Sunday, March 7, 2010

Carnival of Genealogy's Tribute to Women: Orena, The Forgotten Keyes Matriarch

Orena Cordelia Keyes, circa 1875
Privately held by J. G. Hill

A cold rainy-sleet of an April day pelted me as I walked the rows of graves in the old Mt. Union Cemetery. After making notes and taking pictures of old, weather-worn Keyes tombstones, I smiled in triumph at the large letters cut into the huge oblong gray granite headstone. DUNN. The letters jumped out at me. I took a close up picture of the flat marble stone to the right of the gray monolith, which marked the grave of Henry Clay Dunn, husband of Orena Cordelia Keyes Dunn. I moved to the other side of the DUNN emblazoned stone to get a picture of Orena's stone. There was no stone for Orena. Where was she? Buried someplace else? I had walked this old Keyes burying ground, row by row, so I knew she wasn't buried elsewhere in this cemetery of the Keyes. Where then?

Over the next few months, thoughts of Orena would surface. I began looking over Keyes family pictures, gathering death certificates, organizing my census reports, re-reading family histories, and searching for this woman …....

Orena Cordelia Keyes, born the 1st of November, 1852, was a mere slip of a girl, fifteen or sixteen years old in the fall of 1868, when her Uncle James came back to the the family farm. Not long after the Gold Rush of 1849, James had left this corner of Tennessee, a place where Boone, Siever, and Blount are historic names. He didn't strike gold in California, but instead he made his way to Oregon's Willamette Valley. There he did become rich, at least to the standards of that time and place. Now Uncle James had returned to Tennessee as he wanted to take some of his family back to Oregon to share in the riches of that land.

Orena's father listened with interest to his brother's stories about the Willamette Valley's fertile land which was "dirt cheap." In addition, after the stream of gold seekers had diminished, travel was also comparatively inexpensive. Stories were being told as how it cost less to live and travel to the Oregon country than to live at home during the winter in the eastern portion of the country. Orena's father, uncles, brothers and cousins were intrigued by James' stories and his willingness to take them back to Oregon. David Keyes, Orena's father, committed to go Oregon and welcomed the idea of packing up his family for the trek to Oregon with his brother James.

By the fall of 1868, Orena's father and brothers had made preparations to sell the family farm. Not an easy choice to leave this land where the Keyes were such an integral part of the area. Doran, Lowery, Ward, Hawkins, Shoun, Donnelly, as well as Keyes, had lived in these valleys for nearly a hundred years and were well known in this northeastern section of Tennessee. Orena's great grandfather Alexander Doran fought in the Battle of Kings Mountain during the Revolutionary War. He had finally came home to die after being taken ill in the War of 1812. This precious corner of the world was just a valley or so away from Abingdon, Virginia, where her grandparents, Margaret Doran and James Keyes (father of Uncle James) met and married. Their ties to this land ran deep and wide, here where the Watauga River cut through the mountains and the names of Laurel Bloomery, Silver Lake, Grayson, and Butler are names of family and home.

Times were changing. The dislocations caused by battle between North and South had left the land and people broken and in disarray. Now, Uncle James had convinced her father that Oregon held riches for the family. Orena's mother, Susan Jane Ward Keyes, may have had some misgivings about leaving the valleys and hills of her family, her Methodist church, --- and the grave of her baby Benjamin. Though it was almost 5 years since the little four-year old passed away, Orena's mother's pain never seemed to leave her--- nor would it in Oregon.

At nearly sixteen, Orena would have been a great help to her mother when it came to deciding what to take or leave, packing their household goods, as well as the regular household duties. Thirteen year old Jane Rebecca, sometimes called Jane, and sometimes Becky, and the youngest, Margaret, would also have helped, but Orena as the eldest would have been her mother's strong right arm.

Emotions ran high, probably especially so for Orena's brothers, John Ward at nearly 20, James Edward Leonardis, 17, and even 14 year old Alexander Doran as they worked by their father's side preparing for the trip. Their heads filled with Uncle James' stories of the rich Oregon country, excitement of the adventure of a sea voyage and a trek to a new land mixed with the pain of leaving the people and land so dear. Before the Keyes left, they went one last time to Laurel Bloomery and the Keyes Cemetery to visit the grave of little Benjamin. Now they were ready to depart from their home in Tennessee for New York City.

