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Jerome Bonaparte La Follette

Joel La Follette - Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Our history, our story is there hidden in the pages of time just waiting for us to open the cover and discover where we came from and who we are. For some, the story is written in music; notes played and handed down from one to another and shared with the world telling all who hear this melody the story of their lives, their history. Others find their yesterday in the brush strokes of a painting; the scene recording an event that determined their path and led them to where they are today.

We all have a history that goes back to when the tale was told with languages now unspoken or motions of the hand in the light of a fire. Drawings on cave walls tell our tale as do the stones shaped into monuments that mark our heroes, our accomplishments and our passing.

Have you ever set out in one direction only to find yourself somewhere far away from your original destination? I set out on a simple journey, or so I thought, and now find myself unraveling a historical record of the La Follette family in Oregon just to locate a patch of land and the creek that flows though it. What was all about finding and fishing this small creek on the old family homestead has become a glimpse into not only my family history, but the history of a large section of central Oregon.

My great-great-great Grandfather, Jerome Bonaparte La Follette, came overland to Albany, Oregon, in 1862 from Indiana with his wife Sophia and sons Thomas, John and Charles. In 1871 they moved on and settled a homestead on Camp Creek near Prineville, which at the time was simply called Prine. Later, they moved to a ranch on McKay Creek, with the family eventually having land holdings scattered across the county.

The La Follette family were farmers and if County Fair ribbons are any indication, fairly good ones. They brought fruit stock to the east side of the Cascades from the valley and shared it with the pioneers of what would become Crook County. They raised grain, cattle, sheep, chickens, pigs and fruit for trade and barter. Jerome also had a horse ranch near the Deschutes and took pride in raising strong stock to pull wagons and provide transportation for the growing population. Sadly, Jerome was found dead on the road near the Tethrow Ferry (now Lower Bridge) on November 6, 1884, having fallen from his wagon as he hauled feed for the horses from his ranch on McKay Creek to his place on the Deschutes. La Follette Butte, located a short distance from where he died is named for him.

This report was sent to the local paper.

Prineville, Or., Nov, 6, 1884
To the Editor of the SUN:
It is my painful privilege to report to you a very distressing accident which happened to Mr. J.B. La Follette, one of our most esteemed citizens, which has probably resulted in his death. Mr. La Follette left his place this morning with a load of hay, intending to go to his horse ranch near the Tethrow Ferry on the Deschutes River; distance about 24 miles. When within about 300 yards of Mr. Tethrow’s house he from cause fell from his wagon, and is supposed sustained fatal injuries.
The team which he was driving was seen coming down the road at a slow walk by Mr. Jesse Tethrow, and seeing no one driving it he suspected some harm had come to the driver and started back up the road. When about 300 yards up he found the body of a man and some blankets and bedding laying in the road just at the foot of a steep little pitch or hill. Upon lifting the head of the body he saw the face was very pale or white, and that the man was yet alive. After taking a second look he discovered that Mr. La Follette was the person before him, and then asked him if he could speak, calling him by name. Mr. La Follette then moved his lips as though trying to say something, but could not articulate a sound. Jesse placed his head upon some of the blankets found with him and ran for his mother and sister to assist the wounded man, while he saddled a horse and went for other assistance. His sister, who had preceded him, told him as he came by the place of the accident on his way here that the man was dead. So he hurried on, notified parties near the accident. He arrived here at 7:15 this evening.

Mr. La Follette came to this country some 14 or 15 years ago, and by industry and fair dealing had gained for himself quite a competence and the confidence and esteem of the entire community. He was about 53 years old, but was in robust health, and seemed good for 20 years of life yet. His wife and children are near here on their home place on McKay Creek. The heartfelt sympathy of the whole community goes out to his bereaved family. A good man is gone.
Respectfully, T.W.V.

While a good man was gone, a family lived on to helped shape Crook County and continued writing the history that would become my story.  A story that was just waiting for me to open the pages and step in. Now in all fairness, much of the family history was passed down to me as living members of the clan tried to interest a very young man in the dusty tales of those times. In addition, books have been written on the La Follette linage providing a simple trail to follow as I try to connect to the past. Yet, those did not provide me with the touchstone I was looking for to begin this project. I needed to visit Prineville and see it with the eyes of my family.

I had learned where the family final resting place was before making the trip east, so I spent most of the day searching records at the County Court House. I was looking for the location of the two ranches where they lived, worked and in some cases, fished. My research could have gone on for days as each document I opened offered some answers, but even more questions.

With miles to go and wanting to at least wet a line in the Metolius, I clicked off the county clerk’s computer and headed home. As I started towards the setting sun with plans to catch the last of the day with my boots in the river, something made me turn around. I phoned my wife, Kellie, and had her send me the address of a little cemetery just north of town. Soon I was turning in between the gates and confronted with the monumental task of finding my family that now rested here.

The older gentleman in charge of the place looked like he would be more at home on a horse tending cattle, but pecked at the vintage laptop and noted the locations of the La Follettes on a Post-it Note. After consulting a map and getting his bearings, I followed him through the maze of stone until we stood with Jerome, Sophia and young son, James. A weathered sagebrush pushed up between mother and son, but Jerome’s white marble marker stood alone and seemed out of place. I had known that the local historical society had replaced the stone many years ago when the original had become unrepairable. Over one hundred years in the rugged Central Oregon weather had taken its toll. At the time I had felt a loss that I didn’t understand, but standing there I knew why. This stone, while marking the memory of the man, did not resonate the love and respect shown by his family and community at his passing. 

I had previously inquired as to the location of the original stone, but try as I could I was unable to find anyone that knew what had been done with it. I had lost hope in ever seeing it, accepting this truth, but feeling the emptiness of history lost. I asked my guide if he had any idea what had become of it or where it could have ended up. Soon his weathered hands were fiddling with a large collection of identical keys trying to convince an old rusty lock to open. It seemed the question would go unanswered yet again. Then success, the gate swung open to reveal a forgotten collection of broken bits of ancient granite and marble showing through sagebrush and dust. I was somehow drawn to a particular stone that lay shattered in an opening in the brush and weeds. There, lit by the late afternoon sun lay the touchstone I was seeking. Now the adventure can begin.

Stacey commented on 14-Apr-2016 11:20 AM
You're most fortunate to have this deep rooted documentation of your history. I am adopted. I know very little about my family other than I am a decedent of the Donner party on my bio-fathers side. Other than that juicy, and rather disturbing tidbit...and I'm all irish. That would explain my ability to consume larger quantities than my size would suggest. Just to say, be grateful you have this history, its really important to know where you come from. Beautiful story Joel.
Brian Davern commented on 14-Apr-2016 09:59 PM
Thanks for sharing this installment of your family quest. It is deftly written with images to match. I enjoyed the read.
Jim O'Connell commented on 16-Apr-2016 05:05 AM
Hi Joel, I have been to your shop and you set me up with my first Sage rod years ago…I am good friends with Craig Myers who I know you know well. I was very taken with the story of finding your heritage and have great appreciation for what it meant to you and what our ancestors mean to all of us. Well told story sir and tight lines. Sincerely, Jim

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