Paper pub. date
January 2002
ISBN 9780870715396 (paperback)
6 x 9 inches, 262 pages. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index.
Out of Print


The Story of Settlement in the Rogue River Canyon

Kay Atwood

Illahe tells the captivating story of the miners, packers, farmers, and families who settled southern Oregon's rugged Rogue River Canyon in the 1860s.

Kay Atwood creates a personal picture of what life was like in the remote canyon, drawing on first-person accounts from diaries, journals, and interviews she conducted with descendants of the families who settled the area, most of whom shared Native American and white ancestry. Their stories recount hardships, dangerous river travel, deadly floods, extreme winters, constant isolation, and the self-sufficiency required to survive in this wild, beautiful place.

In addition to artfully presenting the words of the homesteaders and their descendants, Atwood has also gathered a treasure trove of rare historic photographs, supplemented by her own drawings and hand-drawn maps.

For anyone who has enjoyed the Rogue River canyon and wondered about the history of this National Wild and Scenic Rivers corridor, as well as for readers interested in pioneer history and the settlement of southern Oregon, Illahe offers a fascinating portrait of a truly unique time and place.

About the author

Kay Atwood is a historian and illustrator who lives in Ashland, Oregon. She is the author of numerous historical publications.

Read more about this author

     William Rumley

     Big Bend
     Charles Foster
     The Second Generation

     Tom Billings

     The West Fork Trail
     The Mail

     Antone Walker
     John Billings
     Adeline Billings
     Hathaway Jones

     Dutch Henry
     Red Keller

     John Mickey
     Lou Martin

     Harvey Robbins
     Cabins and People

   FLOODS AND TRAVEL: 1860-1910
     Philip G. Eastwick
     Glen Wooldridge


ILLAHE explores the isolated world of the Rogue River which roars through narrow canyons and crashes over rapids between Grave Creek and the mouth of the Illinois River in Southwestern Oregon. The major portion of this forty mile stretch of the Rogue River and surrounding country is accessible only be trail, water and a few unimproved roads. The canyon remains an uninhabited, wild place.

I have spent the last three years getting to know people who were born on the river; who spent most of their lives working and living away from the rest of the world. Their grandparents were the first permanent settlers of the river canyon. Marial Billings Akesson, Ivin Billings and Elwin Frye are the grandchildren of Adeline and John Billings who settled at the mouth of the Illinois River in 1868. Dean Walker and Frank Thornton share as grandparents, James and Eliza Fry. Frames Fry and his brother Abraham came early to the Rogue. Leo Frye, a nephew of the Fry brothers married one of John Billings' daughters. Edna Price Plaisted, daughter of Elijah and Belle Price grew up on her parents' homestead at Big Bend.

The western branches of the Billings and Fry families began with a series of unions between miners and Karok Indian women along the Klamath River in northern California during the years 1855 to 1865. John Billings, James and Abraham Fry exchanged gold and mules for their women. The Karok wedding ceremony which usually combined traditional behavioral and dietary customs, was simplified in these informal alliances.

A few years after these couples settled near the confluence of the Illinois and Rogue Rivers, simple family trees became tangled webs of relationships and intermarriage, complicated by a limited number of potential marriage partners. John Billings, James and Abraham Fry eventually counted among them eight wives and thirty children. The complex knot of cousins, sisters, set-aunts and uncles intrigues me now; not as a genealogical puzzle, but as a source for understanding five generations in this wild, beautiful place.

The people of the Rogue River canyon love space, and their comfort in isolation is deeply ingrained. Men and women who spend their lives looking at sweeping vistas of mountains and ridges, each a backdrop for another, who look down into deep ravines and canyons and see water crashing over rock, have a life's accumulation of beauty in their eyes. I see it, and know that my friends have seen the same look in the eyes of their parents and grandparents.

The people I talked with live now in communities away from the wild canyon of the Rogue, but the self-sufficiency that an independent life encourages is evident as they speak. Their years in the isolated canyon have given them a special concept of time. They think in terms of seasons, and provide necessities accordingly. Lifeline trails took days to travel and encouraged patience and unhurried movement.