Travel from New York to Aspinwall, on the east coast of Panama, had dropped significantly. In 1868, a cabin birth had dropped from $400 to $150 from the year before – and steerage was now only $50. When the family arrived in Aspinwall, the Keyes entourage would have debarked and perhaps stayed at one of the hotels that had sprung up for the American and European travelers.

The next day Uncle James and Orena's father would have purchased tickets to travel on the Panama Railroad across the 45 mile isthmus --- $25 per person plus 10 cents a pound for luggage --- for the 4 hour trip! While their mother may have fretted over the possibilities of theft, native riots, and the frightful “Panama Fever,” Orena and her brothers were most likely enthralled with the adventure; the jungle itself was full of new sights, sounds and creatures; Panamanian natives caught their attention with brightly colored clothing and signature straw hats; they might have come upon a more worldly priest dressed in silk robes – not like the somber black suited Methodist preachers of home. Once the Keyes family was aboard the railroad car, the unfamiliar sights of the jungle, numerous slides and reminders of the danger was overcome by the sight at the Summit of the Cierro Gigante. Here Orena and family, like Balboa, could see the waters of both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. Once they arrived at Panama City, the Keyes embarked on the last leg of the sea voyage to Portland Oregon and went directly to Benton County by way of the Willamette River (according to a grandson of Zachary Keyes).

From The History of Benton County, David D. Fagan, Benton County, Oregon

Orena and her younger sisters had an adventure of a lifetime by the time they finally arrived in Benton County. Now the family energy would be directed to finding a place to live – probably with Uncle James at first --- unpacking and settling into a daily routine in the lush Willamette Valley. By 1870, her father had purchased a prime farm of 378 acres just 3 ½ miles south-west of Corvallis, Oregon. In short order, the Keyes farm took shape as shown in the picture above. The second story balcony in the front of the house was reminiscent of the Keyes' southern roots.

Even with all the activity devoted to getting settled into their new home, changes were starting to occur in the family. Orena's younger brother James was getting ready to leave the family home. In about 1872-73, he and his cousin Zachary had, with a loan from their Uncle James, purchased a herd of 600 Costwold ewes to trail to eastern Oregon's Wasco County. About the same time, the health of the uncles, John and James, began to fail and Orena, according to family stories, took on the role of taking care of her uncles. While the remaining four siblings went on about their lives as young people do, Orena took on the caretaker role that she would follow throughout her life

By 1875, the son of a prosperous Benton county farmer had met, courted and proposed marriage to Orena's youngest sister, Margaret Delilah. The marriage was the Keyes social highlight of the year. James E. L. and Zachary, brother and cousin, came from eastern Oregon for the wedding vows of Margaret and Abiathar Barrett Newton. All of the family gathered at the Philomath home for the wedding as well as a historic picture taking event that not only recorded the wedding couple but the Keyes family as it was in 1875.

circa 1875 Children of David L. & Susan J. Keyes, Benton County Oregon
Back Row, L to R: Alexander Doran, James Edward Leonardis, John Ward
Front Row, L to R, Margaret Delilah, Jane Rebecca, Orena Cordelia

Privately held by JGHill.

Change and sadness was on the horizon. Margaret left the Keyes home to establish her home with her husband. James and Zachary returned to eastern Oregon where they would build their homes and lives. Most distressing, the uncles health was failing even more. Orena was there, caring for them during their last days and months. John died in 1876, January 25th in his 74th year. Uncle James died in 1877, October 22nd at only 57 years of age. Notable was the fact that out of James' considerable estate of over $28,000, he left 25 year-old Orena an inheritance of $3,000. He was generous to his brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews; however his generosity to Orena, was at least three times the amount left to each of his other heirs.

While in eastern Oregon, Orena's younger brother James met, courted and married Agnes Brown in 1877. About the same time, her oldest brother John Ward Keyes joined his brother and cousin in eastern Oregon. The Corvallis homestead that had its full complement of Keyes young people was down by half, but still a vibrant place with young Alexander, Becky, and Orena herself. However by February 1881, tragedy once again hit the Keyes family. Orena's mother was taken ill. She died on February 20, 1881. Then a double hit, her handsome youngest brother Alexander was also felled by the illness. He died just three days after his mother. The Keyes family gathered once again, this time to take mother and son to join Uncles James and John in the cemetery on the hill, Mt. Union Cemetery.

