Tag Archives: Edwin Walker McClain

Nathan & Mary McClain: Illinois to Oregon


Recently, on a genealogy web site called wikitree.com, I came across a photo of Nathan and Mary McClain (my/our great grandparents) that I had not seen before. As far as I know it is not in the family archives. I liked the photo, and that photo is today’s “photo of the day.” But there is some territory to cover before we get to it.

In the course of inquiring about that photo, I came into email contact with Cathy Tennant, the wife of my/our third cousin (descended from Mary McClain’s younger sister Ellen). From her, I received more detailed information about the life and times of Nathan and Mary McClain than I had seen before. About then, I had also come across other information about the origins of Nathan and Mary’s “McClain ancestors” in America. And I also came across photos from several genealogy web sites that would help to illustrate the story of Nathan and Mary. It has taken some time to put this all together into what I hope is a coherent account.

Most of this information about Nathan and Mary and their siblings was collected by two of my mother’s second cousins (though I don’t know that she knew either of them). The first of these family historians was Susan Elizabeth (McClain) Murphy, granddaughter of Mary McClain’s younger brother James. She seems to have gotten a lot of her information about Nathan and Mary from their daughter (my/our great aunt) Clara. The other historian was Barbara (McClain) Finder, granddaughter of Mary’s older brother Noah. I mention this just to give credit where credit is due.


My/Our McClains had been migrating pretty much every generation or two from the mid-1600s, when they left their ancestral home on the Isle of Mull in the Scottish Highlands, to the early 1900s, when they reached the west coast of North America. They might still be migrating today if the Pacific Ocean hadn’t gotten in the way. I say that with tongue in cheek, because there is a sense in which the McClains didn’t stop migrating when they reached the Pacific Ocean. From Oregon the descendants of Nathan and Mary and their siblings have spread all over the country and (I imagine) the world. However I’m not aware that any of this spread has involved travel in extended family groups the way the migrations that ended in Oregon did.

Nathan and Mary’s “McClain ancestors” apparently left Mull and neighboring islands due to a combination of clan feuds (primarily with the Campbells) and battles with the government (the lead-up to the Jacobite Rebellion). But that’s a story for another time. In the US, they started out in North Carolina, then moved to Tennessee and Kentucky, then to Illinois, then to Nebraska and finally to Oregon. Not everyone migrated, of course. There were McClains “left behind” each time the group moved.

The migrations of Nathan and Mary McClain and their McClain ancestors plotted on the globe. This covers from the late 1600s to the early 1900s, starting in Scotland (upper right) and then proceeding across the United States, ending in North Albany, Oregon (upper left). This image is illegibly small. Click/tap on it to see a larger, at least slightly more legible version. The line merely connects the locations in chronological order. It isn’t intended to show the actual route traveled between locations.

My intent is not to cover all these migrations in detail. I mention them merely to provide context for the migration from Illinois to Nebraska to Oregon that Nathan and Mary McClain, and others with them, undertook over the course of their lives.

McClain Family Background

This is a portion of an 1816 map of the United States. Rowan and Randolph counties in North Carolina are circled in green on the middle right. Knox County, Tennessee is circled in yellow near the center of the map. Adair County, Kentucky is circled in red, slightly left of center. Adams and Pike counties in Illinois are circled in blue at upper left. Click/tap image to view a larger and more readable version of the map.

The focus of this post is Nathan and Mary McClain, but since they were second cousins, we really need to start briefly with their common great-grandfather, Robert Andrew McClain. It was Robert’s father, Andrew Francis McClain who evidently immigrated to North Carolina from Edinburgh, Scotland in his late teens. Not long after he immigrated, he married another immigrant from Scotland, Sarah McClelland. The marriage took place in 1730, in Rowan County, North Carolina. Robert was Andrew and Sarah’s fourth child, born in Rowan County in 1738. He evidently ended up in nearby Randolph County, where he is said to have been high sheriff from 1784 to 1799. But by the time of his death in about 1807, he was living in Knox County, Tennessee, as were most of his children.

This is a tree of select descendants of Andrew Francis McClain (the elder). See below for further generations. This chart shows only individuals of interest. Each couple had significantly more children than are shown here. Click/tap image to view larger (and at least slightly more legible) version.

