A woman of competence

“Possessed of her right mind”

So The Legal Genealogist was poking around in obscure records again and ran across Mary Louisa Hess of Yamhill County, Oregon. And what a woman she was! And what a sad state of affairs she had to confront just before the end of her long life.

She was born Mary Louisa Kaiser — the spelling is given in various sources as Kaiser, Kayser, Kuyser and Kyser — in February 1817 in North Carolina, and married Joseph Hess in Van Buren County, Arkansas, when she was just 18 years old. 1 Her first four children were born in Arkansas, the fifth in Missouri, and the last eight in Oregon — for a total of 13.2

Mary Louisa, often called Louisa, and her family were among the pioneers of the Oregon Territory. They’d been there long enough by 1850 to have had three children born there.3 The county where they settled, Yamhill County, was primarily farm country,4 though Joseph was shown on the census as a merchant.

And they’re recorded there in 1860 with their youngest 11 children, ages four months through 20 years; Joseph was shown as a farmer with substantial property.5

But by 1870 Joseph was a no-show on the census. Mary Louisa, age 52, was recorded as head of household with five children ages 11-19.6 And before the 1880 census, Joseph was dead.

The story was that Joseph took off for California, ended up back in Oregon with another wife and other children, and died — by murder or by accident — from a blow with an axe.7 The full story of the split between Joseph and Mary Louisa isn’t shown by the records I was poking around in. The story that is shown is of a woman who began to live — and control — her own life and affairs.

The first deed recorded in Yamhill County in Mary Louisa’s name alone was for 20 acres in 1878 to two men, W.A. Roberts and W.H. Deemer.8 She continued to transact land business throughout the 1880s and 1890s, selling or even buying land.9 As late as 17 December 1902 — only weeks before her death on 20 February 190310 — she transferred two acres to her son Tilman.11

So what must it have been like for this proud and independent woman when, in March of 1901, all of a sudden, she had to prove she was competent to transact business? That she knew what she was doing? What in the world could have prompted the requirement that, count them, four separate affidavits — including two from medical doctors — had to be filed before a deed was recorded?

Because that’s the tale that’s told by two pages in a volume that FamilySearch labels as miscellaneous records. On the 12th of March 1901, two long-time acquaintances of Mary Louisa’s traipsed into the county courthouse and filed affidavits. The first one, J. C. Nelson, swore:

I have personally known Mary L. Hess for the past fifty years, and … she is now and always has been so far as I know, possessed of her right mind. I consider her perfectly competent to transact business. I talked to her this day concerning the sale of that certain tract of land, made this day to W.R. Carter and I believe she sells it thoroughly understanding the purpose for which it was sold. I further say that I verily believe that she has not been coerced in any way whatsoever in making this sale.12

The second one, L.W. Harger, said the same thing, except he’d only known her 26 years, not 50.13

Then came the doctors, Horace J. and Harrie A. Littlefield, and in identical language each said:

I am a duly licensed and practicing Physician, and … I have this day made an examination of Mary L. Hess and I find that she is in full possession of all her mental faculties, and in my opinion she is well qualified to attend to the transaction of any business to which she might have to attend.14

The affidavits don’t tell us why they had to be filed — what caused somebody somewhere to ask about Mary Louisa’s competence. It surely wasn’t the land deal itself. She was selling a little more than 93 acres of land to W. R. Carter for about $30 an acre15 and other large land deals around the same time were for less per acre.16

Perhaps she’d been ill. Perhaps one of her 13 children was worried about his or her inheritance. Perhaps she’d just been a silly old woman — she was, after all, 84 years old at the time — and worn purple with a red hat.

We don’t know. We don’t even know how she reacted to this indignity. I’d have been furious. Maybe she was too. Or maybe she understood, for reasons lost to time.

All we know for sure is that these two pages of an obscure record book tell a story about Mary Louisa that would be easy to miss — but that ought by rights to be part of her history.

Because she was, by golly, “possessed of her right mind (and) perfectly competent to transact business.”

