HISTORY IN BRIEF
The Pickled Pioneer
by Hilary McDevitt
The story of the Keils, both father and son, in which pioneer legend meets historical fact.
Embalmed in pure whisky, they called him the pickled pioneer. The tale of Willie Keil, whose body led a wagon train west, has now become legend. As with all legends, there’s always more to know. So I went looking. Willie’s story turned out to be two overlapping sagas. The first began in Germany with his father, Dr. Wilhem Keil.
Not a real doctor, Keil was a mystic. He was interested in mysteries and revelations that he thought were beyond the understanding of ordinary men. One revelation came from a gypsy (a woman of the Roma), who shared her mysterious botanical remedies with him upon one condition: He could not practice medicine in Prussia.
Keil emigrated to the States in the 1830’s. He set up a small drug store in Pittsburgh and continued “experiments” in search of a formula to ensure eternal life. He had been interested in necromancy and mesmerism as a youth, and, so it was claimed later, kept a book of his secrets, symbols and formulas, written in human blood.
In Pittsburgh, “Doctor” William Keil received another “called from above.” He burned his secret book in a symbolic ceremony and began to study the practices of the Rappites–followers of George Rapp, another German mystic, a religious prophet who had set up a Utopian colony in Economy, Pennsylvania. The Rappite colony was one of the early experiments in communism in America.
Many of the Rappites were displeased with Rapp’s leadership -a timely situation for “Doctor” William Keil. A dynamic person and charasmatic speaker, Keil convinced about 200 Rappites to move westward and form what would be their first commune in Bethel, Missouri. Historians have written about Keil’s Bethel community as another example of early communism in America.
Tales of the Oregon Trail soon made it to Bethel – it was situated less than 200 miles from Independence, Missouri, where wagon trains began the journey. Keil was already worried about the increase of settlements around Bethel, and “contamination” of its communal way of life. Keil and many of his followers joined the thousands of other Americans who made the 2,000 mile journey west to Oregon. And now the story turns to Willie Keil the younger.
William Keil Jr., son of the prophet, was excited about the journey -the adventures, dreams and possibilities of being a young pioneer. His father had even promised to let Willie lead the wagon train. But four days before the date of departure, Willie Keil died. He was 19 years old.
Dr. Keil kept the promise to his son to lead the wagon train. Dead Willie was put in a lead-lined coffin, which was filled with whiskey from Bethel’s famed distillery. Newly pickled, Willie was placed in a long wagon at the head of the caravan.
Along the 2,000 mile trek- or so the story goes- Willie would save the Bethelites time and again. Warned about Indian attacks and massacres when the group stopped at forts and camps along the way, Dr. Keil remained unshaken, believing that their God would protect them as he saw fit. And that protection included the spirit and body of his son Willie Keil, their “leader.”
Members of the Sioux, Cayuse, and Yakima tribes greeted them at various intervals along the trail, and it is said that upon seeing the body of young Willie, and hearing hymns of mourning sung in German, the Native Americans allowed what seemed to them a sacred funeral procession to pass.
Was this divine intervention? Luck? The power of song? A universal respect for the dead? Take these as you will. But the answers to the questions are insights into the way all legends grow. Legend and history aren’t quite the same thing.
From 1835 to 1855, only 4% of the deaths along the Oregon Trail were a result of Indian attacks. Pioneer fears would have been better placed on accidents and disease. But tales of battles and massacres told along the trail had extra mythic power. Deaths from encounters between Native Tribes and emigrants were far fewer than our own pioneer myth suggests.
The group’s destination was the Willapa River –then part of the region called Oregon, today part of Washington. Dr. Keil had sent scouts to prepare the new settlement site. And one assumes in this case, to find a place to bury his son. And in a quiet pasture between present day Menlo and Raymond, in southwest Washington, Willie’s journey came to an end. A weathered headstone marks his grave.
Only months later, the Keil and his followers moved again, this time to escape the rainy and waterlogged land around the Willapa. They went south to across the Columbia River, establishing the Aurora Colony, which became the city of the same name still there today.
The new commune grew quickly. While primarily self-sustaining, the colonists also engaged in trade, making furniture, instruments, dress trimmings and more to sell. The Aurora colony also became quite famous for their songs, and their bands were hired around the state to perform. A hotel in Aurora soon became a rest stop for travelers from Portland to San Francisco, and known for great food.
The Aurora Colony Was Famous for Their Music: Aurora Musicians Pose Among Trees; Musicians on Porch; Aurora Band in front of Keil’s House.
But the community began to fracture, a familiar fate in the history of many such utopian communities. Although Wilhelm Keil had fathered nine children himself, he encourage a policy of celibacy and strict rules about marriage. These didn’t set well with the younger generation. And while the older colonists maintained cultural isolation by speaking only German, the younger people in the community began to speak English – another predictable development among emigrant groups.
Following the Keils through history, I made came upon my own discovery. I found a woman who was a descendent of people on the Aurora wagon train, and although her ancestors had been hesitant to speak about Keil and their time in the community, she was willing to recount some of the history that had come down to her.
She’d been told that the family had left the colony over disagreements with Dr. Keil. While others in the community still strongly believed in him, her family joined those who saw Keil and his beliefs in an unfavorable light.
Who would have thought that a pioneer legend would be tied to a history of American Communisim? Before the Communist Manifesto, before Lenin and Stalin, that a mystic and prophet named Willhem Keil would take his Christian communist community west, and with his dead son’s body as its spiritual guide?
Call them legend or history or both, but one big story has come down to us split apart. One reason is surely the impact of the Red Scare and McCarthyism. Willie Keil may have been the pickled pioneer, but he was also communist. Wilhelm Keil may have been a a communist but he was also a pioneer. Sounds far- fetched? But that’s where legend and history meet. Legends born from history sometimes mask it. And if a legend is a kind of mask, careful history can let us see beyond.
Hilary McDevitt is a graduate student in education at Fairfield University.HOME