I was able to find few historical sources concerning the permanent settlements of the Rogue River between Agness and Mule Creek. The lack of information is partly due to the isolation of the river from the communities around it. Travel in and out of the canyon was possible only over long rugged trails. These surrounding communities served as supply and mail centers but were too distant for frequent visits. In addition, documentation along the Klamath River was haphazard and births, marriages and deaths not always recorded. Land accumulated before 1880 in meadows and on benches of the Rogue River was frequently taken by squatter's rights and no deeds issued. Miners sniped along the bars and creek mouths looking for traces of gold. Even claims officially taken up were often quickly explored and abandoned.

Newspapers which usually contribute valuable clues concerning everyday occurrences, were little help in this case. Coastal and interior newspapers mention the canyon infrequently, although occasional columns appeared after 1880.

Nineteenth century attitudes toward Indians also contributed to the lack of information. Almost all early residents on the Rogue River had indian ancestry. When community pioneer histories flourished, and bankers, farmers and merchants had their biographies recorded, families with Indian heritage were ignored. Even recently, I heard people say, without malice, "Oh, they were all Indians in there," with a finality that suggested that there was little else to know. Since there were few formal records, my primary sources for information were the descendants of early canyon residents.

Especially difficult to document were the lives of men living on the upper Rogue. Miners in the hills or along the river were located by the creek they lived on, or by the cabin their occupied. They built pole and shake shelters, or moved into cabins abandoned a season earlier. Miners welcomed guests and kept the coffee pot on, but served it with the grateful knowledge that the visitor would move on after the second cup. The miners worked, ate and slept; drifting season to season in hills and ravines too rugged for the kind of permanent settlement found down river. Outside contacts for miners were the packers who brought in supplies, or the shopkeepers visited on yearly trips out for necessities. Miners' names appear only occasionally in official records and rarely in the newspapers. For the most part they left no trace of their existence. A few gave their name to a creek, bar, or gulch. More lie in unmarked graves near cabin sites or along the trail where they were found.

Most of my information the area of the river between Horseshoe Bend and Grave Creek came from men like Lou Martin and Red Keller, who have spent much of their lives alone, mining year 'round on the Rogue river. From them I learned about the men who left no mark but a scar in the rocks, and no evidence of their being but fragments of metal equipment and decaying cabin ruins.

The world of the Rogue River from Agness to Grave Creek is different now, carved apart by logging roads; the silence broken by power boats and airplanes. The replacements of the original settlers are seasonal fishermen, hunters, and backpackers. Much of the land is managed by federal agencies. Almost no one has chosen to share the placer miner's heritage. Red Keller and Lou Martin are the very last of their kind. Leo Frye and Lou Martin told me before their deaths that they could see the changes in their isolated world.

I don't know it anymore. Now there's so many roads all over the places I've packed. They cut off the timber, ruined our waterholes where we used to camp. I don't think I know half the country now. I once could go anywhere at night, travel all over the mountains, didn't even have to have a light. There were beautiful spots out there. It just don't look the same.

Leo Frye


When I first came here, if you seen two people the whole summer, on the river or the trail, you seen a lot of people. Now its ninety percent more going down every day in the summer months. They start on school or college vacation. Rain or shine, snow or blow, they got the trip made and they go. They didn't used to. I find a lot of change in that. In fact, I'm glad I'm out of there.

Lou Martin

The tellers of the heart of the river story are miners and the grandchildren of early settlers on the Rogue River. Their memories and impressions weave a fine strong fabric. All have lived a long time, with energy that comes from years in vast, rugged country within earshot of the sound of flowing water. In each person exists a love of the river canyon which draws them back year after year.

Marial Billings Akesson

Marial, born on September 22, 1894, is the daughter of Thomas W. and Anna Anderson Billings. She was raised on the river and ran a lodge at mule creek for many years. She remembers her grandmother clearly, and shared intimate memories with me over cups of tea and honey. She revealed for me all the people and events that a bright, loving little girl stored in her memory. A photograph indicated a resemblance between Marial and her grandmother. When she picked up one of Adeline Billings' woven baskets and described the materials for me, I saw that Marial is more beautiful and much more sophisticated than Adeline, but as strong and resourceful.

