acres of land in American territories for $1.25 a acre, as would the later Homestead Act. But the Donation Act went even further and granted a half section, or 320 acres, to any male citizen who was 18 or older if he arrived in the territory before Dec. 1, 1850. This Act also marked the first time that the government recognized the unique contributions that women could make, but not as individuals — only if they were married. If the settler married before Dec. 1, 1851, his wife could claim another half section in her own name. The act also authorized people who settled after the 1850 deadline to acquire 160 acres until 1854 and they were only required to live on the land and cultivate it for four years to own it outright. The claims of people already residing in Oregon territory when it was recognized in 1854 were also covered under this Act. When the 1850 Act expired on Dec. 1, 1855, the Preemption Act remained in effect. Whidbey island settlers were allowed to stake claims that had irregular boundaries, as opposed to the rectangular, checkerboard effect of claims elsewhere that were based on the township and range system imposed by the Oregon Provisional Government Land Act of 1844.
      Whidbey is the third largest island in the continental United States. At 168 square miles, it was behind Long Island at 1,723 and Isle Royale, Lake Superior, Michigan, at 209.9. The island is 33 miles long, with a very irregular horseshoe shape. The Wallace claims were at the north end of Crescent Harbor, just east of Oak Harbor. Their claims were among the first half dozen on the island and much of the combined 640 acres later became the U.S. Navy seaplane base. Their neighbors to the west on Crescent Bay were Ulrich Freund, Martin Tofteson and C.W. Sumner, who settled there in 1849. Unlike most adjacent land that had forests of giant trees, the Wallace land was at least partially a level, open prairie, according to family memories. According to historian Dorothy Neil, the later townsite was named Oak Harbor because of the large stand of Garry Oak trees there. Colonel Ebey's claim was on the west shore of the island, south of Penn Cove and Coupeville.
      Ruthinda thought she would have Mrs. Ebey as a friend on the island but when they arrived she discovered that the colonel had not yet moved his wife and daughter up from Olympia. The Wallaces were the second family on the island. Back in the spring of 1848, Thomas W. Glasgow built a cabin on the island after exploring Puget Sound in a canoe. He then cleared his site and planted a garden before taking an Indian wife, whom he called Julia Pat-Ke-Nim. Soon thereafter, he rowed a canoe down to Tumwater and convinced Antonio B. Rabbeson to return with him. A month later, more than a thousand Indians from various Puget sound tribes met at Penn Cove and discussed plans that included the possibility of raiding white settlements. Within a few months, Glasgow and his wife and Rabbeson left the island. There were only 15 settlers on the island at the time that the Wallaces arrived. William used his carpenter skills to quickly put up the first woodframe house on the island. Although she was certainly disappointed that she would not have any women friends nearby, Ruthinda marveled at the waterfront and the magnificent view they had of Mount Baker on the mainland to the northeast and set about creating a home for her family. She asked about Mrs. Ebey, but discovered that the colonel's wife was not there yet. Several settlers were "squaw men,' meaning that they had taken Indian wives, but Ruthinda still harbored ill feelings about the Indian massacre of the Whitmans.
      The nearest store was at Port Townsend and flour often cost $40 a barrel, so the families on the island learned to be self-sufficient as much as possible. Ruthinda learned to prepare meals for her young family from the plentiful salmon, venison deer and elk. Potatoes grew there easily and they soon had cows to go with their horses that they brought to the island first. Rebecca Ebey finally joined her husband on the island in 1852, just in time to help Ruthinda as she gave birth to her second daughter, Mary, on April 20, 1852. Mary was always called Polowna, the name of her mother's younger sister. Polowna was the first settler child born on the island just as Bessie was the first settler baby living at the crossroads of Olympia.
      South across Crescent bay was another settler, Thomas Coupe, a sea captain, who became famous for a romantic daredevil voyage that is the stuff of legends. Born on the Isle of Man in the Irish sea, he married Martha White at Bath, Maine, in 1840. As the young city of San Francisco grew, following the gold rush of 1849, Coupe was lured West, where he sailed back and forth from San Francisco to Puget sound to get lumber for the new wharves in California. He found Whidbey island and sent for Martha and their four children to join him on the island in 1853. The legend goes that, after a six-month trip around Cape Horn on the clipper ship Thomas Church, Martha took one look at future Coupeville and agreed to live there only on the condition that Coupe give up his full-time sailing career and become a farmer. He decided to go out with a bang, so he became the only captain to ever sail a fully rigged ship, the Success, through Deception pass, quite a feat since the waterway is less than 100 feet wide at some points. He took up a claim southeast of Penn Cove sometime in 1852, about a year after the Wallaces arrived. The town of Coupeville soon grew on part of his property and is one of the oldest towns in the State of Washington. After Coupe's feat was communicated far and wide, other captains started sailing up Admiralty inlet alongside the island. One of the ships brought the Thomas P. Hastie family in June 1853 and they staked a claim northwest of today's Oak Harbor. They also crossed the plains by wagon train as Ruthinda and Wallace did, so they had a lot of common experiences to discuss. William probably joined Hastie in cutting wood near Penn Cove for the steamer Mary Ellen that year.

