Biography of James Duval Holman

James Duval Holman was born in August 18, 1814, on his father’s farm in Woodford county, Kentucky. He was of the Holman family so well known in the Southern and Middle States. His mother was a Duval of Hugenot descent, a family of equal position with the Holmans in the south. Of Mr. Holman’s great-grand parents, three came from Virginia and one from North Carolina. His parents were John and Betsy L. Holman, who were married in October, 1810. In 1817 they moved to Tennessee, where they resided for nine years, when they moved to Clay county, Missouri. His mother died in 1841, and his father came to Oregon in the immigration of 1843. In August, 1840, James D. Holman married Rachael Hixson Summers of Fleming county, Kentucky, who survives him, and now (1890), is living at Portland. Her family is well known, particularly in Kentucky, and is closely related to the Hixson, Mason and Morris families of that State. She was born February 27, 1823, in Fleming county, Kentucky, and in 1840 accompanied her father, Thomas Summers, on a trip to Western Missouri, which he took for his health. While there she met Mr. Holman.

Soon after he reached manhood Mr. Holman engaged in mercantile business. During that period the large number of Mormons in this section of Missouri caused great trouble, and partly by reason of his opposition to them and the active measures against them, in which he was a participant, he failed in business in 1845. His failure, too, was caused in part by the bankruptcy of a large number of his debtors. He refused to avail himself of bankruptcy or insolvency laws, and after he came to Oregon, and as soon as he was able to do so, he voluntarily repaid, with accrued interest, all his debts and obligations contracted before his business in Missouri failed.

In 1846, Mr. Holman, with his wife and two children came to Oregon across the plains in the immigration of that year. They left Independence, Missouri, in the spring and arrived at Oregon City, October 5, 1846. It is unnecessary to recount the hardships and privations, and their encounters with Indians on their toilsome laud journey of over 2,000 miles. All old residents of Oregon know what the immigrations of the ’40’s endured. It is a part of the heroic history of Oregon. When Mr. Holman and his family started for Oregon, all that part of the country north of California was in dispute between the United States and England. The Ashburton treaty was not made until the immigrants of 1846 were half way over on their western march. At that time California belonged to Mexico. There were rumors of war, but the Mexican war had not begun. And gold was not known as being in California until two years later.

The real pioneers of Oregon are those who came prior to 1847. Others experienced equal hardships and dangers, but the Ashburton treaty settled forever the claim that what is now the States of Oregon and Washington belonged to the United States. Those who came after 1846 took no risk on the ownership of the country. The earlier immigrations had made plain the road which the later immigrations traveled.

On their arrival, Mr. Holman and his family stayed for a short time in Oregon City, but soon after they settled on a piece of land in Clackamas county, near Oregon City, where they lived until 1848. At that time news was brought by a sailing vessel. of the discovery of gold in California. Mr. Holman took his family to Oregon City, and, with others, organized a party to go overland to California and seek for gold. This party were the first overland Argonauts to arrive in California after the discovery of gold there. Mr. Holman was very successful in mining. After some months’ working of placers on the American and the Feather rivers, he “cleaned up” several thousand dollars. General Sutter becoming acquainted with Mr. Holman made him an offer to take charge of all of Sutter’s property, but he declined and recommended his old-time friend, Peter Burnett, afterwards Governor of California, who accepted the trust, and thus laid the foundation of his large fortune.

In 1849 Mr. Holman returned to Oregon by way of San Francisco, where he purchased a large stock of merchandise. He opened a store at Oregon City, and his business, which was directed with energy and intelligence, prospered. He engaged in various enterprises calculated to advance the interests of his town. He was active in raising money to build a dam to increase the depth of the water in the Willamette River below the mouth of the Clackamas. Among his papers at his death was found a deed of the ferry at Oregon City, for which he paid $14,000. In 1849 he was elected a member of the first Territorial Legislature of Oregon, and was chairman of the committee on Engrossed Bills of that body as well as a member of the committee on Ways and Means.

In 1850, having acquired considerable money from his business and foreseeing that the commercial city of the northwest must be on tide-water and not at Oregon City, and believing that such a place would be at the mouth of the Columbia River, he bought from Dr. Elijah White a large interest in the townsite, saw mill and other improvements at Pacific City, on Baker’s Bay, at the mouth of the Columbia. In that year he moved to Pacific City with his family and took up a donation claim adjoining Pacific City by purchasing the possessory rights of the first occupant.

For a time Pacific City gave promise of being the principal city of the northwest. A number of buildings were erected there and a large amount of capital was invested in the place; but by the jealousy of rival towns, the whole townsite was taken by the United States Government as a military reservation after expensive improvements had been made by Mr. Holman and others. Pacific City, thereupon, went down and finally was blotted out of existence. Mr. Holman had invested all his capital there. Among his other investments he had bought a large hotel fully equipped, which entirely filled a ship. This building, shipped, of course, in ” knock down” state, was sent from New York, already to be put together. Mr. Holman bought and erected this hotel at Pacific City, at a total cost of $28,000. This ‘with the other improvements and the townsite was taken by the government in 1852, and it was not until 1879 that the government paid him for the hotel building. For the other improvements and for the townsite, the government has not paid to this day.

