On a thoroughfare that cuts through Lacey, a suburb of Washington State’s capital, there’s a street sign and a pioneer cemetery that both bear the name Ruddell. If you’ve never heard of Stephen Duley Ruddell, you’re not alone. This Washington pioneer deserves much more attention. Ruddell’s remarkable story is punctuated with deadly land battles and dramatic tales of a family forced into captivity. It unfolded during a riveting chapter of American history when slavery divided political parties and the nation. Like many of his contemporaries, Ruddell’s political leanings and loyalties were called into question.
Named for his father, Stephen Duley Ruddell was descended from Scotch-Irish and French Huguenots. He was born in Bourbon County, Kentucky, on June 16, 1816. His mother, Susannah David, was his father’s third wife and Ruddell his eighth child.
Forced into captivity The Ruddell roots run deep in an emerging America. When you flip through the pages of history books, you find Stephen Duley Ruddell’s father, Stephen A., and his grandfather, Captain Isaac Ruddell. The nation was just three years old in 1779 when Captain Ruddell (The name is also rendered as Riddle and Ruddill), established Ruddell’s Station in Harrison County, Kentucky to shield families from attacks during the Revolutionary War. Captain Ruddell had already formed a militia to ward off attacks from the British and the Indians, who vowed to defend their traditional hunting grounds.
In 1780, the Indians, led by British officer Captain Henry Bird, attacked Ruddell’s Station. The fierce battle ended in the capture of Captain Ruddell, his wife Elizabeth and most of their children. Some 470 prisoners in all were captured and marched to Detroit where they were held for two years. However, the Ruddell family was allowed to live on a nearby island and grow food for their fellow prisoners. Meanwhile, the Shawnee Indians captured two of the Ruddell children, Stephen A. and his brother Abraham, and raised Stephen A. as their own. Ruddell’s father was 12. He was raised with the renowned Shawnee warrior Tecumseh, a future chief of his people. Stephen A. Ruddell recounted that he was only six months younger than Tecumseh and the two formed a powerful bond. In fact, in later years when historians researched the Shawnee leader, Stephen A. provided a remarkable inside account.
In his new life, Ruddell was named “Sinnamatha” (Sinnanatha), or “Big Fish.” He didn’t just play an Indian; he became an Indian – much like the starring character in Little Big Man, the critically acclaimed movie about a 121-year old who recollected his amazing boyhood as an adopted brave after his family was massacred by the Shawnees.
For Ruddell, home became Ohio Country or the “Old Northwest.” He pledged his loyalty to his new tribe, fighting next to Tecumseh and against American settlers. He took a squaw for his wife. It is believed that Stephen A. Ruddell lived with his Indian family for some 15 years, until he reached the age of 27. The experience made an indelible impact on the rest of his life.
According to one account, in 1795 at Fort Greenville, he and his brother Abraham were surrendered to an American Cavalry general, Anthony Wayne, as part of a pact that resulted in the Treaty of Greenville. The Indians had lost the Battle of Fallen Timbers on the Maumee River in modern-day Ohio and came to terms with the white men. They handed over all of their prisoners and surrendered land in modern-day Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan. This brought the fighting in the region to an end – at least until Tecumseh’s War in 1811.
Stephen A. Ruddell considered Tecumseh his brother. He called him “Tecumtha.” The daring chief went on to lead the Shawnee resistance to American settlement. He sided with Britain in hopes the Brits would be satisfied with reclaiming the original colonies and choose not to push westward.
Tecumseh’s Confederacy created an alliance of tribes that championed common ownership of Indian lands and multi-tribal treaties. The members also pledged to refuse selling land to settlers in the future. Tecumseh died in 1813 during the Battle of Thames, part of the ongoing War of 1812.
With his Indian bride, Ruddell returned to the settler’s life. But she soon discovered that the “civilized” life of the whites was not for her. Ruddell returned his wife to her tribe with two horses. In the years to come he prided himself on his ties to the tribe and worked as an interpreter. He would go on to become a farmer and a Baptist preacher, serving as a missionary to Indians. In all, Stephen A. Ruddell married four times and fathered several children, including Stephen Duley Ruddell, our Thurston County pioneer.
