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The Story of Luther Elkins

Updated on March 27, 2008

The Tie Breaker - Luther Elkins

Westward on the Oregon Trail


It is my personal belief that our modern culture fosters an overall condition of laziness and dependency. Harsh and difficult conditions seem to be the common factor that motivate people to strive for a better life. This struggle develops individuals with attitudes and characters that succeed because conditions require indepenent thinking, rather than complainers and whiners who depend on others to lift them up out of their misery.

With no more real "wilderness" to settle on the planet, there are few, if any, opportunities for families to go off to a new land and experience the adventure of starting anew from scratch. In fact, because of our modern technological age of instant everything, very few would know how to survive if the opportunity presented itself. So, it's necessary to look back into the past to find examples of people who made their mark in the country's history in a positive way; even if it was for just a county in one state. Yet, it is the accumulation of many such people, even if it was in a small way, that together make for the positive models to emulate.

The Man & the Conditions:

Luther Elkins was born in Cornville, Maine in 1809; the youngest of nine children. At 21 years of age he married Philotheta Williams in Wheeling, Virginia in 1830 and was a wagon and carriage maker by trade.

The couple later moved to Mt. Pleasant, Ohio where he entered into the merchandising and milling business. Luther was also the justice of the peace after establishing himself in the community. However, one evening a man who worked for him burst into a Temperance meeting, drunk and loud. Being the local law, Luther later fined him for this act, but the man set fire to Luther's tobacco house, nearly ruining him financially.

This event set Luther to seek his future in Oregon, and on May 1, 1852, he set off across the Missouri River above St. Joseph and entered onto the great plains of Nebraska. Their family consisted of his two eldest sons managing the one wagon with four yoked oxen, while Luther and Philotheta managed the other wagon of four yoked oxen as well. The remaining six children in the family were distributed between the two wagons.

The arduous and tiring five month journey across the Rocky Mountains and the Great Inland Basin of Utah and Idaho brought them to "Foster's" east of Oregon City, Oregon, on September 26th of that same year. While the journey was mostly uneventful beyond the usual hardships of such a journey in those days, there was an incident that nearly stranded the little wagon train three days out on the desolate plains.

It was nearing sundown, and the cattle were feeding on the other side of a bluff and out of hearing range for the bells on them. One of the party came frantically into camp sounding the alarm that Pawnee Indians had been seen whooping loudly with blankets being waving to drive the band of cattle southward. Taking the only horse in camp, Luther rode off in hot pursuit after them. If these cattle were not recovered, all would be lost and their trip west ended.

After a chase of four miles, the indians ran off out of sight and Luther returned with the entire herd after dark to the great joy of the whole party. Their plans to settle in Oregon had been saved from being postponed indefinately.

Once in northern Oregon just south of Portland, the Elkins family went further south into the beautiful and expansive Willamette Valley to an eastern valley at the foothills of the Cascade Range called the Santiam Valley. Here is where he staked his claim of land and settled from 1858 to 1865. This area eventually became what is now part of Linn County.

He was a merchant of general goods in Lebanon, Oregon and became prominently identified with the establishing of a community; supporting nearly every project and enterprise begun in Linn County. He, along with several other men of the area, was one of the promoters of the Willamette Valley and Cascade Mountains wagon road which extended four hundred miles in length, going clear to the eastern boundary of the territory.

The road company was inaugurated by this enterprising merchant and his farmer co-operators for the sole purpose of enabling emigrants and stock to cross the great Cascade moutains. This brought about more quickly the settlement of Central Oregon, thus avoiding what, at that day, was the great expense in time of traveling around by way of the Columbia River gorge through these mountains. It wasn't until after much construction of this road had occurred that the company even applied for a land grant from the U.S. government. This road was later sold to another individual in the community.

