Biography of Hon. James Willis Nesmith

HON. JAMES WILLIS NESMITH. – Oregon has given a few men to the nation; and the luster of their memory still shines in the galaxy of her heroes. Colonel Baker, one of the most brilliant men ever at Washington, District of Columbia, has coupled with his title that of senator from Oregon. Yet he was in no sense an Oregon-made man, but rather made use of Oregon to elevate him to a seat which it was impossible for him to attain from Illinois. With Colonel Nesmith, however, the case was the reverse. He was as truly an Oregon man as one of his age could be, not only coming to our state with the first immigration, but gaining largely here his education, principles and manners. As a commanding historical figure, it will be proper here to notice the circumstances of his life, his political career, and his mental and moral characteristics.

We do not often find distinguished ability without finding also antecedent capacity in the ancestry. The family to which our senator belonged is remotely of Scotch Presbyterian blood, but as early as 1690 removed to the north of Ireland, becoming thereafter of the Scotch-Irish race, who have made themselves famous on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1718 the family removed to America; and William Morrison Nesmith, the father of our subject, connected himself by marriage, about 1814, to Miss Harriet Willis, of a distinguished old family of New Jersey, her father owning the site of Elizabethtown in that state. The young couple, however, made their home in Maine; and their third child and only son, James Willis, was born to them in 1820 in New Brunswick, while his parents were there on a visit. The childhood of this boy was in some particulars quite distressful. His mother was drowned while he was still an infant; and when he was but five years old his father lost his entire fortune, which was large, by fire. The peril to life was so imminent in this casualty that the family escaped only by taking refuge in a marsh, until the city and surrounding woods had ceased burning. Resulting from the exposure there experienced, his stepmother sickened and died; and the boy was obliged to live among friends and even strangers. His father never amassed another fortune.

Young Nesmith’s life was consequently very little in one place; and his education was very desultory. He was, however, fond of books, and absorbed the current ideas of the times as he went from place to place. He early began to earn his own livelihood, and as he attained manhood developed the jovial temper and humorous turn which make care sit so lightly and baffle misfortune. Being detached from an established life in the East, he came out to Ohio, stopping at the home of his cousin, Joseph G. Wilson, late member of Congress from Oregon, and with him attended the district school near Cincinnati. He still felt the westward tide, and soon after came on to Missouri, where he was joined by his father, who died and was buried in that state. With the loss of this loved parent, the young man had no ties to restrain his impatience to find the fortune and honor that awaited him on the Pacific coast, although he probably imagined as little as anyone that his restless longings, every warning his solemnly beneath the exterior gaiety of his life, meant for him the distinction and service to which he attained.

In 1842 he mounted a horse and rode off to Independence with the intention of joining Doctor White’s party for Oregon. But the train was ahead of him; and he was prevented from riding after them by the report of the hostility of the Pawnees. Remaining on the frontier until the next season, he gained a year’s livelihood by performing carpenter work at Fort Scott, Kansas, and with the Applegate party of 1843, crossed the mountains. Perhaps it was upon this trip that his life-work was first suggested. To while away the time, the lawyers in this company conjured up a legal case, which was argued and put through all possible transmutations; and Nesmith, one of the principal parties concerned, showed so much address in the hand he bore as to win the high praise of Peter Burnett, who told him he ought to study law. Coming to Oregon City, and finding more or less spare time on his hands, he adopted the suggestion by gathering up what few books on this subject he could find. He gained from them a practical and common-sense idea of jurisprudence, which enabled him two years later to fill the office of judge under the Provisional government.

In 1846 he made the home which he had been lacking nearly twenty years, by his marriage to Miss Pauline Goff, daughter of the pioneer of 1844. She was a lady whose personal and social attractions were much appreciated some years later at Washington. His farm was near the present Dixie, and is now occupied by his son James. He was favored at this time by the loan of cattle to the value of a thousand dollars by Doctor McLoughlin, who proffered him the lot, telling him that now he was married he must be wanting a few cows.

In the winter of 1848 he was one of the number who went to the Cayuse country to avenge the death of Whitman, for whom he had the highest regard, and again in 1855 he served with distinction in the Rogue River and Yakima wars, earning there the title by which he has ever been known, that of colonel. In 1857 he was appointed superintendent of Indian affairs, serving two years. This was a position of high responsibility, covering a field which included Oregon, Washington and Idaho. In the meantime he had been to California in 1848 and dug gold six months, paying his debt to McLoughlin with the dusty, and had built two miles about Dallas a gristmill, the operation of which proved very remunerative. He made the acquaintance of General Lane while on the water coming up from San Francisco. From his residence at Oregon City, and in Polk County, and at Salem as United States marshal, and from his services in the state legislature and in the army and among the Indians, he was gaining a thorough grip upon the affairs of our young state, and becoming one of her most popular men. This led the way to his political preferment.

