Biography of John Birch McClain

JOHN BIRCH McCLAIN. – This pioneer, whose record extends to the memorable year of 1843, was born January 31, 1820, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is the son of John and Mary Swallow McClane. At the age of twenty-two, he left Philadelphia for Texas with the purpose of assisting General Sam Houston to gain the independence of Texas. The ship, however, upon which he took passage, sailing from Delaware Bay in a storm, was delayed thirty days; and, upon his arrival in New Orleans, the young man found that Houston had withdrawn his proclamation of war against Mexico, and that he was in no need of recruits. Encountering yellow fever in the Southern city, he took passage on a Mississippi steamer, stopping off at Burlington, Iowa, and happening along at Fairfield at the time of the Indian treaty with, and the payment to, the Sacs and Foxes.

Still having in mind a journey to foreign parts, he had his eye on Chili as a desirable point, and learning something of the route to Oregon, determined to make his way to the Columbia, and await a ship which would take him to South America. Arriving at the rendezvous in the spring of 1843, he found the emigrants gathering, and with them set out upon the memorable journey. He recalls that there were nine hundred and ninety-nine souls in the company, being precisely the same as the number of the loose stock. His recollection of the incidents of the way is vivid and exceedingly interesting.

We take the liberty to insert here a little fuller report of his connections with Doctor Whitman than might be allowable with reference to one less known. It was at Soda Springs that he first made the acquaintance of the Doctor, becoming very intimately associated as one of his mess. From that point he took a cut-off to Fort Hall. Upon their arrival at the fort, the party was kindly invited by Grant to eat and sleep in his own quarters; and a goodly store of provisions was found that had been deposited by the Cayuse Indians from Waiilatpu for the Doctor. In about three days the wagons came up; and the way-worn emigrants were much distressed by the statements and advice of the Hudson’s Bay factor.

Mr. McClane is one of the very few who heard these statements; and it is of interest to record here his recollections. he says: “The governor (Grant) was honest and intelligent; and I believed what he said, which was: ‘A small emigration passed through here last year. I told them as I tell you that it is impossible to go through to Oregon with your wagons. They believed me, left their wagons, bought pack animals, and got through safely. My advice to you is the same, – get pack animals and go through; but I advise you to go to California. There is the better country.'”

These statements were made repeatedly to the emigrants singly and in groups, and produced great excitement.

“Doctor Whitman,” continues Mr. McClane, “said to Governor Grant: ‘I beg leave to differ with you. You believe what you say; but I guarantee to the emigrants that I can get them through safely.’ Governor Grant pooh-poohed; but the assertions and persuasions of Whitman prevailed.

The Doctor went all around among the Americans assuring them that they could take their wagons on, and, to make a practical proof, bought a light “Dearborn” wagon that he found in the train, and when all were ready himself went ahead. He also gave to the emigrants the whole of the provisions brought to him from his mission, supplying his own mess with what bones and scraps he could pick up, among other things throwing into the wagon a newly born calf, which, however, reviving, jumped out some time afterwards without the knowledge of the driver.

Mr. McClane was the man to whom this light wagon was intrusted; and he drove along behind the Doctor’s saddle party, leaving a track for the teams coming after. In difficult places, notices were tacked up to indicate the way; and across the dusty plains guide poles were set up at intervals. No troubles were experienced except at Burnt river, where there was no chance to drive except in the bed of the stream for some distance. In the Grande Ronde they met a party of Cayuse Indians, who greeted Whitman with great kindness, and furnished a feast of elk meat and bread and berries.

From his constant intercourse with the Doctor, Mr. McClane remembers many interesting statements touching upon his purpose in going East, and declares that the Doctor told him that his whole object was to preserve the Pacific coast to the United States; that when he arrived in Washington he found the senators and representatives and leading men willing to trade off Oregon for fisheries; that Webster, with whom he had a long interview, was thus disposed; that the Hudson’s Bay Company was trying to get control of the Northwest Pacific, and were about to accomplish their purpose; but that now he was satisfied that from his representations Oregon would not be traded off. Mr. McClane found later that General Lovejoy had the same understanding of Whitman’s purpose, and that in going East the Doctor knew that he was acting contrary to the wishes of the missionary board, and expected their censure, which he received.

Mr. McLane came to The Dalles in company with Whitman, and from that point to Oregon City, with Jason Lee. Finding Oregon as good as Chili, and conceiving for it an attachment, he took up a claim in 1844 near Salem. On the outbreak of the Cayuse war, he was one of the first to offer his services, and at the encampment at East Portland was asked to accept a nomination as captain of the Marion county company but was requested by General Gilliam to decline nomination for the place, and to act as private secretary and staff officer for him. In that capacity he served through the war, occupying the same tent with Gilliam, and being with the General constantly up to the hour of his death. McClane therefore saw the whole of that war. He acted also as judge-advocate at the time of the formal investigation by the troops of the massacre and its causes.

Having bought a half interest in the grist and saw mill, with a tract of twelve hundred and forty acres of land attached, from the Mission, he made Salem his home and place of business. He spent the winter of 1848 in California, and upon his return in 1849 was married to Miss Helen C., a daughter of Reverend Lewis Judson. Still remaining at Salem, he carried on business and was appointed the first postmaster south of Oregon City. He also held the office of treasurer of Marion county in 1851-52. In 1885 he was appointed agent of the Grande Ronde Reservation in Polk and Yamhill counties, and still holds that office, but accounts Salem, Oregon, his residence, where he still owns his property.

Mrs. Helen C. Judson McClane was born in Otsego county, New York, April 14, 1834. She came with her parents in the bark Lausanne to Oregon, living with them upon the old mission opposite Wheatland on the Willamette, and receiving her education at the Salem Institute. She has been a most efficient companion of her husband since their marriage in1849, making the conditions for his prosperity, and bearing him fourteen children, nine of whom are living, – George F., Annie Isabel, Eva, Louis B., Charles H., James L., Mary Helen, Harold Gilfrey and John Bacon Jr.


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

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