Wagon train to Oregon was led by a dead man: Willie Keil
The young man was the only person to have followed the Oregon Trail while dead, and it turned out to be fortunate for his family — and the Aurora Colony — that he did.
This photo, from the Washington State Department of Transportation's
on-line listing of the state's historical markers, shows the interpretive
sign that marks young Willie Keil's final resting place in southwest
Washington. Click here for a larger image.
By Finn J.D. John — July 18, 2010
The Aurora Colony, founded in 1856, is one of the real treasures of Oregon history. But, ironically enough, it might very well never have happened if young Willie Keil hadn’t died.
Willie Keil was 19 years old in 1855. That was the year a party from Bethel, the Christian commune Willie’s father led in northern Missouri, packed up its wagons to head for the Oregon territory. Young Willie was terrifically excited for the journey. Missouri, at the time, was the “jumping-off place” for westward-bound emigrants, and Willie had met plenty of them as they geared up for their journeys. Bethel craftsmen were famous for quality and honesty, and hundreds of emigrants had bought their goods and supplies for the journey from them.
The Oregon Trail was the great adventure of Willie’s generation, and he yearned to take part in it. His father, Dr. Wilhelm Keil, had promised he’d lead the train when they left.
Then, just before it was time to leave, young Willie Keil became desperately ill and then died.
A father's promise to his dead son
A promise was a promise, and Willie’s grieving father had promised his boy he’d be leading the wagon train. So, lead the train he would. The elder Keil arranged for a lead-lined coffin that would not leak, filled it up with the high-quality whisky (”Golden Rule” brand) that Bethel’s distillery produced, and laid his boy to rest in it. Then a special trans-continental hearse was built.
When the wagon train left Missouri, the hearse was at the head of the line.
Danger on the Oregon Trail
Now, 1855 was a bad year to be on the Oregon Trail. The Native Americans were growing exasperated with all the traffic, and they knew very well that the purpose of it was to kick them off their land. It might be the West Coast tribes’ turn today, but it would be theirs tomorrow. In 1855, they were actively trying to do something about it.
At several military outposts along the way, the Keil party was urged to turn back and wait a year. Dr. Keil would politely hear the speaker out and the wagon train would press on. The Lord would protect His own, Keil would say.
But then, by the time Keil was hearing this sort of advice, he’d already met many Indians.
Word was spreading among the tribes that there was a particularly big wagon train led by a dead man coming through. Party after party of heavily armed Sioux and other plains Indians came to see. They’d take a peek into the coffin, look impressed, make gestures of friendship, listen to a couple hymns in German and be on their way.
Friendship with the Indians
But the Indians didn’t just leave the Bethel party alone — many were actively helpful and friendly. At one point, when some of the party’s livestock escaped, a group of Indians from the Cayuse or Yakima tribe actually drove the animals back to the wagon train.
The party passed the charred remains of at least one less fortunate wagon train along the way. In the discolored iron bands and burned corpses, they saw what probably would have happened to them without the protective presence of young Willie Keil. They stopped to bury and pray for the dead and moved on.
Willie finally laid to rest
When the party arrived at its destination in the Coast Range of what’s now southwest Washington, Dr. Keil soon found its gray and misty weather tiresome. His scouts found a more suitable spot south of the Columbia, and the colony soon moved to what’s now Aurora. (There is much more to tell about the Aurora Colony, but that will have to wait for another time.)
As for Willie, he was buried upon arrival at the older site in Washington. His tombstone can be found in Willie Keil’s Grave State Park on Washington’s Highway 6 near the community of Menlo. He is, of course, the only person known to have traversed the entire Oregon Trail while dead.
(Sources: Holbrook, Stewart. The Far Corner. Sausalito, CA: Comstock, 1973; Old Aurora Colony Historical Museum, https://auroracolony.org; Oregon Historical Society, www.ohs.org)
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