Wild Women of the West: Bethenia Owens-Hill

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Bethenia Owens Odair

Bethenia Owens-Hill

Fifteen-year-old Bethenia Owens-Hill stared out the window of her aunt’s farmhouse, rocking her infant son to sleep.  A brisk wind pelted the glass with sand and dust.  Drought-twisted sagebrush tumbled past her bleak, hazy view and continued on.  Bethenia’s baby whimpered a bit and she kissed his tiny forehead.  Tears drifted down her face and she brushed them away with the back of her hand.  Her Aunt Kelly entered the room from the kitchen and placed a pot of stew on a neatly set table.  Bethenia turned away from her aunt, hoping she wouldn’t be caught crying, but it was too late.  The concerned woman gently walked over to her distressed niece and put a comforting arm around her.

“Now Bethenia,” she said kindly, “You just give him to me.  I’ll take him, and educate him, and make him my heir.  I’ll give him all I have, and that’s more than his father will ever do for him.”

“My baby is too precious to give to anyone,” Bethenia replied in a hurt voice.  “You seem to think that will make things all right.”  The young mother sobbed into her child’s blanket.  Her aunt apologized and tried to persuade her to eat something.  Bethenia declined, choosing instead to pace the floors with her baby boy.

When Bethenia’s parents arranged for their daughter to marry Legrand Hill, a farmer who had advertised for a bride in the Oregon newspapers in February of 1854, they never imagined the union would turn out to be such an unhappy one and that Bethenia would be left to raise her son alone.  

Bethenia Angelina Owens was one of nine children born to Thomas and Sarah Damron Owens in February 1840.  When Bethenia was three, her father moved the family from Van Buren County, Missouri, to Clatsop, Oregon.  The Owens crossed the plains with the first emigrant wagon trains of 1843.  Thomas came west to acquire a large parcel of land the government had encouraged pioneers to claim on the new frontier.  Settling at the mouth of the Columbia River, the Owens entered into the cattle ranching profession.  

As the second oldest child in the family, Bethenia was given the job of babysitter for her younger brothers and sisters, while her mother and older sister helped work the ranch.  According to her memoirs she often had one of her siblings in her arms and more clinging to her.

“Where there is a baby every two years, there is always no end of nursing to be done; especially when mother’s time is occupied, as it was then, every minute, from early morning till late at night, with much outdoor as well as indoor work.  She  [Bethenia’s mother] seldom found time to devote to the baby, except to give it the breast.”Bethenia Owens-Adair – October 1906

Bethenia was barely fourteen when she first made the acquaintance of Legrand Hill.  He had been living in the Rogue River Valley for a year and working his parents’ land.  He was a handsome man, broad-shouldered and tall.  When she looked into his eyes, she saw the promise of a long and happy life.  Her parents had selected this man to be her husband and she trusted their decision.  On their recommendation she eagerly placed her future in Legrand’s hands.  On May 4, 1854, the petite teenager, dressed in a sky-blue wedding dress, stood next to her groom and promised to be a faithful wife.  

After the ceremony the pair retired to their home in the middle of 320 acres of farmland Legrand had purchased on credit.  The newlyweds lived four miles from Bethenia’s parents and in the beginning, all was right with the world.  Family and friends visited often, helping Legrand work the property and assisting Bethenia as she made repairs to their small log cabin.  

“I had high hopes and great expectations for the future.  My husband was a strong, healthy man; I had been trained to work, and bred to thrift and economize, and everything looked bright and beautiful to me.  My soul overflowed with love and hope, and I could sing the dear old home-songs from morning to night.”

 

Bethenia Owens-Adair – June 1854

Legrand was an avid hunter, and in between planting and tending to the livestock, he spent days in the forest bagging grouse and deer.  Before long, Legrand’s hunting trips became an obsession.  More often than not, he put off doing chores to track wild game.  He idled away so much time Bethenia’s father was forced to complete the job of putting up a good winter house to protect his daughter from the elements.  A mere nine months after their wedding, Bethenia had fully recognized in Legrand a “lack of industry and perseverance.”  

Legrand was opposed to doing an honest day’s work and because of that, he was unable to pay the $150 mortgage on the farm.  The Hills were forced to sell the land and move to Jackson County, Oregon, to live with Bethania’s ’s Aunt Kelly.

Less than a year after the Hills were married, Bethenia gave birth to a boy.  The proud couple named the child George.  Legrand’s slothful ways, however, did not change with the advent of fatherhood.  He continued to fritter away his time, leaving the responsibility of earning an income to Bethenia.  

“Mr. Hill neither drank or used tobacco, but, as his aunt said during one of my long stays with her, he simply idled away his time, doing a day’s work here and there, but never continuing at anything.  Then, too, he had a passion for trading and speculating, always himself coming out a loser.”