We narrow our focus to two of Robert’s sons, a second Andrew Francis McClain (who apparently went by Francis to be distinguished from his grandfather) and John Richard McClain, both born in the 1770s in North Carolina. Francis settled in Knox County, Tennessee, where all of his children were born, while his brother settled across the state line in Adair County, Kentucky, where all of his children were born. Despite being in separate states, they must have kept in close contact, because most of John’s and Francis’s children (and possibly John and Francis themselves) ended up in Illinois, straddling the line between Pike and Adams counties. Among these were John’s son Chesley and Francis’s son David Hamilton. These first cousins became the fathers of Nathan McClain and Mary McClain, respectively.

1846 map of Illinois counties. The border area between Adams and Pike counties, where the McClains settled, is circled in green at middle left. Click/tap image to see a slightly larger version of the map.

Chesley McClain Family

Chesley McClain
Nancy Ann Browning
Sarah F McClain (1847–1869)
Nathan Coffey McClain (1849–1919)
Mary Elizabeth McClain (1851–1865)
Catherine Alice McClain (1854–1908)
Edwin Walker McClain (1856–1918)
William Oliver McClain (1859–1932)
The family of Chesley McClain and Nancy Ann Browning
Nancy Ann and Chesley McClain, date and location unknown

Nathan was born in the northern part of Pike County, Illinois in 1849. He was the oldest son and second child of Chesley McClain and his wife Nancy Ann (Browning). (Like the John McClain family, the Brownings had moved to Illinois from Kentucky.)

1865 was the beginning of a series of tragic events for the Chesley McClain family. That year Nathan’s next younger sister, Mary, died at age 14. The next year, Chesley himself died, just 45 years old. In 1867 there was a happy event when Nathan’s older sister Sarah married William Drage, and the next year gave birth to a daughter Mary. But in 1869, Sarah died. Nancy Ann McClain made her granddaughter Mary part of her family.

Catherine Alice McClain, date and location unknown

In 1872, Nathan’s remaining sister, Catherine Alice, married Oscar Funk. Then in 1873, Nathan married his second cousin Mary, as mentioned above.

Nathan McClain (left) with brothers Bill and Ed. Probably taken in Albany about 1910. (From the family archives.)

In 1875 younger brother Ed married Kate Winner, and finally in 1879 youngest brother Bill married Alice Winner (niece to Kate). Just a few weeks before Bill’s marriage, their mother Nancy Ann remarried to a Benjamin Bonham.

David McClain Family

David Hamiliton McClain
Mary Elizabeth Lane
William Jasper McClain (1843–1863)
Martha Jane McClain (1844–1855)
Noah Francis McClain (1846–1927)
Sarah Ann McClain (1847–1913)
Elmina McClain (1849–1924)
Mary Elizabeth McClain (1850–1923)
Minerva L. McClain (1853–1877)
James Oliver McClain (1853–1897)
Lovica Maggie McClain (1856–1885)
Andrew Clark McClain (1857–1863)
John Arthur McClain (1859–1935)
Ellen Estelle McClain (1862–1943)
The family of David Hamilton McClain and Mary Elizabeth Lane

Mary McClain was born just a few miles away from Nathan, but across the county line in southern Adams County, in 1850. She was the sixth child of David Hamilton McClain and his wife Mary Elizabeth (Lane). Like the Francis McClain family, the Lanes had migrated from North Carolina to Tennessee to Illinois. The elder Mary’s great-grandfather, Tidence Lane (Sr.), founded Buffalo Ridge Baptist Church, said to have been the first church in the Tennessee territory. Perhaps I’ll write up that story sometime.

The 1860s were not particularly kind to the David McClain family, either. It started out well enough, with the birth of Mary’s youngest sister, Ellen Estelle, in October 1862. But in May 1863, Mary’s younger brother Andrew died a few months shy of his sixth birthday. Then in August, Mary’s oldest brother William died of disease while serving in the Illinois Infantry at the siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi (during the Civil War). The next year, father David McClain died, just under 46 years old. (I grant you that David looks much older than 46 in the photo above, at right, but I am reporting the facts and the photos as they have come to me.)

