Biography of Capt. John H. Couch

CAPT. JOHN H. COUCH. – A native of Newburyport, Massachusetts, he was one of the handful of hardy, brave, adventurous settlers who made the wilderness their home, and devoted the best portions of their lives in opening the way and preparing the land for the immigration and occupation of their brothers across the mountains. He was born February 21, 1811, and was perhaps influenced by the surroundings in his native place; for Newburyport is noted as one of the oldest and most famous seaports and nurseries of maritime enterprises in America. Be that as it may, he manifested in early boyhood a disposition to pursue a seaman’s life, and had an early opportunity to follow the bent of his inclinations, as he shipped on a voyage to the East Indies on the brig Mars while yet a lad. The brig was owned by an uncle of Captain Flanders (afterwards associated with Captain Couch in business for many years); and this first voyage opened the way to others with such good fortune that in 1840 the command of a vessel was given him by the leading shipowner and great merchant of his native place, none other than the father of that eminent lawyer and distinguished statesman, Honorable Caleb Cushing.

This first voyage of Captain Couch’s command was to the land of the settling sun. His brig, the Maryland, carried a venture for the Columbia river, which was to be exchanged for a cargo of salmon for the return voyage. We can estimate to some extent the high opinion the great merchant entertained of the integrity and masterly seamanship of Captain Couch when he intrusted him with his vessel and cargo; for in those early days the Columbia river bar was regarded as one of the most dangerous places on the globe, so much so that insurance companies excepted it especially from risks allowed in their policies. None but the most skillfull and experienced seamen would think of braving its dangers, and but few indeed cared to hazard their lives and reputation by accepting the command of vessels bound thither; besides, only men of integrity and shrewd business qualifications would be trusted to dispose of a ship’s cargo, and purchase another for the home trip. But all these prize attributes Captain Couch was noted for, and accordingly was given command of the ship. The voyage did not, however, prove fortunate because of obstacles interposed at the mouth of the Columbia river through the influence of the Hudson’s Bay Company; and the Maryland was sent to the Sandwich Islands, and there sold; while Captain Couch took passage home on another vessel.

Mr. Cushing was well satisfied that the failure was in no way attributable to Captain Couch, and placed so much confidence in his ability that he again gave him command of another vessel intended for trade, and named Chenamos, in compliment to a high chief of the Columbia river Indians, with whom Captain Couch had established amicable relations on his first voyage. So the Chenamos started on her journey with brighter hopes, and in June, 1842, reached Clackamas rapids, just below Oregon City. Her cargo was taken to this place, which was then the chief settlement of Oregon, and the principal post of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Captain Couch opened a merchandise store, and, sending the brig home, remained in charge of the store until 1847. He then started back to Newburyport, making the long journey by way of China, and arrived in his native city in the summer of 1848. He was highly complimented by his employers for his fidelity and prudence, and again tendered further employment, which he declined, but was soon after prevailed upon to return to the Pacific coast.

Late in the same year (1848), a company was made up by Messrs. Sherman, shipping merchants of New York, and others, who bought the bark Madonna and gave Captain Couch command. Captain Flanders, who had been for years master of vessels, agreed to sail with Captain Couch as chief mate, and assume command of the ship while Captain Couch remained on shore to sell off the cargo. The Madonna sailed from New York on January 12, 1849, and arrived in Portland the following August, having on board as passengers ex-United States Senator Ben Stark, W.H. Bennett, W.S. Ogden and Chas. M’Kay. According to instructions, Captain Couch here established a store; and Captain Flanders took command of the vessel, with which he made several successful trips between this port and San Francisco, and finally engaged in the trading and wharf business with Captain Couch. From the time they left Newburyport until Captain Couch’s death, there was the strongest and truest friendship existing between Captain Flanders and himself. It was a singular thing for men of their age to form such a tie; and their pure, unalloyed friendship and devotion one for the other was like that which existed between David and Jonathan. The business relations formed in 1850 lasted during his lifetime; and the links of earnest friendship became closer and firmer as the years grew upon them.

While attending to the store he had established in Oregon City, Captain couch found time to make occasional trips to other settlements and trading posts in the then infant territory, and in 1845 took up the land claim now known as “Couch’s Addition.” But the dispute over the title to Oregon between Great Britain and the United States was still undetermined; and he could not perfect his claim. He took care to do so after the passage of the Donation act; and under that law the title was perfected. From that time until his death he resided in Portland, one of her best known and respected citizens. During his long residence there, Captain Couch occupied several important official trusts, both by the voice of the voters of the county and by appointment from the territorial, state and federal executives. He was not a political man, and had none of the dross of one. He never sought a public office. In his case truly the office sought the man; and never did a custodian of the public trust more wisely or with greater fidelity fulfill the duties upon him.

He was territorial treasurer, under the administration of Governor Abernethy, in the Provisional government; he was commissioner of Multnomah county; he was the first appointee under the act of Congress to the office of inspector of hulls, under a Democratic administration, and was retained in the position through each succeeding administration until the day of his death. After the organization of the state government, he served likewise under Democratic and Republican administrations as port warden and pilot commissioner. As in public employment, so in private life, he was an exemplary citizen, and was personally known to almost every man, woman and child in Portland. The wharf built by the partners and known as Couch’s wharf, has been since the early years of Portland the landing and departing place for ocean steamers and sailing vessels. It may be called the threshold of the city and Captain Couch was the genial host who always stood ready to welcome the incoming guest or give God speed to those departing. He joined the Masonic fraternity at an early day in Portland, and was an honored and worthy member. His name has now passed into a household word among thousands of sorrowed and loving friends.

Like many other men of iron mold and robust constitution, Captain Couch would not give way to what seemed only a slight indisposition. He had exposed himself unusually in inclement weather, and performed more than his ordinary duties about the wharf. He was stricken down with typhoid pneumonia, and after an illness of nine or ten days, passed away from his living and sorrowful friends to reap his reward as a good and faithful servant. Full of honors, ripe in years, and with a name endeared to all, Captain John H. Couch passed from among us. The funeral cortege was never excelled in Portland. The banks closed, all business was stopped, labor suspended in public places and generally about the city; and all combined to pay respect and do honor to the memory of the revered pioneer and loved citizen.

Captain Couch married early in life; and his estimable wife survives him. Their union was blessed with four daughters. The three oldest were born in Massachusetts, and are not Mrs. Doctor Wilson, Mrs. C.H. Lewis, and Mrs. Doctor Glisan. These three came to Oregon with their mother in 1852 via the Panama route. The youngest is a native of Oregon.



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

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