Biography of Thomas Owens

THOMAS OWENS, – Thomas Owens, a pioneer of 1843, was born in Tazewell county, Virginia, in 1808. His father, Thomas Owens, was born in Wyeth county, Virginia, in 1757, and with his family came to Floyd county, Kentucky, in 1814, where he lived to the age of ninety-four. Father Owens, as his Kentucky neighbors called him, was we are told, “A valued citizen, known as a good husband, affectionate father and kind master.”

Thomas Owens, the subject of this sketch, was a born pioneer, having the courage to bring his wife and three children across the plains with the immigration of 1843. All those who crossed to Oregon in that year will remember the familiar, tall, raw-boned, athletic Kentuckian as Thomas Owens might be said to be. He was the man who knew so well how to meet and overcome every difficulty, that it became a common saying among his comrades, “only give Tom Owens a piece of wet moss, and he will make a rousing camp fire.”

The immigration of 1843 was the first to bring wagons west of Fort Hall; and Thomas Owens, John Hobson (the present collector at Astoria), George Summers and Mr. Holly were the first immigrants to bring wagons into Oregon. Our sturdy pioneers were obliged, owing to the near approach of winter, to leave their wagons and stock at Walla Walla in charge of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the fall of 1843. They came on their westward way upon a raft to Vancouver, where they left their families, continuing their journey down the Columbia in a canoe in search of suitable homes. All went well until they reached Chinook Point, where a gale of wind wrecked their canoe and left them at the mercy of the many Indians who then possessed the land. Fortunately the Indians proved kindly, and were induced to ferry them across to Astoria, where they found Mr. James Birnie in charge of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s fort, and Colonel McClure, as the only white men at the town or station. By their advice, Owens and party went down to Clatsop Plains, and there found land to suit their wishes.

They immediately started back to Vancouver after their families. On their way up the Columbia in the canoe they met Gustavus Hines, Jason Lee and Robert Shortess coming down the river. We can easily imagine that those hardy adventurers had a merry night together as they camped where Columbia City now stands. In those days there was not a single white man between Fort Vancouver and Astoria. Arriving at Vancouver, Doctor McLoughlin very kindly furnished them with a full winter’s supply, and a bateau in which to carry their families and produce to their new homes on the verge of the Pacific Ocean. Christmas day, 1843, they landed on Point Adams, and in one day they built houses with which to accommodate their families.

In June, 1844, Messrs. Owens, Hobson, Summers and Holly started back to Walla Walla after their wagons and stock. Early in July they reached Walla Walla and found all their stock cattle, horses and a span of mules in fine condition. They hauled their wagons to The Dalles, where Hobson and Holly took charge of the stock and drove them across the Cascade Mountains and by the way of Tillamook to Clatsop Plains; while Owens and Summers made a raft and with their four wagons, goods, and Miss Ann Hobson as the only passenger, boldly pushed out into the Columbia for their destination. At the Cascades, they were obliged to carry everything around the rapids and to allow their raft to drift over. It went to pieces in running the Cascades; and again Mr. Owens had to depend upon the Indians for transportation. He obtained two large canoes, and by laying a platform between them (catamaran style) again had a boat. Upon this catamaran these dauntless men brought their wagons and lady passenger safely to Clatsop Point.

Thomas Owens located about the middle of Clatsop Plains upon the farm now occupied by Mrs. Goodwin. There he soon made a comfortable home and valuable far; and there several children were born. His eldest daughter, Diana, was married to John Hobson; and no man ever obtained a more grandly beautiful bride.