Ruthinda's brothers join the family
      Two of Ruthinda's Mounts brothers also joined the Wallaces on the island that year. James Mounts claimed 320 acres directly west from them on April 17, 1853 and Milton Mounts claimed another 320 farther west on April 29. They were musicians and loved to play instruments for the family and other settlers at the drop of a hat. All the early settlers had just barely enough to live on and in the early years the children could only attend school for a few months out of the year. Ruthinda had been educated in the common schools of Iowa and she insisted that William build a school for the island kids; he finished it in 1855, according to Ruthinda's memory. George Kellogg, historian of the island, refers to a log cabin school built and taught by John Wilson a half mile north of the county road in the Coupe field and does not mention Wallace's school.
      A Methodist minister also came to the island during that period, which made Ruthinda especially happy. Again, George Kellogg's record differs; he said that Rev. A. C. Fairchilds was the first Methodist minister and he arrived in 1864 or 1865. But, as historian Theresa Trebon points out, Kellogg's record contains many errors and he did not actually settle on the island as did his father, pioneer Dr. John Coe Kellogg. So we will continue researching these disputed items. Meanwhile, in 1855, Ruthinda gave birth to James Mounts Wallace. Interestingly, William had kept his promise that he would treat Isaac as a full son, so no one noted that James was the first son by William. Ruthinda formed a close friendship with 30-year-old Rebecca Ebey and helped her friend deliver a daughter in 1854 but Rebecca died soon afterwards, one more pioneer woman dying from the rigors of childbirth. So, once again, Rebecca had to adjust to not having a female confidante. In 1856 Ebey married again to the widow, Emily Palmer Sconce, and Ruthinda welcomed her and her daughter Anna to the island.
      Although she feared Indians after the Whitman massacre, Ruthinda remembered the kindness of Chief Sealth and she finally began making friends with some of the Indian wives on the island. She learned from them that Indians of the Haida tribe and others on Vancouver Island often conducted raids on Indians living on Whidbey and other islands of the archipelago. In 1856 soldiers Naval troops at Port Gamble killed 27 Indians in a battle, including their chief. Over the next year the marauding tribe seethed in resentment and in October 1857 they came to Whidbey and beheaded Col. Isaac Ebey in retribution. William was away at the time and Ruthinda fled her home with her children. She displayed the stoic spirit of the other islanders as they buried Ebey and got on with their lives. Meanwhile, William got work along with Thomas P. Hastie at the Cranney-Grennan mill on Camano island and had to row eight miles over there every day, regardless of the weather, but the $1.50 he made every day was most welcome. A primitive wagon road was dug in during 1857 when a post office was established at Coveland, a village formed by Richard Lansdale at the head of Penn's Cove in 1852. At the first meeting of the new county commissioner, they approved a road that led west from Coupeville past Ebey's Landing and then up to the Wallace homestead. Up to then, they depended on freight steamers for mail, so Ruthinda was pleased that she now had direct mail communication her family and friends back home in Iowa and in Oregon. At age 40, Ruthinda gave birth in 1858 to her last child, Sarah, the year that gold was discovered on the Fraser river in the English colony called British Columbia. Ruthinda was determined that Sarah would be her last because she was feeling very tired. Oregon became a state in 1859 and although Ruthinda still loved Oregon the best of any of her homes, she had planted her roots firmly on the island. She and the children both marveled every time a deer wandered up to the porch. Wolves still caused scares in the woods around the settlements, but settlers eventually killed most of them off by lining the carcasses of dead deer with strychnine. Bears remained a common sight on the island up until at least 1935.

William's wanderlust leads to an answer to Ruthinda's prayers
(John A. Cornelius)
John A. Cornelius. Photo courtesy of Christopher Barnes.

