Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Alonzo Marion Poe: a recurring family name

When I began researching the Poe family one recurring name was Alonzo Marion. My grandfather’s middle name was ‘Marion’ and his father was ‘Alonzo Marion’ and he, in turn, was named after his uncle ‘Alonzo Marion’. As far as I can tell this is the ‘original’ Alonzo Marion.

So, who was he and why did he make such an impression?

The first Alonzo shows up on the 1840 census of Missouri as one of the children of William Romulus Poe (WRP) and his wife Margaret.

I’ve mentioned before that WRP decided to name his children with names starting it the letter ‘A’. The significance of Alonzo might therefore only be that it begins with the letter A, but the second name Marion is most likely a reference to the ‘Swamp Fox’ General Francis Marion a hero of the American Revolutionary War.  WRP’s next son was named Americus (pen name of American federalist Alexander Hamilton) Napoleon and his third son Alexander Hamilton, so there is a patriotic pattern.

As an aside, the juxtaposing of Americus with Napoleon seems odd at first. Perhaps it is to ‘remind’ the world that Hamilton writing as ‘Americus’ in early 1797 had predicted that Napoleon’s France would become ‘the terror and the scourge of nations’.  

Alonzo Marion Poe disappeared from the family home in Missouri quite early. In April 1845 at the age of 18, he got himself a job with John Lemmon who was leading a party of pioneers aiming to head west on the ‘Oregon Trail’ aiming for Willamette Valley in the Washington Territory. He was employed to look after the cattle, look for food, negotiate with the Indians along the way and basically provide some ‘muscle’ when needed.

Oregon Trail from The Ox Team or the Old Oregon Trail 1852-1906 by Ezra Meeker. 
Courtesy University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin via Wikipedia.

Poe seemed comfortable though naive in engaging with Indians. In one incident, he set out to find a missing cow and engaged ‘unconcernedly’ with some Sioux. However, it soon became apparent to Poe and the rest of the party looking on from a safe distance, that the Indians intended to take clothing and firearms from Poe.

As he talked, one of the Indians took hold of Poe’s horse bridle while two others took hold of the stirrups and quickly slipped them off his feet, and, while they unbuckled the straps his feet were left hanging uselessly down.

Poe became obviously afraid, but the more mature Lemmon saw the situation and rode to his assistance with a blacksnake whip in his hand. The Indians prepared to pull Poe off his horse, but Lemmon gave a fierce crack with his whip across their hands and they let go of the bridle. He then gave the horse a stroke with the whip, at the same time telling Poe to hold onto his saddle for his life.

The horse rushed off and Lemmon kept up his whip cracking so that the Indians had no time to draw their bows and soon the two men and horses were out of danger. Meanwhile, the troublesome cow and calf had wandered back toward the camp so that all parties returned in safety to bring her into the herd.

Lemmon’s daughter recorded that ‘Poe was cured of his desire to converse with the quick-witted marauding Sioux. Although the laugh at his expense was the theme of many a joke among his comrades around the camp fires.’ 

After the group had safely arrived in the Washington Territory his contract was completed and he set out on his own, settling at Tumwater then in Lewis County. In June 1846, he was elected lieutenant-colonel of the Oregon Rangers and after turning 21 was elected sheriff of Lewis County in 1847.

Poe served as a private in the Oregon Volunteers during the Cayuse War (1847-1855) and was later granted 160 acres of land in Thurston County in recognition. The war was caused in part by the influx of disease and settlers to the region, but the spark for fighting occurred in 1847 when Cayuse Indians killed fourteen people in and around the Whitman Mission near present day Walla Walla. 

In 1853, Poe moved to Bellingham Bay. As he had arrived in the Territory before 1850, he was entitled to claim 320 acres despite being unmarried and he had settled on his claim 17 September 1853. He then became instrumental in the formation of Whatcom County in 1854 serving as the county’s first auditor and as a civil engineer, drawing up plans for the original town of Whatcom in 1858.

But, it turned out to be a lonely existence and he wrote to his friend Isaac Ebey who had also come from Missouri urging him to become his neighbour to relieve his loneliness. This didn’t happen but his unmarried brother Americus did join him within a few years. Remember that communication was not swift – no emails or phone – letters would have taken a few months.

