Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Agnes Aurelia Brown Keyes was my great-grandmother. I never knew her. My mother, her granddaughter never knew her. My Grandmother and her daughter, Agnes Laura Keyes Sigford, never knew her. Now my grandmother and mother too are both in their graves, and that long ago life of Agnes Aurelia recedes further into the mist of memories, then into the thinning mist, so all that is left is this slender spire on a hill.

My lips tingle as I repeat her name, Agnes Aurelia; “Aurelia” hangs on like a lost song in my head. I do not want the memories of her to dissipate into nothingness. I look for her, and search for bits and pieces of the short life of Agnes Aurelia.

She was born on March 6th, 1860, at the family homestead in Dufur, Oregon, along 5 Mile Creek in the hills south of Fort Dalles. The fifth child born to her parents, Sarah Almira (Duty) and Jonathon Perry Brown who came over the Oregon Trail in 1854. She joined her older sisters, Clementine, Elizabeth, and Sarah Ellen, and brother Erasmus Wellington.

The family lived on the Dufur homestead along 5-Mile Creek in the hills above Fort Dalles for over seven years, when tragedy struck. An accidental gunshot took the life of her 14-year old sister Elizabeth and devastated their mother Sarah.

New homesteading land in eastern Oregon combined with the grief-stricken memories cemented the choice to again strike out for a new home. Eight year old Agnes was of an age that she had lots of chores along the trail to eastern Oregon, what with trailing stock, setting up and taking down campsites each night, cooking, washing dishes and clothes, as well as watching her two younger sisters Molly and Effie May. They traveled through wild and desolate country that was still feeling the ravages and fear from the 1864 Shoshone uprising.

From Fort Dalles to eastern Oregon was a bone jolting trip. Agnes and her family followed landmarks many now strange to our ears: along the Old Dutchman road towards Fort Dalles, to the crossroad of the Old Military Road where they turned south, past Mud Springs, Haystack Creek, Buck Hollow, and Great Hollow near Tygh Road, past Antelope Valley, then turning westerly they paralleled the John Day River past Cherry Creek coming through the Painted Hills to their new homestead.

Agnes and her older sisters would have helped set up housekeeping in the log cabins at Johnson Creek, and later at Girds Creek. The Girds Creek home, nestled along Girds Creek with a steep northeast-facing hill behind the cabin, was better protected from the elements, as well as marauding Shoshone. For several years, Agnes Aurelia, her sisters and mother were the only white women in the area.

Family stories indicate that the cabin at Girds Creek burned to the ground. So the family, which now included two more daughters, moved a few miles north to a homestead on Shoo Fly Creek. a few miles north of Girds Creek.

About this time, early 1870s, two young Tennesseans, James E. L. Keyes and his cousin Zachary Keyes, drove a herd of Cotswold ewes from the Keyes' farm near Philomath in Benton county over the Cascade Mountains to Cherry Creek in eastern Oregon. Soon thereafter the cousins moved to just to the east of Mitchell, Oregon, where they established their homestead. They were energetic, handsome, and well to do young men who accumulated cattle, horses and mules, in addition to the sheep.

Eastern Oregon hills had a dearth of young women but Jonathon and Sarah Brown had three young daughters of marriageable age. The sixteen year old Agnes Aurelia caught the eye of James E. L. Keyes. He courted her, and on June 28th, 1877 they were married at the home of her parents. The young couple moved into the handsome Keyes homestead house on the hills east of Mitchell. Those were heady days for the couple. Keyes relatives came from not only Corvallis and Benton County, but also far way Tennessee, to visit or to stay before getting their own homestead

On March 30th, 1878, James A. Keyes, was born to Agnes Aurelia and James E. L Keyes. A little sister, Almira Jane, joined her brother, on January 8, 1880. Then a scant 1 ½ years later, and just four years since their marriage, Agnes Aurelia gave birth to her third child, another daughter, Agnes Laura, born June 8, 1881.

Agnes Aurelia did not live to raise her children as she died on June 15, 1881, a week after the birth of baby Agnes Laura. At the age of just twenty-one, young Agnes Aurelia lay dead, leaving her grieving husband James and three young children, two toddlers and a babe.

All that is left to remember the incomplete life of Agnes Aurelia Brown Keyes is slender white marble spire marks the place where she lay in eternal sleep in the old Mitchell cemetery on a windswept hill north of the little town of Mitchell.

(Note:Ruth Evangeline Sigford, my mother, the daughter of Agnes Laura, and the granddaughter of Agnes Aurelia, remembered hearing that her grandmother was blind before she died. A great-great-granddaughter of Agnes Aurelia, who is an M.D., told me that after the childbirth Agnes Aurelia most likely had a blood clot that lodged in the brain or possibly an aneurysm which would have cause blindness and death.)


  1. I LOVE how you wrote her story! I look forward to following you! :) My favorite phrase: "recedes further into the mist of memories."

  2. Thank you for those kind words. I am finding that I fell into the midst of a community of writers -- an exciting place to be. Writing and family history in one wonderful place.

  3. What a sad story Joan, evocatively told. I found their migration across the country quite fascinating and different in many ways from the Australian experience...although there were some attacks by Aborigines they were less aggressive in their response to the take-over of their country. Only 21! It's so tragic.