Written by Angie Debo, Ph.D.

(From the Angie Debo Collection, Box 7, Folder 59)


When we were children, my brother and I enjoyed listening to family stories. Most of these were told by our mother, Lina Cooper Debo. As she was almost without formal schooling, these took the place of books and literature; but since she was born in 1865 and since some of these stories came from her parents and grandparents, they added up to a homely grass-roots history of the American adventure.


A Tragedy of the American Revolution

One of our ancestors was killed in the Revolution. . . .


The Ancestress Who Was Scalped by Indians

She went to the spring for water, and an Indian hidden there tomahawked and scalped her, then left her, apparently thinking she was dead. But she recovered consciousness and lived the rest of her life with a bare place on top of her head. That same day in 1927 I asked my grandfather about this also. He said that she was his grandmother and that he knew her very well when he was growing up in Clark County, Illinois. He could not remember her maiden name, but his grandfather was William Maples, born in Glasgow, Scotland. He thought that his grandmother might have been born there also, and that they were married before they came to America. His mother, Asenath Maples, was born in North Carolina and came with her parents to Illinois, where she married John Lloyd Cooper. This seems to place the scalping in North Carolina, for I am fairly certain that it did not occur in Illinois.


The Panther Whose Dinner Escaped

I am uncertain as to who figured in this story of my mother’s. . . .


Another Indian Story

This one my mother got from her mother, Angeline (“Angey”) Willard Cooper, who was born at Adams, Jefferson County, “York State” in 1837. When she was a little girl, a peddler made regular visits to the home, as was the custom in those days, with household articles for sale. He was always welcomed and treated as a guest. He was a very old man. He used to take Angey on his lap and stroke her hair with trembling hands and say in his feeble voice (my mother used to imitate it), “Angee-line, Angee-line, I once had an Angee-line, but the Indians carried her off and whether she is living now, God only knows.” She had been his sweetheart when he was a young man, and he still spoke of her with grief and longing. As Angey grew older, she became embarrassed at sitting on his lap. One day some other girls were visiting her. She spoke to him affectionately, but excused herself to go and play with them. He looked after her and said in his trembling voice, “My Angee-line is getting to big to sit on the old man’s lap any more.” He was at that time very feeble, and he never came back again. The family supposed he had died.

One naturally wants to place the incident with the Wyoming Valley [July 3, 1778] or the Cherry Valley Massacre [November 11, 1778], but the dates are too distant to make that possible. The old man could hardly have been old enough for that.


Made in Vermont

My mother enjoyed telling stories of her grandfather, John Willard, whose hard sense, wry humor, and originality have passed into legend – also his quick temper and brilliant profanity. . . .


The Life of a Pioneer Woman

I believe my mother never met her father’s parents, but she always had great respect for her grandmother, Asenath Maples Cooper. Asenath was the only girl in a large family. Her brothers walked nine miles to school – I do not know whether in Carolina or Clark County, Illinois. Her parents thought eighteen miles a day was too far for a girl to walk and they always intended to board her in town so she could attend school. But they never did, perhaps because she married so young, and she grew up illiterate, not able even to sign her own name.

She was fifteen [1848?] when she married John Lloyd Cooper and began housekeeping in a log cabin. The couple had ten children, born and reared in this log cabin. One boy died of croup at the age of two. All the others grew up and several lived to be very old. My mother always marveled at her grandmother’s good housekeeping, as revealed by the habits of her children. I myself remember how meticulous my grandfather was, even after he passed ninety. He was fastidious in his dress, careful in cleaning his shoes when he came into the house, and elegant in his table manners. The only other member of the family I knew, his brother George, had the same habits when he was approaching ninety. My mother thought it spoke pretty well for the housekeeping of an illiterate fifteen-year-old bringing up nine children in a log cabin.

Apparently her husband helped, for my mother heard her father tell of the tedious task of preparing the flax for spinning and weaving. His father insisted on great care in every step of the process of soaking the plants, removing the woody stems, and preserving the fiber clean and strong for his wife’s use.

Probably both parents were responsible for the moral upbringing of the children. My mother knew several of them personally. All nine grew up to be honest, sturdy, industrious people, capable of turning their hand to any kind of work. The two I knew, my grandfather and my great-uncle George, had brilliant minds.


