Biography of Rev. James Harvey Wilbur

REV. JAMES HARVEY WILBUR, D.D. – It will not be claimed that the plain people, whose lives are briefly recorded in this volume, merit the title of greatness. They were simple honest men who did their duty. They merit a niche in the halls of our history, since it was they who hewed out the stones with which this stately structure has been built. It requires very great qualities to be called great. In many regards, such as self-reliance, ability to live alone with little or no inspiration or motive except such as they found within themselves, the power to propose their own plan and theory of life, and to hold their lives up to its requirements, the pioneers and frontiersmen of the Pacific coast show qualities very much like those of the great men of history; and we almost think that, if their field had been as great as that of others, their fame might not have been less.

One of the great-hearted men of the early days, now passed away, was “Father Wilbur.” He has been everywhere known. His memory will be revered; and the boys of Oregon should be taught his heroic virtues. As a friend of the Indians, he deserves special mention; for the Indian War Veterans are most prompt of all in recognizing whatever is worthy and good in the Indian character as brought out by kind treatment and discipline.

Mr. Wilbur was born in New York State in 1811, and in 1846 was sent out as a missionary to Oregon by the Missionary Society of the Methodist-Episcopal church. He came around Cape Horn in the bark Whitton, Captain Gelston, a trim little vessel, noted in pioneer days. Upon the voyage he had a characteristic adventure. Being of a very active and bold disposition, he was always ready to do work on the ship to relieve the tedium of the voyage, and while in the tropics was taking a hand in painting, – in fact, working on the outside. He fell off his board, pain bucket and all. The ship was going eight knots; and it was half an hour before he was picked up. With his usual self-control, he made no effort except to keep afloat, and when he was taken on board was none the worse for his misadventure.

Upon reaching Oregon, in June 1847, he found Portland a city of three houses; and his circuit, of which Salem was the center, reached out south seventy-five miles, and embraced the entire width of the Willamette valley. There was then but one Protestant church edifice on the Pacific coast, the Methodist church still standing at Oregon City, the then metropolis of the Northwest. Mr. Wilbur set to work with great earnestness, multiplying himself by means of Cayuse ponies, and preaching with the fervor of a Paul wherever he found a listener. Perhaps there is no greater strain upon one’s spiritual fiber than to live in a sparse community and be dependent only upon one’s self for impetus. Wasting one’s self “upon the desert air” quickly exhausts the life and saps the vigor of one not endowed with living fervor of his own. Mr. Wilbur, however, grew with his work; and many were the rough mountain men and the neglected immigrants who were led to a decent christian life by his preaching. While at Salem he also conducted the Oregon Institute, now the Willamette University with the assistance of his wife, teaching the boys and girls of the science and art beyond the mountains.

Two years later he was appointed to the circuit embracing Oregon City and Portland, and in 1850 built the first church in the latter city. The Methodist church and parsonage cost five thousand dollars. Mechanics received twelve dollars per day; and lumber was one hundred and twenty dollars per thousand. In the following year Mr. Wilbur erected the Portland Academy and Female Seminary at a cost of eight thousand eight hundred dollars. In both these enterprises he did much work himself, going about in his striped shirt, and mixing mortar and carrying hods. Sixteen thousand dollars in all was raised for these and other church purposes during the two years of his pastorate in Portland.

His next charge, his allotted two years expiring in Portland, was as presiding elder of the Umpqua district. It was a serious undertaking to move such a distance, over unfrequented roads, and across rivers without bridges or ferries. This was in the springtime, too, when the rivers were full, and, in managing his two yoke of oxen and two span of horses, the preacher frequently had to be out in water waist deep. That, with mud and other delays, made the journey sixteen days longer. There he remained from 1853 to 1857, living through the Rogue river gold fever and two Indian wars. The war of 1855 in Southern Oregon arose in the following way, as reported by Wilbur: Three hunters in the mountains picketed their horses; and upon their return, in twenty-four hours, one animal was missing. Accusing some Indians near by of stealing it, and meeting a denial, they cruelly murdered two of the tribe; although in a short time they found that the horse had simply strayed down the mountains and was feeding in the meadows. This outrage excited the Indians, who rallied and fell upon an immigrant train, and began massacring the settlers. The miners in turn formed a company and began almost as indiscriminate a retaliation, attacking Indians who knew nothing of the disturbance on either side. Thus the alarm spread; and the whole country was in arms.

