Biography of William Strong

The name of William Strong is thoroughly associated with the judicature both of Oregon and Washington. His marked characteristics are indelibly impressed upon the system of law of both States, especially that of the latter. To long and distinguished service as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court and in the ex-officio character of Judge of, the District Courts in both States while they were Territorial Governments, must be added his connection with their legislation and also his brilliant career as a law practitioner, for over a generation, in all the Courts of both States.

He was born at St. Albans, Vermont, on the 15th of July, 1817. His youth was spent in the vicinity of Rushville, New York, where he received his preparatory education. At the age of seventeen he entered Yale College, from which he graduated with distinguished honors in the class of 1838. Having selected the law for his profession, he engaged in teaching during the next two years. So ambitious was he, that by industry and close, application to study in the intervals from teaching, he had made sufficient progress in his studies to secure a license in 1840 to practice law. Admitted to the bar, he immediately removed to Cleveland, Ohio, and at once entered upon a large and lucrative practice, and took a foremost rank in the profession. On the 15th of October, 1840, he married Lucretia Robinson, whom he survived about two years.

In 1849, having resolved upon migrating to Oregon, his many friends procured for him, September 17, 1849, the appointment by President Zachary Taylor of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Oregon Territory, to succeed the Hon. Peter H. Burnett, an appointee of President James K. Polk, who had removed to California and had declined the appointment. At about the same date Major John P. Gaines of Kentucky had received the appointment of Governor, and Gen. Edward Hamilton, of Ohio, had been commissioned Secretary of the Territory. Judge Strong arrived in Oregon in August, 1850.

At the time when Judge Strong entered upon the performance of his official duties, Oregon embraced all of the territory west of the Rocky Mountains lying between 42 degrees North latitude (the northern boundary line of California) and the 49th parallel of North latitude (the southern boundary of British Columbia). That immense area was divided into three judicial districts, to each of which was assigned one of the Justices of the Oregon Supreme Court, as presiding judge of the Courts in their respective district. The Third Judicial District of Oregon Territory comprised all of Oregon north of the Columbia River, and the county of Clatsop south of that river. There was no organized counties east of Clark County at that time, but that county extended eastward to the Rocky Mountains. The other county north of the river was named Lewis; it extended northward to the British boundary. Thus it was that Judge Strong’s district included all of what is now Washington, Idaho and Montana north of the 46th parallel, and west of the Rockies, besides the county of Clatsop in Oregon, of which Astoria is the county seat.

During the winter of 1850-1, Judge Strong with his family resided at Vancouver. In early spring of 1851, he took a land claim at Cathlamet, on the north side of the Columbia river, under the “Donation Act” of September 27, 1850, which required four years’ residence upon the land, and where he did reside until his removal to Portland, Oregon, in 1862. This is not the place in which to chronicle the proceedings in detail of the courts over which Judge Strong presided. His judicial life was commenced in Oregon, when party spirit ran high, when politics to great extent became matters of personal difference, when differences as to political questions were made the occasions to mar and destroy social relations, to alienate and estrange personal friends and neighbors. This strange result arose from local issues, from the intensity of personal feeling growing out of the location or rather the removal of the seat of government. It became necessary for the Supreme Court of the Territory to decide where the seat of government was located. It so happened that the dominant party in the territory made the capital removal a party question, and it was perhaps unfortunate that the majority or quorum of the Supreme Court, appointees of a whig national administration viewed the law which they were called upon to administer as inoperative to effect that removal.

