Early Settlers of Portland Oregon

Dr. Ralph Wilcox of New York, a pioneer of 1845, was the first physician, and also the first school teacher. In a little frame building on Front and Taylor Streets put up by Mr. McNemee he kept a school of about a dozen scholars. Dr. Wilcox was for many years prominent before the public as a citizen of Portland, and afterwards as clerk of the State legislature at Salem, and clerk of the United States court at Portland.

Of others that fill out the dreamy picture of that distant past before ’49, may be mentioned a family by the name of Warren, embracing in its circle two beautiful daughters; the two brothers O’Bryants, Humphrey and Hugh, the latter becoming subsequently the first mayor; Anthony Whittaker; Ennyard; Ross; Cooper; J. L. Morrison, a jolly Scotchman, who had a little lumber and flour depot at the foot of the street now bearing his name, and who had an intimate friend and parhaps partner in Jehu Scrudder; both excellent men. There was a young man, G. W. Bell, clerk for Pettygrove, who also at one time kept the first bakery, located on the north side of Morrison Street, while the blacksmith shop was on the south side nearer the river.

In 1847, L. B. Hastings arrived with his family from Illinois-a man of much business capacity and energy. There was also a married man, Mr. Tallantyre, who arrived, it is thought, the year before. These remained until ’51 when they sailed away in a schooner of their own together with Mr. Pettygrove, to found Port Townsend, in Washington.

Col. Wm. King was but little later upon the scene. The following characterization of this unusual man is found in an address before the Oregon Pioneer Association by Judge R. P. Boise who became familiarly acquainted with him at the Oregon Legislature in 1851. He says: “Col. King was even then advanced to the prime of life. He was a veteran politician, who had done service as a legislator and lobbyist before he came to Oregon, and knew well the various evolutions of legislative tactics. He was a ready debater and could use with equal earnestness sound argument or sophistry, and could marshal the selfish desires, interests and prejudices of men with consummate skill, and like most men who aim at carrying a point he was not over-scrupulous as to the means by which it was attained. He ‘was a firm, and faithful friend, and a bitter enemy. He had faults which caused him much trouble and suffering-but who has not faults? He was ever generous and kind, and possessed a keen and penetrating mind, and much intelligence, which would make him a marked man in any community.” After Col. King came to Portland, if there was anything going on he was sure to have a hand in it, and perhaps to be very near the bottom of it.

Captain Nathaniel Crosby was from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In early life he went to sea, rose at length to the position of master and finally owner of a vessel. He was, next after Couch, the first to engage in a regular trade at Portland, and accomplished as much as any one for the establishment of our commerce. After leaving Portland, and not succeeding to his mind in building up a city at the lower mouth of the Willamette, he removed to Puget Sound and engaged in milling at Tumwater, near Olympia. He was one of the pioneers and most prominent citizens of Washington Territory.

Benjamin Stark, a name so well known in Portland and perpetuated in Stark street, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, January 26, 1822. He was graduated from Union School, New London, Connecticut, in 1835. Here he entered upon a business career, beginning in a counting house in New York City, and became a merchant. In 1845 he came to Oregon as supercargo on the bark Toulon and engaged in trade. He afterwards studied law and was admitted to practice in 1850. He now rapidly rose in public preferment and was elected a member of the Territorial House of the Legislature, and in 1861 was appointed U. S. Senator by Governor Whiteaker to fill out the unexpired term of Col. E. D. Baker. He served to December 1, 1862. He was prominent in politics as a Democrat, acting as delegate from Oregon to the National Convention of the Democratic party at Chicago in 1864, and in 1868 from Connecticut to the Convention in New York. He has for many years been a resident of New London, Connecticut.

From the above enumeration it will be seen that even in the primitive days Portland had a considerable community of intelligent and wideawake people. Being frontiersmen, or at any rate having acquired the frontier habits and manners in coming hither, they were exceptionally, sociable and hospitable. They kept the evenings lively around their hearthstones, and had candy pulls and parties and took pleasure rides in their canoes on the river. The coming of a ship, the erection of a new house, or the felling of the immense trees, formed items of news and topics of conversation fully as valuable and interesting as the staple of to-day. School was kept up, and religious meetings were by no means neglected. In this latter regard the Methodists were the advanced guard ; Rev. J. S. Smith or Father Kelly coming down from their homes at stated times to hold worship in the cooper shop, which was the most commodious building for the purpose.

