Joseph Benedict Pepoon was born January 5, 1838, on a farm near Painesville, Ohio. He was among the youngest of seven children. His parents were Silas Pepoon and Mary Weed Benedict, farmers and Abolitionists living near Painesville, Ohio. Joseph passed away on August 23, 1921, in Lincoln, Nebraska. He is buried in Table Rock, Nebraska, where he lived and farmed for almost 40 years.
The history of the Pepoon family begins in France. In the 17th century the Pepin family, ancestors of Joseph, were Protestants (Huguenots) living in La Rochelle, France. The Pepins were descendants of Charlemagne: Pepin, king of Aquitaine, was the son of Louis I, who was the son of Charles the Great. In 1685, the Edict of Nantes, which had given religious freedom to Protestants, was revoked, and some 300,000 French Protestants chose to flee. The Pepin family went first to Corsica, and then to Holland. In Holland, the surname of the Pepin family was changed to “Pepoon.” From Holland, the Pepoons went to Acadia, along with most of the other French Protestants. By 1700, the Pepoons were living in Massachusetts. In 1710, the first Pepoon of this branch of the family, Silas, was born on American soil. Every generation of the American family, till the 1860’s, had both a Silas and Joseph, which makes the genealogy confusing.
The Joseph Pepoon of this article, 1838-1921, was the grandson of Captain Joseph Pepoon, who served with the Connecticut Minutemen during the Revolutionary War. In 1804, Captain Joseph Pepoon left Hebron, Connecticut, and bought a 500 acre farm near Painesville, Ohio. Captain Joseph’s son, Silas, inherited land from his father, and continued farming in the region. Silas Pepoon was active in the Congregational Church in Painesville, until that church adopted a Presbyterian form of governance, something Silas greatly objected to. Silas dedicated his life to the Temperance and Anti-Slavery causes. It was into this home that Joseph was born. The Pepoons were close friends of the noted Abolitionist, Theodore Weld, whose speeches were renowned for their eloquence. Joseph’s older brother was named Theodore Weld Pepoon in honor of the family friend.
In 1914-1915, Joseph dictated his autobiography to his daughter, Elsie, with whom he was then living. It is this autobiography which gives details of Joseph’s life, including his recollections of growing up in a home that served as a station on the Underground Railroad. Joseph has vivid memories of his childhood. He recalls that his parents cared for an elderly woman with dementia, housing her in a cabin near the family home. At times, the family chose to hide fugitive slaves with her. Presumably this was because if the woman talked to the wrong people, she wouldn’t be believed. Joseph writes that “once when we feared the Negro-catchers might come, Mother gave them [the runaways] a boiler full of hot water and a dipper and said if anyone tried to break in to scald them with it” (“Personal Recollections” p.4).
In a biography of Joseph’s sister, Mary Pepoon Howe, another incident is recounted. “Once a mother and her family of little children were hidden away in a chamber, and great were the fears of that poor mother lest some restless little dark head popping up at window should betray their hiding place — ” (“Pawnee County,” p. 500). Joseph describes the way fugitive slaves were transported: “We used to burn charcoal — . The charcoal was very light, and we used to have very high wagon boxes. We would put the Negroes in those wagons which were so high that if we met anyone they couldn’t see them, and it was always at night, anyway” (“Personal Recollections,” p. 4). The escaped slaves were taken to Fairport, a few miles away, on the shores of Lake Erie. There, they would be transported to Canada on steamships, when a sympathetic captain could be found.
In 1850, the Pepoon family moved to Warren, Illinois. According to some family sources, this was due to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which greatly increased punishment for those who helped slaves escape. If that was the case, the Pepoons moved to a worse location, as northern Illinois at that time was a place of pro-slavery Democrats. In Illinois, the Pepoons continued their Abolitionist activities, and remained committed to helping others. Joseph writes of a cholera epidemic that swept through the area in 1854. “My brother Silas helped take care of a number of cholera patients in and around Warren. A great many people were so frightened that they were afraid to take care of the sick” (“Personal Recollections,” p. 7).
From 1857 to 1860 Joseph taught school in the northern Illinois/ southern Wisconsin area. In 1860, Joseph, his brother Silas, future brother-in-law, Eli Boone, and friend Elkanah Taylor left Illinois for California and Oregon. It’s unclear from Joseph’s biography precisely why the men chose to go West. They may have gone looking for gold or simply looking for adventure. In Ohio, Captain Joseph Pepoon’s large farm was divided among his many sons, resulting in smaller farms which could not be self-sufficient. Silas had five sons, and there wouldn’t be much land for any of the siblings. One reason for the men’s migration was surely economic. In “Personal Recollections,” Joseph writes to his sister, Eunice: “No Eun, I can’t go home yet awhile, how long first I don’t know, but I must earn more money before returning to the family” (“Recollections,” p. 42).
