Life Story: Letitia Carson2021-02-11T10:59:14-05:00

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Life Story: Letitia Carson (ca. 1815-1888)

A Free Black Woman in the Antebellum West

The story of a free Black woman who built a life in Oregon.

Letitia Carson’s Homestead Certificate

Letitia Carson’s Homestead certificate, June 19, 1868. Oregon State Archives.

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Court Notice from Letitia Carson

Court Notice from Letitia Carson, 1854. Oregon State Archives.

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Letitia Carson came to the area that would become Oregon in 1845. She arrived in the company of David Carson. The exact nature of their relationship is a mystery. In later family records, David’s children described him as a man from “a southern state.” Letitia herself recorded that after he crossed the state line out of Missouri, David asked her to live and work with him until his death. Was Letitia an enslaved woman that David brought with him when he decided to move West? Did he free her on the journey because slavery was outlawed in Oregon? Or was she always a freewoman who entered an unusual agreement? Historians can only wonder.

Letitia gave birth to David’s child, a girl they named Martha Jane Carson, as they crossed the Rocky Mountains. When David, Letitia, and Martha arrived in Oregon, they were able to claim 640 acres of land as a family. David and Letitia built a small cabin to live in and settled into a life of hard farm labor. In 1849, Letitia gave birth to a little boy, whom she and David named Adam.

David Carson’s land claim was reduced to 340 acres in 1850. It is likely that this happened because the authorities learned he and Letitia were not properly married. Without an official marriage, they could not claim the amount of land given to married couples.

David died in 1852, leaving Letitia with the two young children. Two years later, in 1854, Letitia sued the administrator of David’s estate. According to Letitia, David had asked her to live and work with him for the rest of his life. In exchange, he promised to make Letitia his heir. But David left no written record of this agreement, so the executor of his estate had not given Letitia any of David’s property or goods. She was suing to get what she believed was her fair share.

Oregon territory was not a welcoming place for free Black people. It had laws that barred free Black people from owning land, suing in the courts, or even living in the territory. But Letitia would not be discouraged. She asked for $7,450 as payment for the seven years she had worked for David. She also demanded an equal share in the sale of his cattle and other assets. On May 12, 1855, a jury of white male settlers awarded her $529.50 to cover both the work she had done for David and her legal fees. On October 25, 1855, she was awarded an additional $1,399.75 for the sale of David’s cattle. It was nowhere near what Letitia felt she was owed, but it was a remarkable victory for a free Black woman in the Oregon territory.

The Homestead Act did not exclude people based on race or gender, and Letitia jumped at the opportunity to improve her family’s financial situation.

After her court victories, Letitia took a job with the Elliff family in Cow Creek Valley. She and her children lived in the Elliff home. Letitia supplemented her income by performing midwife services for the local community. While working for the Elliff family, Letitia saw Oregon become a state in 1859.

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law. The Homestead Act granted 160 acres of government land to any person who agreed to live on and improve the land for five years. If they fulfilled their agreement, the homesteader could then purchase the land for a very small registration fee.

The Homestead Act did not exclude people based on race or gender, and Letitia jumped at the opportunity to improve her family’s financial situation. On June 17, 1863, she filed a homestead claim. She listed herself as a widow with two children. She did not claim to be a formerly enslaved person, which supports the theory that she was free when she entered into her relationship with David so many years prior.

Letitia worked hard to fulfill her end of the Homestead Act claim and improve her land. She built a two-story home and a barn. She planted an orchard. She also cultivated a herd of cattle and pigs that she could sell at market. Letitia’s hard work paid off. President Ulysses S. Grant certified her land claim on October 1, 1869. She was the only Black woman to secure a Homestead Act land claim in the state of Oregon.

By the 1870 census, Letitia was a prosperous Oregon landowner. The census taker estimated that her land was worth about $1,000, and that she had personal property worth about $625. Today, this would be over $30,000. Letitia continued to live and work on her ranch until her death on February 2, 1888.

Vocabulary

  • administrator: A person assigned to settle a deceased person’s estate.
  • estate: All of the money and property owned by a person at the time of their death.
  • executor: A person responsible for carrying out another person’s wishes after their death.
  • heir: A person who inherits someone’s property after their death.
  • homestead: The home and land occupied by a family.

Discussion Questions

  • Why was Letitia Carson left out of the payments from David Carson’s estate?
  • What might account for Letitia’s successes both in court and in her homestead claims?
  • Why is Letitia an outlier in Oregon history? Why is it important to know her story?
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Themes

AMERICAN IDENTITY AND CITIZENSHIP; IMMIGRATION, MIGRATION, AND SETTLEMENT; DOMESTICITY AND FAMILY

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