      Although it had lain dormant for nearly nine years, William's wanderlust struck again in 1860 when he decided to take a chance and follow the Fraser River gold miners as they worked their way up past [Mortimer] Cook's Ferry to the Cariboo gold fields of central British Columbia. The prospect of riches convinced Ruthinda to take a chance on the new town of Whatcom on Bellingham Bay and William secured a place for her and the children near the homestead of town founder Henry Roeder. Roeder and Sedro-founder Mortimer Cook led pack trains to the gold fields from 1858 on. Like the argonauts before him, William discovered that there was no real trail north to Hope, B.C., but rather a jungle full of brush and forests with no roads or bridges in northern Whatcom county. Imagine William's surprise when he discovered on the trail one day that a young man in charge of a packhorse train had the last name of Cornelius. It was John, the stepson that Ruthinda still missed. Now almost 20, John was full of questions about Ruthinda and family, but he was heading north and Wallace was going south. William told Ruthinda about the chance meeting when he returned and she was indeed thrilled, but the hoped-for meeting did not materialize . . . yet. When John returned from British Columbia, he rushed back to Oregon to train to be a surveyor, a badly needed skill throughout the new territory.
      Later in 1861, after Ruthinda and the family returned to Crescent Harbor, one day a man she didn't recognize rode up on a horse. As he came closer, her heart pounded because his features brought back memories from 12 years before. It was John, the stepson she still thought of every day, and they spent hours catching up. Ruthinda learned that after Absalom Cornelius moved to the town of Turner in Marion county, Oregon, Isaac's brother George Cornelius became John's legal guardian. After awhile, he asked to see his "baby sister" Betsy, who was just a month old when her parents left Oregon. She was just 12 that summer but she reminded him very much of how beautiful Ruthinda was in her 20s and the family says that they fell in love at first sight that day. John had to return to Oregon where he had become an important young man in his community, but he promised to return as often as possible. He kept his promise and returned often. As Chris Barnes recounts in My Ruthinda, they were often "seen riding on his horse, as lovers do, through the forest. . . . As the days passed it became apparent to her parents that his was no mere puppy love."
      William was determined that they would have to wait to marry until Bessie was past girlhood. John must prove his love by showing the virtue of patience and demonstrate that he was ready for the responsibility of a family. Although people now might raise their eyebrow over the couple's family relationship, you have to remember that potential spouses were proverbially few and far between on the frontier in those days. Besides, they had never lived together and had no blood relation. Bessie was born after John had been taken away from Ruthinda, who was only his stepmother, no matter how deep their affection was for each other. Eventually, in 1865, Ruthinda convinced William that four years was a sufficient testing period. The lovers married on John's 26th birthday, Nov. 26, 1865, while the eastern half of the country was still reeling from the civil war. Justice of the Peace James Busby officiated at the wedding. Back during the courtship days, William kept another promise to Ruthinda. He always told her that if a family man explored the island and wanted land, they would sell part of their claim. In August 1862, James Busby impressed them as a good candidate, so they sold him and his wife the eastern half of their claim, 320 acres, for a badly needed $1,500. William was pleased with his new son-in-law, both because he brought such great joy to Ruthinda and because he promised to be a good provider to Betsy, if he would just concentrate on farming and forget his "hobby" of surveying that he had learned in Oregon.

The Wallaces and Mounts all leave Whidbey island
      Little did William Wallace know that John Cornelius's "damn-fool surveying" would become the longest lasting legacy of the family. Not content to till the fields on Whidbey or row across to Camano to work at the mill as had his father-in-law, John obtained the federal commission to survey the soggy delta swamps of the Swinomish flats. He was gone for long stretches of time, part of which he spent exploring the Swinomish flats. Meanwhile, Bessie was now the focal point for the extended family as she became pregnant. She had begun to detest her given name more and more. As Chris Barnes notes in My Ruthinda:
      It seemed to her that every farmer had a cow called "Betsy" and she could not stand the thought of it any longer. Being a married woman, she decided, gave her the right to change her name. She let it be known that henceforth she wished to be known as Bessie
      Bessie soon gave birth to her first child on Sept. 10, 1866, and they named him William John. John was amazed how tiny the baby was, not having seen many infants, and remembered that the last time he had a baby so lovingly was when he held his future wife when he was ten and she was just a few days old. About that time, the social event of the decade occurred that year when James and Milton Mounts decided to move off the island. They planned to travel far away to Argentina where the new president had opened up the Santa Fe area north of Buenos Aires to immigration. People from many European countries flooded in to carve out large cattle ranches and the brothers wanted to be there at ground level. James and Milton had become beloved fixtures in their 14 years on the island and some families traveled by horse and buggy as long as seven hours to see them off with a party at William's house. Milton Mounts sold his 320 acres to Thomas J. Bruce for $1,500 on Feb. 13, 1867. James H. Mounts retained his acreage until Sept. 24, 1878. He sold it for $1,600 to Peter McDonall.
      Within a month after William's birth, new-father John was investigating how to set up his own homestead, after learning from the government that the flats would soon be opened to homesteading. The old Donation law that allowed his parents to claim 320 acres apiece was superceded by a Preemption law that allowed a pioneer 160 acres of government land if he "proved up" on his claim, built a minimal structure on it and cultivated part of the land. After five years, the pioneer could purchase the acreage for $1.25 per acre. Bessie recalled the beginning of their momentous move in a conversation with her grandson, Phil Cornelius, towards the end of her life:

      In rather early womanhood I married a young pioneer, John A. Cornelius, and for a year lived at Oak Harbor but during that time Mr. Cornelius was investigating rumors regarding the possibilities of [homesteading] a low-lying flat northeast on the mainland and finally decided to settle on a claim in the midst of that somewhat desolate region. Despite the ridicule of friends and neighbors, in September 1867 he moved his wife and baby to that place that is still my home.
(Bessie Cornelius Rudene)
Bessie Wallace Cornelius Rudene. Photo courtesy of Christopher Barnes.

      When Bessie announced that she would accompany John as a dutiful wife, William lost his temper with them and thought they must be stark raving mad. Ruthinda was amused by the stubbornness that both father and daughter exhibited as true Scottish Wallaces, and she must have been tickled by the irony that Bessie wanted to move on to less-crowded spaces just as William did 20 years before.
      The young couple debated if they should lay claim to land where LaConner was eventually located, but instead they chose the Swinomish flats. At that time in 1866-67 there were no settlers in the immediate area; the only white permanent resident was the telegraph operator on the Indian reservation on the western side of the slough. Settlers Michael Sullivan and Sam Calhoun had taken up claims on the flats but they only rowed over for short periods to plant crops while they kept their jobs at the Cranney-Grennan mill at Utsalady. Sullivan slough at that time meandered around the north end of a moraine formation named Pleasant Ridge and then south and west through the salty marsh that extended almost to the Skagit river. They paddled upstream until they came to a high spot that John had found at the foot of Pleasant Ridge. John then staked out the northeast corner of section 32 of Township 34 north and Range 3 east. At first, in the winter of 1866, only John spent long stretches on the flats while surveying. Bessie would row over on the days that the many bachelor farmers pitched in to help with crops and wanted home cooking. As 1867 dawned, she could be seen paddling up and down the future Sullivan's slough by herself.
      One day Bessie was shocked when she returned to the island to find that her parents had moved away without saying goodbye. Ruthinda had lately been wanting to return to Oregon, which she saw as the seat of refinement and culture compared to the rough frontier of the island, and her son and daughter, James and Polowma, had put down roots there. William figured they might as well move to Oregon if it made Ruthinda happy; besides, John and Bessie were moving to the mainland and would not farm the island land. Ruthinda looked and acted older than 50 and maybe the move would slow the aging process for her. Ruthinda also worried about Isaac Jr., who lit out without leaving a forwarding address the year before. The family heard vague rumors that he had gone to Nebraska. He wound up back in Oregon but carried some heavy baggage with him. He caused the first scandal in the family when he was convicted of larceny and served a two-year term at the Oregon state penitentiary in Salem starting in December 1868. The Wallaces sold the west half of their original property to William B. Engle on July 15, 1867, for $4,666. They had no regrets about leaving. Engle was a friend of Captain Coupe and settled on the island back in 1852. Finally, on Sept. 10, 1867, William John's first birthday, Bessie and John moved to the Swinomish homestead permanently, in a canoe stacked high with their possessions.

      Continue on to part two, which includes: John A. and Bessie Cornelius marry and homestead on the mainland of future Skagit county; Bessie becomes the first settler woman there; John surveys the coastline, swamps and forest of Northwest Washington; William and Ruthinda Wallace move back to Oregon; John Cornelius dies at their Pleasant Ridge homestead; Bessie marries J.O. Rudene, Swedish immigrant; Rudene clears and dikes land in Beaver Marsh and Pleasant Ridge and becomes a state legislator.

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Story posted on Jan. 18, 2003, last updated Feb. 11, 2009
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