David Hamilton McClain (above), and wife Mary Elizabeth (Lane) McClain, location and date unknown
Mary McClain (the daughter) at left, with sisters Sarah (I think), center, and Ellen. Possibly taken in Louisville, Nebraska in 1910. (From the family archives.)

In 1866 or 1867, Mary’s older brother Noah Francis married Mary Catherine McNeal. They remained in Adams County for the rest of their lives. In June 1869, Mary’s sister Elmina married Philip Lierle, followed two months later by the wedding of sister Sarah to William Hull. More about Elmina below. The Hulls settled across the Mississippi in Carroll County, Missouri, where they remained for the rest of their lives. In 1873, as already mentioned, Mary married Nathan.

James Oliver McClain, location and date unknown

In April 1876, Mary’s brother James Oliver married Elizabeth (“Lizzie”) Sykes. The following October, they packed their things into a covered wagon and made the journey 340 miles west to Louisville, in Cass County, Nebraska, where they settled on a quarter-section of land they had purchased. They remained in the vicinity of Louisville for the rest of their lives.

In 1877, Mary’s next younger sister Minerva died at age 24. I have no information regarding the circumstances.

Ellen (McClain) Rathbun (center) and family, Louisville, Nebraska, 1905

In 1879, the two youngest in the family married. John Arthur married Julia Ann Baird. There will be more about them below. Ellen Estelle married Francis Allen. Sadly, Francis died less than two years later. In 1882, Ellen married Charles Rathbun, a recent widower who lived near her mother. In 1886, Charles and Ellen joined James and Lizzie in Louisville, and remained there for the rest of their lives.

Mary (Mary’s mother) died in 1884, three months before her 62nd birthday. The next year, her daughter Lovica died just before her 29th birthday. I have no information regarding her death, other than that she died at the home of her sister Sarah in Missouri, where she had been living.

Migration to Nebraska

1897 map of the counties and significant cities in Nebraska. The cartographer seems to have had quite a sense of humor with his little illustrations (click/tap this image to see a larger version of the map where they are more clear). The counties that figure prominently in this story are Cass, circled in yellow on the far right, eastern Keith and western Lincoln counties, on the left circled in green, and Cheyenne County, on the far left, circled in red.
Elmina (McClain) Lierley (as she seems to have spelled it), with sons Will and Edgar, location and date unknown

James and Lizzie’s move seems to have triggered an avalanche of McClains moving to Nebraska. Next to move, apparently, was Mary’s sister Elmina. In 1879 or very early 1880, Elmina took her sons Will and Edgar and joined James in Cass County, leaving her husband behind. (He remained in Illinois the rest of his life.) This must have been a very unusual act for the time,

In 1880, Nathan and Mary followed suit and joined the group forming in Cass County. Their children Jim, Mary and Arthur were born there. By 1885, Nathan, Ed, Elmina and John (Mary’s brother) had laid claim to adjoining quarter sections of land near Paxton, in Keith County, across the state from Cass County (as mentioned in this previous post). They all built sod houses, because that was the only building material readily available. Another group, the Funks (Nathan’s sister), Bill McClain, and Bill’s in-laws (James and Susan Winner) settled across the county line, near Wallace, in Lincoln County.

As mentioned in a previous post, this land was not suitable for dry land farming. It simply did not get enough rain. The winters were cold, the summers were hot and dry. One by one the families in this group of seven abandoned their homesteads for more promising situations. John and Julia moved into the town of Paxton for a time, then returned to Cass County.

In 1898, Nathan and Mary moved to a stock farm near a railroad station close to Paxton. That winter, son Clyde became seriously ill with typhoid. Things got even worse when their house burned down. Mary took the girls and babies into Paxton, while Nathan and the boys lived in the granary and tended the stock. The family moved to another farm in the area, and later moved to a farm near Sutherland, in Lincoln County.

Ed, Kate and their children moved further west to Cheyenne County. Sadly, Kate and a son died there.

Only Elmina remained on her original homestead, in her original sod house. Her older son Will fought in the Spanish-American War, but returned to the homestead afterwards to help his mother and younger brother get into the cattle business.