Poe, Isaac Ebey and William Winlock Miller were fast friends who were employed by Simpson P Moses, the Collector of Customs at the Port of Olympia. They also worked together to advance their common interests, which were focussed on the development of a vibrant progressive Territory and State.

(l to r) Alonzo, Miller and Ebey, early 1850s. Washington State Digital Archives
(Image No. AR-07809001-ph004223).
I have flipped the image which would have been taken from a daguerreotype.
Another version is UW 14329 reprinted in William Lang’s Confederacy of Ambition.

Although relations with the local Indians were often mutually beneficial there were tensions from time to time. After some trouble, local Indians exacted revenge on Ebey. Near midnight on 11 August 1857, the Ebey dog aroused the house with furious barking. Ebey opened the door in his nightshirt to investigate and almost instantly a ‘ragged burst of musketry greeted him’. His body fell with a thud and his decapitated head taken as a trophy.

The outrage over the incident lasted for some time and eventually his skull was found though it had been scalped. Some years later his scalp was bought from the Indians and delivered to his friend Poe who passed it to Ebey’s family.

There are various indications that Poe’s health was not good though no condition is specified, and perhaps he had multiple problems. One newspaper reported his death from injuries received in fighting, but the announcement was premature.

Only two pictures of him are known. The one with his two friends seems to show him holding a cane.

Poe’s financial fortunes mirrored his health malaise. He worked hard but frontier life was not easy. He worked in real estate and his interest in public affairs encouraged several people to combine subscriptions for him to start a newspaper. His talents and political contacts enabled him to be appointed official Territory printer.

Soon after this success, his poor health gave him so much trouble that he took the advice to move to the warmer weather of California in 1860. He wanted to hang on to his job a public printer but even with the support of friends, it was a tough case to make as he no longer lived in the Territory.

In San Fransisco, California, he established an ‘intelligence’ office – what we would call a news office – writing articles for other publications. He built a good network there and was close to the family of Judge Hartson. Chancellor Hartson and his family were active in the community and my guess is that Poe was part of this community.

One of Poe’s news reports was on the prospects for finding gold in the Washington Territory and beyond its northern border.

Poe’s youngest brother Alexander finally made the move west after their mother died in Missouri, but he settled in California where the weather was better and the ground fertile. Alexander had married and started a family, naming his first son Alonzo Marion after his eldest brother and his second Americus Napoleon after his next brother. 

On 19 January 1863, Poe was married to Emma Hartshorn, who was living with the Hartson’s. Some people assumed she was related to the judge but this is impossible. The confusion probably came about because her surname, Hartshorn, sounded similar and her father’s given name was Chancellor the same as the Judge.

The couple became parents one year later and named their daughter Emma after her mother. A son was born about early 1865, though he died in May and no name is recorded. Tragically, their daughter Emma died on 1 August the same year. Poe himself died six months later on 31 January 1866 of tuberculosis which he may have had for many years. During the nineteenth century, tuberculosis was the leading cause of death in the United States, and one of the most feared diseases in the world.

After this trauma, his wife returned to her parents’ home in Michigan after a few months where she died in 1872. Poe’s brother Americus sold his remaining interests in the Washington Territory and moved to California to work as a farmer. Although he married Sarah Dickenson (nee Porter) in 1879, he did not have children of his own.

Poe’s early poor health meant that his potential was never fulfilled and his place in the history of the Washington Territory clouded. Much more can be written about his life.

He was a pioneer in the Washington Territory and one of the founders of Olympia. Without the efforts of a number of people, from Dr Arthur S. Beardsley, at the University of Washington in the early 1940s, to various residents of Bellingham and William Lang more recently, memory of him may easily have been lost.

Poe worked as a civil engineer and assisted others in land surveys, acted as Lewis County's Sheriff, a delegate to Washington Territory convention of 1851, an auditor for Whatcom County, a legislator representing Island County in 1854 a lieutenant with Eaton’s Rangers defending the Territory in 1855 and public printer for the Territory from 1862.

His life was cut short by illness, probably caused, and certainly made worse, by the hardships of frontier life.

Alonzo’s nephew named after him would marry Minerva Elizabeth Dearing in 1883. They had three daughters and one son (my grandfather) who was named Alexander Marion Poe and known to his parents as 'Marion'.


Feedback in this item is welcome. There are many details of Alonzo Marion Poe’s life to be verified but his story is worth documenting in full.