Juneteenth: The Life and Legacy of Louis Southworth

For the anniversary of his passing, and the celebration of Juneteenth, it’s time to take a look at one of Corvallis’ own notable historical figures, Louis (“Lou” or “Lewis”) Southworth, who went from being an enslaved man in Tennessee to a landowning, prominent member of the Benton County community. 

Born in 1829, at the age of 24, Louis and his mother were brought to Oregon by their owner, James Southworth, via the Oregon Trail. Slavery was illegal in Oregon, and the state was the only in the Union to have an exclusion provision in the constitution stating that no African Americans, free or enslaved, were permitted to settle in the territory. Oregon’s first exclusion law of 1844 authorized the punishment of any black settler and explicitly stated that they would be whipped “not less than twenty nor more than thirty-nine stripes” for every six months they remained in the territory. Despite these restrictions, Louis Southworth was brought to Oregon where he learned to overcome the limitations he faced as an ethnic minority. 

After living in Oregon for a few years as a slave, the Southworth family traveled to California in hopes of finding gold during the Gold Rush, bringing Louis with them. Although he didn’t strike gold, Louis Southworth was able to make almost $1,000 playing the violin. With current inflation rates, that would be approximately $23,000 today. This was enough money for Louis to pay off his owner and buy his own freedom from slavery. 

In an attempt to prevent Louis’ freedom, his owner, James, circulated a written petition in Lane and Benton County to appeal to the Oregon legislature to protect his right to slave property. Fortunately for Southworth, James never formally brought this case to court, and Louis became a newly free man.  

The Violin 

Throughout his life, Louis Southworth held his violin near to his heart. It was one of his most prized possessions and the key to making his life prosperous. 

As one of the few Black men in the state, he had to overcome years of discrimination and general isolation. In an interview with the Daily Gazette Times in 1915, in his last years of life, Louis said his violin was “about all the company I had much of the time.” Louis was clearly proud of the life he built with the help of his music; three of the only photos that exist of him feature him either holding or prominently displaying the instrument. 

In 1854, after buying his freedom, Southworth settled on a Donation Land Claim owned by Benjamin Richardson outside of Monroe. At the time, it was still illegal for African Americans to own land in Oregon, and Southworth couldn’t apply to have a Donation Land Claim of his own because it was restricted by race.  

Richardson’s altruism may have been because he knew the Southworth family before they immigrated to Oregon. Both families had lived in the same town for a few years, Boone, Missouri, and had taken the Oregon trail around the same time. Richardson’s extra land was originally gifted to his son, but his son had abandoned the land, leaving it empty and unused, perfect for someone like Louis.  

The Soldier 

In his first few years in Oregon, some documents and accounts suggest that Southworth may have fought in the Rogue River Indian Wars. Legend says that Louis was travelling home from a trip to California when he was intercepted by a band of soldiers threatening to take his gun. Rather than part with his only form of defense, Louis decided to join in the fight. 

As a volunteer in Colonel John Kelsay’s Second Regiment, Louis Southworth fought in two skirmishes and was wounded in the second. If these accounts are true, Southworth would have been the first African American to fight in the Oregon militia. 

The Homestead 

When the Homestead Act of 1862 was passed, which did not restrict land ownership based on race, Southworth moved to the Buena Vista area in Polk County. While there, Louis opened a livery, worked as a blacksmith, met his wife, Mary Cooper, and raised their adopted son, Alvin McCleary. 

During his time in Buena Vista, Louis was taught how to read and write by his son’s teacher – a privilege not often given to African Americans at the time. 

In 1879, Southworth purchased a large chunk of land in Alsea Valley where he hunted, fished, and farmed. He cleared many acres of land, at a record speed of 10 to 12 acres a year, and even donated some of the wood to build a schoolhouse. In town, he owned a sawmill and a scow which he used to ferry people with their cargo across the Alsea River. 

A young fisherman named Francis Gaten helped Southworth on his ferry in exchange for fishing lessons, life stories, and good company. A favorite story concerned Southworth’s heroic dog. 

One summer’s day in the hayfields outside Corvallis, Southworth heard a rustling in the crabapple trees. After hearing his dog barking to no end, Louis went to investigate. As he looked up at the trees, a massive cougar was sitting on a hefty branch. He snuck away to grab his single shot rifle; he shot the cougar, but had forgotten the gun was nearly out of gunpowder. 

The cougar fell out of the tree and attacked his dog. While the dog was putting up a good fight, Southworth hit the cougar in the head with his gun, breaking it into two pieces. Broken gun in one hand and dead cougar in the other, Southworth and his dog went back home. 

“It’s easy for me to make another gun,” he said to Gaten, “it’s hard for me to get a dog like that.” 

When he wasn’t traveling the river, Southworth worked seasonally in the Corvallis and Philomath area as a wheat and hay harvester. In his free time, he played violin for town events, attended church, performed horse tricks in the state fair, and even served on the school board.  

The Election 

After being an ardent supporter of Abraham Lincoln throughout the Civil War in the 1860s, Southworth spent his later years closely following subsequent political elections.  

He told his grandchildren that during the 1880 election of President James Garfield, on the day his ballot was due, a storm raged in the valley, making it nearly impossible to cross the river – something locals can easily imagine in the Willamette Valley. Despite the danger, Southworth rigged two oil drums to his boat for buoyancy and manually rowed across the Alsea River. 

Legend says Southworth was the only man to vote in Alsea that day. It is unclear how Southworth was able to vote as an African American man, perhaps it was because he was legally free or that he owned land. Either way, his political participation is admirable.  

The Corvallis Years 

When his first wife died in 1901, Southworth bought a house in downtown Corvallis on the corner of Southwest Fourth St. and Adams Ave. He became known to the locals of Corvallis as the curly, white haired old man who walked the downtown streets, proudly leading his big stallion. Notably, this may have been the horse known as “Dewey” which he trained to do tricks in the Oregon State Fair shows.  

During his time in Corvallis, Southworth married his second wife, Josephine Jackson, a local Corvallis nurse who cared for him in his final years. A photo of Southworth sitting in his Corvallis home still exists today; he is seen sitting in front of his fireplace, overlooking his beloved violin and a painting of his idol, Abraham Lincoln. 

Southworth died in Corvallis on June 23, 1917 at the age of 86. He is buried in Corvallis’ Crystal Springs Cemetery next to his first wife, Mary. 

The epitaph on his grave reads: “A bit of heaven’s music here below” – a testament to his love of song. Southworth Creek, a tributary off the Alsea River, was renamed in 2000 in honor of Louis. His house in Corvallis is listed in the National Registry of Historic Places. 

By Hannah Meiner 

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