More than a decade ago, while giving a tour to schoolchildren at the local museum, I saw a small folded placard stating that in 1847, Matilda Koontz lost her husband while crossing the Oregon Trail, leaving her a widow with small children.
My heart broke, imagining the pain and uncertainty of a mother left alone on the 2,000-mile journey west to an untamed wilderness. What would she do? How would she survive?
During a lull between personal history projects, I decided to find out.
Thus began a five-year journey delving into the life of a pioneer who birthed eight children and buried four, whose direct blood descendants died out, leaving nobody to share the story of this remarkable woman.
Through research at the Washington State Library and Oregon Historical Society, I discovered how she survived and thrived in the Pacific Northwest. I even stumbled across the last words her husband ever said to her as he ventured into the Snake River to untangle the horns of an oxen caught on a guide wire and she urged him to be careful.
“If I was born to be drowned, I won’t be hanged,” he said, “and if born to be hanged, I’ll never be drowned.”
Matilda and her four young sons then watched Nicholas Koontz drown in the Snake River near present-day Glenns Ferry, Idaho. In shock, Matilda plunged into premature labor and lost their unborn baby, a daughter buried beside the river that claimed her father.
Matilda and her boys stayed at the Whitman Mission for a short time so Matilda could recover her health. They left only weeks before Native Americans killed Dr. Marcus Whitman and his wife, Narcissa, and a dozen other men in what became known as the Whitman Massacre.
Too weak to portage around Celilo Falls on the Columbia River, Matilda lay in the bottom of a canoe and plunged over the series of dangerous cascades and waterfalls as the river dropped more than sixty feet over a dozen miles.
Arriving at Oregon City, a widow with four young sons, Matilda’s options were limited. A nephew offered to accompany her back to Missouri the following spring, but could she risk the lives of her boys retracing the treacherous journey?
Instead, in May 1848, she married John R. Jackson, an Englishman and naturalized American who met her during a visit to Oregon City for supplies. He had crossed the Oregon Trail in 1844 and built a cabin north of Fort Vancouver and the Cowlitz River.
Matilda’s sons helped build a cabin that served as Washington Territory’s first courthouse, a building the remains standing today near U.S. Highway 12 in Lewis County. She became known throughout the region—and even in the nation’s capital—for her gracious hospitality and good cooking. She entertained the territory’s first governor, Isaac Stevens, and his family as well as military solders who later became generals—and one a United States president—Ulysses S. Grant, Philip Sheridan, and George B. McClelland.
Julie Zander’s five-year labor of love culminated in October 2019 with the publication of Washington Territory’s Grand Lady: The Story of Matilda (Glover) Koontz Jackson, a 364-page book that was a finalist for the Western Writers of America Spur Award and the Will Rogers Medallion.
Mary B. Trimble recently reviewed the book at http://www.marytrimblebooks.com/marys-blog/?fbclid=IwAR2o1uDC5Eoq5QYHrmknISNFe69Xk8X8QsyCnl82v5WxLJfzdp8z2CKUcSk
The book is available online at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, Walmart.com, and other retailers.