Possibly one of Oregon’s first pioneers to appear in film, 84-year-old Artinecia Merriman, dressed in black and seated in a wicker chair, pretended to tell stories about early Jackson County. Stories she knew so well.
It was April 1915, and arborist AC Allen had begun filming a silent film that would advertise Rogue Valley at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Jackson County commissioners authorized $600 to cover Allen’s expenses.
Born in 1830, a few miles north of Cincinnati, Ohio, Artinecia Riddle was just 6 years old when the family moved to Sangamon County, Illinois. At 18, she married James Chapman, a 21-year-old farmer from Kentucky. John William, their son, was born on June 15, 1850.
In December, the lure of gold and free land in the West caught the imagination of almost everyone in Sangamon. Families, including the Riddles, began putting their farms up for sale.
Intending to leave early the following spring, the family began preparations for the long journey. A team of oxen trained to pull a cart was needed and a long list of supplies had to be collected.
In the midst of it all, James Chapman suddenly fell ill. He died in March 1851, just weeks before the start of the transcontinental voyage.
In the second week of April 1851, men and women walking alongside covered wagons, followed by free-roaming cattle guarded by the families’ youngest children, all began the long march to Oregon. Artinecia’s baby was only 10 months old.
At the Missouri River they joined a wagon train. Almost six months later, their journey would take them on the Applegate Trail to Canyonville in Douglas County.
Artinecia’s younger brother George recalled a time when the wagon reached Humboldt County, California, an area where travelers were frequently attacked by local Indian tribes. Sent to watch for trouble to come, a man was attacked at close range and a bullet badly shattered a bone in his left arm.
“No one on the train had any surgical skill,” George said, “my eldest sister was called in to dress the wound. Her fingers being slender, she could feel and extract the broken bones.
“I witnessed the operation, and it made such an impression. My sister, Artinecia, was a brave girl.
By November 1851, Artinecia and the family had settled on a land claim west of Canyonville in the Cow Creek valley. A town called Riddle soon began to grow.
A year later, William Merriman, an old acquaintance from Illinois, arrived in the county. William had lost his wife on the trek west and buried her along the Oregon Trail. Three months later, William’s infant son also died after drinking bad milk. This left William alone with his daughter Auletta.
William staked a land claim near the Riddle family, and he and Artinecia married on February 10, 1853, and started a family. George, their first son, was born the following May.
In 1857 they moved to Jackson County and purchased a farm near Central Point. In 1860, five other children joined the family. Eventually, in addition to Auletta and John, Artinecia and William would have 15 children together. Their last baby was born in 1874, three years before William’s death.
Over the years, she was often asked about pioneer life and the early days of Jackson County. She was the obvious choice to appear in that 1915 film, “Gracie’s Visit to the Rogue River Valley.”
Two years after her film debut, Artinecia joined William and some of his children at the Jacksonville cemetery.
Writer Bill Miller is the author of six books, including “Silent City on the Hill.” Historic cemetery in Jacksonville Oregon. Contact him at [email protected]