On the failure of Pacific City, Mr. Holman was compelled to move on his donation claim, and to live there for four years to secure it as provided by the donation law. He perfected his right to this claim and it now belongs to his widow. On this land is situated the present town of Ilwaco. In 1857, he and his family moved to Portland, where he resided and engaged in business until his death in 1882.

In 1859 he was elected one of the three directors of the Portland Public Schools, and was annually elected for four successive terms. He was a strong advocate of the high school system of. education, and although he was opposed in his views by others while in office, he had the satisfaction some years before his’ death of seeing his ideas carried out, and the Portland Public Schools brought to their present high standard.

In 1872, he started the town of Ilwaco on his donation claim on Baker’s Bay. This town has grown, and at this time Ilwaco and its suburbs and surroundings comprise the principal watering place of the Northwest.

In his youth Mr. Holman joined the Baptist Church, ‘but the close communion of that religious body not being in accordance with his ideas, he finally became a Presbyterian. He assisted in the organization of the First Presbyterian Church at Portland, in 1860, and was one of the elders of that church from early in its organization to the time of his death, being then the senior elder. In 1881 he erected at Ilwaco, on a very sightly knoll, near his own cottages, a tasteful chapel. His breadth of religious view was shown when he made this structure a union chapel, free and open alike to all denominations. He joined the Ancient Order of Free and Accepted Masons in 1850, being initiated at Oregon City in the first lodge of that order founded in Oregon. He remained an affiliating member until his death.

Politically, like most Southerners, he was a Whig until the breaking up of that party. He then became a Democrat and remained such, steadfast through all its dark times and trouble, until the end of his life. Through the civil war he assisted in keeping his party together at great personal cost to himself; for he was not a man to swerve from his principles for personal gain, convenience or popularity.

The hardships and exposures of his pioneer life had told on his naturally strong constitution and repeated attacks of inflammatory rheumatism brought on Bright’s disease, which was the immediate cause of his death.

Of his children, he left surviving him two sons, Frederick V. and George F. Holman, both members of the Oregon bar, and two daughters, Frances A. and Kate S., who still live with their mother in Portland. Of his wife, it should be said that in coming to Oregon she willingly sacrificed everything except her love for her husband, and her children. She was in all respects truly his helpmate. By her buoyant disposition she aided her husband in making financial losses an incentive to new effort; and reverses were robbed of bitterness by her sympathy and encouragement. There never was a better, braver or nobler woman, nor a truer, more devoted, nor more helpful wife.

Mr. Holman’s business affairs were for many years interrupted and interfered with by the long sickness and death of several of his children. At one time after he had started in business at Portland, a daughter became ill, and in order that she might have better medical treatment, and with the hope. that her sufferings would be less, in a more favorable climate, he abandoned his business and took his daughter and wife to California, where his daughter died. This is a single instance out of a life time of tender devotion. He educated all of his children and bore his privations and losses on their behalf willingly, as sacrifices on the altars of love and duty. In every domestic relations he was ever a true and very tender man.

Mr. Holman was a pioneer of the highest type. He was in every way honest and honorable-an exemplary man and a model citizen. He was a man of deep religious convictions and devoted to his family and his friends.

Personally he was brave, almost to recklessness; he was temperate, untiring, energetic and far-seeing. He never despaired, never let circumstances conquer him never sat idle bewailing his luck or his fate. He had the enterprise and the daring in business, which is so essential for the well-being of new communities. Had he possessed less of these qualities he might have, by the process of accumulation and the accident of his location, acquired great wealth. Had not his whole fortune been tied up in his Pacific City enterprise, or had the government paid him in 1852, as it should have done, instead of deferring the payment for twenty-seven years, there-after, he would undoubtedly have made a vast fortune at Portland. As it was he died possessed of property, the income of which was sufficient for his support.

After all it is the personal qualities of a man which make him, and by which he must be measured and remembered. If a man acquires great wealth by his ability and enterprise it becomes, in a proper sense, a monument to him, as is any other deserved success. But if a man acquires riches by the enterprise, energy or foresight of others the wealth thus accumulated becomes usually greater than the man. The failures of such a man as Mr. Holman are often more creditable than the successes of some other men.

Mr. Holman was a leader in that army of state builders-the immigrants- not a camp follower who lived on, nor a sutler who grew rich from the needs of such an army. It was such men as he who cut out the way to Oregon and made it possible for later comers to be successful. He was one of the men who helped lay strong and solid the foundations of the State of Oregon. When sufficient time has elapsed to write a true history of Oregon and its people it will be then that such pioneers as Mr. Holman will be given the credit which they so fully deserve.


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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