During this whole period Wilbur went wherever and whenever he pleased, and although surrounded by Indians, at one time being stopped by a band of warriors in the road, was never harmed. He thus spoke of the cause of his immunity: “They did not harm me because I was unarmed. I have had, I believe, more experience with Indians than any man on the coast; and I never carried a knife, pistol, nor any other weapon; nor did I ever have occasion to defend myself, and have never been injured by them.” It was partly his confidence in their fairness, which appealed to their kindlier nature, and partly his perfect fearlessness, which overawed them, that thus enabled him to walk without peril in their midst. During his sojourn in Southern Oregon, he erected the institution known as the Wilbur Academy, to which he contributed one thousand dollars in money, and sixty acres of land, from his own means. It cost four thousand dollars.

His next move back to the Willamette valley, being appointed presiding elder of the Willamette district in 1857. Having a keen business head, he saw many opportunities for buying land or lots cheap, and in this way made a large number of purchases all the way from Umpqua to Walla Walla, which rose in value and placed him in easy financial circumstances. It was in this way that he obtained means for his large benevolences. Being again in the Portland district, he paid a visit, in1859, to his field in the wilds, “east of the mountains.” At The Dalles he bought a Cayuse horse for the journey; but the brute took occasion to run off soon after, leaving the itinerant to foot it across the hills to the Blue Mountains. He was on the march fifty-four hours without a meal. He could have gotten one at The Dalles; but that was the wrong direction. The result of his tramp was the organization of a church of seven members at Walla Walla, the purchase of a block of land, and the erection of a small church edifice thereon. That city then consisted of about five houses of very narrow dimensions. It was not all serene for the elder. While he was preaching some of the baser men of the place, got up a cattle auction within fifty feet, trying, perhaps, to make an equally attractive show.

In 1860 began Wilbur’s work for the Indians on the Yakima reservation, which has become famous throughout the Union. The Yakimas, with a number of other tribes, were wild, sullen, and wholly averse to civilization. There were some three thousand assigned to that reservation; and even upon that ample domain there was no wild living for that number. Their only interest in remaining was for the government annuities; and their only incentive was fear of the troops. Mr. Wilbur was appointed superintendent of instruction, and at once opened a school, gathering in the children; and his wife, without asking a cent of pay, immediately began the process of cleaning, training, teaching and winning them. The work was but well under way, about a year after his appointment, when Kendall, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, dismissed Wilbur without explanation. Upon his proffer of service without pay, he was sent from the reservation.

He appealed to the government, however, and was not only sustained, but was appointed as agent, with plenary powers. As he assumed the entire administration of the agency, his aim of Indian training was to bring his wards tot he point of self-support. No annuities were allowed except for an equivalent in work. In a short time grains, vegetables and cattle, sufficient for sustenance, and even for export, were produced. The children at the schools were taught different trades. A steam mill (saw and grist) and house were put up by the Indians worth fifteen thousand dollars. They also built four churches of a seating capacity of two hundred each, and one of six hundred and fifty, completed in every particular by themselves. For twenty-two years the Wilburs remained at their post, bringing their Indians up to a very high level of thrift and prosperity. in 1882 they were reluctantly, after repeated resignations, allowed to go; and they took up their residence at Walla Walla.

Father Wilbur died at Walla Walla in 1887, – one of Oregon’s best loved and most renowned pioneers; a man of virile qualities and a noble heart; ready for all sorts of work; a great philanthropist; faithful to his ministry and his God; and well worthy to stand in that noble company of Methodist preachers embracing, besides himself, Lee, Leslie, Waller, Hine, and others who wrought with them and after them in the same fields and with like devotion.



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

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