Before the city of Ashland existed
In the centuries before European and American settlers began arriving in the Rogue Valley of Southern Oregon, the Shasta and Takelma people lived in this valley. In the summer, small family groups spread out at higher elevations and in river valleys to hunt deer, fish for salmon and gather acorns and other wild plants.
Archeology digs and pioneer writings suggest that during the winter they lived in villages of semi-permanent plank or bark-covered structures. Captain Thomas Smith and James Cardwell both arrived in the winter of 1851-1852. Both described an Indian village of perhaps 100 people along Ashland Creek, located in the area that is now Lithia Park and the Plaza.
Between 1852 and 1856, there were a series of battles in Southern Oregon between settlers and the Native Americans who were defending their ancestral land. Suffering from diseases, hunger and deaths from the fighting, in 1856 the remaining Shasta and Takelma were forcibly marched to the Siletz Indian Reservation, 150 miles north along the Oregon coast.
First known Euro-Americans in the Rogue Valley
In February 1827, Hudson’s Bay Company fur trapper Peter Skene Ogden led a party of 28 men and 100 horses northward over the Siskiyou Pass into the now-Ashland area. Ogden documented the area with the help of the local Shasta tribe. His group trapped as many as 500 beavers and other fur-bearing mammals along Bear Creek before continuing north to the Rogue River and beyond.
First American settlers in Ashland
On January 6, 1852, Robert Hargadine and Sylvester Pease made a donation land claim for 160 acres in what is now the Railroad District. Two days later, Abel Helman came over the Siskiyou Pass from Yreka and made his donation land claim for 160 acres along the creek. His land claim now includes the entrance to Lithia Park, the Plaza area and land to the south. On January 11th, Helman was joined by Eber Emery, Jacob Emery and James Cardwell, who planned to develop the land and build a saw mill with him. Cardwell reported that the four of them made small payments to the local Indians and reached an agreement that the group could build on this land.
First house in Ashland
When Abel Helman entered the valley on January 8, 1852, he saw Hargadine and Pease cutting timber to build a cabin. Theirs was the first house built, before there was even a town. (For those of you who are Ashland history experts, I acknowledge Hugh Barron had built a cabin nearby in 1851, but his land and his “Mountain House” stage coach stop were located four miles south of Ashland.)
First commercial building in Ashland
Within a month after arriving in the valley, Abel Helman, Eber Emery, Jacob Emery and James Cardwell started to build a sawmill. After multiple failures at gold mining in Northern California, they were ready for a change. All skilled carpenters, they realized they could make a lot of money providing wood to miners and local settlers, since gold had been discovered in Southern Oregon in January 1852. The mill was completed on June 16, 1852.
Cardwell wrote, “We finished our work on the mill as fast as we could. The mines in Jacksonville began to attract considerable attention. A great many miners came in…we had our mill in operation…and the demand for lumber was good. We could sell all we could make at $80 per thousand.” [Atwood 1987, page 22]
Note: $80 per thousand board feet in 1852 is equivalent to about $2,580 per thousand board feet today. Today’s Ashland price for good quality building lumber (standard no. 2 and better Douglas Fir) is about $750 per thousand board feet. That means the Ashland saw mill, with little competition in 1852, was able to charge about three times what a mill could charge today. [My thanks to Dale Shostrom for helping me with the lumber calculations.]
First town name — Ashland Mills
This story about the naming of Ashland was told by Abel Helman’s granddaughter, Almeda Helman Coder. “This doesn’t appear in any of the history books, but this is the story that is in my family, the Helman family. There were these men that came over from the mines down in California. The seven of them that came together, and some of them, as I said, went on, and the two Emerys that came from Ashland, Ohio Territory, and my grandfather, and a man by the name of Cardwell stayed for a while. They began to wonder what they would call the little settlement. It wasn’t much of a settlement, so to settle the argument, they drew straws. They wanted to call it after Ashland, Kentucky. Well, Mr. Cardwell did. Grandfather and Mr. Emery wanted to call it after Ashland, Ohio. So, they drew these straws. Grandfather held the straws, and Mr. Emery drew the long straw, which was to be Ashland, Ohio.” [Atwood 1975]
The town was first named Ashland Mills because of the 1852 lumber mill and the 1854 flour mill, both built along Mill Creek (now Ashland Creek). When the town was formally incorporated with the State of Oregon October 13, 1874, the name was shortened to Ashland.
First American child born in Ashland
On January 7, 1854, Abel and Martha Helman’s son John Kanagy Helman was born. Abel and Martha’s other children were named Almeda Lizette, Mary Elizabeth, Martha Jane, Abe Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Ulysses Grant and Otis Orange. You can tell that Abel and Martha were strong supporters of the Union during the Civil War.
First hotel/lodging house in Ashland
In 1854 Abel Helman and Eber Emery saw a new opportunity. The busy Jacksonville-to-Yreka road ran through the tiny settlement, right in front of the flour mill. Helman persuaded Emery to build a lodging house on his land, about 100 yards north of the Ashland Flour Mill. Called Ashland House, it opened for business in early 1855. Only a year later, Emery sold the lodging house to Morris Howell, but Howell was not happy being an innkeeper.
On August 22, 1856, Dr. David Sisson and his young wife Celeste arrived in Ashland after crossing the Siskiyou Mountains from California. They lodged at the Ashland House and left their pack animals at the livery. When there are only a few dozen residents, news travels fast. The very next morning, Abel Helman walked across the Plaza from his flour mill to the boarding house and greeted Dr. Sisson. He told Sisson there was no doctor within many miles, and implored him to consider staying in Ashland Mills. Surprisingly, just nine days later, David and Celeste Sisson purchased the Ashland House from Morris Howell and made it their new home! They ran the lodging business, and it was also where Dr. Sisson saw patients.
Sadly, Dr. Sisson was murdered in 1858 and the Ashland House burned to the ground in 1859. During the fire, renters in the second-floor rooms threw their possessions out the windows and then got out safely. Due to the blaze, Ashland lost not only the lodging house, but also the town post office on the ground floor and local records that were kept there.
Two weeks after the fire, Eber Emery started construction of a new Ashland House at the same site.
First school class in Ashland
October 3, 1854, formal schooling in Ashland began with a handful of children in the home of Eber Emery. The teacher was Miss Lizzie Anderson. As a side note, in 1876 Lizzie became the wife of Captain John McCall, who built the McCall House on Oak Street in 1883.
Two weeks later, there were millions at the school! How was this possible? It happened when Bennett and Armilda Million bought a land claim and moved to Ashland Mills with their five school-age children.
This story of early Ashland “firsts” will be continued with Part 2.
Ashland Daily Tidings, February 26, 1927.
Atwood, Kay. Jackson County Conversations, Jackson County Intermediate Education District, 1975.
Atwood, Kay. Mill Creek Journal: Ashland, Oregon 1850 – 1860, self-published 1987.
Green, Giles. A Heritage of Loyalty: The History of the Ashland, Oregon, Public Schools, School District No. 5, 1966.
LaLande, Jeff. The Ashland Plaza: Report on Findings 2012-2013 Sub-Surface Archeological Survey of the Ashland Plaza Project Area Jackson County, Oregon, 2013.
Lewis, Raymond (possibly), “Abel D. Helman, Founder of Ashland,” Table Rock Sentinel, October 1981 (Southern Oregon Historical Society).
O’Harra, Marjorie. Ashland: the first 130 years, Northwest Passages Publishing Inc. 1986.
Olmo, Rich and Hannon, Nan. “Archeology in the Park,” Table Rock Sentinel, January 1988 (Southern Oregon Historical Society).