Biography of Gen. James Clark Tolman

GEN. JAMES CLARK TOLMAN. – One of the leading citizens of Jackson county, and foremost among the representative men of Oregon, is General James Clark Tolman, ex-surveyor general of this state. A man of great decision of character and executive ability, he has always occupied the position of a leader, and, after fifty years of active participation in the affairs of his country, retains the confidence and respect of not only his political associates, but of adherents of the opposite party. From youth he was an enthusiastic Whig, during the lifetime of that party, and since has been a consistent and unswerving Republican. He comes of a family of patriots and pioneers, and has inherited the genuine pioneer sentiments. His father, Seth Tolman, a son of Silas Tolman, traces his ancestry to Holland; and Mary, his mother, a daughter of Captain Clark, is of English parentage. Both grandfathers were veterans of the Revolutionary war. When peace returned, his parents settled in Washington county, Pennsylvania; but by discreet conduct they managed to escape ruin from the devastations of the whisky insurrectionists. They next removed to Marietta, Ohio, where they were frequently compelled to “fort up” in blockhouses with their neighbors for defense against hostile Indians.

Judge Tolman was born in Washington county, Ohio, March 12, 1813, and eight years later moved with his parents to Champaign county in the same state. Those were the pioneer days of Ohio, when unfrequent log-houses were the only habitations. In such a house he lived; and in the schoolhouse of like character he received his education. At the age of seventeen he apprenticed himself to Jesse C. Phillips ( a cousin of Thomas Corwin), and spent four years in learning the business of manufacturing leather. He then entered the university at Athens, Ohio, pursuing English branches with assiduity for a year; during which time he also imbibed much knowledge of a useful and practical nature by the exercise of his large powers of observation. For several years he was engaged in various pursuits, lending to each his full energy and enthusiasm. he was an earnest supporter of General Harrison in 1888 as he had been of the unsuccessful “Tippecanoe” in 1836, and successful in 1840.

The family, consisting of father, mother, two brothers and himself, removed to Iowa in 1839, and began again a pioneer life. Land Claimants were bought out, two hundred acres of land being bid in at public sale by him at Burlington; and the General engaged in farming in Van Buren county, Iowa. Iowa at that time was strongly Democratic; yet he adhered firmly to his Whig principles. He was placed on the ticket of that party for the territorial legislature; and, though party lines were closely drawn, and a warm canvass followed, during which he was the only Whig speaker on the ticket, he obtained four hundred Democratic votes, and missed only sixty of being elected. In the fall of 1845 he removed to Ottumwa and engaged in the manufacture of leather. There he was again placed on the Whig ticket, contrary to his desired, but accepted the nomination at the solicitation of friends, who urged that his opponent was hard to defeat. The whole county ticket was elected by small majorities, though the Democrats carried the county by a hundred and twenty-five for delegate to Congress.

In 1844 General Tolman’s thoughts were turned towards the Pacific; and, when news of the gold discovery reached Iowa in the fall of 1848, he began preparing to seek the El Dorado the following spring. In due time he started, and, as sole pilot of an ox-team, arrived in the mines in October, 1849. Declining several advantageous business offers, he went to work with pick and shovel as a true miner. His usual energy and attention to his business secured ample results; and he returned to Iowa in the fall of 1851. Ill health during the winter caused him to seek once more the shores of the Pacific. In April, 1852, he was married to Elizabeth E. Coe, of Oskaloosa, Iowa, and within forty-eight hours was again en route across the plains, the pilot and adviser of ten wagons of emigrants. The train reached Yreka in eighty-two days without the loss of an animal, notwithstanding their journey through the hostile tribe of the Modocs. General Tolman crossed the Siskiyous into the Rogue river valley with a portion of the train, arriving the last of August, and bringing the first families to the valley from across the plains direct. He purchased the rights of two squatters, and began preparing to raise stock.

Early in 1853, perceiving the impending trouble with the Indians, he took his tock to California and sold them. He then went to Coos Bay to look after some investments he had made there for two young men, and returned to the valley in time to sit on the coroner’s jury which investigated the death of the first white victim in the Indian war of 1853. Upon the cessation of hostilities, eh sold out his place, and with his wife and child took a mule-back ride to Empire city, on Coos Bay. He soon withdrew from the locality without realizing anything on his investment, and took up a half section of land, upon which he located the town of Marshfield, where he erected a rude house for his family. He spent the spring of 1854 in exploring that region, being the first white man to discover the Indian trail across the isthmus between Coos Bay and the Coquille river.

In August, 1854, he returned to the Rogue river valley, leaving his claim in charge of a man, who sold it out and disappeared. Upon his return to the valley the General purchased for eighty-five hundred dollars the ranch he now owns, including the stock thereon, and gain engaged in stock-raising. When the Indian war broke out in 1855, he hastily gathered his herds and drove them to California, selling them for what they would bring. It was two years before he could resume his business. He then purchased blooded stock, – English turf horses, Morgans and Lion Hearts, – and in a few years realized handsomely on his investment. The severe winter of 1861-62, however, almost annihilated his band of cattle.

In the public affairs of our state, General Tolman has ever borne a conspicuous and honorable part. When the state government was formed in 1858, he was elected judge of Jackson county, receiving a large majority, although three-fourths of the voters were Democrats. he was re-elected in 1862, defeating his opponent two to one. In that important position he was enabled during the critical times of the Civil war to do more than anyone else to prevent open hostilities in our state. He was also instrumental in reducing county taxation fifty per cent, and rescuing the county from threatened bankruptcy. he was nominated for governor on the Republican ticket in 1874; but the formation of a third party gave the administration into the hands of the Democracy; and he accepted his defeat with becoming dignity and resignation. In 1878 he was appointed surveyor-general of Oregon by President Hayes, and was re-appointed by President Arthur in 1882. His administration of the affairs of that office meets with the hearty approval of the administration and of the people generally. He is firm and prompt in the discharge of his official duties, and never had his integrity been impeached.

During half a century of active business and official life, he has won and retains the respect of all with whom he has come in contact; and, though he has never sought official positions, they have come to him unsolicited.



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

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