The Infamous Black Bird Southern Oregon History, Revised

Joseph O. Stearns

     Joseph O. Stearns, whom his many friends in Portland address by the title of Judge, has long occupied a position of prominence in legal circles of the city. He knows every phase of pioneer life in Oregon, his native state. Interesting facts concerning his career were gleaned by Fred Lockley, who wrote the following sketch for the Oregon Journal:
     "In reply to my first question, Judge Stearns said, 'I was born in Jackson County, October 15, 1855. Our donation land claim was located about where Medford now is. My father, Samuel Eastman Stearns, was a native of Vermont. He was born in 1814. My mother, Susan Terry Whittaker, was born in Ohio. Father and mother were married at Batavia, Ohio, March 12, 1844. In the family were nine children, of whom I was the sixth. Father's family came to America in 1630 with Governor Winthrop and Sir Richard Saltonstall as passengers aboard the Arabella. The founder of the family in America was Isaac Stearns, who hailed from Suffolk, England, and was one of the first to be admitted as a "freeman." He was admitted on May 18, 1631, and not long after became a selectman of Watertown. Isaac, Abigail, Hannah, Phoebe, Kazia, Ebenezer, Benjamin, Ruth and Peter are all old family names and come down from generation to generation in our family.
     "'When my parents located in Jackson County the country had few settlers and they lived under primitive conditions, enduring many hardships and privations. They were in constant danger from Indian attacks, and I remember seeing Chief John of the Rogue River tribe. I have a distinct recollection of the children being hidden by my mother in a depression of the ground and covered with brush for the purpose, thus eluding the keen eyes and ears of the savages. Our home was a log house about fourteen by sixteen feet in dimensions, with a dirt floor, flour sacks for windows and a blanket for a door. A crane hung in the fireplace and Mother cooked in a Dutch oven. My parents slept in bunks and I had a trundle bed. My mother had a spinning wheel and spun the wool. She made buckskin shoes for the children and taught them how to fashion hats with oat straw. There were but few matches in those early days and the fire was kept burning by burying the oak coals at night. Twice our fire went out and Mother sent me to borrow coals from a neighbor. Wild animals as well as redskins roamed through the forests and game was abundant. Our soap was made from the fat of animals, this being placed in a sack until needed. Lye was made by pouring water on hardwood ashes, to which the hot fat was afterward added. The pioneers first used 'sop lights,' made in a receptacle in which wicks were placed. Tallow was poured on them and when lighted they were pulled out of the tallow with tweezers. The tallow dip was next used and afterward came the candle molds, six candles being made at one time. These were followed by sperm candles and they in turn were replaced by small lamps containing nut oil. Later coal oil was burned in square tin lamps which smoked and frequently exploded. A petroleum product known as Lucine was used in brass lamps but this was a very dangerous method of making light and eventually gas and electricity came into use. When I was a child my father made syrup by putting sugar cane in a wooden trough with a sheet iron bottom and cooking it until the liquid reached the proper consistency. During the harvesting season the grain was put in a small corral and horses and cattle were driven over it. The flail was next used and this was made by tying two heavy sticks together with thongs. In the early days the sleds were drawn by oxen. Some horses were used and the wagons were of primitive make.
     "'My father was a Baptist minister--what they called in those days a circuit rider. He rode all over the Northwest, preaching in scattered communities and founding Baptist churches. While he was a strong Baptist, my mother was an equally strong Methodist. My father's ministerial duties kept him away from home most of the time.
     "'We came to Portland in the spring of 1863."
Fred Lockley, History of the Columbia River Valley, From The Dalles to the Sea. Vol. 2.  S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1928, page 358

Pioneer Lawyer Dies at 89 Years
    PORTLAND, Sept. 4--(AP)--Judge J. O. Stearns, 89, oldest practicing attorney in the state and an Oregon pioneer, died Sunday at his home.
    Judge Stearns once said he was "forced into practicing law" because he served as justice of peace and later judge in pioneer days of Lincoln County. He was born Oct. 15, 1855, in Medford.
    He set up a law and realty business in Portland in 1898 and practiced law until a few weeks before his death.
    His interest in foreign affairs brought him membership on the national council of economic league, the foreign policy association and service as an advisor to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs.
    Survivors include three daughters and seven sons.
Oregon Statesman, Salem, Oregon, September 5, 1945, page 4

Pioneer Born Here in Days of Indians Is Taken by Death
    Judge J. O. Stearns, 90, the oldest practicing attorney in the state, passed away at his home in Portland recently.
    Father of seven sons and three daughters, he was born Oct. 15, 1855, on a donation land claim where the city of Medford now stands and lived there in a log cabin where the family was in constant danger of Indian attacks. On numerous occasions his mother hid the children under a pile of brush until the Indians had left. His father was a Northwest Baptist circuit rider.
    In 1907, after various ventures in real estate, insurance, mining and the machinist's trade, he decided to devote his full time to law, which he continued almost until the time of his death.
    Judge Stearns was active in Republican party affairs, in which he was deeply interested most of his life and was an ardent champion of the proposal to establish a world court.
Medford Mail Tribune, September 10, 1945, page 3

Last revised May 18, 2022