The men crossed the country in a wagon pulled by three yokes of oxen, and took a cow with them. The men traveled through the Platte River Valley in Nebraska, where three of them would ultimately return. When they reached California, Elkanah Taylor took his things and left the group. Joseph reports that the brothers never saw Taylor again. Joseph’s autobiography gives lavish details of the spectacular, unspoiled scenery they came upon, but he rarely divulges details of his deepest thoughts. He doesn’t mention, for instance, if there was an incident that precipitated Taylor’s departure, any more than he notes the precise reasons for the cross country excursion.
Silas and Joseph got summer jobs in the Rogue River Valley in southwest Oregon. In the fall of 1860, Joseph taught school. The Civil War began, and both Joseph and Silas enlisted on the Union side in Company A of the First Oregon Cavalry, under Captain Curry. By the time Joseph was discharged in 1864, he had become the Commissary Sergeant. The First Oregon Cavalry had orders to keep the trails clear of Indians for European settlers who were entering the state. Gold and silver had been struck, and miners were flooding into the area. Peace had been achieved with most of the Shoshone/Paiute Indians of the region, except for Chief Paulina and his band. The First Oregon Cavalry was created to fight those Indians during the Civil War.
All five of the Pepoon sons were enlisted as Union soldiers during the Civil War. George fought with Ohio’s “Iron Brigade,” and was in constant danger. The youngest son, Oren Pepoon, lost his life in the conflict. In 1865, Joseph and Silas Pepoon, along with Eli Boone, returned to Illinois. Eli Boone married Joseph’s younger sister, Eunice Pepoon. Joseph married Bessie Shaw, a local school teacher, in 1866. In 1867, Joseph and Bessie, Silas Pepoon and his family, Eli and Eunice (Pepoon) Boone, and Bessie (Shaw) Pepoon’s brother, whose first name Joseph does not record, all set out for Pawnee County, in southeastern Nebraska. Nebraska became a state March 1st, 1867, and the entourage arrived in Nebraska seven days later. The railroad was not yet completed, and as the group set out in winter, they faced numerous delays and weather-related hardships. In Brownsville, Nebraska, they applied for homesteads, giving first pick to Bessie’s brother, who had been crippled at the Battle of Shiloh during the Civil War.
The three families each got 160 acres to homestead, and built sod houses in which to live. There was little native wood in Nebraska except for cottonwood, which warps easily. The railroad wasn’t completed till 1872, making wood easier to obtain, though expensive. In 1868, Theodore Weld Pepoon and his family joined the Pepoon siblings in the Bunker Hill settlement, and in 1871 Mary (Pepoon) Howe and her husband, Orville Howe, also moved to the area. Farming then, as now, was an uphill business, and the farmers faced locusts, grasshoppers, droughts and prairie fires.
Joseph Pepoon was committed to education, and beginning in the late 1860’s sought funds to build a schoolhouse at Bunker Hill. At first, the school met in the unfinished second story of Orville and Mary (Pepoon) Howe’s large house. In 1870 Joseph was elected county commissioner, and served in that capacity for three years. In 1877, he was elected to the state senate to fill the vacancy that resulted from his brother Theodore’s resignation. From 1884 to 1886, Joseph was county surveyor in Pawnee County. This post was also filled by Joseph’s brother-in-law, Orville Howe.
Joseph and Bessie had four children: Elsie, George, Philip and Mabel. In 1886, Bessie passed away. In 1900, Joseph sold his 160 acre farm to his son George, and moved to Table Rock. In 1903, Joseph moved again to be with his daughter, Elsie Pepoon Sutton, in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he passed away in 1921.
In 1914-1915, Joseph dictated his autobiography to his daughter, Elsie. The “Personal Recollections” are a source of historical information about the activities of the Oregon First Cavalry. Included in this autobiography are letters Joseph wrote to his sister, Eunice, in 1864. It’s not known if he corresponded with his sister during the entire time of his service in the Cavalry, or just the one year. Elsie includes the 1864 letters, which were written as a diary, in her father’s autobiography. The letters to Eunice are interesting for several reasons. As in the rest of the autobiography, Joseph gives vivid, compelling descriptions of the landscape. Joseph had a keen interest in geology, and he identifies the rocks and gemstones he saw in various parts of Oregon, Nevada, and the territories of Washington and Idaho. In addition to geology, Joseph was an avid reader, and gives accounts of the various books he read. These include Lyell’s “Geology,” Ernest Renan’s “Life of Jesus,” and the poetry of Shelley.
In addition to the books he read and the descriptions of landscapes, Joseph makes frequent comments about politics and Civil War battles. Price’s Raid, the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads, and Grant’s various victories are current events for Joseph, and he is hungry for news, which always arrived late in the West. In addition to the battles, Joseph recounts incidents that are only known today by scholars, such as the formation of the Radical Democracy Party, formed by liberals like Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, which challenged Lincoln from the left in the 1864 election.