2009 View of Keyes Burying Ground in Mt. Union Cemetery

Held privately by J. G. Hill

Orena's life now changed dramatically. No longer was she the lovely young daughter who helped her mother, but she now took over managing the household for her father. By late fall 0f 1881, Becky had met and fallen in love with a young man from back home in Tennessee, Roderick Nelson Donnelly. They were married and moved to the Mitchell area where James and cousin Zachary now ranched. Her older brother John was back and forth between Corvallis and Mitchell, but in 1884 he met and married Sarah Brumfield. Orena now was the unofficial matriarch of the Keyes family, running the household and taking care of her father till the end of his life. During this time, Orena, reportedly, did have at least one spot of joy in her life – her nephew Benjamin Newton, one of the sons of her youngest sister Margaret. According to family stories, Ben lived with Orena off and on throughout his life.

David Lowery Keyes, circa 1875
Privately held by J.G.Hill

Her father David Lowery Keyes died on July 20 1895, leaving Orena alone in the once fun filled home. Shortly after his death, Orena's life entered a wonderfully new stage, a man came into her life. By January 17, 1897, just a year and a half after the death of her father, forty-five year old, Orena married Henry Clay Dunn. Henry's family were well-known and prosperous Benton county farmers and his brother John W. Dunn, Jr., a Deputy Sheriff. Whether this was a marriage of convenience or not, one would hope that this was a life long attraction that finally had it's moment. The couple soon built a beautiful new two-story home across the compound from the old homestead house built by her father – on the property left to her by her father. Vibrant and elegant wall paper covered the walls and the stairway railing was graced by hand-hewn decorative railing. The dining room had a bay window looking out towards the house Orena's father built. She had finally come into her own, a beloved nephew, a husband and a lovely new home.

2009 Picture of the Dunn House under restoration. Courtesy of John Hoppner

However, by the December, 1908, her dear younger brother James E. L. came from eastern Oregon to spend the winter with her and Henry. James' health was failing and his family hoped he might do better in the warmer climate of the Willamette Valley. James seemed to rally and wrote encouraging letters to his family, but after the first of the year, his health was failing.

Corvallis Oregon

Dec 6th 1908

Mrs. Frank Sigford

Pet, I will write you A Short Letter today I am well I received A card from Ward a day or sow A gow they were all well there I got to Corvallice all right the Day that I left your place I did not find Phil till the Next morning as he was gowing to school he and Keyes were out to H C Dunnes and stayed three or four days thanksgiving I have been working some for Henry on the ranch running A grain Drill and painting his yard fence and Wool shed I am gowing up to Pilomath to Day to see sister Mag and her folks

With Love to all

from your father

J E Keyes

NOTE: Pet was his special name for his younger daughter by his first wife Agnes. Pet was living in Klamath Falls OR at the time of this letter. One of his younger sons Phil must have been going to school in the valley, as did his daughter Pet when she was in high school. Henry C. Dunn, Orena's husband had taken over running of the Keyes farm.

Mrs. Agnes Keyes

Pet, I will write you A few line to day I am well and hope your are well and that the Babies are over the chicken pockes and are well and harty

I had A Letter from home7th of this month the folkes were all well then the wetheir had been very Cold tier the themomiter was down to 24 below zero we had A least 8 inches of snow here the themomiter was down to 5 Above zero one morning the snow lay on the ground for ten dayes I am Chowring on the ranch for Henry Dun I started in to chop cord wood for him and the storm came on and I haven't choped since I will be down to see you as soon as he gets A hand to take mi place hands seemes to be scarse here that will work on A ranch I haven't saw Phill since New Years he was well then with the Exception of his fingers that he got cut they were healing up all right

from your father

J E. Keyes

Orena cared for her brother in those last months and days. Never again did he see his daughter, Pet. He died February 13, 1909. Orena and Henry had James body sent back to his home in Mitchell for burial.

The next year tragedy again struck. Orena's husband Henry died suddenly of a heart attack – just a year and a half after her brother James. By July 10, 1910, Orena was left alone in the lovely house she and Henry had built. She lived in this house alone until a few years before her death. Her nephew Benjamin Newton apparently ran the farm. He and his family lived next door in the old homestead house her father built. In 1930, Orena lived for a time with Benjamin's sister, her niece Margaret Stephens. In the fall of 1934, Orena fell and broke her hip. It seems that she never fully recovered. Orena Cordelia Keyes Dunn died on 7 May 1935. The farm that her father had bought and built up was reportedly left to her nephew Benjamin Newton.


