Biography of Hon. Sylvester Pennoyer

HON. SYLVESTER PENNOYER. – Sylvester Pennoyer, the present governor of Oregon, was born in Groton, Tompkins county, in the State of New York, on July 6, 1831. His father was a pioneer in that section of the country, having moved from Dutchess county in the same state just after his marriage, and settled upon a piece of government land while it was a wilderness, and which he afterwards, by his own labor and with the help of his sons, transformed into one of those beautiful and valuable farms for which New York State is so famous.

The Governor inherited from his father, Justus Powers Pennoyer, a native of Amenia, Dutchess county, an admixture of German and French blood, and his mother Elizabeth née Howland, of Kinderhook, in the same county, a further admixture of English, Scotch and Welsh blood. His father was one of the largest farmers in Groton, and one of the foremost men of the town in all public enterprises; and at one time, although no politician whatever, he represented his county in the New York assembly. In fact, the Governor has fair reason to be somewhat proud of his ancestry.

In the year 1670, William Pennoyer, of Norfolk county, England, who had previously removed from France to the New Haven colony and thence to England, died, leaving by his will his estate in such county subject to a rental charge of forty pounds per annum, which sum, by the terms of the will, was to be sent to Harvard College in Massachusetts, to be applied to the education of the descendants of his brother, Robert Pennoyer, of the New Haven colony; and, in case they did not apply, it was to be appropriated to the benefit of any indigent students whatever. Ever since that period until now, for more than two centuries, has that forty pounds per annum been sent out to Harvard College without a single failure. Even the Revolutionary war, when nearly all commercial intercourse with the mother country was stopped, it came with its accustomed regularity. And when, in 1853, the future governor of Oregon arrived at the college, he happened soon after to meet, in the steward’s office, the Honorable Jared Sparks, who had previously been president of the college, and who thanked young Pennoyer for the great favor the brother of his ancestor had done him, stating that, when he himself had entered Harvard College, he was a poor boy and had received the fund to aid in his own education. Such quiet deeds of charity as that conferred by William Pennoyer in making such a benefaction, though silent in their influence, are yet most potent in bettering and elevating the condition of mankind.

The story of the youth of the subject of our sketch is the same in the main that has to be told of all New York farmer boys of a half a century ago. Hard and steady work during the spring, summer and autumn, with a schooling in the winter season, gave to him a vigorous constitution, and created in his mind a desire for a fair education, which was gratified to the extent of his receiving a full course of study at Homer Academy, New York, and afterwards in his receiving a course of law study at the Dane Law School, Harvard University, from which he received his diploma in the summer of 1854.

The following year he left his home for the Pacific coast, and arrived in Portland, Oregon, about the 10th of July, 1855. Shortly after his arrival he engaged in school-teaching, which he followed for some five or six years.

The year following his arrival in Oregon, he was married to Mrs. Mary A. Allen, née Peters, by whom he had five children, two of whom are still living. About the year 1862 he became employed in the lumber business at Portland, in which he is yet engaged.

From the year 1868 to about the year 1871, he was for a greater part of the time editor of the Oregon Herald. As a political writer, his main characteristic was precision of style and force of expression. He had the good quality, as a writer, of always striking the nail on the head. And, although his political philippics were pungent and forcible, he had the commendable faculty of avoiding the arousing of animosity, both by the infusion of a warm humor and the entire absence of any manifestation of malice in all his writings. While, therefore, he became somewhat prominent as a political writer, at the period above-mentioned, he never figured at all prominently in politics until his nomination in 1886 for governor; for the reason that he quietly but persistently refused the use of his name until that time in connection with the nomination for any office whatever. And it is a fact, somewhat anomalous in these later times, that his nomination for governor by the Democratic state convention of 1886 was procured without any exertion whatever on his part, he having steadily refused to do anything further than to state that if such nomination was given him he would accept. That was the entire sum total of his efforts towards securing such nomination. It is highly probable that the great controlling cause that procured his nomination at that time was the bold stand he had just previously taken in regard to the agitation of the Chinese question.

During the winter of 1885-86 a strong feeling against the Chinese was aroused in Portland. Business was stagnant, and the immigrant white laborers who had flooded to this coast to better their condition found nearly all the avenues of labor filled by the Chinese, who lived like beasts and who could thus afford to work at wages that meant starvation to the white laborer who had a family to support. The workingmen of Portland perfected an organization; and a movement was projected looking to the expulsion of the Chinese from the city. This led to a counter-movement; and a bitter state of feeling was aroused. A meeting was called by those opposing the expulsion of the Chinese at a certain day at the courthouse in Portland. The workingmen of Portland captured the meeting from their opponents, placed Mr. Pennoyer in the chair, and after having passed resolutions in favor of law and order quietly adjourned. This coup d’état gave peace to the city. It gave encouragement to the anti-Chinese element throughout the state, and procured the nomination and triumphant election of Mr. Pennoyer as governor of Oregon by a plurality vote of 3,702,although, two years before, Mr. Blaine, the Republican candidate for President, had carried Oregon by a plurality vote of 2,256, thus making a change in two years of nearly six thousand votes.

Until he began his canvass as candidate for governor, Mr. Pennoyer had never had any experience as a public speaker. Upon the stump he is a plain and forcible talker, and has the happy faculty of stopping when he gets through with what he has to say. His inaugural address as a literary production was faultless. It, however, provoked some sharp criticism on account of the position he took and maintained in regard to the absence of power in the courts to nullify a law of the state. he maintained that, while it was the province of the courts to interpret and enforce the laws of the legislature, it was not within their delegated power to declare such a law to be no law. He claimed that, as members of the legislature were sworn to obey the constitution, they were compelled in the passage of every law to pass upon its constitutionality; and that, as they had jurisdiction of that very question by virtue of their office, such determination on the part of the legislature in regard to the constitutionality of a law which its members were compelled to pass upon by their oath of office was as binding upon both the other co-ordinate branches of the government, as was the judgment of the court of general jurisdiction. He claimed that, under our state constitution, the courts had no more right to set aside a law of the legislature by a judicial opinion than had the governor a right to set it aside by an executive order.

The Governor is a man of positive opinions; and he has a positive way of adhering to such opinions under any and all circumstances. This fact was made very plain during the session of the legislature of 1889. During the previous legislature two years before, a bill was introduced giving the water committee of Portland the right to issue bonds should be exempted from all taxation. The Governor then vetoed the bill on the ground that, when such bonds were paid out by the city to private parties in exchange for the means and appliances for bringing water into the city, such bonds then became private property which under our state constitution, could not be exempted from taxation. His veto was then sustained. Again for the third time it was, in a different shape, introduced and passed; and again it was vetoed; and the veto for the third time during the session was sustained.

The positiveness of his character was also demonstrated by the action he took in regard to the trouble anticipated on account of the failure to pay the laborers by the contractors on the railroad east of Albany about the close of the year 1888. The Governor received a dispatch from an officer of the road at Corvallis, stating that the laborers were marching upon the town; that trouble was anticipated, and begging the Governor to authorize the sheriff to call out the troops if necessary to suppress any riot, should it occur. The Governor at once went to Corvallis, and told such officers that, unless the laborers were paid in full the wages due them upon presentation of their orders, and a riot occurred on account of such non-payment, he would not, under any circumstances whatever, order out the troops; but he added that, if they should be paid what was justly their due, and then a riot should occur, he would see that it was suppressed. The result of this positive stand on the part of the Governor was that the laborers were paid their just dues, and all danger of a riot avoided.



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