History of Portland Oregon’s Settlement

It is to be borne in mind that there was in Oregon an ancient circles of cities whose rise and growth belong to a day earlier than that of Portland. By reference to the chapter upon the earliest times and the provisional government, one will see that Astoria, down near the Ocean, had already been flourishing, amid its gigantic spruce trees and sea breezes, for more than thirty years, and for a part of the time figured as the sole American city on the Pacific Coast. It had furthermore so far attracted the attention as to have become the subject of one of Irving’s historical romances, and was reckoned along with Mexico and Cuzco as one of the great cities of Western exploit and renown.

Vancouver, the most distant seat of the great English fur monopoly, whose proprietors sat in Parliament in London, and had Princes on the list of their business progenitors and patrons, had been in existence twenty years, and the chief factor who sat in its office and looked up and down the broad Columbia for the coming and going of his bateaux and the motley fleet of Indian canoes and pirogues, had grown white-headed in this long expanse of historic time before Portland had its first cabin. Oregon City, five years later (1829), was selected as a site for a city by Dr. McLoughlin, and he was accustomed to send up thither little squads of Canadians with axes and picks to slash brush and cut trees and to dig among the boulders and gravel, somewhat after the manner of the modern pre-emptor or homesteader, to show that the place was his, even though he were not upon it the whole time. In 1840 a number of Methodist Missionaries looked upon this site by the Falls, and concluded, being Americans, that they had as much right to the place as any one, and accordingly began building a city. A year of this occupancy did as much for the growth of the place as had the preceding eleven of a British rule. Indeed McLoughlin was so benevolent as to permit the Americans to use his squared timbers for their own edifices. Oregon City grew to her supremacy long before the first nail was driven in a Portland roof. If any one of these three early emporiums of the primitive times had possessed the position to be the principal places that they once aspired to become, they had abundant opportunity for realizing their hopes.

On the Willamette and the Columbia, numberless other points strove to become the place. It was well enough understood that on this strip of water must somewhere be located the metropolis of the Northwest, and every new settler so fortunate as to own a piece of land on either side of the river hoped to make it the center of the capital. Opposite Oregon City, Robert Moore, from Pennsylvania, found indications of iron in the soil, and here laid off .Linn City in 1843, and persisted in living upon his site, although he was well laughed at by one of our naval officers for his extravagant hopes. His city later on became known by the less , ambitious but more attractive name of Robin’s Nest. Below Moore’s, Hugh Burns, an Irishman, laid off Multnomah City and started the place by setting up a blacksmith shop. Some years later (1847), Lot Whitcomb, of Illinois, a man of rare enterprise, united with Seth Luelling and later with Captain Joseph Kellogg, to make Milwaukie the New York of the Pacific Coast, Below the present site of Portland, on the right bank of the Willamette, was St. Johns, founded by John Johns, whose brick store is still a conspicuous mark on the green slope of this beautiful little spot. At the head of Sauvies’ Island was Linnton, a most ambitious point, established as early as 1844 by M. M. McCarver, with the assistance of Peter Burnett, both of whom were brainy and stalwart men, famous in early history. The former is said to have declared that his city would beat anything on the coast if they could only get nails enough there. Near the mouth of the Willamette Slough was Milton, founded in 1846 by Captain Nathaniel Crosby., On the Oregon shore opposite the lower end of Sauvies’ Island where the lower mouth of the Willamette unites with the Columbia was set St. Helens on a natural site of great beauty. It was established about 1845-46 by Captain Knighton and others. The geographical position of all these embryo cities was equal to that of Portland, and the latter had but little advantage over any of them in priority of date of establishment, or in thrift and ability upon which to begin. All these points were energetic and were possessed of unbounded ambition to be first in empire. During those early years before 1850 the whole lower Willamette was in a state of agitation and excitement, striving to find some point, or node, of crystalization for the coming grandeur of population and wealth. This had been going on some years before Portland was thought of, and she seems to have been selected by nature as the outcome of the struggle for survival.

In proceeding with the history of the settlement of this city it may be well to say that more of it has been forgotten than will ever be put on paper. Written data are few and meagre, and what has been prepared for history is in some cases ludicrously erroneous, as when-probably by mistake of the compositor, which the proof reader and editor did not take the trouble to correct-a man in the Rocky Mountains at the time is affirmed to have founded Portland on the Willamette. A considerable number of the original settlers are still living, and in the case of some, recollection is distinct and most interesting; while others find themselves at fault in trying to remember incidents so long past, by them deemed trivial at the time.

