Eliza Young: Brownsville Basketweaver


Eliza Young (Indian Eliza, Liza), was a native of the Mohawk Valley. The Mohawk Indians, were originally called the Peyu (Pee-you, Pe-u) Kalapuyans and were re-named by settlers after the river was renamed by early settler Jacob Spores. The Spores family had come from New York in 1847, the original homeland of the Mohawk Seneca peoples, and brought that name with him. It was a practice for settlers to  rename their new settlements with names they brought from their original settlements from the east.

Section of 1851 Gibbs Starling treaty map, Note Pe-U Creek, and the closeness of the Spores place

Eliza appears to have been orphaned, likely as a result of the epidemics, perhaps malaria, which raged through the region in the 1830’s. There may easily have been a number of recurrences of the disease in the southern part of the valley such that in the 1840s her parents and perhaps the whole tribe, died. Many early explorerers, Like David Douglas, reported abandoned villages in the 1830s. She may have come from one of two tribes that existed in 1855, the Peyu Band, or the Chifin band, as each had temporary reservations in 1855 within their lands in very close proximity to the Mohawk Valley. The Chifin reservation at the Spores DLC may be the origin of Eliza coming into the Spores household because the reservation notes stated that there was a native village in the property.  When the tribes were removed to Grand Ronde Reservation in February 1856, Eliza may have stayed behind, adopted by the Spores who then “raised” her.

Eliza’s father is suggested as being Tekopa Kalapuya, having lived along the Calapooia River. He marries a Peyu Kalapuya women, the tribe directly to the south, and they have Eliza sometime in the 1830’s.  By the  early 1840’s Eliza’s parents die, and she was likely a teenager when adopted into the Spores house. She likely spends the better part of the 1840’s with the Spores.  Its likely that they taught her American culture and English and she operated as a servant to the family doing the chores, cleaning and cooking. Later stories suggest she was a good cook and did laundry jobs around Brownsville, suggesting that her experience came from early-on being taught how to cook and clean by the Spores, perhaps as their servant. This was a very common practice among the early settlers to have both men and women from the Kalapuyans living in “guest houses” outside sheds, or the barn, while they worked for the settlers helping to establish and maintain their farms and households.

During Eliza’s life she is recorded as having two husbands, the first she leaves because he beats her. This is the Indian way of marriage, women could divorce their husband by leaving them, but in this case she was purchased. His last name is Spores, perhaps adopting the surname from the Spores family. Spores may have been Yamhill, or that may be an association with when the Spores family moved to the Yamhill area to go live at the Grand Ronde Reservation. It was a common occurrence among tribal people to adopt the name of an influential white settler. Some of the Spores family, go to Grand Ronde Reservation, and one man hangs himself in the Dallas jail because he killed his wife from the reservation. Eliza evidentially falls in love with Jim Young (Indian Jim) who  buys her for ten ponies, a gun and $15 in gold, and they move to Brownsville. Bride-purchase was very common for area tribes.  Most stories suggest that they never went to a reservation. However, there is an 1886 census entry for the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation of Jim Young, age 40, living with his wife Eliza, age 50, and their son, age 16. They are not mentioned in the census for 1885, nor 1887, so it appears that the family lived for about a year or less on the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation before returning to Brownsville. Perhaps they went to Grand Ronde to get an Indian allotment? Jim was in and out of trouble with the law for stealing and for fighting, and so these may have been factors in the family movement to Grand Ronde, and later movement back to Brownsville.

1886 Grand Ronde Census images

Jim Young gets into trouble with the law in 1870,  and is placed in the State Penitentiary twice for Larceny (#1 sentenced: July 2, 1870, released, January 14 1871; #2 sentenced December 4, 1871, released September 22, 1873). His records state larceny and grand larceny, and at least one settler account suggests murder. They have two children, a boy (L.B.- Albert) and a girl (Susan), both of whom die young, before having children. They are buried in the Brownsville Cemetery.  Eliza survives her husband, who died in a brawl, by several decades.  She supporting herself on the good will of some families in the community who host her by giving her a small cottage to live in. The Kirk family took care of Eliza early on when she was in Brownsville. (The Kirks arrive in the 1846 wagon train, and then leave to go to Pendleton.) Town stories suggest that she does day jobs laundry and cooking for people in the community until she goes blind, likely in her 70s.

Eliza is well-known for her weaving skills as she continues to practice her native art and makes woven basket handbags, purses, from traditional materials she gathers, like juncus. through much of her life. When she goes blind she continues to weave baskets. There are numerous photos of her, her baskets, and her cottage when she is apparently blind. Most museums in western Oregon have examples of her weaving projects. She dies on August 19, 1922.

The mythology of Indian Eliza continues to grow after she passes. Maude Turnbow, a local writer and historian, likely is responsible for some of this. Maude writes a series of articles about Eliza which are published in 1953, some republished from their original 1902 publication. In these articles Eliza is said to be the “Last of the Kalapuyans.” This is of course inaccurate as there are several hundred Kalapuyan people at the Grand Ronde Reservation at the time of her death and afterwards. She is said to be a blind basketmaker, likely accurate, and there are plenty of baskets identified as having been made by her to substantiate this. She is also said to have been over 100 years old, a claim that is likely false. It is more accurate that she was in her 80’s when she died, which would align well with the assumed birth date in the 1830’s.

The townsfolk of Brownsville had very fond memories of Eliza. The original name of Brownsville is “Calapooia”, and it is renamed in the 1850s.The town stories are full of inaccuracies.