Which is more than can be said for a lot of us…


  1. Mary Louisa Kaiser,” Townships 13 & 14 S, Ranges 5 & 6 W, Willamette Meridian, Pioneers of South Benton County Oregon, Rootsweb (http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~orbenton/ : accessed 30 Jan 2013).
  2. Ibid., except for son William, the Missouri-born child, missing from this enumeration. For William, see 1850 U.S. census, Yamhill County, Oregon Territory, population schedule, p. 167 (stamped), dwelling/family 152, Wm H. Hess; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 30 Jan 2013); citing National Archive microfilm publication M432, roll 742. See also 1860 U.S. census, Yamhill County, Oregon, Chehalem Center, population schedule, p. 657 (stamped), dwelling 4149, family 3540, William Hess; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 30 Jan 2013); citing National Archive microfilm publication M653, roll 1056; imaged from FHL microfilm 805056.
  3. Ibid., 1850 U.S. census, Yamhill Co., Oregon Terr., pop. sched., p. 167 (stamped), dwell./fam. 152, John M., Andrew J. and “Lovinda” A. Hess.
  4. History of Yamhill County,” Yamhill County, Oregon (http://www.co.yamhill.or.us : accessed 30 Jan 2013).
  5. 1860 U.S. census, Yamhill Co., Ore., Chehalem Ctr., pop. sched., p. 657 (stamped), dwell. 4149, fam. 3540, Joseph Hess household.
  6. 1870 U.S. census, Yamhill County, Oregon, East Chehalem District, population schedule, p. 574 (stamped), dwelling 982, family 852, Mary Hess household; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 30 Jan 2013); citing National Archive microfilm publication M593, roll 1288; imaged from FHL microfilm 552787.
  7. See e.g. Lois Branch, “Joseph W. Hess,” The Branch Ranch – A Roundup of Our Ancestors, World Connect database (http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/ : accessed 30 Jan 2013).
  8. Yamhill County, Oregon, Deed Book R: 38, Mary L. Hess to W. A. Roberts and W. H. Deemer, 26 January 1878; Office of the County Clerk, McMinnville, Oregon; digital images, “Oregon, Yamhill County Records, 1857-1963,” FamilySearch.org (https://familysearch.org/ : accessed 30 Jan 2013).
  9. See e.g., ibid., Deed Book 31: 44, Charles and Martha Hadley to Mary L. Hess, 1.11 acres, 21 Nov. 1894.
  10. See Fernwood Pioneer Cemetery, Newberg, Yamhill County, Oregon, Mary L. Kaiser Hess marker; digital image, Find A Grave (http://findagrave.com : accessed 30 Jan 2013).
  11. Yamhill Co., Ore., Deed Book 44: 52, Mary L. Hess to Tilman Hess, 20 Feb 1902.
  12. Yamhill County, Oregon, Miscellaneous Records 1: 2, affidavit of J.C. Nelson, 12 Mar 1901; Office of the County Clerk, McMinnville, Oregon; digital images, “Oregon, Yamhill County Records, 1857-1963,” FamilySearch.org (https://familysearch.org/ : accessed 30 Jan 2013). Note that the volume label was supplied by FamilySearch; neither the spine nor the title page was microfilmed.
  13. Ibid., Vol. 1: 3, affidavit of L.W. Harger, 12 Mar 1901.
  14. Ibid., Vol. 1: 2, affidavit of Horace J. Littlefield, M.D., 12 Mar 1901. And ibid., Vol. 1: 3, affidavit of Harrie A. Littlefield, M.D., 12 Mar 1901.
  15. Yamhill Co., Ore., Deed Book 40: 356, Mary L. Hess to W. R. Carter, 12 Mar 1901.
  16. See e.g. ibid., Deed Book 40: 337, May to Calbreath, where the price was $23 an acre.
Print Friendly
This entry was posted in General, Resources. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to A woman of competence

  1. Celia Lewis says:

    You do find the most interesting stories, Judy. Wonder if the potential buyer decided to raise the issue hoping to make her lower her price… after all, she was only a woman! Obviously she was well thought of to have all of the affidavits say the same thing clearly. Thanks for an entertaining read! I’m off to Fieldstone Common now… Cheers.

  2. My Holmes family arrived in OR with the 1843 wagon train. I just looked at the list of people in the train and there were Hess and Kaisers (various spellings)as members of that group. Not sure if this link will be accepted or not. http://freepages.history.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~mransom/pioneers.html

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      The link should work just dandy, Carol, and thanks for posting it. It’s pretty well accepted that the Joseph Hess on the list was Mary Louisa’s husband. I’m intensely curious now as to whether they actually divorced, or he simply ran off …

  3. Sheri Fenley says:

    “and worn purple with a red hat.” How did you ever find out what clothing she wore? This is the kind of information I love to read about.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Sheri, that was purely and simply conjecture about what might have made someone think she might not be competent. It’s drawn from opening lines of the wonderful poem Warning by Jenny Joseph:

      When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
      With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.

  4. Kathy Nitsch says:

    Judy, When J.C. Nelson said “she sells it thoroughly understanding the purpose for which it was sold,” was that just legal boilerplate-type language or could it be a clue? Someone from the community (perhaps an adjoining landowner) might have objected to what W.R. Carter (the buyer) had planned to do with the property. Maybe the quickest way to block Carter’s planned development was to question Mary’s competence. I wonder what Carter did with the land once he got his hands on it.

    • JoF says:

      I had the same thought. I wonder if tax records would show something about the use of the land. What about census farm schedules? Did they have a farm schedule in 1910? I’ve only looked at earlier ones. City/county directories? Well, it sure would be interesting to know what he planned to
      build that got people so riled up. Am I sure that is the reason they challenged Mary’s competence? Of course not. Still the wording of that first affidavit does suggest there was some concern about Mr Carter’s plans for the land.

      • Judy G. Russell says:

        Jo, there was a 1910 agricultural census, but it’s not available online that I’m aware of. But any Hess descendant should certainly check that, at least after checking other documents filed in Yamhill County of the same type in other cases.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Entirely possible, Kathy, though William R. Carter was shown in the 1910 census as a farmer. I didn’t see any similar documents in the volume I was poking around in to compare the language — it was obviously boilerplate for this particular transaction, since the wording was identical between the two friends and between the two doctors — but I don’t know if it was identical to other documents of the same type.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>