Lou Southworth (ca. 1830-1917)

Louis Southworth at fireplace
Courtesy Benton County Historical Society Museum (1991-041.0054N)
Lou Southworth
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Lou Southworth, who became noted as a rare former Oregon slave, was born in Tennessee around 1830.  His father’s name was Hunter, but he was born into slavery and took the surname of his master, James Southworth.  His early life was spent in Franklin County, Missouri.

Emigrating to Oregon with his mother and James Southworth in the 1850s, Lou lived with his master on an abandoned claim and then moved to Jacksonville, mining gold and saving money toward his freedom. He fought in the Rogue River Indian Wars in the late 1850s rather than give up his rifle to a company of volunteers who were short of weapons and demanded it.  He also became known in Southern Oregon as a musician, playing his violin for local gatherings.

After his mother’s death at the age of seventy, Southworth moved to Yreka, California where he played the violin for local dancing schools, earning enough money to complete the purchase of his freedom, $1000 in all, between 1858 and 1859.

In 1868 Southworth returned to Oregon, settling in Buena Vista where he worked as a blacksmith. Here he learned to read and write and joined the Victoria Lodge of Masons. Southworth married Mary Cooper on June 16, 1873, and in 1880 they moved to Tidewater, near Waldport, where his wife died six years later.  During this period Southworth worked on the Alsea River, ferrying passengers and cargo.  During the summers Southworth worked near Philomath and Corvallis, helping with the hay harvest to earn money for winter supplies.

Southworth became known locally as a man who always voted.  On election day in 1880, a storm blew across Alsea Bay. Southworth rigged oil cans on the front and back of his boat for extra floatation and was the only one to cross the bay that day.

Even in his old age, Southworth loved to play the violin. He stopped attending a local church when the congregation censored his music.  Lou Southworth died in Corvallis, Oregon sometime in 1917.  He was survived by his stepson, Alvin McCleary, a fisherman, butcher, and eventually a city councilman in Waldport, Oregon.