My mother was well acquainted with Indian Liza, who is commonly called “the last of the Calapooias.” Just how old Liza was when she died (about year 1932) no one knows. Liza often said she was over one hundred years old. However my mother lived next to Liza when Liza was young married woman with two small children. Mother at the time was about seventeen years old. (Lewis Tycer Crawfordsville)

Albert and Susan Young

The Last of the Calapooias by Maude Turnbow

In this city today, old blind and dependent upon charity, resides the last representative of the once powerful, brave and numerous Calapooia Indians, after whom the beautiful Calapooia Valley derives its name.  Where once the noble band of redmen trod the valley and mountains and dale undisturbed by the impatient palefaces now stands the peaceful city and farm dwelling. Civilization forced westward by the adventuring paleface has changed the face of nature where the tribe was wont to roam, so that today the last representative of the Calapooias- could she but see, would scarcely recognize a mark to distinguish the haunts of her childhood home.

Poor old Indian Liza, the last of the Calapooias. She is now very old and but a short time yet remains before she enters the happy hunting ground to join her ancestors! Aunt Eliza as she is familiarly calledis now wholly dependent upon the charity of the people who have known her for lo these many moons. She is now totally blind and resides alone in the eastern portion of the city. … Some pioneer friend of this interesting relic of by-gone days at her dictation has composed the following verses which pathetically tell the story of the Indian woman’s life.  (Register Guard Aug 25, 1953, repeated from Brownsville times July 4, 1902) [verses not transcribed]


Indian Liza dead- Last of Race

Indian Liza lived a life of varied experiences. In her childhood the members of her tribe roamed the valley, numerous and powerful. In a little over three quarters of a century she has seen the great tribe of the Calapooia disappear before the advance of civilization until she found herself the last one to depart to the happy hunting ground. Indian Lize, however was not a pure Calapooia. Her husband, a Calapooia brave, bought her from Lane county where she had lived at Spores Ferry. She was half Mohawk and half Calapooia. [Here is where there is a lack of knowledge about Oregon history] Her Husband’s name was Jim Indian, who served two terms in the penitentiary for murder. He was finally killed in a drunken brawl with a number of other Mohawk Indians. … Indian Liza had been blind for many years. Two children, Susan Indian and Elbee (L. B.) Indian are buried in the Masonic cemetery and beside them Indian Liza was laid to rest… (Eliza Young died sat aug 19 1922)

I saw a Calapooia Indian win a battle. This was in the Dry Goods Store in Brownsville about 1906 or 1907. Indian Liza was there having a big argument in a squawky, high-pitched voice of part English and part Indian. He nightgown was worn out, no good, the back full of holes and wouldn’t keep her warm. All she wanted was just enough outing flannel of any color to put a new back on it. The clerk was holding forth for the economy of a whole new gown, When it was over, Indian Liza had just enough for the back. She had just that much money anyway. She was brown, leathery of skim, thin drably dressed and blind, maybe 100 years old people thought. … She told my mother that before the white man came, her people used moose excrement for burns. Her hand was badly burned that day. Her death in August 1922 ended her race. (Maude Turnbow-RG June 21, 1953)

Eliza’s father was a full blooded Calapooia brave living on the Calapooia River in the upper valley. He wandered south into Lane County where he found his bride, and it was there that Eliza was born. He parents died when she was a small child and she was for a time actually a slave in the camps of other people. She ran away and was taken in and cared for by Joseph Spores and wife at what is now Coburg. Eliza, in search of her father’s people ran away from Spore’s Ferry to Brownsville. She was just entering into womanhood when the Blakely-Brown-Kirk emigrant train (1846) arrived at the old ford on the Calapooia. It is understood that she was cared for at a very early day by the Kirk family. But she slipped away and went into the Southland again and there married a Mohawk Brave. This man drank incessantly and beat Eliza unmercifully. She frequently ran away. A length Calapooia Jim, with the assistance of Riley Kirk, bought Eliza. Jim had been raised by Kirk since the farmer was 12 years old.  … Calapooia Jim was later killed in a brawl. Eliza supported herself as long as she could by making baskets but went blind. The County then placed her in a good home, where she was at, the time of her death…. Indian Eliza used to sit with the speakers at the Brownsville Pioneer Picnic, a place I avoided. (Maude Turnbow- RG June 22 1953)

Down at Spores Ferry, at Coburg, there was an Indian girl named Eliza, living with the Spores family. She was a good cook and very neat. She married a Yamhill Indian and went to live with him. He was very cruel to her and frequently beat her. On a trip to the Calapooia , or while living at Spores ferry, Eliza and Jim met and became fond of each other. After that Eliza often ran away from her husband and came down to the Calapooia to see Jim. Her husband who had three other wives, would follow her and compel her to return. He would ride behind her, she walking and whip her all the way back. This happened a number of times, finally my father (Riley Kirk) advised Jim to buy Eliza for a wife if he liked her so much. With my father’s aid Jim bought her for ten ponies, a gun and $15 in gold. Jim and Eliza were most commonly known as Indian Jim and Indian Liza, their real names were Jim and Eliza Young. (George Fruitt Letter 1953)

Eliza holds several distinctions. She lived most of her life off of a reservation and was well respected by a settler community. This was not always the case for tribal people who were living next to or within settler communities, many-times settlers would either harass them into leaving, or notify the authorities to remove the Indians to the reservation. Eliza’s story is also a very rare story of  Native woman in Oregon. The majority of narratives about Native peoples in Oregon are about men, and women are relegated to being supporters of men. It may be that the attention paid to Eliza by Maude Turnbow maintained her fame all of these years.

The research for this essay was aided by the Linn County Museum at Brownsville. They supplied the books of pioneer transcripts about their town, and numerous files of photos. All photos are courtesy of the museum. The project of the museum to correct and install a new exhibit about the Kalapuyan history of Linn County is being installed in June 2019.  Tom Connelly, Paul Baxter and I are co-curators of the exhibit with Melody Munger the project manager and museum executive officer.

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