The Early Years Like his father, the younger Ruddell was a prolific farmer. He was also a family man. Ruddell spent his early years moving westward for better land and more opportunities. Together with his parents, he’d moved from Kentucky to Illinois. On February 19, 1835, he married Keziah Smith in Quincy, Illinois. They had three sons: Paul, William and Stephen Lafayette — carrying on the family’s tradition of perpetuating honored names. After the family moved to Schuyler County, Missouri, Ruddell lost Keziah sometime between 1844 and 1846. It is unclear how, but illness and mishaps claimed many young pioneers. He remarried quickly, which was no scandal, especially when a widower or widow had young children.
Ruddell married Winifred Croghan Hicks. In 1848, Stephen (Dooley) Ruddell was granted a land patent in Fayette, Missouri. It was signed by the President of the United States, James K. Polk, an exponent of “Manifest Destiny,” the notion that America was ordained to control everything from sea to shining sea.
The Ruddells were the latter-day equivalent of “hers, mine and ours” – a blended family. Winifred brought four children to the household; Stephen came with three. They had two more together, daughters Catherine and California Ann, who was born in 1849 during the celebrated Gold Rush. They all caught “Oregon fever” where the land was fertile and largely free. The first “Great Migration” along the Oregon Trail was in 1843 when some 800 men, women and children in 110 wagons left Missouri with thousands of animals – oxen, horses, mules, and cattle. Farmer Ruddell, his bride and their brood joined the growing tide of emigrants.
A Move Out West and the Trials of Life Ruddell was about 35 when he led his family to the Oregon Territory. He is listed on the 1851 emigrant roll as departing Council Bluffs, Iowa, in May. They traveled with the Crockett, Cochran and Ebey families. There were travails. Young Stephen Lafayette Ruddell suffered from such a severely swollen leg that it had to amputated, presumably without any form of anesthetic, according to a graphic account of the trek by Hugh Crockett. “The poor little sick child didn’t look like he was hardly worth saving,” Crockett recounted. But an “old doctor” they encountered at Council Bluffs “took a common butcher knife and carpenter’s saw and cut the boy’s leg off. No one thought he would survive. But he lived through the operation and the succeeding trials of life, and the last time I saw him his weight was 200 pounds. He lives in Thurston County, and is doing well.” After this horrific setback, they crossed the Missouri River on the 15th of May and pushed west.
In October of 1851, The Ruddell Family arrived in the Willamette Valley. Ruddell farmed the fertile soil and even caught the attention of the local paper, The Columbian, for producing a giant watermelon. “Mr. R. told me that he took a melon from his vines on the 7th of Sept. weighing 18 lbs,” a correspondent for the pioneer paper noted.
In 1852, Ruddell moved north to Thurston County, to what was then known as Chamber’s Prairie. (Thomas McCutcheon Chambers, one of the first white settlers in the Lacey area, arrived from Missouri with his family in 1845.) Stephen D. Ruddell claimed 320 acres on February 21, 1852, according to the Donation Land Claims.
Education was important to Ruddell and his neighbors. They pitched in to build Thurston County’s third school at Chamber’s Prairie. An ad in The Columbian in January of 1853 asked a qualified teacher to apply to S.D. Ruddell. A later article mentions Mr. D.L. Phillips, a teacher, at the new Chambers Prairie school. The log schoolhouse was built near the Ruddell home. Just the year before, Ruddell had become Treasurer for School District 2 in Thurston County.
Stephen Duley Ruddell also played a key role in the creation of Washington Territory. On November 25, 1852 a group of pioneers assembled at the Monticello Convention, near the present site of Longview, Washington. They drafted a petition to the United States Congress to establish “Columbia Territory,” embracing the portion of Oregon Territory north of the Columbia River. Joseph Lane, Oregon’s Territorial Governor, and the Territorial Legislature approved the request and sent it to Congress. On March 2, 1853, Congress created the territory, but dubbed it Washington, to honor the “Father of the Country.” Some feared “Columbia Territory” would be too similar to the District of Columbia. Stephen Duley Ruddell’s name can be found on the list of signers at the monument for the Monticello Convention.
