Biography of Hon. Benjamin Franklin Dowell

HON. B.F. DOWELL. – Benjamin Franklin Dowell was born in Albemarle county, Virginia, on the 31st of October, 1826. He was named for an uncle of his grandmother on his father’s side. She was a daughter of John Franklin and a niece of Benjamin Franklin, the statesman and philosopher. Mr. Dowell’s father and mother were natives of Virginia, and were born and brought up within one mile of each other. His mother’s maiden name was Fannie Dalton, a woman of rare culture and refinement.

The Dowells were originally from England; the Daltons were from the Scottish Highlands. As a child, Mr. Dowell removed with his parents to Shelby county, Tennessee, where he attended the Male Academy and acquired a liberal education. After having concluded his academic studies, he returned to Virginia and entered the State University, where he graduated in law in 1847, before he was twenty-one years old, with distinguished honors. He returned to Tennessee and began the practice of his profession at Raleigh and at Memphis. An extensive and lucrative practice soon engaged his whole attention; but the fame of the newly discovered gold fields of the Pacific caused him to desert the bar for a time to try his fortune in the mines.

In the spring of 1850, he formed a co-partnership with three other young men and started from St. Joseph, Missouri, whither he had gone by water, for California. He arrived in Sacramento on the 20th of the following September. Here he had a second attack of cholera, the malady of which so many died on the plains that year. When he had partially recovered, his physicians advised him to go North; and on the 5th of October he started from San Francisco for Portland, taking passage on a small schooner. At the mouth of the Columbia the vessel encountered a terrible storm, and was driven back to sea, dismasted and almost helpless. It was not until the thirty-fifth day after leaving San Francisco that a safe landing was made at Astoria. Mr. Dowell did not remain long in the Willamette valley; and in 1852 we find him engaged in packing and trading in Southern, Oregon. He pursued the business until 1856, and was very successful. In 1857 he again engaged in law practice, in Jacksonville, and soon obtained a very extensive business.

When the Oregon Indian wars broke out in 1853, 1854 and 1856, Mr. Dowell was engaged in merchandising with a pack train from the Willamette valley, Scottsburg, and Crescent City to the mines in Jacksonville, Oregon, and Yreka, California. He voluntarily hired himself and all his animals to the quartermaster as long as they were needed. Mr. Bancroft, in his Oregon history, says “He was the first in the war and the last to come out.” During these wars he took some desperate chances. He frequently carried the express in the most dangerous places.

In 1853 a party of twenty soldiers was detailed to find the camp of the Indians. The detachment was under the command of Lieutenant Eli. Mr. Dowell being in the quartermaster’s department, it was no part of his duty to fight; but he volunteered to accompany the detachment. They found the Indians on Evan’s creek near the Meadows, and returned down the creek about five miles where there was good grass, wood and water, and commenced cooking and eating breakfast. The lieutenant being young and inexperienced in the Indian sagacity and fighting, put out no guard. So the Indians completely surprised the detachment; and at the first fire about one-fourth of the men were killed, and as many more wounded. The Indians also captured all the horses of the volunteers but one, which was staked near the camp. The owner of this animal mounted him and made for headquarters, which was near Steward’s creek, a distance of about thirty-five miles. The balance of the company fled to the timber close by, and took shelter among the trees and fought Chiefs Sam’s, Jim’s and Joe’s whole band of five hundred Indians form early in the morning until late in the evening, when they were rescued by the volunteers from headquarters. During the fight, General Crosby sang out at the top of his voice, “Jordan am a hard road to trabel, I belief.” He had a repeating breech-loading rifle which he fired in double-quick time. The others had good rifles; and each had a good Colt’s revolver. So by hugging the trees, and using these pistols frequently, the Indians were kept at a distance; and but few of the Whites were killed after they reached the timber.

That was the hardest battle ever fought on the Pacific coast. Mr. Dowell has often told his friends that that was the most fearful and the longest day of his life. Yet in December, 1855, he was in Colonel Kelley’s four days’ fight on the Walla Walla river. Mr. St. Clair, Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, had two four-pound howitzers which he cached with some ammunition in Walla Walla near the fort. The volunteers fished them out a few days before the battle. Major Chin and Captain Wilson took charge of one and Mr. Dowell of the other. The second day Captain Wilson overloaded one, and it burst. Mr. Dowell invented a carriage so as to shoot off a mule’s back, and mounted it on an arayho or leather pack saddle, and placed it on the back of one of his finest mules. He, with the assistance of one of the packers, would load in a ravine and then charge up close to the Indians, wheel the mule around and fire the cannon off of the top of the mule’s back. At first it knocked the mule down on his knees, but he soon learned to brace himself so as not to fall. This was the biggest gun these Indians ever saw.