I've felt people would have a deep sympathy for the way we lived. We wanted to live out like that. Why my grandfather came out here and settled, I'll never know, but he was a happy contented person. It was hewing a home out of the wilderness. It had a start somewhere. My people had the integrity and the will. It was a challenge. It was interesting meeting people. You didn't know where they came from or why, but they wanted to be away from civilization, from the crowds. They found contentment, which is so important. Now it's gone.

Marial Billings Akesson

Ivin Billings

Born in roseburg, March 19, 1895, Ivin was the oldest son of George W. and Sarah Ann Huntley Billings. I spent almost two days with Ivin and his family at Tucker Flat on Mule Creek. We talked for hours, and spent one full day driving and hiking the Mule Creek and Big Meadows country. Ivin shared with me his knowledge of mining and history. At the Big Meadows we visited the site of John and Adeline Billings' residence. We went to stand by their graves in the tiny cemetery which overlooks the canyon. Toward the end of the second day, we walked a short distance on the Rogue River Trail and saw the spot where Chow Long's cabin stood. We went back through the lower pastures at the George Billings ranch and sampled some excellent apples. Ivin died the following spring, and the next year when I went back to clean farm equipment on the ranch I missed him.

Elwin Frye

One of the younger grandchildren of Adeline and John Billings, Elwin Frye, was born October 1, 1907. He was the son of Leo and Viola Billings Frye. Before Elwin's death in October 1976, we spent an afternoon together talking about Rogue River history. Elwin had an excellent knowledge of the area. He packed for years for the U.S. Forest Service, and knew trails along the river and through the surrounding hills. His intelligence and imagination were two resources I came to value. They made it possible for him to explore and record much of his own past. Elwin and his father, Leo, returned each fall to Bear Camp for hunting season. Elwin died shortly after a hunting expedition in 1976. One of the people left behind who loved him was his father, Leo Frye.

Leo Frye

Leo Frye was born in Frytown, Iowa, September 9 1887. At age eighteen he travelled west and came to the Rogue River to visit his uncle, Jim Fry. He stayed. I drove to the small community of Powers many times during a two-year period, and we became friends. Leo's small immaculate home overlooked the community and a group of people who knew and respected him. We shared large sugary pieces of his ninetieth birthday cake in September, 1977, and he told me about his uncles, Abe and Jim Fry, his wife's parents, John and Adeline Billings, and his memories of packing over canyon trails. Leo was a happy man who is remembered fondly by those who knew him. He helped take care of his wife's parents when they were old, and he was called a family "stand-by" by Marial; someone they could always count on. Edna Price Plaisted, a daughter of early settlers on the River, remembered when Leo arrived.

When he came to Rogue River from Iowa, I took quite a fancy to him. He was very handsome and was going to dances at that time in the schoolhouse. I kept hoping he would dance with me, but he never did. I always have liked him, and I am glad to hear that he lived a long life.

Edna Price Plaisted


I asked Leo if he were religious.

Oh, in a way I am, not so much as I used to be. I still believe in it, I've got to. I get out and go to the dances. I don't say I don't take a little drink. It don't hurt you any. On my birthday, I'll probably get out there and do a couple of waltzes.

Leo Frye

Leo died just after his ninetieth birthday.

Edna Price Plaisted

My correspondence with Edna Price Plaisted has resulted in detailed, friendly letters filled with information. Her parents, Elijah Huitt and Belle Price settled early on the river. Their seven children were raised there. Edna was their fifth child, born April 17, 1890. The others were Noble, Ella, Martha, James, Frank, and Henry.

Their father began mining near Mule Creek in 1881 and Price Creek is named after him. Elijah Price had a small cabin where his wife and first child joined him after waiting in California for him to establish a home. The Price family soon moved down the river to farm at the Big Bend. Elijah Price encouraged forming a district school, and was instrumental in developing a mail route through the isolated country. In her letters, and over a memorable weekend at Agness, Edna told me of the people and interesting events that formed her early life. One of the people she recalled was Dean Walker.