The Ruddell Pioneer Cemetery sits at the intersection of Ruddell Road SE and Mullen Road in Lacey. It was established by Stephen Duley Ruddell after the passing of his step-son’s wife, Eliza Jane Hicks. She was the first to be buried there. Ruddell believed there needed to be an appropriate eternal resting place for pioneers and their descendents. The graveyard is located on Ruddell’s original land claim. As you pass through the entrance, the sign reads, “Ruddell Pioneer Cemetery 1852-1916.” The Ruddell Pioneer Cemetery Association deeded the property to the Woodlawn Funeral Home, with the provision that descendants of pioneers could still be buried at no cost and that Woodlawn would provide perpetual care of the pioneers’ burial plots. A large gravestone honors Ruddell, his accomplishments, and his generosity in creating the cemetery.
A Public Life
Though he is listed in several places as the Territorial Assessor, primary sources attesting to that have proven elusive. An article in The Columbian on July 9, 1853, comes close: “We are gratified to learn that our old friend S.D. Ruddell, Esq., has been appointed county Assessor.” A territorial US Tax Notice issued by Hazard Stevens asking citizens to pay their Federal taxes to a designated deputy in each county. Whether Ruddell was designated to collect Federal taxes in Thurston County is not known. (Since there were only eight counties at the time and just 4,000 settlers in Washington Territory, Ruddell may well have been considered the assessor for the entire territory serving as the tax collector.)
The Ruddell name appeared often in the newspaper. Ruddell’s son Paul earned a notice in The Columbian while he was in the trenches building the Cascade Road, the famous east-west route across Washington’s scenic mountain range. In tribute to the tenacity of these early settlers, the paper reported:“Stout hearts and willing hands have taken hold, and there is not a doubt but that the road will be passable for wagons in twenty-five days.”
On December 12, 1853, The Washington Pioneer announced Stephen Duley Ruddell’s appointment to another prominent position. Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens named Ruddell Judge of Elections for Thurston County at Chamber’s Prairie. The job meant that Ruddell and fellow judges would administer the oath to one another, designate the house or building where the election was to be held in their respective areas, and submit election results to the Secretary of the Territory. Thus he played a key role in the first territorial election where voters would choose members of the Territorial Legislature and a delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. That same month, Ruddell chaired Democracy of Thurston County, which appears to be the local branch of the Whig Party. Although he was an election official, Ruddell was also nominated for the Territorial Council (the future Washington State Senate) as a democrat and Whig nominee in January of 1854. (That lower case “d” on “democrat tells us that political parties were in flux.) Ruddell faced off with another prominent Thurston County pioneer, Daniel Bigelow. Ruddell received a glowing write-up in The Washington Pioneer : “S.D. Ruddell, Esq., the other nominee for the council, has been a resident of the Territory since 1851 – is not only one of the best practical farmers in Washington, but a man of acknowledged excellent common sense and good sound judgment; who has been foremost in the work of organizing the party, and foremost in aid of every improvement calculated to be beneficial to the Territory; who has ever been a strenuous and consistent advocate for the division of Oregon, and has contributed a due proportion of his means and labor towards the construction of the Cascade road, and who would make as good and efficient a councilman as the representative from any county in the Territory. Old Steve, as he is familiarly called, and D.R. Bigelow, Esq., are just the men for the position for which they have been nominated.” Come March, Bigelow, a popular lawyer, clinched the seat.
In May, 1854, Ruddell took on a brief role as Thurston County Judge of Probate, appointed by the Legislature as a fill-in. A month later, Joseph Cushman was appointed to the post by the county commissioners.
Sadly, Winifred Ruddell died in January of 1856. On February 15, 1857, Ruddell married Margaret McCallen Stewart White. Margaret was recently widowed herself and the survivor of a distressing ordeal in the spring of 1856. Her husband, William White, was escorting his family home from church when they were fired on by six Indians. Unarmed, White told his family to flee and was killed. He was buried in Ruddell Cemetery. (Coincidentally, Magaret’s daughter, Ann Elizabeth, was the wife of Daniel Bigelow, the prominent pioneer who outpolled Ruddell in the race for the Territorial Council.)
