Biography of James P. Stephens

JAMES P. STEPHENS. – This original owner of a large portion of the townsite of East Portland, Oregon, was born in 1806 in Virginia, and removed to Indiana when but a boy of eight, and came still farther west to Hancock County, Illinois, in1832. In 1830 he married Miss Elizabeth Walker of Ohio, and passed on to Missouri, and in 1843 made preparations to come to Oregon. Failing, however, to reach the rendezvous in time, the journey was postponed until the next year. Crossing the plains in 1844, he endured the hardships of that toilsome year, and reached Oregon City as late as December 24th.

The year following he bought a squatters right to the site of East Portland, which was held by Doctor McLoughlin as administrator of one Porier, a Frenchman. Living there and working at cooperage for the Hudson’s Bay Company, Mr. Stephens availed himself of the Donation land law to secure his claim, thereby acquiring a property which stood him in stead during all his vicissitudes. As early as 1846 he established a ferry between East and West Portland, using a simple flatboat propelled with oars, and with this passed the few horsemen and occasional teams that traveled in those days to and fro. In that year he also laid out the city of East Portland.

In 1848 he, with all the rest of the Oregonians, tried his luck in California. Projecting a large business plan, he bought a site for a bridge across the American river, making the structure of hewed timbers, some of which were ninety-five feet long, set upon heavy buttresses. An ox-team could be hired only for sixteen dollars a day. This valuable property was washed away the next winter at a loss estimated by its owner at not less than $20,000. Mr. Stephens was himself in Oregon at the time and sold the bridge site for $5,000. The next summer, with James Terwilliger, he hewed out on his own place a quantity of square timbers, which he shipped to California, selling them upon his arrival at a good price to a pioneer well known in Oregon, Barton Lee, then in California. Stephens, arriving with his timbers, was to receive his payment immediately. But that happened to be the day of the squatters’ riot; and all business was closed. Lee’s creditors, taking advantage of this, closed upon him; and he disappeared with what gold dust he had about him. The creditors took a keg of gold dust, and everything else. Stephens thereby lost his pay, which amounted to $16,000, – a hard blow to an honest man.

Returning to Oregon, he resolved to stay away from a country like California, where luck went so much against him. Arriving at his old home, he thereupon devoted himself to his ferry, building a new boat, the iron work of which cost him fifty cents a pound. With William Frush as manager, he conducted the business for a number of years, making it quite remunerative. During the war of 1855-56 he transported soldiers, munitions, and furnished feed for horses, etc., receiving for the work government scrip, which was not redeemed until after the outbreak of the war of the Rebellion, and then in depreciated currency. He believes that the shrinkage was about $15,000; but, despite these losses, he kept his ferry in successful operation until 1865, having replaced the oars by horse-power and the horse-power by steam long before. In that year he disposed of the property to Joseph Knott, the present wealthy proprietor.

Sometime in the sixties he was so unfortunate as to embark in the banking business with his son-in-law, Doctor A.M. Loryea; and his whole estate became involved. Failing to meet the mortgage, he thereby lost a large portion of his land, which is now worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The entire indebtedness not being met by this sacrifice, he was induced to take a deed of trust for the remainder of his property to provide against actual want.

This movement was ill advised; and it was by a hair’s breadth that he retained any of his original estate. A portion of it, however, was preserved, and, owing to the great rise in value, is now easily worth one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Despite the losses, therefore, which have clouded his life, Mr. Stephens was never suffered to want; and, more than all, though betrayed more than once by seeming friends, he still retained his cheerful and benevolent disposition. He has no words of complaint nor censure; and his heart was warm towards all to the last.

His wife departed this life in 1887. He himself made all preparations which he deemed necessary for following her, having made, in his mind, disposition of his property and prepared a monument for the grave of both his wife and himself. He had engraved upon this marble a life-sized likeness of them both; and this is followed by a pathetic and beautiful inscription. It was this calm waiting for his last sleep and for the life of the other world which made his old age serene, and relieved it of the somber colors into which it otherwise might have been cast. He died in March, 1889; and his loss was mentioned with regretful interest throughout the whole community in which he lived so long.



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

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