Wildlife Was Part of the Picture

My mother heard stories from her father, Alfred Cooper, of the hunting when he was growing up in the backwoods of Clark County, Illinois. His father did not care for a gun (a serious defect in his eyes); but he got hold of one somehow and started hunting deer. His next brother, Amos, was “a coward,” he said, but next-in-line George, four years younger than Alfred went along. The boys were about twelve and eight. My mother said she did not realize until she heard Uncle George tell the same stories in his old age what babes in the woods they were. The timber was full of bears (not grizzlies, but not pleasant for children to meet), cougars, and big timber wolves running in packs and known to kill people. Uncle George told of the time when “Brother Alfred” killed a deer and went home to find a way of bringing it in, leaving him to watch. It was growing dark, but Alfred put him in a tree so he would be safe. One child twelve and the other eight! My grandfather kept count and he told me once how many deer he killed during those years; it was a substantial contribution to the family living.

There was much visiting back and forth among the numerous Cooper and Maple relatives in that pioneer community. Once one of them shot a big turkey gobbler and invited some of the others to help eat it. (This could not have been a Thanksgiving dinner, for it was long before President Lincoln’s proclamation, and far from Puritan tradition.) One of the relatives slipped up and stole it from the place where it hung on a tree outside, and invited the party to his house. That time the turkey got dressed before it was stolen by another relative, who gave another invitation. Then after it was roasted it was stolen again! It was finally placed on the table and eaten at the fourth house.

I think it was my grandfather’s Grandmother Maple, who found a fawn hidden near the spring where she went for water. She caught it and put it in her apron. It struggled so that it took all her strength to hold it, and she finally gave up and turned it loose. To her surprise it followed her to the house and she brought it up as a pet. As it grew up it became mean. Once it reared on its hind legs and struck a grandchild on top of the head because it wanted a piece of bread and butter the child was eating. The family finally had to get rid of it.


Early Day Chicago

I do not know whether John Lloyd Cooper moved his family to Will County, Illinois or whether my grandfather went there as a young man away from home. It was in the Plainfield vicinity that Alfred Cooper courted and married Angey Willard. They were married September 4, 1857. My mother told me of her father’s memories of early day Chicago. The men used to drive their hogs there for sale, herding them along on the open prairie. And he said that all the area around Chicago was swampy, with wild geese nesting there in great numbers. Once I asked my grandfather how large the town was in that time. He said it was smaller than Marshall (which had a population of about 450) but that it had an immense trade.

In 1924 I talked with a woman who was said to be the oldest native born resident of Chicago, and her memory reinforced my grandfather’s. She said that her father hauled water to the families of the town for household use. The families kept it in barrels and dipped it out as needed. Because of the surrounding swamps, wells were impracticable. She told me another interesting story. She and Frances E. Willard were students together at Northwestern. (I thought she meant Northwestern University at Evanston; in fact, I am fairly certain that she did, but the encyclopedia says she [Frances E. Willard] attended Northwestern Female College.) “Frank” as the girls called her was the most high spirited of a group living in a two-story house. There was a stove on the first floor, and the stovepipe went up through the ceiling and warmed the upper floor. I can’t remember whether Frank on the first floor was so full of fun and so noisy that the girls upstairs used to bang on the pipe to make her keep quiet so they could study; or whether Frank upstairs used to bang on the pipe for the fun and noise of it, to the distress of the girls below. In any case she was a study hazard.


Remote Contacts with Abraham Lincoln

My mother told me that she heard her father tell an incident received from a woman who had worked in the Lincoln home. (Coming to me third hand.) Mrs. Lincoln announced that she had bought a certain horse from a certain person, expecting of course that her husband would pay for it. He answered, “Well, if you have bought a horse, that’s up to you. I haven’t bought any horse.” My mother, a practical feminist, who believed a woman working fulltime at keeping up the home was entitled to an equal use of a joint account, was very disapproving of Lincoln’s action. “The money belonged to her as much as it did to him, and she had a right to spend it,” was her verdict. Once I heard my father mention the name of a woman to my mother with the query, “Did you know she worked in Abraham Lincoln’s family?” I forget whether my mother said “Yes” or “No.” He went on to say, “She liked Lincoln awful well, but she didn’t like Mrs. Lincoln at all.” To me, this seemed to make the Lincolns Illinois neighbors.