How it looked at Portland then was about how it looks now at any one of the score of river villages in the woods to be seen on the lower Columbia. The forest was a little notched. Grand trees lay almost three hundred feet long on the ground, and so big and burly that the settler felt grimly after his day’s labor in chopping one down, that he had only made matters worse by getting it in the way. He examined his sore muscles and blistered hands and wondered where the strength was to come from to remove the monster; while his cow lifted up her nose at the shaggy bark and impending boughs, finding the path that she had made through the underbrush at many days’ toil once more hopelessly closed. So much for background. On the river bank was a small wharf; at the foot of Salmon street a fishery. On Front street at the foot of Washington stood Pettygrove’s new store, an ambitious building, made of hewn logs and covered with shingles, giving by its peculiar style and ensemble something of a shock to the architectural feelings of the new comer. On the same block stood Pettygrove’s house, also a pretentious structure. The cooper shop stood on the site of the Skidmore drug store, and on Second street was a building which the old timers still speak of with more respect than they now accord to the Hotel Portland. This was Capt. Crosby’s story and half residence with dormer windows; which is the sole dwelling of our antique grandeur, and now stands on Fourth street. There was one cabin put up by 0′ Bryant which was covered with a rustic of split cedar boards, but of the ten or fifteen others -not named above-the most were constructed of round logs.

A description by Mr. James Field of the houses in the village in February, 1847, is quite explicit; and although to a certain extent a repetition of the foregoing, may be inserted here. Approaching the town from the lower river one noticed about the foot of B street on the shore, a log hut; sometimes used by Capt. Couch as a place of storage for goods, and possibly for occupation for himself when off ship. Coming further up, past a stumpy shore, you saw on the northwest corner of Front and Washington streets Petty grove’s store and house. Near by was Whittaker’s small one-story frame building. On Alder and Front was situated Job McNemee’s two-story residence, and on the same block was a house occupied by Thos. Tallantyre, who had on the river bank in front an establishment for cutting lumber with a whip-saw. On the corner of Taylor and Front streets appeared the double log cabin of John Waymire, in many respects the most important structure in the city. Next south, in the middle of the block, was the house of Dr. Ralph Wilcox. On the north side of Taylor, between Front and First, stood a little cabin 7×9, which for many years led a sort of uncertain and wandering life, such as its exceeding smallness made quite possible. On Main street between First and Second was, the blacksmith shop of James Terwilliger and his house stood near. On the south side of Taylor was the cabin of Mr. Doane. There were also one or two houses, or cabins, on the back streets in the gloaming of the fir trees. This baker’s dozen of separate roofs comprised all Portland forty-three years ago.

The streets were, of course, little more than ox paths, and skid-ways among the stumps; gouged out, tramped, bemired in the rainy winter weather; and in the dry times raw and dusty. The city was in those days only large enough to grow, but the swift years were on the way to bring it to metropolitan honors. So much for the people and houses; now for the ships.

The river front was, comparatively speaking, lively with crafts during these four or five years. In 1844 Capt. Couch brought the Chenamus up to the mouth of the Willamette, and boated his goods thence to Oregon City. In 1845 Capt. Nathaniel Crosby brought the bark Toulon into the river, unloading her at Portland; and from that time made regular trips. He put up and kept a small storehouse at the city front, but for the most part his goods were boated up to Oregon City. In the summer of 1847, there were three large crafts in the river at Portland; the Toulon, the Whitton, and the Brig Henry. The Whitton was from New York, a swift, trim bark, under command of Roland Ghelston. When about to sail away from Portland he took on some cargo of butter, cheese and other produce, and to load these commodities upon the vessel slipped her in close to the steep bank, to which he laid poles from the deck, and planking these over had a platform, or temporary wharf. Those seeing how convenient was the lading of a ship from the Portland shore, predicted that this would be the place of shipping. Ghelston made a second voyage to the Pacific Coast, arriving in San Francisco in 1849 in time to sell his cargo of pans and shovels at an enormous profit. The Henry was under command of Capt. Kilbourne of Massachusetts. He took his brig up to a point on the east side of the river, probably somewhere near U street, and threatened to build a town there as a rival to Portland. Thus early had a spirit of opposition begun to show itself, and so easy was it to go out like Cain and build a city.

