The Old-Time Herald Volume 11, Number 10

Feature
Lou Southworth, Pioneer Oregon Fiddler
By Vivian T. Williams
sample.jpg
courtesy Oregon State University Archives

The Far West in the middle of the nineteenth century was a place where people had the opportunity to overcome unpromising origins, leave behind their lives in the East, and start afresh. Lou Southworth, an African American slave, seized the opportunity to change his life dramatically, with the help of his fiddle. Louis (or Lewis) Alexander Southworth was born into slavery in Tennessee on July 4, 1830. His fatherís surname was Hunter, but he took the surname of his master, James Southworth. At age two he was taken to Franklin County, Missouri, with his family. This is undoubtedly where he learned to play the fiddle. In 1853, when Louis was in his early twenties, his master took him over the Oregon Trail to the Oregon Territory.

Slavery had been declared illegal in Oregon in 1844, and black people were excluded by law from the territory from 1848 to 1854 and again in 1857. In 1854 Louis Southworth was allowed to settle on an abandoned Oregon Donation Land Claim near Monroe, in Lane County. Because times were so hard, James Southworth moved in with him. Evidently James needed money, so Louis soon left for the gold fields in the Jacksonville area of southern Oregon. He earned $300, which he gave to his James in partial payment for his freedom.

In the fall of 1858 he went to Yreka, California, to mine for gold. When he discovered that he could make more money with his music than he could mining, he taught violin and played for dance schools in Yreka and in Virginia City, Nevada. Louis Southworth was not the only person to benefit from the fact that frontier communities often placed a higher value on music than on other profitable activities. Dr. William Allen of Oregon City wrote in 1851 that he made more money playing his violin and teaching dancing than he did practicing medicine. The money that Southworth earned from his music enabled him to pay another $400 toward his freedom. He made a final payment of $300 to his master in 1859, and became a free man.

 

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