Once my grandfather told me that he went to hear one of the celebrated Lincoln-Douglas debates. (The year was 1858, the year after his marriage, but I do not remember that my grandmother went along.) I was impressed by the great crowd coming from such distances and by the intensity of feeling he observed. For some reason, Lincoln was not there. Thus my grandfather never saw him. Douglas spoke, and there were questions from the audience. One question was, “When and where did the Republican party start?” The answer was: “At Ripon, Wisconsin in 1854.” At this answer – or perhaps it was at an answer to another question – the man who asked it broke out crying. (I think this is the question, but I’m not sure; in either case the crying was non sequitur, simply a part of the emotional stress that gripped the gathering.)


The California Gold Rush

My grandfather, Alfred J. Cooper, “crossed the Plains to California” – the inevitable preface to the stories he told me in my own childhood was, “When I crossed the Plains to California” – in the summer of 1859. In 1927 when he was 91 years old he told me the train he joined started “I think about the 18th of April, and got into California the last of September.” But this was not his first knowledge of the Gold Rush.

John Willard, the father of Angey, had joined the Argonauts earlier, probably in the original 1849 rush, and came back penniless. And my mother heard a terrible story from her father, involving a son of “Old Mother Thomas.” This good woman was greatly loved by my grandfather and his brothers, and her sons were their close associates in Will County, Illinois. I do not know the date, but I assume that it was before my grandfather’s adventure, that one of these Thomas boys set out for California. One day he wantonly shot and killed an Indian woman, simply because killing Indians seemed an acceptable frontier practice. Her enraged tribesmen demanded that he be turned over to them; and the company, with their own lives in the balance, were forced to comply. The Indians then skinned him alive. When the story got back to Old Mother Thomas, she was heart-broken, but she said she did not blame the Indians, and that she could not understand why her boy would have done such an evil thing. Because of its horror the story was widely circulated, and it continues to this day. I myself heard it told in the beauty shop a few days ago, without particulars of name, date, or place; and I know that the town of Rawhide, Wyoming reenacts the incident in an annual pageant. (Or perhaps Rawhide, Nevada; my map doesn’t show any Rawhide in Wyoming.) It may be that more than one youthful adventurer murdered an Indian woman and was summarily punished. In later years when the story became a legend, my grandfather felt that his veracity would be questioned if he claimed personal knowledge of the occurrence, and he ceased relating it. I myself never heard him mention it.

The outfitting place and starting point for my grandfather’s own trek was Independence, Missouri. In 1924 he spent some time there with his daughter, my Aunt Ida Halstead; and he took my nine-year-old cousin, Burtin Halstead, around and showed him the location of the blacksmith shops so important in getting the wagons and other equipment in condition for the long journey. It was the custom for each train of emigrants to elect a captain; and it is my impression from my grandmother’s stories that this captain’s orders were obeyed implicitly.

I think the old expression, “necessary house,” was no longer used at that time. Probably it was the word, “privy,” not spoken in polite society, and the euphemism, “closet.” In any case, such a place was needed for the women of the party. My mother told me once that she had learned from her father that one of the wagons was fitted up for the women’s use. I suppose it could be used on the trail or at the camp. The men were expected to find bushes or natural depressions.

The wagons were pulled by oxen, but some cows were taken along for their milk. At some time during the summer the oxen began to die. It was believed that some cattle disease was responsible, but my grandfather had a different explanation. The trail was very dusty, and as the ox pulled the load with the yoke on his neck his head was very close to the ground. Thus he breathed the dust of the trail and died from its effect. Whatever the cause, as the draft animals died, the cows were yoked to their places. To the surprise of the emigrants they were quicker and more active than the lumbering oxen. I suppose there were enough of these replacements to move the train through to California.

As long as he lived – he died April 8, 1928 – my grandfather remembered every step of that trail, but incredibly I failed to get it from him. I am sure he followed the Overland Trail, for he spoke often of Fort Laramie; and he may have taken the California branch west of South Pass in the present Wyoming, but more likely he continued to Fort Hall before branching off, for most of his most exciting Indian adventure occurred in the Thousand Spring Valley of northeastern Nevada.

