Biography of Gen. Joel Palmer

GEN. JOEL PALMER. – There have been few men in Oregon more universally respected, or whom the people have more delighted to honor, than General Palmer. A plain, unpretentious man, who assumed absolutely nothing, he was nevertheless conscious of his superior abilities, and had no hesitancy in assuming commensurate responsibilities. For natural capacity and sagacity in great affairs, he ranks with the first men of our state, such as General Lane, Colonel Cornelius, Judge Kelly or Governor Gibbs.

He reckoned himself as a New Yorker, both parents having been natives and residents of that state, although at the time of his birth they were on a temporary sojourn in Canada. His boyhood and youth were spent at the old home in the Empire state; and he early assumed the responsibilities of life, marrying, when but nineteen, Miss Catherine Caffey. Of their two children, Miss Sarah subsequently came to Oregon with her father and became the wife of Mr. Andrew Smith; and the other died in infancy, the mother not long surviving.

Mr. Palmer was married again to Miss Sarah A. Derbyshire of Bucks county, Pennsylvania. That was in 1836. Soon afterwards he moved to Indiana, and, having become accustomed to the management of large works, took a contract to build portions of the White Water canal, and to complete the locks at Cedar Grove. During his stay in Indiana he became widely known, and was twice elected to the state legislature, filling the place with signal ability.

The great excitement about Oregon, beginning in 1844, led him in 1845 to cross the plains with a companion, Mr. Buckley, to investigate the practical value of the Northwest Pacific, and to discover the practical measures for holding it, if it should be held. He made a thorough survey of the country; and his Western pre-possessions in its favor were so far strengthened as to determine him to bring his family to this utmost West and make it his home. Returning accordingly in 1846 he agitated for a company, and confirmed the purposes of those who had Western inclinations; and by May, 1847, he was at the head of a large emigration. Indeed the number of teams and loose stock was so great as to necessitate a division; but this was accomplished with great difficulty, since all parties wished to travel with Palmer.

Reaching the Willamette valley in October, he located a claim on the Willamette river six miles south of the present town of Dayton. Later in the season he started on a trip to Vancouver for provisions for his family, but before reaching Oregon City was met by a messenger from Governor Abernethy informing him of the Whitman massacre, and desiring to see him immediately. Upon reaching the city the Governor tendered him the rank of quartermaster-general; and he filled the position with fidelity and ability throughout the Cayuse war, the particulars of which are given in the general history of this work.

After the Indians were quieted, General Palmer led a company to California in 1848, being the first to take wagons through to the gold mines. He operated on the Feather and Yuba rivers, and returned the next year, and was secured as a pilot by Lew Hawkins to cross the plains. At Fort Hall, however, they met Governor Wilson coming westward to California; and, as he had no guide, and as Hawkins believed he could finish the journey without further help, the Governor was glad to accept the services of Palmer, and with him went to the gold mines. In California the General made a tentative bargain with Wilson for a large tract of land, and returned to Oregon for his family. but, just before going, he went to the present site of Dayton, and seeing the great advantages there for a sawmill, and the opportunities for a town, and feeling perhaps a pang at the thought of quitting our lovely valley, gave up the land tract in California; and, securing a water-power at Dayton, he began building his mill, and with his son-in-law Andrew Smith, laid off the town. The profits of the fruit and grain raising, together with the avails of his mill, fully justified his expectations; although he suffered the loss of the latter property through the carelessness of an Indian. This man, being employed to remove slabs, in the absence of the other hands fired the pile too near the mill, causing the conflagration not only of the slabs, but of the lumber and the mill itself. More than ten years later the General with Samuel Brown of Gervais, erected on the same site the Merchant Flour Mills, which was also burned.

In 1853 General Palmer accepted the position of superintendent of Indian affairs, and in 1856 accomplished the great work of fathering and centering all the Indian tribes of Western and Southern Oregon on the Grande Ronde and Silitz Reservation. These tribes had just come out of the Indian war, and were not only sullen but broken-spirited, – thoroughly whipped, but still obstinate, or rather too much overcome to feel any ambition or interest in improvement. Nevertheless, the General was able to assimilate them and assign them homes, and engage their attention in agriculture, until they are now one of the most peaceable and thrifty communities in the sate.

After many years spent in this humane work of reconstruction, he felt the desire to return to his home at Dayton, and there resumed an active interest in white men’s affairs. In 1874 he was selected as the candidate on the Republican ticket for governor of Oregon. His party was at that time in a reactionary condition, many having become greatly dissatisfied with the former administration; and Palmer was chosen as the most popular Republican in the state. Despite his able canvass, and his confessed fitness, the count went against him. The people were in that mood when they were willing to inflict a punishment on the party; and of course the candidate suffered. In all that campaign there was not a breath of reproach nor slander cast at Palmer; and if any man could have brought victory, he could.

It was in 1881 that he died. His wife, Mrs. Sarah A. Palmer, who was born in Bucks county, Pennsylvania, April 11, 1815, is still living at the old home with her daughter.


History of the Pacific Northwest Oregon and Washington. 2 v. Portland, Oregon: North Pacific History Company. 1889.

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