Dean Walker looked about the same when I visited him as he did when I went to school with him. Our birthdays are on the same day, and it was still in his mind. He told me when it was. We didn't have much time to visit as we had to get back to our friend's home, but it was a pleasure to seen Dean. His family was our nearest neighbor on our side of the river. It took about two or three miles to get there. There was a lovely prairie with big oak trees for us to swing in and climb up in. They were nice friendly people and we liked to visit them.

Edna Price Plaisted.

Dean Walker

Dean Walker was living at the old Lowery ranch above Lobster Creek on the lower Rogue when I went to see him in the summer of 1977. He was the son of Ida Fry and Antone Walker, and the grandson of James and Eliza Fry. Dean was born across from Cherry Flat in 1890. His mother, Ida, oldest daughter of James and Eliza Fry, first married George Fleming. When she married Antone Walker in 1885 she had two small sons. The Walkers raised a large family of their own. Dean was wiry and bright. His excellent memory yielded names of people buried in unmarked graves along the river, and helped me sort out the complex lineages which developed throughout the hundred years of family history on the Rogue River. Dean died on May 12, 1978, and is buried near his father in the Oak Flat Cemetery.

Frank Thornton

I spent a delightful day with Frank Thornton and his granddaughter, Loreeta, who lives in Gold Beach. Frank Thornton's father, Samuel K. Thornton, married Gertrude, an orphaned baby James Fry had found along the Klamath River near Orleans Bar. Frank's wife, Nettie, was the daughter of Isaac Fry and Ellen Foster, and a granddaughter of James and Eliza Fry. After spending an evening talking about his family history, we drove up the river to visit Dean Walker, passing Potato Illahe where the Thornton family lived. One of Frank's earliest memories was the fiery destruction of that home when he was three years old. We went on to the Oak Flat Cemetery, three miles up the Illinois river. We drove slowly and Frank pointed out to me the gulch where Bill Rumley died. When we got to the cemetery I saw the Thornton family graves, and those of other early settlers in the area.

We went on up the river and after lunch at the Agness store, drove to Foster Creek and looked at the little cemetery above the road. Emmeline Billings and Hathaway Jones are buried there and two small markers remain.

Frank Thornton packed and worked in the woods to make a living for his large family. Born September 10, 1891, he was eighty-six years old when we took our trip up the river.

ILLAHE will make the journey upriver from Agness to Grave Creek, by chapters, and reveal the human history of the Rogue River canyon. Part One, The Illinois River to Kelsey Creek, is the story of settlers and miners who became permanent residents; the parents and grandparents of Ivin, Marial Elwin, Dean and Frank and Edna. Part Two, Kelsey Creek to Grave creek, by nature of alleuvial deposit and rough terrain, records the lives of lone miners, uniquely experienced by Lou Martin and Red Keller. Part Three, Agness to Grave Creek: The River, is a survey through years of floods, freighting, accidents and exploration of the tumultuous Rogue River. Glen Wooldridge, a prominent river man, tells his story of survival on white water.

The form is episodic, like the lives and movements of the individuals concerned. People were born on one creek, moved, and died on another. Agness, Illahe, Mule Creek and Grave Creek are the geographical locations where history evolved from everyday events. The story begins after the Indians, who lived for many years in the canyon, were gone. The survey of people and places is not exhaustive but selective; touching many lives, but not all, describing some events and leaving others for future discovery. I have made a particular effort to focus attention on people whose lives have, until now, been obscure.

Biological, botanical and environmental life on the Rogue River is currently receiving attention as dams on the upper Rogue change the river's life for the future. ILLAHE is the story of the people of the river: miners, farmers, packers, mothers and children, whose lives were spent in the canyon. It is a human history.

The Rogue River, giver of gold and food, barrier and route, resource and devourer of life, distanced its dwellers from the outside communities and unified them with each other and the natural world.

"A work of art, crafted by Kay Atwood through oral interviews, use of historic photographs, and documentary research. She captured the life and labors in one of Oregon's most remote frontiers."

-Stephen Dow Beckham author of
Requiem for a People: The Rogue Indians and the Frontiersmen
and Tall Tales from Rogue River

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