Margaret Jane Wetzel
July 3, 1822, Greenbriar, West Virginia
March 25, 1895,Astoria, Oregon
She entered the world in Greenbriar County, Western Virginia, the eleventh of twelve children born to George Wetzel, Jr., 1777-1853, and Elizabeth Handley 1784-l861. One may be sure that Margaret would be surprised to learn that her memory is alive and well more than one hundred and seventy years after her birth. She was humble, unassuming,long suffering, and loyal. Most of all, Margaret was tough. Her life was one challenge after another, with heart break and trauma never far away. In spite of this, the life that began in obscurity, and moved on to poverty and tragedy, ended in joy.
Only five of her eight children would survive, but evidence shows they were devoted to their parents. Margaret's last years were filled with satisfaction.
Where Margaret Jane Wetzel was born was still in the state of Virginia
in the l820s. It was not until after Margaret was married, and living in the west, that West Virginia became a separate state- Virginia, often called the, "Home of the Presidents", was one of the earliest Colonies, and greatly influenced by British, Scottish, and French settlers. It was urbane and sophisticated, producing institutions of higher learning, as well as many
of our country's initial leaders.
Western Virginia, on the other hand was almost the opposite. According
to Encarta Encyclopedia, it was a "Poorer but freer society, characterized by subsistence farms". In Lewis Wetzel, Life and Times of a Frontier Hero, C.E. Allman describes that branch of the family as fiercely independent. About Captain John, the first Wetzel to settle near Wheeling Creek Allman says, ".. (he) never thought of fear, for he built his cabin where it was exposed on all sides to incursions from Indians and was beyond reach of the fort at Wheeling in case of attack John was content and showed no longing for other people
than his family. He rarely went to the settlement for supplies, and his wife never went."
Margaret Wetzel's oldest brother was named. 'Lewis,' born in 1805, and
family lore has always included a relationship to the famed Lewis Wetzel clan. There is no documentation for that as this is written, but the name, dates, and location make it probable. In the morals of this later age, however, it is probably just as well that no proof exists. Whereas Lewis Wetzel was a hero in the 19th century, he likely would be termed a 'crazed killer' in the late 20th century. The book on Lewis Wetzel's life estimates he personally killed one hundred Indians as revenge for the deaths of his father and brother at the hands of Native Americans.
Little is known about the occupation of Margaret's father, George, but
by the nature of the area, and historic documents, one may assume that the Wetzels grew their own food, made their own clothes, handled most of their own medical needs, and kept to themselves. That description would fit nearly all the residents of Western Virginia in the early 1800s.
The tough Wetzel family that Margaret descended from had been in the United
States for a long time. Her grandfather, George Wetzel, Sr., 1719-1825, was 106 years old when he died. Margaret's grandmother, Elizabeth Cutlip, married the old gentleman in 1804. Obviously, she was a step grandmother, because George, Jr., was born in 1777. By doing the mathematics, one realizes that George, Sr., was 58 years old when George, Jr., was born. Elizabeth Cutlip may have been the last of several wives that the durable old man outlasted. The life of George Wetzel, Sr., who was born 55 years before the American Revolution began, and died about 43 years after it ended, gives some basis for understanding how Margaret Wetzel would endure what is about to be described.
Psychologists and sociologists often speak of the personality tendencies
of the oldest, middle, and youngest children. Not much has been written, however, about the traits of the eleventh child in a family of twelve. Given what we have learned about Western Virginia when Margaret Wetzel was born in 18822, one may be sure that just surviving was a primary ingredient of daily social life. From correspondence in the early 1880s to Margaret from her closest sibling, John Henry Wetzel, we know that she was part of a close and happy family. In spite of conditions that may have existed in general John Henry says, "Yes I often think of old home and the many good times and happy times, but
they are over. Good by from your afflicted friend and brother.." John Henry
died in 1886. From other material available on Margaret's life, it is definite that the, "good times," did not include physical goods and services.
Margaret Wetzel and Albert Wilkins Ferguson were married in Lewisburg,
Virginia on June 24, 1844. At twenty-two years of age, Margaret was not young by the standards of the day. Between 1844 and I 849, the couple had three sons, the last nicknamed, "Twiggs." The reference to him is from Margaret in a letter to her parents on November 20, 1849. The letter was written from Lexington, Missouri where Albert and Margaret were living before moving west. He was a talented carpenter who began the trade at the age of fifteen when he left his own home around Buckingham County, Virginia. The talent would surface a few years later in Oregon where he successfully glided from carpentry to contracting, and was able to consistently raise financial support.