The Ruddell Stockade & the Indian War To protect families from the increasingly agitated natives, the Ruddell Stockade was fashioned during the Indian Wars. Ruddell’s log home was enclosed by a stout log fence. It formed a 200 x 200 foot shelter for his family and neighbors. It is believed that the Rev. John Rigdon organized the first Christian Church in the Puget Sound basin in this shelter in 1857. When a son was born to Stephen and Margaret on April 3, 1858, they named him Rigdon.
On November 1, 1855, Ruddell enlisted in the volunteer Army at Chamber’s Prairie during the Yakima Indian Wars. You can find his name on the Indian War Muster Rolls in Regiment 1, Company E, with a rank of 2nd Sergeant. His dates of service, 1855-1856, are on the marker where he is buried.
Throughout this tumultuous time, political party lines were far from clear. The nation stood on the brink of Civil War. The Whig Party was collapsing, pitting the Democrats against the newly-formed Republicans. The Democratic Party was fracturing within itself. In Thurston County, it’s hard to decipher whether the Whigs in fact joined with the Democrats or were still a viable party on their own. Ruddell, like many others during this era, was conflicted. In 1856, he was a delegate to the Thurston County Democratic Convention. He also presided as chairman of the Thurston County Democrats. Then in 1860, he turned up as a Republican. In an article headlined “Democrats! Turn Out!” in the Pioneer and Democrat ofMarch 15, 1860, his loyalties are called into question. “Then let us give them an undivided support, and thus give a signal rebuke to such men as Stephen D. Ruddell… Let the supporters of Ruddell and D.R. Bigelow, in 1854, remember that our votes were cast for them as Democrats, but as pretended Republicans they have nothing to expect from us. They are office politicians, who can and will lay aside their principles as often as it is necessary for its procurement. Ruddell’s defeat in 1854 made him a Republican, a defeat now will make him — who knows what?”
In June of 1860 Ruddell was in fact chair at the Thurston County Republican Convention where he was unanimously nominated as Territorial Representative for Chamber’s Prairie. But nothing came of the nomination.
In 1862, the voters of Thurston County elected Ruddell as a commissioner, a post he held for two terms. His party affiliation, if any was required, is not clear. Two years later, in June of 1864, he was elected to the Territorial House of Representatives under the banner of the Union Party. As a nominee for Speaker of the House, Ruddell received just one vote. He served for one term as Representative. Ruddell at this point affiliated with the National Union Party, a short-lived movement between 1864 and 1868. Abraham Lincoln was re-elected president on that ticket. It seems that Ruddell’s decision to switch parties was out of sympathy with the president.
The year 1876 found Stephen Duley Ruddell honored for his achievements in agriculture. His name appeared in newspapers as the superintendent of fruits for the next annual exhibition of the Western Washington Industrial Association. He was later elected one of its directors for 1877. The life of the prominent farmer had come full circle. The association was created to promote agricultural exhibitions.
On September 10, 1891, the intriguing adventures of Stephen Duley Ruddell, pioneer Washingtonian, came to an end. He died at the age of 75, a good long life. Family and friends buried him in the cemetery that bears his name. He was a resilient pioneer who capitalized on opportunity and never shied away from taking on a new role. The descendents of his six children and numerous stepchildren continue to make their homes in the community and prosper.
Lori A. Larson, Washington State Legacy Project, 2010
Sources: Washington State Library Historic Newspaper Collection
Easton, Roger. President of the Board of Ruddell Pioneer Cemetery.
Bennett, Robert A. A Small World of Our Own.1985. (Walla Walla: Pioneer Press Books)
Bernd, Zelma Louise. “All My Children: A Lacey Pioneer Story.” 1994.
Eckert, Allan W.A Sorrow in Our Heart: The Life of Tecumseh. 1992. (New York: Bantam)
Sugden, John. Tecumseh: A Life. 1998. (New York: Henry Holt and Co.)