The threatened disruption of the Union in 1861 disturbed parties no less in Oregon than elsewhere; and life-long political friends became widely separated. General Lane, then senator from our state, took the side of the south, accepting a place as Vice-President of the old Democratic ticket with Breckenridge. His efforts were thereby calculated to detach Oregon from the Union, or at least to sever it from any active sympathy. Without doubt his purpose looked to an ultimate if not immediate coalition between the Pacific states and the south in the great Southern republic of which the Carolina cavaliers dreamed, which was to include the West Indies and Mexico. Nesmith, however, was a politically strongly attached to Lane, and all the old Democrats. He was nothing of an Abolitionist, and felt no sympathy with the anti-slavery agitation; and for this reason his pro-slavery friends expected him to unite with them. But he could not brook the destruction of the Union. That was first, and must be preserved with whatever consequences to any other institution. He therefore stood out from the regular party ranks, and in 1860 accepted a position as elector on the Douglas ticket.

In 1861 the Douglas Democrats, largely in the minority, put him forward as candidate for the Untied States Senate; and the Republicans, also a minority, had such confidence in the Colonel, knowing that he was for the Union to the backbone, that they readily united to secure his election. He therefore became senator, to fill the place left vacant by Lane. In taking this course, Colonel Nesmith assumed a vast responsibility, as, in those uncertain times, the whole weight of decision to preserve or to acquiesce in the division of the Union might turn upon his single vote. Nevertheless his convictions upon this one point of national preservation were so clear that he entered upon his duties with alacrity and enthusiasm. during the entire period of the war he was indefatigably on the side of the national authority, and became a trusted adviser of President Lincoln. He also served on the military committee; and his military views, picked up on the frontier and in Indian warfare, were sought by the generals at Washington, and were frequently of essential service. His counsels wren ever for promptness and efficiency and decisive results. After the war was over, however, he strenuously opposed the reconstruction measures of the Republican party, and became identified with the Democratic party of later days. For many years after his return to Oregon he was leader of his party in our state, and in 1873 was elected to fill the unexpired term of his cousin, J.G. Wilson, who by death left vacant his seat in the United States Congress. The history of our senator is therefore written deeply in national history; and his is a fame which is commensurate with that of the Union in which he identified his reputation, fortune and life.

Colonel Nesmith’s natural and moral characteristics are worthy of much study, as well as illustrating the kind of mind developed on the frontier. First of all stands out clearly his confidence in his own mental operations and conclusions. He took no steps except upon his own judgment, and felt certain that what he worked out for himself was practically correct. This led to his astonishing independence. It is not an easy thing to withstand one’s life-long associates, to take up with a cause which may throw one down from a well-earned popularity, and to identify one’s self with a cause which is, for the present, and may ever be, the weaker. This is a moral quality of the highest value, and to men with the qualities of leadership, like Nesmith, to whom popularity is worth something, is one of the most difficult to attain. It involves a certain truthfulness with one’s self, and shows a commanding self-respect which compels fidelity to principle. Coupled with this high quality, he had a breadth and common sense which forbade narrowness.

He had not only respect for, and loyalty to, his own opinions, but respect and charity for the conviction of others. He had peculiarly that large view which prefers to see men and their ideas go for what they are worth, and, if they cannot be reconciled when in conflict, to expect that the best will survive the struggle. Not a contentious man, he was nevertheless combative, and, while careful to be right, felt no hesitancy in trying his views by the final arbitrament. With this martial spirit, he had very broad sympathies, and never lost his warm personal regard for General Lane, for whom he had named his eldest son. it was the request of the general that, at his funeral, Colonel Nesmith pronounce a few words; and no one can read this classic oration in the light of all the memories involved without great admiration. Furthermore, at the request of the Senate, he pronounced a eulogy upon the unbending Abolitionist, Charles Sumner. That great senator from Massachusetts was worlds farther than Lane from Nesmith’s own personal sentiments; yet that speech was so broad and just as to attract universal attention.

The substratum of his character, it will be seen, was earnest and rugged, involving a self-respect and sturdy truthfulness which is found alone in the best men. To this he added an intellect of exceptional clearness and vigor, remarkable for its ready reasoning and wonderful memory. To ease the way of life he developed a natural streak of Scotch humor; and his ready memory served him quaint anecdotes and illustrations for every occasion, and made him one of the most interesting conversationalists. The same quality made of him a successful speaker and a fluent writer, although in neither of these fields he was so perfectly at home as among a group of friends where he could indulge in jest or repartee. He was in no respect a man of wide learning; but his own life and experience had served him a world of facts; and he was fertile and quick in resources. His character is well defined in the portrait which we present.

His death occurred in 1885; and of none of her sons may Oregon feel more proud. His public career was without taint or corruption, as his private life had been without stain of dishonestly; and, in this respect, he is a most worthy example for all of the public servants of our state.

Of his children, the eldest, Joseph Lane, died in infancy; Mary J., the wife of Levi Ankeny, resides at Walla Walla; Harriet, the wife of L.L. McArthur, resides at Portland; Valena, the wife of W.W. Molson, lives at Derry; and James and William reside upon the old place by the Rickreal


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

Search Military Records - Fold3

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pin It on Pinterest

Scroll to Top