The Espy Family of Oysterville
Author/historian Sydney Stevens says, “I often feel that the Espy family and Oysterville are so inter-related it is hard to know which has had the greatest influence upon the other.”
Sydney, herself, is an Espy descendent and lives in Oysterville – the village that her great-grandfather, Robert Hamilton Espy co-founded with Isaac Alonzo Clark in 1854.
Espy and Clark were guided to the area by Chinook Indian Chief Nahcati. The two young men eagerly began harvesting the native oysters of Shoalwater (now called Willapa) Bay, shipping them to California where hungry miners paid in gold for the succulent bivalves. Within weeks Oysterville became a rowdy, lusty boomtown – the busiest anchorage on the coast north of San Francisco.
When the Washington territorial government urged communities to form a militia, Espy complied and was soon elected ‘Major.’ He helped establish a Baptist congregation in Oysterville and, in 1892, donated the land and money for the church building that still serves as centerpiece to the village. When the oysters ‘failed’ in the 1880s and most of the townsfolk left, including his old friend Clark, Espy, his wife, Julia Jefferson, and their seven children stayed on.
In Major Espy’s dotage, when he needed looking after, his next-to-eldest son, Harry Albert Espy, moved back to his native Oysterville, bringing with him his own young family. Harry became a dairy farmer, and in the years that followed was elected justice of the peace, clerk of the school board, and Washington state senator representing Pacific and Wahkiakum Counties. He and his wife Helen Richardson’s seven children attended the one-room Oysterville School, went off to college and, eventually, to lives and careers far distant from the tiny hamlet. Even so, Oysterville was always considered ‘home.’
In 1971, Senator Espy’s youngest daughter, Dale, and her husband, Bill Little, retired to Oysterville and began to work on preserving the fragile remains of the once thriving boomtown. Their efforts, with the help their Oysterville friends and neighbors, resulted in the village’s designation as a National Historic District in 1976.
In 1977, Dale’s brother Willard Espy’s hugely successful book, Oysterville: Roads to Grandpa’s Village brought nation-wide attention to the remote corner of southwest Washington. And, shortly before Willard’s death in 1999, the Willard Espy Literary Foundation was formed. The foundation, headquartered in Oysterville, continues to support writers and artists by offering month-long residencies there.
Dale’s daughter, Sydney, and her husband, Nyel, now live in the Harry Espy home. Sydney’s part of the family legacy has been to ‘rescue’ the incredible collection of Espy family papers and documents, amassed over the century and a half of Oysterville’s history, and to turn the archive over to the Washington State Historical Research Center. Sydney’s book Dear Medora: Child of Oysterville’s Forgotten Years, based upon a small part of the collection, has been recently published by WSU Press.
“I have no doubt that Oysterville and the Espy family will continue to nurture one another in generations to come,” says Sydney. “It’s simply the way it is.”