Grace Tibbet’s mother was a Native Clatsop named Louisa, of whom little is known. Her father, Calvin Tibbets, was a stonecutter from Maine who had ventured west in 1832, across the plains and over the mountains to Oregon, his new permanent home. He was the first U.S. citizen to do so, earning him the sobriquiet of “Oregon’s first pioneer.” Calvin participated in the historic 1843 vote at Champoeg that established a provisional government in Oregon, thereby sowing the seeds for Oregon statehood.
Tragically for Grace, her father died in 1849 while aboard a ship bound for California. Not long afterwards, her mother Louisa passed away too, leaving Grace an orphan. She spent the majority of her youth at a girls boarding school for “metis” (mixed-blood) children in Oregon City, Oregon.
Three thousand miles away in Virginia, Richard “Dick” Sortor was born into slavery in 1826, but was able to escape north to Princeton, New Jersey. As a young man, he became passionately involved in the ongoing efforts of the Underground Railroad before making his way to California in 1852. Twelve years later, Sortor came north to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where he met and married Grace.
Their first two children were born in Portland – Myra Ann in 1866 and Mary Grace three years later. It’s believed that Dick and Grace were part of the successful effort in the late 1860s to establish a public “colored” school in Portland for African American students. Prior to this, Black students had been prohibited from attending the city schools.
In 1871, the couple saw an opportunity to the north and moved their growing family to Kalama. The community was just being laid out along the Columbia River as the company town and western terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad (NPR). Dick was hired and worked for NPR over the next 15 years, nine of which as freight agent. Dick was a favorite among the NPR employees and officers.
The Sortors and their nine children kept two homes at Kalama, but not because one place couldn’t accommodate everyone. Their first home was on the fertile flats close to the river, perfect for grazing their goats. During high-water months, this lower property often flooded, so the family would relocate to their second home up on the rocky hillside.
In addition to his domesticated animals, Dick was an expert about wild game and came to know the countryside around Kalama well. He had lots of hunting stories and loved to tell them, along with other backwoods tales, such as the time he led a search party to rescue a pair of young ladies lost in the woods, sightings of the “Kalama Ghost” (a local legend), or just poking fun at his hunting buddies.
Grace Sortor was less social than her husband, but a kind and friendly Kalama figure. Though constantly busy with her kids, gardening, and household needs, she made time to help neighbors in need. She is remembered for providing Native remedies of roots and herbs.
The more than 20 years that Dick and Grace lived in the Kalama left a big imprint on the community. Following their deaths in 1898 and 1902, respectively, the Kalama townspeople mourned the passing of the “old landmark” couple and with it, the end of an era.