Land Grants, Inheritance Patterns, and Hollywood Celebrities

By Cynthia Prescott, Associate Professor of History, University of North Dakota

I recently had the opportunity to contribute to an episode of TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are?  The show’s researchers reached out to me as an expert to guide celebrity Tony Goldwyn’s research on his maternal ancestry.  I traveled to the Oregon State Archives to meet with the Hollywood actor/director/producer, where I provided historical context for primary sources related to his great-great-great grandparents, Nathaniel and Mary Coe.

Nathaniel Coe first migrated to Oregon with one of his sons in 1851 to fulfill Nathaniel’s appointment as the Special Postal Agent of Oregon Territory.  When that appointment ended, he sent for his wife and other children, and they lived in the Portland area for a time while selecting their Donation Land Claim.  Unlike most Willamette Valley settlers, who were subsistence-surplus farmers growing primarily wheat, the Coes were among the first Oregon farmers to focus on growing cash crops.  Drawing on Nathaniel’s extensive knowledge of the region gained through his travels as a postal agent, the Coes chose to move up the Columbia River Gorge to settle at Dog River (which Mary  renamed Hood River in honor of nearby Mount Hood).  They chose wisely.  The land they chose sits in a microclimate that was particularly well suited to growing fruit trees, and provided easy access to steamboats on the Columbia River that could haul their apples, peaches, and other fruit to market.

I first encountered the Coe family as part of my dissertation research comparing the gender roles and ideology of the first two generations of white American settlers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley (approximately 1845-1900).  I spent time with the Coe Family Papers held by the Oregon Historical Society’s research library, tracking the work that members of their family did as they established extensive fruit orchards on their Donation Land Claim in Hood River, Oregon, and examining their farm journals, personal correspondence, Mary Coe’s short fiction, and albums of newspaper clippings for indications of their gender roles and ideology.  I also included the Coes in my database of marriage and inheritance patterns of some 50 Oregon settler families.

Nathaniel Coe’s probate records raise intriguing questions about inheritance patterns and family roles in 19th-century Oregon.  The Donation Land Law explicitly granted acreage to white men and their wives who settled in Oregon.  Nathaniel and Mary Coe received 320 acres of land, half of it in Nathaniel’s name and the other half in Mary’s.  Most married couples who received DLCs appear to have treated the entire acreage as belonging to the husband.  But the Coe family was different.  Not only did Mary retain title to her half of the land, but Nathaniel left his share to her in his will – in addition to leaving Mary the traditional “widow’s third”: a one-third interest in his personal estate for the remainder of her lifetime, which was intended to provide for her support after the loss of her husband.  The remainder of his estate he divided equally among his four sons.  (Nathaniel and Mary had no surviving daughters.)

This strayed from customs of the time.  It was more typical for Oregon farmers to divide their estates among their children, perhaps dividing their land among their sons and leaving moveable property to their daughters.  The farmhouse typically would be left to the eldest or youngest son, who would be responsible for providing for his mother for the remainder of her lifetime.  Had Nathaniel died intestate (as did a majority of Oregonians), Oregon law dictated that his widow receive a one-third interest in his estate for her lifetime; the remainder of the estate would be divided equally among all surviving sons and daughters.

Why did Nathaniel leave all 160 acres of his land to his wife?  Because he left no written record of his reasons, we are left to make an educated guess.  Several factors may have affected his decision.

Nathaniel may have been concerned about dividing the family homestead among his sons.  His eldest son, Lawrence, had not settled in Hood River with the rest of the family.  Shortly after Nathaniel’s death, two more sons moved east of the Cascade Range to pursue stock raising, leaving their sickly remaining brother to run the Coe fruit farm with their mother.  When Charles died a few years later, his brothers returned to help run the Hood River farm, but it appears their hearts were never in the nursery business.

Another likely factor, based on my reading of the Coes’ personal papers, is the strength of Nathaniel and Mary’s partnership.  Most middling men and women of their generation sought to marry a provider (husband) or helpmeet (wife).  It was common for women to fill in for their husbands in their absence, but Mary appears to have been more fully engaged with the family business than was typical of the era.  Combining the strength of their partnership with their sons’ disinterest in fruit farming, my reading of the situation is that Nathaniel trusted Mary more than he trusted his sons to carry on the thriving fruit farm that he established.

Who Do You Think You Are?  airs Sundays at 10/9 Central on TLC.  You can check out clips from the Tony Goldwyn episode at

You can read more about my research on the Coes and other 19th-century Oregon farm families in Cynthia Culver Prescott, Gender and Generation on the Far Western Frontier (University of Arizona, 2007).

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2 Responses to Land Grants, Inheritance Patterns, and Hollywood Celebrities

  1. ccprescott says:

    This episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” is now available to view at

  2. Pingback: Rural Women’s Studies Wednesdays: Summer Edition | Rural Women's Studies

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