My grandfather liked Indians and observed and remembered their customs. He had great admiration for their crafts. In my later studies I have often found striking confirmation of the things he told me in my childhood. Their method of preparing meat, for example. He himself liked his beef (and buffalo steaks) rare, and here is his evaluation of Indian cooking. “The women ruined the meat. They boiled it until all the taste was gone. But when the men were away from home on a hunting trip they cooked it just right, broiled over a fire.” I have read of the same procedures in scholarly books, an illustration of woman’s authority in her own sphere.

He distinguished among tribes, and throughout his life retained a memory of their differing characteristics. Once in later days in Oklahoma my mother described some Indians she had seen on the train. He told her they were Creeks. He was correct, but I have always wondered where he saw Creeks. But he always believed that “Shawnee” was the correct Indian pronunciation of “Shoshoni.” Probably because of their memory of Shawnees and Tecumseh in the Old Northwest, the emigrants insisted in using that designation and the Shoshonis resented it.


When an Indian came to their camp, the following dialog took place:

Emigrant: Sioux?

Indian: Unh!

Emigrant: Cheyenne?

Indian: Unh!

Emigrant: Shawnee?

Indian: UNH!


The train of which my grandfather was a member did not have enough wagons to form the traditional circle except in dangerous Indian country, but they always kept a guard at night. The Indians often came to their camp, usually in a friendly way. My grandfather gave many instances. Once the party was burying a young man who had drowned. An Indian stood by during the burial with tears rolling down his cheeks. At the close he turned away with “Poor hombre.” Sometimes my grandfather and a lithe Indian would have a wrestling bout. The method was for both to lie on the ground on their backs with their feet in the opposite directions and their heads overlapping from the shoulders up. The right arm of one was locked with the left arm of his opponent and each tried to raise the other’s body from the ground and throw it in an arc face down beside his own body. Once when quite a party of Indians came to visit the emigrants one young brave wanted to walk with my grandfather with their arms locked. Soon my grandfather saw a snake lying on the ground. (I suppose it was a dead snake. I hope it was.) My grandfather, suspecting the design of his companion, quickly threw his foot in front of the other’s ankle and tripped him so that he fell on the snake. The watching women burst into a gale of laughter. (My grandfather’s imitation of the women’s laughter was always very light and high pitched.)

My brother considered two young men, brothers, in the party as very inept. Once they engaged the visiting Indians in a shooting match and were roundly beaten. The captain, unwilling to exhibit bad marksmanship in Indian country, came out and sent the two boys to their wagon. Then he told the Indians, “They can’t shoot. They’re squaws. Here, Al, come and shoot.” My grandfather was a superb marksman, and easily defeated the Indians.

(This mastery of a gun was not boasting. As a youth in the Illinois woods, he used to compete in shooting matches. Once there were four shots at a mark for the four quarters of a beef. He won all four and drove the animal home. After that, he was not allowed to compete.)

Once the party saw Indians in the distance watching them through field glasses. The captain had all the men come out of the wagons in sight handling and cleaning their guns. He hoped the Indians would believe that still more men were in the wagons. Whatever they thought, they did not attack.

Once when a party of Indians was visiting, the same inept young brothers indicated an interest in two Indian girls and invited them by signs to join the caravan. This was apparently their stupid idea of a joke. The girls took them seriously and gathered up their possessions and brought them to the wagon. Again the captain had to send the youths away in disgrace. He tried to mend matters with the girls, but the band was insulted. In spite of the emigrants’ utmost vigilance they managed to steal a number of articles. My grandfather knew enough about Indians to know that they never stole except as hostiles.

In the summer of 1927 when he was ninety-one years old, I wrote down at his dictation the story I had heard in my childhood of his only contact with actual Indian warfare. I had no knowledge of Indian history in 1927, but I have since marveled at the accuracy of his memory. In 1859, the year of his trek, the Bannocks and their Shoshoni relatives began their attacks on the trails in the area west of South Pass. (These attacks culminated in a full scale war in 1862; and the Indians suffered a crushing defeat by Colonel Patrick E. Conner in the Battle of Bear River, north of Great Salt Lake, on January 29, 1863.) Here with a little rearrangement of sentences is my grandfather’s story:

“We camped as well as I can locate it at a place called the Thousand Spring Valley in eastern Idaho near the line. [It is south of the line, in northeastern Nevada. It is fairly certain that the train was traveling what became known as the Lander Cutoff, a wagon road being constructed by F.W. Lander under the direction of the Department of the Interior. It began at South Pass, circled north of the old Overland Trail to Fort Hall, then struck southwest, avoiding Salt Lake City to carry the California traffic by a trail following the Humboldt River.] We got in about ten o’clock in the morning. The grass was fine, and we concluded to stay that day and recruit our stock. Colonel Lander was there for the purpose of making a treaty with the Indians. [Probably to appease them with presents for the construction of the road. It cut through the best of the Shoshoni country, and the traffic destroyed the game and the grazing.] He had a troop of cavalry, probably two hundred men. He had been waiting there about a week for the Indians, but they had failed to show up. He said some mischief was afoot, as they were always prompt to be present when a treaty was to be made.