I don’t have any information about when Nathan’s mother Nancy Ann and step-father Benjamin Bonham moved from Illinois to Nebraska, but they were living in the Sutherland vicinity by the time of the 1900 census. In January 1902, Nancy Ann died suddenly, almost 76 years old.

On to Oregon

Ed, Bill, and Bill’s in-laws began making plans to move west, to La Grande, Oregon. Whether this was prompted by Nancy Ann’s death or was already under discussion before her death isn’t clear. They urged Nathan and Mary to join them. Nathan had a successful sugar beet harvest that year, which gave them the finances to join the group moving west. (There is disagreement over whether the year was 1901 or 1902. I have gone with 1902 because it seems to accord better with the claim that Nathan was still in Nebraska when his mother died.)

Two of Ed’s children had married by this time, and were not interested in joining their father. So in the end, the group moving to La Grande consisted of Ed and three children, Bill and Alice and four children, Alice’s parents, James and Susan Winner, and Nathan and Mary, with their daughters and younger children (Charlie, Bill, Jim and Arthur apparently stayed behind at this point).

So evidently each family loaded themselves, their household goods, tools and any livestock into an immigrant car, and they were all transported to La Grande. They must have arrived in late fall of 1902, if it was after the sugar beet harvest in Nebraska.

1897 Rand McNally & Co. map of Oregon. La Grande, in Union County, is circled in green at upper right. The Willamette Valley is not specifically named on the map, but is roughly the area circled in red at left, between the Coast Range and Cascade Mountains, Albany is in about the middle of the red ellipse, circled in yellow. Click/tap the image to see a larger version.

Apparently La Grande was underwhelming. The group could not find any suitable land. They had been there less than six weeks when a letter arrived from Jim and Jane (Winner) Parton, who were living in the Albany, Oregon area. Jane Winner Parton was Alice Winner McClain’s sister. (We have encountered the Partons previously on this blog. Some years after this, in 1914, their daughter Stella would marry Nathan and Mary’s son Clyde.) The letter from Partons spoke glowingly of the Willamette Valley and urged the group to come there instead. Jim and Jane Parton had still been living in Nebraska at the time of the 1900 census, so evidently they had left Nebraska not long before the La Grande group. It had not taken them long, though, to realize that the Willamette Valley was the land the group was really looking for. In La Grande, the group quickly decided they would follow the urging of the Partons.

So just six weeks after getting off the train from Nebraska, Nathan was able to secure one immigrant car to Albany, Oregon. The entire group (S. Elizabeth Murphy counts 22 people, but I can come up with only 21) and as much of their possessions as would fit were crammed into that one car, by which means the group got to Albany.


Regular readers of this blog will already know the rest of this story. Nathan and Mary farmed for some years in the Tallman area, then bought an apple orchard in North Albany, where they lived until Nathan died in 1919.

Nathan’s son Arthur came west in 1903 and settled in Albany, where he met Addie Hammel and married her in 1908. They would end up in Tallman in 1918 and live there the rest of Arthur’s life.

The Lebanon High School graduating class of 1910, said to have been the largest class in the school’s history (to that point). The young lady standing directly behind the seated young man is Effie McClain, Bill and Alice’s daughter.

Bill and Alice settled in the Lebanon area, as did Alice’s parents. Ed settled in Albany.

The Funks did not come west, but some of their children ended up in the Seattle area. Elmina and her sons moved west to Fall City, Washington in 1905 and lived there the rest of their lives. (Betty McClain Scott said she remembered going to Washington as a child to visit the Funks and Lierleys. Presumably this was sometime in the 1920s.)

John and Julia McClain came west a little later (but before 1910) and settled in Salem. At least two of their children, though, sons Leonard and John Deo, settled in Albany.

Photo of the Day

Finally we come to the “Photo of the Day.” This photo is not from the family archives (though I wish it were), but I think it is a wonderful photo of Mary and Nathan. It was taken toward the end of their lives, so serves as a fitting conclusion to this account.

Mary and Nathan McClain, almost certainly taken in Albany. I’m guessing it was taken sometime after they moved to North Albany in 1911.