Youngsters are hustling this week to find costumes for Halloween trick-or-treating, but on Sunday I met a septuagenarian from Olympia who dons her ensemble year-round to educate the public about Northwest pioneers.
Renée Bowen Corcoran, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Nancy (Shaw) Ford, performs a one-woman play free upon request at schools, senior centers, museums, and other venues. She wrote the play, “An American Woman North of Columbia 1846,” which lasts from a half hour to an hour, depending on how many questions she fields.
She presented the play last year for McLane Elementary School fourth-graders in Olympia.
“The questions they asked were fabulous,” she said. The play started at 9:30 and the interaction ended two hours later.
Nancy S. Shaw was born April 23, 1806, in Cambridge, N.Y., and married Sidney S. Ford Dec. 30, 1823, when she was 17. While living in New York, their first three children were born — Harriet Jane in 1826, Sidney Jr. in 1829, and Thomas in 1832. After they moved to Michigan, Corcoran’s great-great-grandmother Elizabeth “Lizzie” was born Oct. 16, 1840. The Fords then moved southwest to Missouri and had two more children — Nancy Missouri in October 1842 and Fernando in November 1844.
During the spring of 1845, with six children and a hundred head of cattle, the Fords joined 300 others in a wagon train journeying west to Oregon Territory. They were among nearly 2,500 people who left Missouri in early May 1845, taking with them thousands of head of livestock. According to the website www.oregonpioneers.com/1845.htm, the Ford family brought with them several African Americans — two men, a woman, and some children — who settled near Centralia.
In her play, Corcoran, portraying her pioneer ancestor Nancy, describes the trials immigrants faced along the trail as they searched for grass, water, and wood. After fire destroyed little Lizzie’s shoes, the four-year-old trudged west on bare feet. Nancy always wore a lace cap over her hair.
After a year in the Willamette Valley’s Oregon City, the Fords (accompanied by Joseph Borst) ventured north and found a prairie near the confluence of the Chehalis and Skookumchuck rivers with fields of wild strawberries, nearby fir trees, and a view of majestic snow-capped mountains. The local Quiyaisk, a branch of the Upper Chehalis tribe, referred to the prairie in today’s northwest Centralia as Tasunshun, or resting place, according to a monument along Galvin Road near where the Fords settled in March 1846 and staked out a 640-acre homestead on the prairie that today bears their name.
Ford and his sons built a 12-by-12-foot two-story cabin heated by a large rock fireplace, which served as the Lewis County courthouse in 1847, a stopping place for immigrants heading north to the Puget Sound, and a fort during the Indian Wars of 1855-56. A larger wooden house built later and painted white with green shutters was referred to as the Ford Mansion, according to “Centralia: The First Fifty Years.”
A year after their arrival, Nancy gave birth to another daughter, Mary Angeline, in June 1847. But, four years later, tragedy struck when Nancy Missouri died in August 1851 just a few months shy of her ninth birthday. She’s buried in the Pioneer Cemetery, also known as Butterworths Cemetery, behind Mountain View Cemetery in Centralia.
The life of a pioneer woman was anything but easy. Corcoran recounts how Nancy ground wheat in her coffee grinder, collected ash for use as yeast in biscuits and made lye soap. She tended a garden, cooked, cleaned, and cared for the children who grew up alongside Native Americans and learned to ride ponies bareback and speak the Salish languages.
Sidney Ford Sr., who was born May 10, 1801, in New York, listed his occupation as farmer, but he was much more. In Lewis County, he served as a justice of the peace, judge, county commissioner and county clerk. He was a delegate to both the Cowlitz and Monticello Conventions seeking territorial status, a Washington Territorial legislator, and an Indian agent. He achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel in the militia during the Indian Wars and served as an aide to Washington’s first territorial governor, Isaac Stevens.
As an agent representing the needs of Native Americans — among them the Cowlitz, Chehalis, Quinault tribes — Ford often had 200 to 800 tribal members living near his homestead, Corcoran said. When he died in 1866 at the age of 65, he was buried on Fords Prairie.
Nancy lived another three decades and passed away in Centralia April 8, 1898, at the age of 91. She’s also buried at the Pioneer Cemetery.
Nancy’s daughter Lizzie, who married Joel Theodore Ticknor, died on Ticknor Prairie near Tenino in March 1916. She was a midwife who gave birth to 10 children, including Emma A. “Nettie,” who married James Wesley Davis. Nettie was Corcoran’s great-grandmother. Her daughter, Clara Lenora, married Lester Ritter, and their children included Corcoran’s mother, Lola. I’ll be sharing more about Lola Bowen Stancil, who turns 105 Jan. 31st, in a future column.
Corcoran, who retired from the Washington State Law Library after 30 years and earned her degree from the Evergreen State College after age 60, is an Olympia native and history buff. She was the wife of Neil Corcoran, former Bucoda mayor and author of a small book called “Bucoda: A Heritage of Sawdust and Leg Irons,” published by the Bucoda Improvement Club during the nation’s bicentennial in 1976.
During her presentation, she shares a family photo of the Fords that shows her great-great-grandparents, Sidney and Nancy, as well as her great-grandmother Lizzie.
For more information about booking a performance, contact Corcoran at email@example.com.
Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.