Readers of Joseph’s “Personal Recollections” cannot help but be struck by his anti-Indian prejudice. Joseph was a man of his era, and his military unit was tasked with fighting Chief Paulina’s band. Nonetheless, we would expect Abolitionists to extend racial tolerance to indigenous people. Sadly, this is not the case. For instance, Joseph deplores the French who have married Native Americans. He writes of one particular village, they “live in a half-civilized, half-Indian life not very agreeable to a go-ahead Yankee.” Joseph continues, “as long as they and their squaw wives remain, the valley will wear a degraded look” (p.18). It wasn’t until after the Civil War that some Abolitionists, such as Theodore Weld, began to consider the rights of Native Americans. Before 1879, American courts did not even define Indians as “persons” with legal standing to bring suit, or testify in court. (See Joe Starita’s excellent book, “I Am a Man,” St. Martin’s Press, 2008 for an account of Native Americans’ legal struggles.)
The Cavalry recognized that Indians who traveled with women and children posed no threat to settlers. Nonetheless, the soldiers occasionally fired on such groups. Joseph describes an incident when the “Indians numbered about 40, 2/3 of whom were women and children — . Our men ran their horses to head them off — and fired several shots but did not succeed in killing any of them” (p. 40). In another incident, Joseph describes what today would be considered a desecration of artifacts. The Cavalry discovers an “old Indian fortification” (p. 39). He writes that it “must have been built a very long time ago” (p. 40). So, the soldiers “stuck a pole and hoisted a small American flag and left it floating” (p. 40).
Chief Paulina’s band posed some danger for settlers. It is small wonder that some Indians were angry about American encroachment into their land. Joseph recalls once when the soldiers came across an abandoned wagon filled with “shovels, picks, prospecting pans — photographs, love letters — and various other contraptions too numerous to mention” (p. 38). He adds that there “were Indian tracks around the wagon — but no dead bodies can be found.” After this incident, Joseph recounts that “the Indians are committing great outrages on the plains — . Well, it will be about the last Indian war that the United States will have to be engaged in. The Indian race will soon be extinct — ” (p. 44). This is a reference to the Indian War of 1864. Plains Indians chose the Civil War, when whites were fighting whites, to attack settlers along the Platte River Valley.
While the pro-Union First Cavalry was supposedly against slavery, the troops tolerated enslavement among native peoples. In one strange incident, Joseph describes how Indians the soldiers pursued “left their squaws, knowing that whites do not kill women — Captain Curry was going to let the squaws go, but the Indians (scouts for the First Cavalry) wanted to keep them for cooks, so the Captain gave his consent” (pp. 29-30). The Indians were allowed to keep five women as slaves, although the women were not pursued when they escaped.
While Joseph is rarely self-disclosive in “Personal Recollections,” he lets his acerbic wit occasionally show. In the Grande Ronde Valley, Joseph encounters a village of Secessionists who left Missouri to escape the war. He writes that “the Belle of the Valley” was attending a dance that was held. Joseph writes that if “she was, I pity the rest. I should not even call her good-looking” (p. 50). And although his letters to Eunice do not survive, Joseph must have revealed a sensitive nature to his sister. “I suppose,” he writes, “you think that these ideas are too romantic for real life — . Some of my fanciful letters about fairies and paradise and sunshine and ambrosial delicacies might lead you to suppose that I know nothing about real human nature” (p. 35).
Joseph Pepoon dedicated his life to public service. He enlisted during the Civil War, and stayed true to his family’s Abolitionist ideals. He began his career as a school teacher, and was committed to education his entire life. In Nebraska, he served as a county commissioner and county surveyor. He was elected to the state senate. Joseph persevered at farming, during the difficult early years of Nebraska statehood. One of Joseph’s legacies to the present is his remarkable and interesting “Personal Recollections.” These include letters to his sister Eunice during his service in the Oregon First Cavalry. This autobiography, at its best, reveals a sensitive man devoted to reading, and appreciative of natural beauty. At its worst, it shows the tragic and racist attitudes of the 19th century toward Native Americans, attitudes which have had lasting ramifications for this country.
Melinda Jette, “To Arms.” Oregon Historical Society, 2003. http://www.ohs.org/education/oregonhistory/historical_records/dspDo…, retrieved 10/14/2010.
J. Britt McCarley, “Feeding Billy Yank: Union Rations between 1861 and 1865.” http://www.qmfound.com/feeding_billy_yank.htm, retrieved 10/14/2010.
Joseph Pepoon, “Personal Recollections of Joseph Benedict Pepoon.” Dictated to his daughter Elsie Pepoon, 1914-1915, unpublished.
Silas Pepoon, “The Family of Pepoon.” Warren, Illinois, 1867, unpublished.
Dave Sanderfield, “Oregon’s First Cavalry ‘”circa 1861-65.” http://www.examiner.com/oregon-nature-in-portland/oregon-s-first-cav…, retrieved 10/14/2010.
Sloeck, “Joseph Benedict Pepoon.” http://boards.ancestry.com/PrintMessage.aspx?np=Message+Boards+&…, retrieved 9/21/2010.
Joe Starita, “I am a Man.” New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008.