Luther, along with several of his old partners in business, also constructed the Albany and Santiam Canal at a cost of $65,000 (a small fortune in that period), including terminal lands proved invaluable to the growth of the city of Lebanon. This property, however, was lost entirely to them, through a forced sale of the property by outside influences - and unecessarily so, as Mr. Elkins had secured the promise of abundant funds to relieve the financial situation. Yet, this was thwarted, and his answer to a sympathizer was: "Yes, it has ruined us, but saved the town."

Luther was also a prime mover, with enterprising men in Albany (now the state capitol) Lebanon, in influencing the Southern Pacific Railroad managers, Villard and Kohler, to construct the twelve miles of railway between Albany and Lebanon. When asked the question by Villard, "Will this piece of road pay?" he replied, "Yes, better than any feeder you can have." This settled the construction of the road, and the result assured Lebanon and Albany of the great boon it accomplished for them.

Being a man of force and strong views, he readily attracted prominent notice, and twice represented in part of his county in the territorial legislature. He was a member of the state's constitutional convention in 1857 and served as a state senator after Oregon was granted statehood in 1859. It was during this time that Luther played a key role in his position as the President of the state Senate.

In much of the settlement of the Willamette Valley, many southerners and southern sympathizers had come to Oregon to start anew in the territory. When news of the onset of Civil War reached Oregon as a new state, one of the pressing issues of the day was whether Oregon would remain with the Union of the north, or cecede from the Union and side with the Confederacy. Needless to say, there was great pressure from many sectors of the valley to side with the south, but, even though Luther was classified as a Democrat, he frequently acted independently. When the vote in the Senate was cast on this decision, it was found that a tie vote was counted. As President of the Senate, it was Luther's vote which would break the tie. Despite the immense pressure of many to go with the Confederacy, Luther voted to support President Lincoln in preserving the Union.

Luther Elkins was a firm believer in the doctrines of Christianity. He led a busy and active life, was warm-hearted, brave and forgiving. He was also true to his friends and well suited to be a pioneer. The last few years of his life were spent with his son, Joseph at Lebanon, in retirement, suffering in his old age from a general breaking down of his physical and mental powers. He passed away in 1885 at the age of 76. He left a large number of friends to remember the industry of a man to whom Linn county is more indebted for her material prosperity than to any other one individual.

His wife, whose maiden name was Philotheta Williams, was born in Chenango county, N.Y., and preceded him in her demise in Lebanon, Oregon, in 1881, at the age of 74.

Footnote: Luther Elkins was a relative on my mother's side of the family. My grandfather, Caswell Carl Elkins, Jr. was the son of Caswell Carl Elkins, Sr., who was orphaned at an early age and raised by a Dr. Watts. Records have failed to establish with certainty the relationship to Luther Elkins, but there are details which support with some plausibility that there is a direct connection in some way, which I shall be happy to share, should anyone be interested.


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      6 years ago

      Aim an ancestor sharing the Elkins name my father was named Luther he stayed in west virginina until ww 2 my grandfathers name was also Luther elkins. I may be a decedent of the brothers of the Luther that moved to Oregon I would be curious to know the names of the siblings of your l Elkins. Thanks fr the post

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      Edward Elkins jr 

      6 years ago

      Luther is a relative of mine also, However in this article I noticed a mistake . Albany ,Oregon isnt the state capitol you mentioned it is the capitol. Salem , Oregon is the state capitol. I currently live in Albany,Oregon. Just like all the Elkins since Luther Junior, Luther is my 4th great grandfather. I am a graduate of a Private investigator school, have a paralegal certificate, currently enrolled in school to study drafting and design after studying flight technology. I am the first roman catholic in the family and a member of the order of the Elks, also the American Legion. I served a short time in the U.S. Army as a combat medic honorable discharge shortly after 9/11.

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      10 years ago

      Well, hello there relative! Your most welcome. I'm always interested in getting to know a bit about those I'm related to, so please write me and let's get acquainted by sharing notes.


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      10 years ago

      Thanks for doing this page. Very interesting, Luther was an ancestor of mine, also.


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