During all the years of judge Strong’s first judicial term, that and kindred questions were constantly agitated and embroiling the public mind. Never were judges more severely denounced, more the subjects of personal and malevolent attack than were Justices Nelson and Strong, the quorum of the Supreme Court who decided that the “Omnibus Bill,” as it was called (which had provided for the location of the seat of government, at Salem, and for a commission to supervise the erection of the capitol buildings thereat; the location of a university, and for a commission to sell the university lands to provide funds for its erection; and nominating the site, as also providing for the building of a penitentiary, as also a commission to build it) was inoperative and void under the organic act, because it included more than one object, and the title of the bill clearly failed to express its object. Unawed and unmoved the quorum of the Supreme Court met at Oregon City, the place by them decided as the seat of government. They calmly heard the question argued; bravely and judiciously, in opinions creditable for ability and for evidence of pains-taking consideration, each filed an opinion announcing the conclusion reached. There is no necessity to call back any humiliating incidents which mark those years of Oregon politics or social life. After well nigh two score of years completed who will attempt to detract from any honors sought to be accorded to the scholarly and gentlemanly Chief Justice Nelson? Who will stop short in hearty commendation of the ability and integrity which marked the judicial career of his more vigorous and stalwart brother, Strong, in these troublous, stormy days, when juridical administration had become the issue whereby partisan rancor was kindled? Nor will it be denied that each possessed to an eminent degree those four motives or qualities which the wise Socrates has said must actuate the Judge: “To hear courteously, to answer wisely, to consider soberly, and to decide impartially.”

Judge Strong was still on the Bench when Washington Territory was (March 2, 1853), set off from Oregon. In the whole of that newly created territory, as defined by its organic act, he continued to act as sole Judge until Governor Stevens’ proclamation, late in November, divided the Territory into three Judicial Districts, and assigned to each one of the Judges of the Supreme Court of Washington Territory, appointed by President Franklin Pierce. The first Legislature of Washington Territory was in politics, Democratic; yet William Strong, the late Whig Judge, was by an unanimous vote associated with Chief Justice Edward Lander and Associate Justice Victor Monroe, as a commission to sit during the session of the Legislature, to report laws from day to day. That commission worked laboriously; but it is not derogatory to either of the other members to say that by far the largest portion of the body of law enacted at that first session was reported in the admirable clerical hand of Judge Strong. But little of his work needed revision or re-writing. Judge Lander gave as much time and valuable service as did Judge Strong, but the clerk of the commission was obliged in laws reported by him, to make copies. That body of law was very generally enacted with little or no alteration, and was infinitely better when first adopted than now, with the innovations of a quarter century’s legislation.

After the close of that session Judge Strong retired to his residence in Cathlamet. For the next few years he divided his time between practicing law in the various courts of Oregon and Washington, in which he was employed in almost every suit of importance, and in surveying the public lands, at which he was a thorough adept, and for which he took several government contracts.

In May, 1855, he received the Whig nomination for Delegate to Congress. He and the Democratic nominee, Col. J. Patton Anderson, made a joint canvass of the Territory, which was ably conducted, nor were the amenities of social life and the relations of gentlemen ever ignored. Washington Territory was thoroughly Democratic. Judge Strong received his full party vote, which was all that he had any right to expect against his gallant and generous competitor. At the breaking out of the Indian hostilities in the fall of 1855, when Governor Mason called for two companies of volunteers in response to requisition of Major Rains, U. S. Army, Commander of the Columbia River and Puget Sound districts, one to rendezvous at Vancouver and report to Major Rains. Judge Strong raised a company and was unanimously elected its captain. That company was known as Company ” A ” First Regiment Washington Territory Volunteers. It was mustered into the United States Service and performed considerable duty in Clark County and vicinity. The company prayed to be sent to the upper country to escort Governor Stevens on his return from the Blackfoot Council, through the hostile Indian country, but so hostile was General Wool, then commanding the Department of the Pacific to Governor Stevens and the two Territories, that against the urgent protest of Captain Strong, he disbanded Company “A” before their term of enlistment had expired.

In April and May, 1856, Governor Stevens caused the arrest of certain persons in Pierce County, Washington Territory, who being intermarried with Indian women and living in the hostile region were suspected and accused of furnishing the hostile Indians with supplies and information that led to a serious and protracted conflict between the Courts and Territorial military authorities. Judge Strong was retained by the Governor as his law adviser; perhaps it would be proper to say that his duties partook of the nature of Attorney General as also of Judge Advocate General on the Governor’s Staff, although no commission was issued to him. That clientage necessitated the most intimate confidential relations with the Governor and identified him with the war policy of the executive.