 

Bethenia Owens-Adair – October 1906

Bethenia’s parents paid the young mother a visit and were appalled by the “hand to mouth” living situation in which they found their daughter and grandchild.  Thomas managed to persuade his son-in-law to return to Clatsop County.  He lured the less than ambitious Legrand back with an offer to give him an acre of land and material to build a house.

“To say that we were delighted with this proposal expresses it but faintly.  We sold our house in Yreka, realizing less than $100 out of the transaction, as the $150 mortgage and interest had to come out of the sum received for the property, but father said, ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.’  We were soon packed and ready to start our migration.”

Legrand’s attitude toward work remained the same in Clatsop County.  Against the advice of his father-in-law, he agreed to partner in a brick-making business.  Legrand turned what little money he and Bethenia had over to his two partners and then spent all of his time overseeing the venture.  He decided against building a home for his wife and child and chose instead to move his family into a tent.  A sustained torrential downpour halted the making of the bricks and eventually put an end to the business altogether.  

In late November, Bethenia contracted typhoid fever.  She was much too sick to care for her baby or work to keep food on the Hill table.  Her parents stepped in and moved Bethenia and George out of the damp tent and into their dry home.

Thomas pleaded with Legrand to start construction on a house for his family, but he refused to do so until the deed to the land was turned over to him.  When Thomas refused to give in to his request, Legrand became furious and decided to build a house in town instead.  He proved to be a poor carpenter and after four months. the home was still not complete.  Wife and child were moved in anyway.      

“The kitchen was so open that the skunks, which were very numerous in that region at that time, came under the floor nights, and up into the kitchen, where they rattled around among the pots and pans, even jumping on the table, and devouring the food, if I did not keep everything securely covered, while I often lay and listened to their nocturnal antics, not daring to get up to drive them out, as the dire consequences of disturbing them suddenly were well known.”

 

Bethenia Owens-Adair – October 1906

Bethenia continued to struggle with her health.  The fever had left her weak and unable to do everything she once did.  George was sickly too, but was nonetheless a big eater.  Legrand had little or no patience with his three-year-old son’s ailments.  He spanked him quite frequently for whimpering, and in many instances, was generally abusive toward the toddler.

“Early one morning in March, after a tempestuous scene of this sort, Mr. Hill threw the baby on the bed, and rushed downtown.  As soon as he was out of sight, I put on my hat and shawl, and gathering a few necessaries together for the baby, I flew over to father’s.”

 

Bethenia Owens-Adair – October 1906

Sarah Owens applauded her daughter’s courage in leaving Legrand.  “Any man that could not make a living with the good starts and help he has had, never will make one,” she told Bethenia.  “And with his temper, he is liable to kill you at any time.”
Bethenia remained at her parents’ home even though Legrand made numerous appeals to win her back.  “I told him many times,” she later wrote in her journal, “that if we ever did separate, I would never go back and I never will.”

After four years of living in a difficult marriage, Bethenia filed for divorce.  Many Clatsop County residents were shocked by her actions, and a family neighbor advised Bethenia to “go back and beg him on your knees to receive you.”  The forlorn mother refused. “I was never born to be stuck by mortal man,” she insisted.

Although difficult at first, Bethenia and George’s life away from Legrand and his tyrannical behavior proved to be best for mother and son.  George thrived under his grandparents’ roof, basking in the constant attention he received from his many aunts and uncles.  Bethenia was coming into her own as well, deciding to go back to school and study medicine while holding down several jobs to support herself and her child.  In 1861, she had saved enough money to purchase a plot of land in Astoria, Oregon, and build a house.  

Legrand, who seemed to never have gotten over losing Bethenia, wrote her constantly during this time, pleading with her to remarry him.  Refusing to accept her written refusal, he showed up on the doorstep of her new home, crying and begging for a second chance.  “But alas for him,” Bethenia wrote in her journal.  “He found not the young, ignorant, inexperienced child-mother whom he had neglected and misused, but a full-grown, self-reliant woman who could look upon him only with pity.”

Bethenia divided her time between her son, her education, and her work.  Her fine business sense enabled her to make a substantial living as a milliner and dressmaker, and with the money she earned, she was able to send her son to college and on to medical school.  After acquiring a loan to further her own education, Bethenia entered a school in Philadelphia where she graduated with a degree in hydropathy medicine — a form of alternative medicine based upon the principle that water is the most basic element and also the most important aspect to good health.     

After receiving further medical training at schools in Michigan and Chicago, she returned to Clatsop County in 1883, and opened her own practice.  She was the first woman doctor in the state of Oregon.  

In 1884, she married Colonel John Adair, but her duties as a physician took precedence over her duties as a wife, and the pair eventually divorced.  Bethenia practiced medicine until she was 65 years old.

What became of Legrand Hill, Bethenia’s ex mail-order spouse is unknown.  Some Jackson County, Oregon, historians speculate that after Bethenia’s final rejection he returned to his parents’ home and drank himself to death.   

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