Beaver Briefs, Vol. 38,No. 1, pg. 10
The FERRY LADY By Sue Bell of Salem, Oregon
In a day when few women ran businesses, it’s refreshing to come across references to a woman in the usually male dominated transportation field. While it’s true that Rhoda had the business dumped in her lap upon the premature death of her husband, she ran it for a decade thereafter, rather than sell it off to the highest bidder.
Ohio-born Rhoda KINZIE had married a widower with four children in Berrien County, Michigan. Almost immediately after their marriage, she and James WHITE began a family of their own. Two years later they were part of the “Great Migration of 1843” to the Oregon Country. Eventually the WHITE’s settled upon a piece of property in Polk County, “directly across from the Oregon Institute.” Here White established his claim of 640 acres in December of 1845 and commenced farming. Envisioning the growing importance of the infant settlement of Salem, he also began operating a ferry to the East side of the Willamette in association with William H. Willson of Salem. His son from the first marriage, Leonard at 18, provided a ready source of manpower for the primitive rope ferry, along with another son, 16-year-old Bartholomew. By July of 1850 Willson had turned over to James WHITE the entire ferry service, with a lot in Block 65, at the corner of Ferry and Water streets in Salem. The following year WHITE deeded property to his son Leonard and later that year Leonard transferred it to his brother Bartholomew. In the meantime, Rhoda was kept busy with babies and farm work. Besides the four stepchildren and her first child, Elizabeth Jane, she gave birth to three more children by 1851 – Theodore in 1845, Lavina (or Louzina) in 1848 and Rhoda Ann in May of 1850. An anecdote of Rhoda White is recounted by Virginia Watson APPLEGATE in her 1849 trail reminiscences (OHS, Ms #233); heading for a claim in Benton County in October of that year, they were obliged to use White’s Ferry to cross the Willamette. The “Capt.” Being indisposed, his two sons ferried the Watson party to the Polk County side and invited the two newcomers to dinner at the Whites’. Rhoda vetoed that invitation in no uncertain terms by declaring she had enough to do cooking for her own family. Besides, her husband was ill and needed her attention. She called his illness cholera morbus and explained that he’d brought upon himself by going to French Prairie and eating too many peaches, without bringing any home; that’s why he was sick and deserved to be so! Then in April of 1854 Rhoda’s world began to crumble; the steamer “Gazelle” exploded in Canemah on April 8th; James White was one of 25 killed in that disaster. In June the estate of James White was sold – his cows and calves, hogs, plow, household and kitchen furniture – no mention of the property or ferryboat; that, at least, Rhoda still retained to maintain her family and, with seven mouths to feed and another baby on the way, she had a considerable burden to bear. Her troubles were not over for that year either: In November her stepdaughter Sophia died, but just previous to that, Rhoda had exchanged property with stepson Bartholemew, moving to Salem with the younger children, while Bartholemew stayed in Polk County on the old farm. The move to Salem hardly improved her personal luck: her sixth child, Joanna, was born in January 1855 but died soon after as did her fifth child. Rhoda and Bartholemew continued the ferry operation; her first appearance before the County Commisioners was in 1855 to renew the ferry license. It is of passing interest to note that in the Oregon Acts for regulating Ferries dated September 1849, the terms applied to anyone operating a ferry were, “he, she or they,” so perhaps this wasn’t unique. It was for Oregon, however. Some months after that licensing appearance, Bartholemew pulled out of the operation, leaving Rhoda as sole proprietor. Realizing she couldn’t handle the ferry service alone, she enlisted the help of Horace RICE of Polk County. October of 1855 they married in Salem but it was a short-lived partnership. Citing his accusation of her trying to poison him and driving her from her home in the March 1858 divorce petition, she won her separation and had her former name, real property and the ferry-boat restored to her. By this point in time, several of her children had married: Sarah to Elias ROBBINS on March 6th 1851; Capt. Leonard to Gertrude Jane HALL at the Salem Methodist Church July 3rd 1853 (Leonard has become a riverboat captain by then); Elizabeth Jane to Samuel C. TOMLINSON in Polk County July 5th 1857. An improvement over the old rope-drawn ferry was announced by Rhoda WHITE in the summer of 1859: a new Horse Ferry Boat. To off set the cost of this new vessel, a unique set of ferry rates was instituted; rates from Polk County to the East side stayed the same, but those from Salem to the westside increased to 75¢ (getting to Salem cost only 30¢). However to somewhat alleviate the inequity, fares from Polk County to Salem were often suspended on holidays so that partcipants in the 4th of July parades and other celebrations throughout the year could attend. Rhoda also acquired a new husband in August of 1859: Joseph HENNESS. Soon after their marriage in Marion County, they decided to try their luck in California and Rhoda made out her will in favor of her children, Theodore and Louzina White, with mention of Elizabeth Jane TOMLINSON. B. F. BONHAM was appointed her Executeor. This third excursion into matrimony lasted even less time than the previous one, though Rhoda did have a daughter with HENNESS. Rhoda HENNESS returned to Salem, Joseph HENNESS did not. (by July of 1860 she was living in Salem with 15-year-old Theodore and baby Caroline, 5 months). January of 1861 Rhoda petitioned for divorce citing her late companion as a worthless leach who intended to sell her property then leave her; she claimed their marriage was “falsely fraudulent.” Rhoda’s later years were far from strife- and worry-free.
In December of 1861, during the record floods of the Willamette, Salem’s ferry sank with a load of wheat; in April of 1863 the local newspaper editor called the ferry a “nuisance.” August of 1864 Rhoda once again tried matrimony – with James HOWE of Vancouver – but was abandoned by him in November of that year. In July of 1866 she committed her son Theodore to the Hawthorne Asylum at Portland (predecessor to Salem’s Insane Asylum) and in August of 1869 her youngest daughter Caroline died, age 9.
By this time, Rhoda Kinzie/White/Rice/Henness/Howe was no longer associated with Salem’s ferry; she had sold all interest in the enterprise plus her Salem property to Jasper N. MATHENY in May of 1865. Matheny had been operating the ferry for Rhoda as of 1863; from a family of ferrymen, he’d had ample experience operating his father’s service at Wheatland. Rhoda, now in her ‘50s, disappears from the records. She may have gone to live with one of her children: son Leonard in Portland, daughter Sarah ROBBINS in Harrisburg or daughter Rhoda in Roseburg. Where and when she died is unknown, yet her life is an intriguing part of Oregon history.
Sources: 1) Polk County Probate Records 2) Oregon Territorial Census of 1850 (Polk and Marion Counties) 3) Marion County Commissioners, Court Journals, Vols. I, III-V. Oregon State Archives 4) Marion County Miscellaneous Records, Vol. I, pgs. 20, 21. 5.) Marion County Probate Records. 6) Oregon Argus, Sept. 23, 1856. 7) Oregonian, April 9, 1854. 8) Salem Daily Record, Aug 26, 1867. 9) Daily Oregon Statesman, Dec 9, 1861, Aug. 21, 1863
SEE ALSO: Oregon Statesman Index 10) GENEALOGICAL MATERIAL in OREGON DONATION LAND CLAIMS, Vol. I, #22. White, James. Polk Co., b. 1804 Armstrong Co., PA; Settled Claim 1 Dec., 1845 md. Rhoda [Kinzie] 18 Jan. 1841 Berrien Co., MI. Aff: Samuel Fanton.