The Story of Willie Keil

  • By Dorothea Nordstrand
  • Posted 5/10/2003
  • Essay 5453
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This account of the weird journey of Willie Keil (1836-1855) over the Oregon Trail was written by Dorothea Nordstrand (1916-2011) and first appeared in Adventure West in November 1994.

Willie Keil's Strange Journey to the West

On a quiet stretch of Washington State Highway 6, between Chehalis and Raymond, at a place named Menlo, stands the Washington Heritage Marker for Willie Keil’s grave.  The tiny bit of history on the marker doesn't begin to tell the story, a fascinating vignette from the colorful past of our nation’s northwest corner.

Willie was born January 12, l836, in Bethel, Missouri.  His father, Dr. William Keil, was the leader of a religious sect known as the Bethelites.  In l855, they decided to follow their dream and come west to find their "promised land."  Willie, who was just 19, was completely dedicated to the idea and was thrilled at being a part of the proposed adventure.  He learned to drive a three-ox team and became so good at it that he was given the honor of driving the number one wagon.  Sadly, when it was time for the wagon train to set out, Willie fell desperately ill with malaria.  He was so afraid he would be left behind that he made his father promise that, no matter how ill he was, Willie would make the trip.

Dr. Keil had the leading wagon fitted out as an ambulance so that he could keep his promise to his son.  Four days before the designated date of departure, Willie died.  That was May 19 in the year of l855.  

Dr. Keil had promised his followers he would take them to "a cool, green and beautiful land beside a rushing river" and he also remembered his promise to Willie, so he and the elders of the sect built a sturdy, wooden coffin and lined it with lead.  Then, Dr. Keil ordered a load of 100 proof Golden Rule whiskey, poured it into the coffin around Willie, and nailed down the lid. It was carefully placed in the number one wagon, which Willie had hoped to drive.  The stories say that the Bethelites left on the appointed day, May 23, 1855, with Willie "sloshing around" in the alcohol.

A little west of Ft. Laramie, a band of Indians in war dress approached the wagon train, who were sure they were in for big trouble. A painted brave rode close and pointed to the black box.  Dr. Keil pried off the lid and the Indian looked inside.  At their leader's signal, each member of the war party rode slowly by and gazed solemnly into the coffin.  Then, they turned and quietly rode away.

On a wet, chilly November day, six months after they left Missouri, the Keil party reached their intended destination at Willapa near the Washington coast.  Nineteen-year-old Willie, in his coffin full of whiskey, was finally laid to rest.

Before long, the Bethelites discovered that their expected Paradise on Earth was too damp for their taste and they removed their settlement to the Willamette Valley in Oregon.  There, they founded the town of Aurora, which lies a short distance south of Oregon City.  

Young Willie was left behind in the place he so wanted to be.  It is a lonely place, windswept and forbidding.  There was only a simple stone to mark his resting place until the state erected the heritage marker in his memory.  Here, Willie sleeps through the years after his long, weird journey along the Oregon Trail.

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