When Mr. Owens located on Clatsop Plains, there were only four other white settlers and two missionaries, Reverend Josiah L. Parrish and William Raymond. The white settlers were Trask and Perry, Solomon Smith and Tibbets, the last two being pioneers of 1832. Colonel John McClure was at that time the only American resident of Astoria. Indians were numerous both on Clatsop Plains and Indians were numerous both on Clatsop Plains and north of the Columbia river about Chinook Point and Shoalwater Bay. The early settlers of Clatsop were supplied with seed potatoes in 1843 by James Birnie of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who kindly furnished them with ten bushels each, they promised to return twenty bushes in 1844. Unfortunately, the crop of that year failed; and Mr. Birnie must wait until 1845. Mr. Owens, undertaking to return his potatoes in the fall of that year, was unlucky enough to lose his canoe as well as potatoes, in a storm that caught him on Young’s Bay. Nevertheless he was not to be discouraged nor turned aside by an obstacle, but pressed on with the improvement of his farm, and gradually found himself surrounded with neighbors.

As an evidence of his interest in education, we copy a notice found among his old papers, viz., “In pursuance of public notice, the citizens of Clatsop Plains met at the dwelling house of Thomas Owens on the 25th of February, 1851, for the purpose of organizing two school districts,” etc., – describing the boundaries of both districts, and being signed by John Robinson, Chairman, and J.P. Powers, Secretary. This action formally established the first two school districts in Clatsop county.

From 1843 to 1850, the Indians of Clatsop Plains were occasionally aroused against the Whites; and many times the latter were exposed to great danger from bands upon the war path. Mr. Owens had many dangerous encounters with these lawless bands; and one incident may be mentioned which illustrates his cool, determined charact3er. In 1847 an Indian known as Spuckum was known to have killed several cattle belonging to Mr. Owens and his neighbors. A warrant for the arrest of this Indian was put into Mr. Owens hands; and he accordingly went down near the spot where the Seaside House now stands to apprehend his man. He found the thief near a clump of bushes, which served as a retreat to hid his skulking form. Riding around to the other side, so as to be in the open land, Owens met the Indian, now grown bold and savage, coming out of the willow covert with a long, ugly knife carried bare and held aloft threateningly. Spuckum’s evident intention was to attack and destroy his pursuer. Owens, however, sat coolly on his horse holding his trusty Kentucky rifle across the pommel of his saddle, and began to warn the savage off. This did not check his advance, and was perhaps misunderstood as a sign of fear. As many as twenty paces had now been closed; and only ten more remained. Another moment would bring him within striking distance. But this Owens prevented by firing; and Spuckum fell, having received the bullet at the elbow and thence through his body. Had Owen’s rifle failed him, he would probably had been murdered. This cool, determined courage caused him to be held in high respect ever thereafter by the Clatsop Indians.

Mr. Owens continued to live at his ocean home until 1853, when he determined to remove to the Umpqua valley in order that his growing herds might have larger pastures. With his true pioneer independence, he built a large flatboat, upon which he carried more than one hundred head of cattle with his family and goods as far up the Columbia as St. Helens. From that point he made his way by land to the spot where Roseburg, Oregon, now stands.

In the charming Umpqua valley he gain very soon made himself a comfortable home, which he enjoyed for sixteen years. There he had an extensive and splendid range for his stock. He was a great lover of fine horses, and as early as 1855 his grand old horse Jeff was known throughout the Willamette valley. For this animal Mr. Owens refused eighteen hundred dollars in cash.

In 1869 Mr. Owen’s health began to fail; and, hoping that sunny California might restore his usual vigor, he went to Shasta county, of that state. Unfortunately he obtained little relief, but lingered on until death came to give his restless spirit repose. He died at Piety Hill, California, July 23, 1873. His faithful wife and nine children remained to mourn his loss. Three of his children who crossed the plains with their parents have been well and honorably known in Oregon. The eldest, Diana, already referred to as the first Mrs. John Hobson, was justly styled in her girlhood as the Beauty of the Plains. Mrs. Dr. Owens-Adair, who is still highly esteemed by a host of friends throughout our state, and the late Hon. W.F. Owens of Roseburg, receive due mention elsewhere in our pages.

How wonderful and mysterious are the workings of Providence! The defeat of Charles, called the Pretender of England, at Culloden, caused one of his followers, Sir Thomas Owens, to take refuge with his family in American, and so to make it possible for his great-grandson, our pioneer, to lay down his life in our far away Western land.



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

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