“It was a hot day. That afternoon, about four o’clock as near as I can recollect, a lady came to our camp carrying a little baby in her arms. She was tired and faint like, bent over till she could hardly walk. She couldn’t talk much, had to hang on to her words and catch her breath. We gave her some bitters so she could eat. She told her story first.

“She had come from a road about seven miles south of us where her party had camped the night before. The Indians had come down upon them just before daybreak and massacred the whole company. [He did not mention her husband, but I remember from hearing the story as a child that she saw him killed.] They took her baby and struck its head against the side of the wagon and throwed it out in the brush at the side of the road, thinking it was killed. They struck her in the middle of the forehead between the eyes. It looked bad, covered with blood, and her face was all bloody.

“When she came to, the first thing she knew was to hear the baby crying. She looked the people all over. All were dead. The Indians had stolen the stock and the clothing, etc. [They took the bedding from the wagons], emptied the feathers in the road and took the ticks. Then they set fire to the wagons and burned them.

“When she related her story to Lander he sounded the bugle, and in a very few minutes there were seventy-five men, all mounted and in saddles ready to start.”

The next morning my grandfather learned the sequel from a detail Landers sent back to camp.

“When they [the cavalry] got to the scene of the tragedy they struck camp for the night. The Indians came down and fired upon their guard, killing two men and wounding three more. The soldiers killed fifteen Indians, [whose bodies] they found. They didn’t know how many more were wounded and got away. They also captured all the stock the Indians had taken – about 75 head, mostly oxen. They buried the bodies of the people killed in the train.

“The next morning Landers sent the dead and wounded soldiers and the stock back to camp, and sent for reinforcements. He was following the trail of the Indians, which seemed to be going east. The Indians were supposed to be Shawnees. (They called themselves Shoshonis.) They didn’t have much to do with white people. They had bony faces and pumpkin color, were built more like race horses.

“I never felt like I wanted to kill anybody, but seeing that woman and child I thought I would have killed an Indian if one had been there.

“A man by the name of Kemball [or possibly Campbell] from Illinois was also going to California. He had quite a large train. He took the woman and baby through to Placerville, California, which was called at that time Hangtown. (Some years after, the name was changed to Placerville, it being the county seat of Placer County.)

“Both of our trains started out the next morning. We were in sight every day for two days or more. There was too much stock for us to travel together on account of grass. We camped a mile or two apart. Kemball got to Placerville first. We lacked two days of being six months on the road. I think we started about the 18th of April. We got into California the last of September.

“The lady and the baby both recovered after they got medical attention. When the miners were informed of what had happened, they turned out and raised a contribution of $1500 and presented the lady with the money. Miners were always good about helping people out. She took the money and went to San Francisco, and embarked upon the first ship to New York. Thence to her home in Ohio.

“I also remember how Colonel Lander came to be there instead of General Harney from Oregon. General Harney was sent to Oregon by our officials at Washington to keep peace between the whites and Indians there. He was instructed if serious trouble broke out with the Indians to spare the women and children. Instead he killed all – men, women, and children. They called him to Washington and asked him about those instructions. Told him he was instructed to spare women and children. Why did he disobey orders? He said, ‘Lice make nits, and nits make lice.’ So they sent Lander to replace him.”

During those same interviews in 1927 (he talked to me one day, and then I believe he came back to our house the following day and added some details), he sang me some of the songs of the mining camps. His once strong bass voice had lost its depth and power, but it was clear and rich. Some of the words had escaped his memory, but he gave me the name of a publisher in San Francisco who produced a little booklet with the text. No doubt copies can be found in California museums. My main interest was in hearing him sing them. I thought he was probably the only living person who could sing them out of his own experience of that time. Here they are: