Ninety-four years after a Civil War veteran’s cremated remains were stored away and forgotten at an Oregon mental hospital, Pvt. Jewett Williams is going home to Maine.
Members of the Idaho Patriot Guard Riders, a group that honors fallen U.S. military personnel, will escort the remains through Idaho and hand them off to another chapter in Montana.
“It’s a tremendous honor for us to be asked to be part of the escort,” said Dario Bell, state captain for the Patriot Guard Riders. “That’s the ultimate respect we can provide to him.”
Williams grew up in Hodgdon, Maine, a small farming town just west of the U.S. border with New Brunswick, Canada, where his parents were raised. In October 1864, at age 21, he enlisted in Company H of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The regiment took part in three battles near Petersburg, Va., in late 1864 and early 1865.
It also participated in Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s April 9, 1865, surrender at the Appomattox Courthouse and later marched to Washington, D.C., where a military procession and celebration dubbed the Grand Review of the Armies took place on May 23 and 24, 1865.
Monday morning in Salem, the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs will transfer Williams’ remains to the Oregon chapter of the Patriot Guard Riders. Civil War re-enactors dressed in period 20th Maine uniforms will serve as a color guard.
The Idaho riders will take possession of the remains Monday night at the Pilot Travel Center in Ontario, Ore. They will be held overnight, along with a folded American flag, at the Cloverdale Funeral Home, 1200 N. Cloverdale Road.
At 7 a.m. Tuesday, a flag line to honor Williams will form outside the funeral home as the remains are loaded for the rest of the trip through Idaho. Veterans and others wishing to pay respects to Williams are invited to attend, said Bell, a veteran of the Vietnam War.
Additional stops will take place in Mountain Home, Twin Falls, Pocatello and Idaho Falls. The remains will pass to a Montana group at Monida, Mont., 80 miles north of Idaho Falls, about 3 p.m. Tuesday.
The remains are scheduled to arrive in Maine on Aug. 22.
“It feels great to finally do justice by him and give him the honor he deserves — a burial in a national cemetery with full military honors,” said Tom Desjardin, a Maine historian who learned that Williams’ remains were stored at the Oregon hospital.
Desjardin, former Maine commissioner of education and an 11th-generation Maine resident, has studied the 20th Maine for more than four decades. He has collected information on the burial sites for 700 of the unit’s veterans, about half of the total.
During a meeting last year of Maine Gov. Paul LePage’s Cabinet, Desjardin suggested to state military officials that Williams’ remains be returned to Maine for a proper burial. They agreed.
“Because the 20th Maine is such a famous regiment today, people think of the members as heroes and don’t always realize that these were regular people who often died alone, in far-off institutions, without any fanfare,” Desjardin said. “Private Williams helps remind us that many who serve (in all wars) are never given the proper credit they deserve and often end up, literally or figuratively, as a forgotten can on a shelf.”
After the war, Williams became a carpenter. In the 1880s he lived in Brainerd, Minn., with his second wife, Nora Carey, according to census records researched by Phyllis Zegers of Roseburg, Ore., a volunteer with the Oregon State Hospital genealogy project.
The Williamses later moved to the Tacoma area in what was then Washington Territory. Williams also lived in Everett, Wash., before moving to Portland by 1903.
Zegers found newspaper references that Williams spoke at schools in the Portland area between 1914 and 1919. In the 1920 census, the Portland resident was listed as a widower.
On April 14, 1922, Williams was admitted to the Oregon State Hospital for the Insane, the same Salem hospital used for the 1975 film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Records indicate he was admitted to the hospital for senility. He died three months later, at age 78.
PATRIOT GUARD REACHES A DECADE
Nationally, the Patriot Guard Riders formed in 2005 to counteract a protest waged by members of the Westboro Baptist Church at the funeral of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. John Doles in Chelsea, Okla. Members of an American Legion Riders group in Kansas led a group of veterans and other motorcycle enthusiasts to the funeral to honor Doles, killed in Afghanistan, and later attended other military funerals.
Bell expects 20 to 30 riders to participate in each Idaho leg of the trip for Williams. Some will go the entire distance while others may ride from one stop to another, he said.
A burial will take place Sept. 17 at Togus National Cemetery in Chelsea, Maine. It will take place during the 150th anniversary celebration for the adjacent Togus Veterans Hospital, the oldest Veterans Affairs hospital in the nation, located 6 miles east of Augusta, the state capital.
Williams’ remains among thousands neglected at Oregon hospital
Jewett Williams’ cremated remains were among 3,600 found in copper urns in 2004 in what was dubbed the “Room of Forgotten Souls,” located in the basement of the Oregon State Hospital.
The discovery symbolized the inhumane treatment of patients in the mental hospital. Outrage over it led the Oregon Legislature to approve funding for a new state hospital. It also led to the creation of a memorial for the ashes of the men, women and children found inside the locked room.
Since November 2013, volunteer Phyllis Zegers has researched the backgrounds of 1,600 of those people, including Williams. She has located relatives of about 100 of them.
“I fall in love with them as I do my research,” Zegers said. “It’s icing on the cake when you can find living relatives. They’re generally very appreciative.”