But without further explanation the threads of tradition and story as to the most remote times of the city may be joined so as to form as well as possible an historical plexus.

Long before its selection for a city the site was not unnoticed. Travelers now and then stepped off from their canoes or bateaux, even from times so remote as that of Lewis and Clark; one of whom mentions spending a night at a great bend in the Willamette twelve miles from its mouth where he was entertained in the lodge of a very intelligent Indian chief, who told long stories of his own people aim the great tribe of Calapooiah, many days toward the mid-day sun. In 1829, one Etienne Lucier, a Frenchman who crossed the plains with Hunt in 1811 but afterwards took service with the Hudson’s Bay Company, was settled by McLoughlin on the east side of the river opposite Portland, but soon went on to French Prairie.

The very first who set foot on the original site of Portland with a view to assuming ownership was William Overton. It has been almost universally stated that he took the “claim” in 1843. In the first directory of Portland, published in 1863, there is found an historical sketch, doubtless compiled with care, which has become the basis of almost everything written upon the subject since, that gives the story of beginnings as follows: “During the month of November, 1843, Hon. A. L. Lovejoy (at present residing at Oregon City) and a gentleman named Overton, stepped ashore at this point from an Indian canoe, while en route from Vancouver to Oregon City, and having examined the topography of the surrounding country concluded at once that this was the most eligible position for a town site. ” It goes on to say that during the ensuing winter they made preparations to erect a cabin, but before completing their arrangements for a dwelling, Overton disposed of his interest to Mr. F. W. Pettygrove, who in conjunction with Mr. Lovejoy had the site surveyed and the boundaries established, during the summer of 1844. “During the winter of the same year Messrs. Lovejoy and Pettygrove hired a man to commence clearing off timber and to procure logs suitable for the construction of a dwelling house but a change was made in the location, the proprietors deeming it more prudent to commence operations nearer the center of their claim. Immediate preparations were made to clear off the ground adjacent to where the Columbia Hotel at present stands (near the foot of Washington Street) and accordingly a log house was erected on the spot and occupied by their employ during the winter. The building completed, and a portion of the land cleared, the proprietors determined upon having a more accurate survey of their claim, and, in the summer of 1845, Thos. A. Brown was employed to do so.”

The circumstances as to time are quite different from the account given by Mrs. Lovejoy, wife of the man named above. She herself came to Oregon in 1843 and was soon after married and lived with her husband at Oregon City. According to her memory it was not until the autumn of 1844 that Overton set his stakes on the claim, and the story of first occupation runs something as follows:

Though the shore and plateau upon which Portland now stands was at first a dense forest with interminable underbrush, there was along the bank from about Washington street to Jefferson something of an opening, the underwood having been cleared away, perhaps by Indian campers. There were maple and oak trees on the spot. Being a delightfully shady place and about half way between Oregon City and Vancouver, it became convenient as a stopping place for parties. on the river to land for a mid-day meal. Lovejoy going upon business in November of ’44 from his home at Oregon City to Vancouver, fell in, at the latter place, with the young man Overton, and as it suited the convenience of both, the two arranged for making together the return trip to Oregon City. As they were passing up the Willamette and arrived at the grove, the two men went ashore, and Overton was pleased to show his friend about the place, saying that it was his “claim,” taken but a few weeks before. Lovejoy, with a critical eye, noticed the apparent depth of water off shore, and the indications at the bank that ships had made this a stopping place. Overton now disclosed the fact that he had no means to take the legal steps to secure the claim according to law, and offered Lovejoy a half interest in the claim for the expense of recording, and the latter closed the bargain. By this means our city’s site fell into the hands of one of the most intelligent and capable men then in the territory.

Of Overton very little is known. His name does not appear on any list of immigrants from the East, and it is surmised that he drifted in from the sea, or came up in ’43 from California with the company who journeyed hither with Joseph Gale, a still older pioneer, and his herd of cattle. It has been remarked of him in humorous phrase, “This man Overton stalks through the twilight of these early annals like a phantom of tradition, so little is known of his history, character and fate.” Col. Nesmith says he “was a desperate, rollicking fellow and sought his fortunes in Texas, where, as I have heard, his career was brought to a sudden termination by a halter.” It is agreed that he came from Tennessee; and that after his short residence in Oregon he went to Texas. According to the recollection of Mrs. Lovejoy, he was an agreeable, well appearing young man, and she discredits the report of his hanging in the Lone Star State. From his name and native country it has been conjectured that he was a member of the family of Overtons 1 in Memphis, who were among the founders of that city. But whatever his character or fate, he played only an incidental part in our history. Soon after completing his settlement he was seeking to sell his interest in the claim, on the ground that he must go to his mother who, as he now heard, was sick in Texas. He succeeded in disposing of this to F. W. Pettygrove for an “outfit,” worth perhaps fifty dollars.