Other craft are mentioned as entering the river, as the American bark Parsons, in `46; and the brig Eveline, under command of Capt. Goodwin of Newburyport, Massachusetts, which ascended to the landing on J. R. Stephens’ place, on the east side. This vessel and her clever captain were of unusual interest to the Portlanders from the fact that Mrs. Goodwin was also on board. A year or two later, it is mentioned that “A beautiful little vessel that had come up from San Francisco for a load of lumber to be used in constructing government barracks there1 lay in the river. This beautiful vessel, whose name is forgotten, may be a symbol of other forgotten splendors and beauties that perhaps clustered about the embryo city, in the mellow, slow days before the gold.

Of those who came in by sea on some of these crafts and became builders of the city, Couch stands first; Crosby next. Following, are Benj. Stark, supercargo on the Toulon; Richard Hoyt, mate on the Whitton; and Daniel Lunt, one of the mates on the Chenamus. Among the marked characters of this early time William Johnson already alluded to was perhaps behind none. Col. Nesmith thus speaks of him: ” He was, in 1843, the only settler on the river below the Falls; an English sailor. He was a fine specimen of the British tar and had at an early day abandoned his allegiance to the 1 Probably the U. S. transport Anita, under command of Midshipman Woodworth. British Lion, and taken service on the old frigate Constitution. I have frequently listened to his narrative of the action between the old Ironsides and the Guerriere, on which occasion he served with the boarding party. He used to exhibit an ugly scar on his head made in that memorable action, by a British cutlass, and attributed his escape from death to the fact that he had a couple of pieces of hoop iron crossed in his cap, which arrested the cutlass and saved his life.” Besides such live specimens of Maryatt’s and Cooper’s heroes to afford nights of entertainment, there were occasional excitements and stirring scenes. It appears that the place was some times infested by Indians, who somehow got hold of “blue ruin,” a vile sort of intoxicating liquor, and made night hideous with their carousals. As, upon one occasion, their orgies were becoming unbearable, and Joseph L. Meek, the Marshal of the Territory, happened to be coming in at the time from the country, riding upon a magnificent white horse that would respond to the slightest touch of the rein, the proprietors of the place appealed to him to rid the town of the savages. Providing himself with a long stout rawhide rope, he mounted his horse and charged upon the camp of the Red Men, laying his strap over their shoulders to right and left, and soon dispersed the tribe into the woods, all terror-stricken at his condign punishment of drunkenness.

Here, moreover, may be quoted Judge Boise’s description of the place as he found it some years later: ” Then, as now, a place of supply, and containing an abundance of sugar and coffee and some whisky, which latter was often purchased by the hardy pioneer in moderate quantities just to keep out the wet in returning home on his long, slow journey, while he slept by his wagon, often covered by a cloudy sky and exposed to the Oregon mist.” Stories are told also of Madame Cooper and her supply of gin on board a craft off shore.

From the foregoing, the reader may infer that the primitive days were very rude and the early population very intemperate. These incidents, however, are given only as illustrating a certain phase of life to be seen at the time. Situated between the very strict and upright community at Oregon City, and the very decorous and perfunctory English society at Vancouver, the renegades of the two, who did not carry their dignity or national preference to a high pitch, used to slip off and together grow hilarious somewhere between the lines. But the men who made Portland maintained a high character even though sometimes under a plain garb of frontiersmen’s buckskin clothing.

Proprietors and Growth

As a resume of the foregoing, and for the sake of gaining a clear idea of early movements, the order of acquisition of property is given herewith. Overton laid the first claim, divided with. Lovejoy, and sold his interests to Pettygrove. A few streets and blocks were laid off; and the beginnings were made on lots sold at nominal prices, or given away for the sake of improvements to be made on them. Couch laid the first claim to the section north, and Ramsay north of him. William Johnson lived on the claim south of the town (Caruthers) and Daniel Lunt south of him, but sold to Terwilliger. South of this was Thos.” Stephens. On the southwest,-the heights -the land lay vacant until claimed in 1850 by Thos. Carter, who came to Portland some years before, and with his family was one of the most useful members of the young society. On the east side of the river James B. Stephens and Jacob Wheeler laid claims, covering the water front. These original places were, therefore, in 1849, in about their present shape. But the section upon which the city was started, the Lovejoy claim, was to pass into other hands before the city made a decided growth.


Harvey Whitefield Scott. History of Portland, Oregon: with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Prominent Citizens and Pioneers. Portland, Oregon. D. Mason & Company, 1890.

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