On another typical Oregon spring day, with rainy-sleet pelting me, I again visit the Mt. Union Cemetery. A sadness slinks in and around me. Now I know for sure that Orena is buried to the left of the big gray stone with DUNN cut deep into the granite, but she has no stone. Orena Cordelia Keyes Dunn cared for her Uncles James and John in their last days, for her mother Susan and brother Alexander during their last illness before they died in 1881. She cared for her father from the time of her mother's death until David Keyes joined his Susan. Orena cared for nephew Benjamin throughout his life. She cared for her brother James E. L Keyes when he died. She was always there for her Keyes family.

Who cared for Orena? Was there no one left who cared enough to make sure that her last resting place had a stone that said,

Orena Cordelia Keyes Dunn

Born Nov 1, 1852

Died May 7, 1935

We remember

* * *

Orena Keyes" time line can be found here


The Keyes Family of Johnson Co. Tennessee:, C.B. Neal, 1956, Olympia, Washington.

History of Benton County, Oregon,” David Fagan, 1885, Portland, Oregon.

History of Wheeler County, ” Mac Stinchfield, editor . 1983, Times Journal, Condon, Oregon

Tennessee Records,” Vol 1, p.189

1840 Federal Census, Washington Co., Va

1850 Federal Census, Dist. 1, Johnson Co., TN, p. 4

1860 Federal Census, Dist. 1,Johnson Co., TN, p.3

1870 Federal Census, Dist. 1, Johnson Co., TN, p. 1

1880 Federal Census, Philomath, Benton Co., OR, p, 121

1880 Federal Census, 124th Dist., Wasco Co., OR, pp 10 & 12

1900 Federal Census, Philomath,Benton Co., OR, p. 6

1910 Federal Census, Philomath, Benton Co., OR, p. 1B

1920 Federal Census, Philomath, Benton Co., OR, p. 1A

1930 Federal Census, Philomath, Benton Co., OR, p. 3 B

1876 James Keyes' Will, Benton Co., OR

1895 David L Keyes” Will, Benton Co. OR

1910 Jul 7 Death Certificate, Henry Clay Dunn, Benton Co., OR

1935 May 7 Death Certificate, Orena Keyes Dunn, Benton Co, OR

Privately held Keyes Family photographs

Privately held pictures of Mt. Union Cemetery

Family reminiscences from Loise Stradtman, Joyce Williams, Ruth McPherson-Carson-Carland, and Gail Sigford (daughters of Agnes Laura Keyes Sigford).

2010 Feb 26 Phone interview with McHenery Funeral Home.


  1. Wonderfully written! So sad that no one bothered to place a marker on her grave. You have remembered her well.

  2. Apple, thank you for reading and commenting. I was stunned when I found no stone for Orena -- couldn't get her out of my mind. Thanks again.

  3. A very fitting tribute to Orena. A compelling story....I won't forget her.

  4. What a beautiful story you have told of a family member. and so sorry that no one gave her a grave stone. Would it not be wonderful if you could find enough distant relatives to all chip in and buy her a small stone so future generations will know where her final resting place is.

  5. Joan,

    This is such a nice addition to the family genealogy and so well written. Thank you so much for writing this and sharing it. Shirley

  6. Loved your story. It set my adhd mind a racing to those with out stones. I hope all those people who actually spread the ashes or have the ashes in a specialized urn still place some kind of marker or words somewhere for records to be found by geneations to come seeking family info. Or make sure the family tree is well published and documented.

    I think to of those along the trail. Those who died on the wagon trail, if lucky they had time to carved it on a rock.

  7. You are such a delightful storyteller Joan. Thank you for sharing Orena with us. Beautifully written.

  8. Great story, very well written. I read it with great enjoyment.

  9. Joan, I truly loved getting to know Orena. You have given her a wonderful memorial in writing this biography. I love the way you write so easily and the story flowed. I felt tears well up in my eyes at that last paragraph! Thank you for reminding me that there are those in my family tree that need this same kind of timeline and research. Orena was one in a million!

  10. Captivating story. It always makes me sad when I find an ancestor has no grave marker.

  11. Dearest Joan ... I, too, have a special place in my heart and soul for those who leave this world with no descendants of their own to remember them ... thank you, my dear, for sharing your storytelling-talent with us ... and for introducing your Orena to us ... my motto? ... let those begot be not forgot ...