Shortly subsequent, he was elected a member of the House of Representatives of the territory. The issue in great measure at the election of 1856, was “Stevens,” and “Anti-Stevens.” The whig party had ceased to exist, and those who know how strongly Judge Strong was influenced by personal associations and surroundings, his party, a matter of the past, and with him a secondary consideration, the politics of the territory almost entirely based upon personal support of personal policy, will not for a moment be surprised that Judge Strong espoused the cause of his client and cast his political lot with his personal friends. He gave his adhesion to the Democratic party, not to the Republican organization which had just been inaugurated in the territory. At the session of the legislature he championed Gov. Stevens and his war policy. At that session, upon him devolved the duty of conforming the various practice acts of the territory, the laws for the empanelling of juries and providing for terms of court to a recently passed act of Congress which limited the courts, the expenses of which were borne by the United States, to three, to be held only at three places. In 1858, Hon. O. P. McFadden having been promoted to the office of Chief Justice, Judge Strong was appointed Associate Justice, succeeding Judge McFadden as Judge of the First Judicial District. He held this office until succeeded by Hon. James E. Wyche, in 1861. Judge Strong continued to reside and practice law within Washington Territory until December, 1862, at which time he removed to Portland, Oregon. He at once acquired an extensive and profitable general practice, but later on was almost exclusively engaged in the business of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, whose counsel he continued to be until the transfer of their interests to the Henry Villard combination, resulting in the organization of the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company as its successor.

Thereafter he gradually retired from active practice; his large business was ably handled by his two very intelligent and competent sons, Fred R. and Thomas Nelson Strong. And the good old man rested from his long and arduous professional labors. From 1883, the profession had been abandoned by him. Yet he was not idle. His busy pen continued to work in treasuring the reminiscences of early years,’ of the men who had been his co-temporaries, and the events in which he had been so conspicuous an actor.

In April, 1887, the full three score years and ten completed, that stalwart frame, that manly and robust form succumbed to age and bodily infirmity; that vigorous intellect, that active brain, that large generous heart yielded to the inexorable. An active, busy, useful life was ended.

He was a most untiring worker and few indeed could accomplish so much. His mind was of the most active and vigorous character, and he carried to his practice at the bar, or his administration upon the bench, that marked individuality for which he was distinguished. He was always positive; no uncertain language or words of compromise, or demagogic attempts to conciliate the public, marked his enunciations of a conclusion reached. He was one thing or the other, and hence he. was at times the object of ultra and bitter partisan criticism; but that never swerved him from his own chosen line of duty, neither did such criticisms influence him to personal controversy or justification. He ignored these assaults and was as kind and urbane to those who censured his judicial acts, as though they had spoken of him in terms of laudation.

As Judge, none were readier than he to seize instantly the pivotal points of a case; few indeed possessed greater acumen power of analysis or resources to fortify the conclusion reached. As a speaker he was fluent, earnest, impressive; too practical to be eloquent.

As lawyer, counsellor, legislator or judge he was alike at home in each capacity. His forte, however, was perhaps in felicitous, happy and forcible expression in aptest language of a proposition or conclusion of law. In dictating a decree, making a record of an order or judgment, he needed no form-book, he had no superior in announcing in the fewest appropriate words a conclusion of law or a judicial determination. He was a natural clerk. He made practice, moulded procedure and established precedents for his bar to follow. His orders of Court, his decrees in chancery, his drafts of laws are models of expression. How aptly he placed the right word in the right place. As a lawyer he was ingenious and untiring in resource. Thoroughly equipped for every-day practice and every vicissitude, he was learned in the science of his profession and loved it as such, and was thoroughly devoted to the cause of his client, for whom he labored to succeed, while there was any hope to win. As a judge he was patient, urbane, fearless, independent, unselfish, deferential to his brethren of the bench, and considerate to members of the bar.

Those who knew him in the early days, the old settlers of Oregon and Washington, will treasure his memory, will continue to recall his genial kindness, his encouraging and cheerful sympathy.


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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