Biography of Capt. J. H. McMillen

CAPT. J.H. McMILLEN. – Captain McMillen, a fitting example of the men whose stout courage, tireless energy and ready friendliness laid the groundwork of our state, is a pioneer of 1845, having crossed the plains with W.H. Rector, Colonel Taylor, Hiram Smith and others of that large immigration.

Of Scotch ancestry, he traces his American lineage to a great-grandfather who crossed the Atlantic and settled in Rhode Island, where a numerous family grew up around him. The grandfather, James, pushed westward as far as New York; and in that state Joseph, the father, was born. Arriving at maturity he married Miss Ruth Gannett and settled in Attica, New York; and in that village James H., whose life we here record, was born May 10, 1823. During the very early life of this child, a further removal was made to Lodi, now Gowanda; and in 1836, when James was coming to be a stout, active lad, a further move to the prairies was effected. It was at Orange, Du Page county, Illinois, that the new home was made and a new farm opened. Aside from his agricultural pursuits, the father was a millwright; and the son learned that trade as his reliance for future support; and it has ever served him most opportunely and honorably.

It was a foregone conclusion that the migratory life should not end with the third American generation; and in 1845 James H., now a stocky, powerful and skillful man of twenty-two, undertook the crossing of the plains to Oregon. Upon the advice of William Card, one of the organizers of the company, he did not sell his eighty-acre farm in order to provide an outfit, but, deeding it to his brothers, joined the train upon promise of necessary means to be furnished along the way in return for services. Mr. Card, William A. Culberson, Kale Grower and Edwin Stone were of the immediate party to which Captain McMillen belonged.

Many of the experiences on the plains were exciting; and one, at least, was singular. Two-thirds of a day out from Ash Hollow, on the North Platte, a wheel of someone’s wagon was broken. Rector, hunting up McMillen as the handy man in the crowd, asked him to go back with a horse and buggy to Ash Hollow and get a good piece of ashwood to mend the wheel, while the train would make camp and wait. The distance was great enough to bring his return far into the evening; and he found the road occupied for miles by a vast herd of buffalo, quietly feeding in the meadows. It was necessary to observe great caution in order to make his way through without startling the herd and causing a stampede. The thick, dusky figures in the darkness, the chewing and fretting of grass, the movement of hoofs, and the possibility that the whole might suddenly move like an avalanche, kept on a constant qui vive the spirits of the man in the buggy, and prevented his using his whip or chippering to his horse; and he was much afraid that some ugly bull of the band would run up in the starlight and attack his animal. The buffaloes, however, stepped out of his way and made room with all the docility of domestic cattle, and let him pass without difficulty.

Another interesting reminiscence of the train was the banquet given at Laramie to the chiefs of the Sioux Indians. The young men of the tribe were off on the war-path; and the old fathers and mothers and boys and young women were very friendly. The Whites served up a quantity of bean soup with civilized delicacies; and the Indians, as they ate, sat in a circle alternately with white men. In smoking the pipe of peace, it was noticed that they were careful to blow the first whiff upward to the Great Spirit. They spoke with amity of the emigrants going through their country and shooting buffalo for meat, but not for indiscriminate slaughter. It was a gala day; and the young women were dressed in their best buckskin gowns, which were whitened by the application of a certain clay which made them very lustrous. They reached nearly to their feet, and showed off to excellent advantage their beautiful lithe figures.

A little below American Falls Captain McMillen came as near experiencing the hunger of the wilderness as at any point. Starting off in pursuit of a number of lost steers, himself and companions took with them but a small piece of bacon, which was obliged to do duty as food in that keen air for three days. He still remembers with pleasure the beautiful loaf of light bread with which Mrs. Rector greeted the little party upon its return.

Reaching Oregon City October 25th, with a fifty-cent piece which some one had clandestinely slipped into his pocket in return for some one of his many timely services, he found employment in Abernethy’s mills on the island at the falls, and in 1847 built the bridge leading from the main street of the town over the basin owned by McLoughlin, and used as a boom for logs. This bridge was a substantial structure, and supported eight hundred and fifty feet of railway constructed of two-by-four scantlings, and bar iron one-half by two inches. This was the first railroad in the state, or west of the Rocky Mountains.

During one of those early summers, he was at work on a boat at the mouth of the Skipanon creek, and was one of the party that broke up a liquor seller’s shop at Astoria. This dispenser of “blue ruin,” who was exciting the Indians, was a desperate character; and it was only McMillen’s revolver that brought him to terms. A hundred-and-forty mile pull in a canoe up the river to Oregon City was also performed that summer in order to cast a vote for Abernethy, the temperance candidate for governor.

Upon the outbreak of the Cayuse war, consequent upon the massacre of Whitman, permission was granted to quit work on the mill and proceed as a member of the party of forty-six soldiers to occupy The Dalles. The trip up the river in the midst of storms and show, and the exciting scenes at The Dalles, in which Captain McMillen took an active part, are fully described elsewhere.

In 1851 he secured a Donation claim on the Tualatin Plains, and there for a number of years carried on farming.

At the present time he occupies a delightful residence in East Portland, Oregon, upon land purchased from Jacob Wheeler, and is occupied in the metropolis in looking after his large real-estate and business interests. At the age of sixty-six years he still maintains rugged health, and surrounded by his family and friends, finds much to console him for the many privations incident to the early settlement of this Northwest. His first wife, Margaret Wise, was born in New York State in 1832, and was left an orphan at the age of three years. In 1846 she came to Oregon with a married sister, Mrs. Jessie D. Walling, and was married to Mr. McMillen January 28, 1850. Within less than a year she passed from earth, leaving a son, Frank, eight days old. Of his present wife and family a sketch is here added.

Mr. McMillen gave land for a public school in his district, where he has acted in the capacity of clerk and director for twelve years. He has served as councilman in his ward four years, and has given liberally to schools, churches and for charitable purposes. In politics he has been a Republican from the firing on Fort Sumter. In religion always liberal, he has of late years become a firm believer in Spiritualism, and has always been a friend to the cause of temperance and other moral reforms. For the past three years he has served as captain of the Indian War Veteran Association, Camp Number 2, of Multnomah county, Oregon.

It is proper also to add here that this gentleman is the president of the North Pacific History Company, and that it is due chiefly to his steadfastness and liberality that our work has been brought to completion.


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

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