From Margaret's references to her husband in 1849 we know that they were
Committed firmly to each other. For example, she says, "Mr. Ferguson working in Welington and has ben for som time he comes home ever Satterday and stays untill monday morning poor felloe he works so hard." (The reader will note that Margaret was not well schooled, and wrote phonetically. Her brother John, on the other hand appears to have had much formal education as evidenced by his penmanship, and his grammar. (Copies of both historic letters follow this work.) Margaret couldn't help but tell her parents of the struggles, and says; "since I wrote home I have been sick afflicted in vears ways, sometimes one thing
and then a nother I had a bad brest wich coused me to wean Twiggs he was ondly eight months old he has ben sick all summer I did not think he would live until
now But he is better.. Further on, she writes, "I thought I would of frose to Death last winter I would cook awhile and cry awhile. I was sick all winter.."
Margaret did not want to be a complainer, however, and immediately following
The statement about crying, she says, "when Mr Ferguson would come in the hous
and find me crying he would say don't cry Mag it won't always be so with us if I
have my health, and so we tufted it out and now we have got a comfortabel littel hous.." As the reader will note later, Albert had only begun to deliver on his promise. Before it was complete, however, Margaret would endure hardship and tragedy that might not be seen as believable if written as a novel.
In 1849 gold was discovered in California. It set off the biggest stampede
west until the completion of the trans-continental railroad several years later. The prospectors were termed, "Forty Niners," a name that has endured through the century and a half that has followed. While Albert may not have arrived in California in time to be a Forty Niner, he was not far behind. The spirit of adventure that led him away from his homestead as a teenager called to Albert again. Late in 1849 he joined a wagon train west, leaving Margaret behind, waiting to join him later. We know from her letter to her parents how she felt when Albert would leave for the week to work in near by Wellington. Just
imagine the range of emotions that Margaret experienced being left indefinitely,
with no financial resources, and two sons to care for. The third son died at two
years of age between 1844 and 1849. We can only surmise that she made her way back to West Virginia, was taken there by Albert before he left for the West, or was joined in Missouri by family.
According to the 1904 publication of, Western Oregon, by the Chapman Company
Of Chicago, Albert traveled by Ox-team. Going over the Fremont pass to California, the party had, "But little trouble with the Indians." After searching for gold for a short time, Albert became alarmed when a fatal fever broke out in the camp. With a group of other men he traveled to San Francisco, chartered a small steamer, and headed for Oregon. The trip took a month, meaning that they averaged only twenty miles per day. The book further states, "Arriving off the mouth of the Columbia river they encountered a terrific storm,
and with every hand lashed to the rigging were driven northward."
Albert spent the winter of 1851 working in Astoria, moved to Portland, and then got gold fever again. The Chapman book says, "He then went to Rogue river and began mining, but the Rogue River Indians took the warpath and he and his party were compelled to leave." One suspects that the preceding passage is somewhat understated. Albert went to Salem next, and started a, "sash and door factory." At age thirty-one, Albert was a business owner, and he sent for Margaret to reunite their growing family.
People who traveled west in the 1850s often came by boat through the Isthmus
Of Panama, hoping to avoid the risks of the long overland trails. For Margaret
Wetzel Ferguson, however, it meant tragedy, and heartbreak. Cholera was, "raging
at the time," and both of the remaining Ferguson sons died," of this dread disease." Margaret would arrive in Salem, Oregon, at thirty years of age, having lost her three sons, to begin a new life in a region that was not even one of the United States. (Oregon was admitted to the Union in 1859.) Fortunately, although more tragedy would occur along the
way, 1852 marked the beginning of a distinctive, productive, and satisfying life
for the ravaged young couple from Virginia. Albert went on to become one of Oregon's more noted pioneers, and Margaret would be blessed with six more children, five of who survived to adulthood.
Margaret created a home in Salem, The Dalles, and finally in Astoria as
Albert moved his fledgling business to meet demand. Along the way, he gained much political and professional regard. Financially, the Ferguson star was rising, but Albert began to have health problems in 1862, at the age of forty. He would persevere until the age of sixty-three. Then, lacking the treatments and pain relievers later available, he would be forced to bed, and his last seven years were spent as an invalid. One sees that Margaret was the care giver until the end, for she lived five years longer than her husband. There are no
reports of Margaret having physical afflictions. As a proud Wetzel descendant, one certainly would not have heard it from her. The trail would have ended
long before if sickness, disease, deaths of loved ones, and poverty could stop Margaret Jane Wetzel.
Margaret died on March 25, 1895, in Astoria. She is buried next to Albert
and others of the clan. The graves are in one of the old sections of Ocean View cemetery, near the wild sea that first delivered Albert to Oregon.
If one stops in front of the historic Ferguson home on Grand Avenue in
Astoria, he or she will note that the graceful Victorian house was built in 1886. Albert wa sixty-five and bed ridden. Why would he build this edifice at such a late stage of life, when he couldn't enjoy it? This writer believes he knows the answer. It was Albert's final tribute to the girl who would "Cook awhile and cry awhile" Don't worry, Mag, it won't always be like this.."
Passages in quotations were left as written. The reader may note lack of
capitalizations, misspellings, or in some cases, omission of punctuation marks.