Perhaps the most accurate and full description of the battle and death of the Chief Peu-peu-mox-mox and his comrades in the battle of Walla Walla is found in a letter from Mr. Dowell to his brother. It is true history, and is a sample of Mr. Dowell’s forcible style of writing. Here we insert the following extract:

“On the fifteenth of October I was employed by the quartermaster as packmaster at six dollars per day for my services, and three dollars per day for my pack mules, to transport supplies for the use of the First Regiment of Oregon Volunteers; and I have been in active service ever since. I have made one march through the Yakima country with Colonel Nesmith, and saw one little battle while with his command near the Yakima river. After we returned to The Dalles, I was ordered to accompany Colonel Kelley and his command to the Walla Walla valley. On the fifth instant, Peu-peu-mox-mox or Yellow Serpent, the head chief of the Walla Walla Indians, met Lieutenant-Colonel Kelley near the Touchet, near its confluence with the Walla Walla river, like the Prophet met General Harrison before the battle of Tippecanoe, – with pretended friendship, and about dusk tried to get the whole command to enter and camp in a deep cañon, which was lined with thick underbrush, rocks, logs, and served as an ambuscade for a large force of hostile Indians, – a complete natural fortification, and an excellent place for the enemy to cripple Colonel Kelley and his whole force of three hundred and thirty-nine men. The Indians were seen and their plot discovered by the Indian agent, Nathan Olney, and by Colonel Kelley. Peu-peu-mox-mox and five of his treacherous comrades were taken prisoners; and Colonel Kelley and his command camped in the opposite direction from the canon.

“The next day the command returned to the crossing of the Touchet close to its confluence with the Walla Walla river. The next morning the hills in front of our camp were literally lined with the enemy. A general engagement soon followed. Both the Whites and Indians were well mounted; and those that had the best horses did the fastest running. The advance of the enemy soon fled up the Walla Walla towards their camp and the old Waiilatpu Mission. About two miles below this, they made a desperate stand; and our advanced companies, being harassed by a cross fire, were compelled to fall back to the main command. The transportation trains, under my charge, and the Indian prisoners under a guard of twelve men, were close up with the command in the midst of the battle; and, soon after the Indians shouted over the retreat of our advance, one of the prisoners drew a knife and stabbed one of the guards. Four more of them refused to be tied, and seized the gun of the guard; and in half a minute the whole five were shot down. The other prisoner, a young Nez Perce, made no resistance; and he still lives to tell the tale. Peu-peu-mox-mox said he would rather die than be tied; and he fought like a tiger to the last.

Thus fell one of the richest, shrewdest, proudest and most haughty chiefs that ever “danced over a white man’s scalp west of the Rocky Mountains.”

Strict integrity and untiring persistence in what he conceives to be his line of duty are characteristics for which Mr. Dowell is noted; and, though past life’s meridian, he is still vigorous in mind, and bids fair to survive many years to serve the public and retrieve pecuniary losses which he has sustained by trusting others who have proved unworthy of his generous confidence.

In the practice of his profession he had no superior in Southern Oregon. He only lost three suits in which he advised the commencement in thirty years. Mr. Dowell was brought up a Whig; and he has been frequently heard to say: “I never voted but one mean vote in my life; that was for Breckenridge and Lane in 1860.” This he said he did conscientiously, with the hope to keep peace of slaves at the commencement of the war; but when the conflict began he looked upon the South as a spoiled child, and declared that they deserved should not be dissolved. He delighted in his profession; and he never pressed himself forward for office. He was several times nominated for and elected to small offices; but he resigned them and never held any office, except district judge in Tennessee, by appointment of the governor, and prosecuting attorney of the first judicial district of Oregon, and as district attorney of the United States for a short time, and in a few special cases.

He has strong convictions on all political issues, and as a writer uses strong language to express them. He denounced the Rebellion in the strongest language.

In 1865 he bought the Oregon Sentinel to keep it from falling into the hands of the Democrats. He was the owner of it for nearly fourteen years. But he continued the practice of his profession and hired editors and printers to run the paper. He scarcely ever wrote for it when at home. But a part of the time he was in Washington City; and during the time his letters published in the Sentinel were strong, able and to the point. This made him warm Republican friends and bitter Democratic enemies.

He was the first man to hoist the name of General Grant for president west of the Rocky Mountains, and first to advise the nomination and election of President Harrison. His letter on this subject was published in the Gold Beech Gazette in 1887.

In 1861 he was married to Miss Anna Campbell. They now have a family of three children, two daughters and one son. The elder daughter, Fanny, is now the wife of G.M. Love. Annie E. studied law, and is a better lawyer than many of the male members of the profession. The son, B.F. Jr. gives promise of being one of the foremost men of the State.

Mr. Dowell and his family resided in Jacksonville from 1852 to 1885, when they moved to Portland and have since made that city their home.



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

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