General Lovejoy was, on the other hand, one whose name and history are clear and bright throughout the whole of the old Oregon; a dashing, dauntless sort of a man with many popular and commanding qualities, whose career is closely interwoven with that of the whole Northwest. The most successful of the business men of Portland have come from New England or New York, and it was perhaps as a sort of augury of this fact that the first real owner of soil here should be from the old Bay State. Lovejoy was a native of Groton. He studied at Cambridge, but was an alumnus at Amherst college. He became a lawyer and was among the first of the legal profession that came to this coast. On both sides of his house he was of excellent family, his mother’s people being the Lawrences, of fame on the east coast. Soon after finishing his professional studies he was led by that spirit of romance and adventure, which in men takes the form of action-in women emotion, in poets imagination-to push out to the west and follow the steps of such enthusiasts as Kelly and Wyeth, and other idealists and discoverers, who had set out from the little rocky hills and stern shores of the “down east” to rid the labyrinths of the North American continent. He reached Missouri and began practicing law. Here he came upon Dr. Elijah White, the physician and missionary who had spent several years in Oregon at Chemawa, near Salem, had returned east, and now was on the way west again, with considerable dignity and pomp as United States sub-Indian agent for Oregon; and, better yet, was the leader of a party of above one hundred to this remote region. Joining himself to the company, Lovejoy became an active and daring rover of the plains, and together with Hastings, another scion of a good eastern family, became the subject of a romantic adventure by falling into the hands of the savages at Independence Rock. It was customary to cut one’s name on this conspicuous pile, and he was carving his own in large characters when, stepping back to view his work, having drawn a flourish over the “Y,” he was embraced by a very large Indian. A band of Sioux was soon on the spot, and the two young men separated from their train, were threatened with instant massacre. The savages were especially fierce in their demonstrations against Lovejoy, leaving Hastings almost unnoticed. This was attributed by the former to the fact that the latter was of a very dark complexion, and was perhaps supposed to be of kith to the captors. Happily, the guide, Fitzpatrick, saw the affair from the train, which was a few miles distant, and Dr. White came to the rescue with some tobacco and trinkets, which were on the whole more valuable to the strolling Sioux than two white men, dead or alive.

Reaching the Walla Walla Valley in October, Lovejoy found Dr. Whitman, the devoted missionary and intrepid pioneer, at Wailatpu, anxious to go to Washington and Boston. Although having just performed a trip that was most fatiguing, Lovejoy had the courage to join himself to the doctor as a comrade and to ride back across the continent; now, however, making the journey in the dead of winter. Long marches, snow storms, bitter winds, crossing of violent half-frozen streams ; wanderings, bewilderments, frost bites and starvation diet-sometimes eating dog meat-and riding jaded animals, this was the order of the exercises from November to February. Their route led by Santa Fe.Citations:

  1. The first owner of the Portland land-claim was William Overton, a Tennessean, who came to Oregon about 1843, and presently took possession of the place, where he made shingles for a time, but being of a restless disposition, went to the Sandwich Islands, and returning dissatisfied and out of health, resolved to go to Texas. Meeting with A. L. Lovejoy at Vancouver, and returning with him to Portland in a canoe, he offered to resign the claim to him, but subsequently changed his mind, thinking to remain, yet giving Lovejoy half on condition that he would aid in improving it; for the latter, as he says in his Founding of Portland, MSS 30-34, observed the masts and booms of vessels which had been left there, and it occurred to him that this was the place for a town. After some clearing preparatory to building a house, Overton again determined to leave Oregon, and sold his half of the claim to P. W. Pettygrove; for a small sum, and went to Texas, where, it has been said, he was hanged. Bancroft’s History of Northwest Coast, Vol. 11. p. 8-9. Bancroft, however, states in a note further down that Overton came to Portland from the Sandwich Islands on the Toulon in 1846, after his reported removal to Texas.[]


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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