Biography of Joseph Schoewaiter Smith

Joseph Schoewaiter Smith, was born in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, June 20, 1824. His ancestors at an early day emigrated from England and Wales and settled in New Jersey and their descendants are now scattered all over the United States. At the age of eight years he accompanied his parents to Clermont County, Ohio, and three years later to Vermilion County, Indiana. He received such education as a farmer’s boy of ambition could receive at that day in a pioneer neighborhood. During the summer he worked on the farm and in the winter attended such schools as the county afforded. He early evinced great fondness for books which stimulated his thirst for knowledge, and at the age of sixteen he left his home determined by his own exertions to obtain a better education than the limited means of his father would permit. From that time until he was nearly twenty he spent at school all the time which the hardest physical labor necessary to support himself would allow. In the fall of 1844 he started for Oregon. Several months were consumed in making the overland journey, the winter of 1844-5 being passed among the Indians in the Rocky Mountains, while every mile of the long journey to the settlement in the Willamette Valley was beset by perils and privations such as fell to the lot of the pioneer land emigrants to this portion of the northwest coast. In the spring of 1845 he reached Oregon City with only two companions, and soon after his arrival began the study of the law, supporting himself until his admission to the bar by manual labor and teaching school.

After being admitted to the bar he opened an office in Oregon City and had acquired a fair practice when, in 1853, he moved to Puget Sound, Washington Territory. Here he served for a time as prosecuting attorney of the Third Judicial District, and in 1855 was elected to the Territorial Legislature, being unanimously chosen Speaker of the House. He was subsequently appointed by President Buchanan United States District Attorney for the territory.

In 1858 Mr. Smith returned to Oregon and settled in Salem where he remained in law practice until his removal to Portland in 1870. In 1862 he was unanimously nominated by the Democratic Convention for the position of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Oregon, but he declined to be a candidate. He was among the first to advocate the establishment of manufacturing enterprises in Oregon, and in 1860 became the principal proprietor and financial manager of the Willamette Woolen Mills at Salem, the oldest industry of its kind on the Pacific Coast. In 1866 he received the vote of his party for United States Senator and came within three votes of an election. The year following he went with his family to Europe, his health necessitating a change of climate. Upon his return to Oregon, in 1868, he was nominated by the State Democratic Convention for Congress, and was elected, defeating his opponent by over 1200 majority. No democrat had been elected to Congress from Oregon during the period of eight years. His congressional career was in every way highly creditable to himself and satisfactory to his constituents. He made several speeches on the floor in support of measures in the interest of the people, and his sound logical reasoning, added to many graces as a speaker, commanded the attention and respect of his colleagues. All of the interests of Oregon were carefully watched and protected, but perhaps the most signal service he rendered to the State, and more particularly to Portland, was in connection with the Northern Pacific Railroad bill. With his own hand he penned the amendment to this bill by which the company was required to build its main line down the Columbia River to Portland and secured its favorable consideration in the House, notwithstanding the hostility of the 41st Congress to railroad legislation.

After his term in office in Congress expired Mr. Smith removed to Portland where he lived until his death. For a number of years he was a member of the law firm of Grover, Smith & Page, and had a most extensive and lucrative practice, although his feeble health did not permit him to apply himself to the full capability of his splendid intellect. He spent considerable time in traveling, principally in the Southern States, whose mild climate suited his weak constitution. Judicious investments in real estate in Portland, in early days, secured for him a large fortune which enabled him to lead a life of practical retirement from active labor during the latter end of his life, and this no doubt added to the length of his days. In 1882 he was nominated for Governor on the Democratic ticket, an honor he accepted knowing at the time there was little hope of success. He was defeated by the Republican candidate, Hon. Z. F. Moody, but notwithstanding the large Republican majorities given that year he received a most flattering vote.

While for many years Mr. Smith did not enjoy vigorous health, his strong will power enabled him to accomplish a vast amount of work. But for some time pre-ceding his death, which occurred in 1884, he had became much enfeebled. He was conscious, however, to the very last, and the end was very peaceful. The announcement of his death, though not unexpected, occasioned deep regret, and the public press all over this part of the country gave voice to the general sorrow of the many friends who know the solid worth and character of the man. The Oregonian in summing up his characteristics said:

“Hon. Joseph S. Smith, who on yesterday passed from earth, was among the most distinguished of the early pioneers of Oregon. He was a man of large ability and high character, though for many years his health has been too infirm to permit him to employ with active vigor the high powers with which he was endowed. But in every station, private and public, he discharged his duties with fidelity. Had his physical strength been equal to his mental powers, lie would undoubtedly have been called to higher spheres of public duty than any he was permitted to fill. His talents were equal to the demand of any station, but he steadily declined public life and only consented to accept it when there seemed no way to evade the call. His career was honorable to himself and family and useful to the country, and his death leaves a large gap in the rapidly shortening roll of pioneers who laid the foundation of States in the Pacific Northwest.”

Mr. Smith was married, in 1849, to Miss Julia A. Carter, who, with two sons, Walter V., Preston C., and one daughter, Mrs. H. Y. Thompson, survive him. He was a man of firm religious principles and during his early residence in Oregon and while he lived on the Sound, took a deep interest in the affairs of the Methodist church, and, although he had never been regularly ordained as a minister, often filled pulpits, preaching with marked ability and power. His method was one of simplicity and candor, and he impressed every intelligent hearer with well considered arguments which never lacked in force or dignity. Tall and of imposing presence, he at once commanded notice when he rose to speak, and having once attracted an audience, held attention by his force of intellect, his earnestness and evident honesty. Almost the last time he ever spoke in public was before the Democratic State Convention which met in the court house in this city and nominated him for governor. His speech accepting the nomination attracted wide attention.

Starting a poor boy, by force of energy and intellect and in spite of feeble health and very limited scholastic advantages in early life, he rose to a high place in an honorable profession; filled with great credit positions of power and honor, and, true to every obligation that ever rested upon him he has left behind him the memory of a strong, able, earnest and manly man. He had cool judgment, habits of close observation and his mind was a rich store house of useful and valuable knowledge. He was somewhat reserved in manner and was one of the most modest and unostentatious of men. Conscious power gave him confidence in himself, but though a man of decided views and opinions, he was not unnecessarily aggressive and had a just regard for the rights and opinions of others. In all things he was governed by a lofty conception of the duty he owed to family and friends, to the people who honored and trusted him and to the country he was called upon to serve. He will always be remembered as a conspicuous figure in Oregon, and as one of the most able and useful of the men who bore part in laying the foundations of States in the Pacific Northwest.


Biography, History,

Harvey Whitefield Scott. History of Portland, Oregon: with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Prominent Citizens and Pioneers. Portland, Oregon. D. Mason & Company, 1890.

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