Biography of John Carson

John Carson, born January 25, 1828, in Butler County, Pennsylvania, was a quintessential pioneer of the American frontier. Moving to Perry County, Indiana at age 15, Carson later journeyed to Puget Sound, Washington Territory, in 1853. Carson and his family endured arduous travels, eventually settling near Puyallup, Washington. He established a private ferry and was a key figure during the Indian wars, raising a volunteer company for defense. Carson served in the territorial legislature and was instrumental in local infrastructure development. His contributions to Pierce County, including his success in hop-raising and sawmilling, highlight his legacy as a pioneer and community leader.

Few, indeed, combine so many of those characteristics of frontier life, have undergone those experiences, successfully passed through those vicissitudes, which, aggregated and embodied in the life of one man, constitute him in the true sense a “pioneer,” as he whose name heads this sketch. It but feebly represents his real worth and genuine manhood. The picture is incomplete which fails to show those struggles and hardships and sacrifices to which he and his little family were subjected in their journey to this country, in their labor to make a dwelling-place in the wilderness, and to open the way by which American men, and women and children might appropriate these regions and dedicate them as homes.

The busy, thoughtless throng which later followed, and converted solitude into society, have pushed into the background the early settlers, – those who had transformed the wilderness into garden spots, thereby inducing the masses to come to the Pacific slope and cast their lot in Oregon and Washington. They who dedicated the wilderness as appropriate residences for the myriads who have followed will yet live in history; those who pushed back the savage to give place to our race, who made Washington Territory a practicable and peaceable abiding place for women and children, will be recognized as the true commonwealth-builders, the avant-couriers and establishers of our Pacific civilization. Such, in every sense of the word, was John Carson, who lives, at a green old age and full of activity, at Puyallup, Pierce county, Washington.

He was born January 25, 1828, in Butler county, Pennsylvania. His father was a farmer; and the son lived at home, engaged as farm-boys usually are, and with but limited means to acquire an education. At the age of fifteen, the parents migrated to Perry county, Indiana. John resided there until the spring of 1853, when he left for Puget Sound, in the then new territory of Washington, it having been created by the act of Congress of March 2, 1853. The usual incidents of a journey across the plains were safely encountered. On arriving at old Fort Walla Walla (the site of the present town of Wallula), Mr. Carson and his family remained with the party that branched off at that point, crossed the Columbia river and traveled northwesterly through the Yakima valley and through the Nahchess Pass of the Cascade Mountains, over the road built in 1853 by the citizens of Pierce and Thurston counties for the immigrants of that year to enter the Puget Sound basin.

The road was free from difficulty till the mountain pass was reached. From that on to the end of the journey it was incessant labor and hardship. It was a mere trail through the mountains, nothing more. It was simply blazed, not cut out. And thus these weary immigrants, day by day, hewed out the road by which they reached their future homes. Huge logs of trees, the growth of centuries, obstructed their progress, which could not be removed within the time allotted for them to get through. Pole bridges had been constructed, over which horses could pass, but which were obstacles for wagons; and so they unloaded them from time to time and lifted them over. The western descent was abrupt, rough and dangerous. River crossings were necessarily frequent; and their beds and steep sides were as the floods for ages had washed them out and left them. Some days their march was not to exceed three miles; but that heroic little band pushed through without the loss of a single animal. One place even those patient pioneers characterized as difficult. “Just before getting down to the Green-river crossing we had to lower our wagons by ropes some three hundred yards.”

John Carson and his family reached Fort Steilacoom (the site of the present State Insane Asylum), on the 15th of October, 1853. His little family then consisted of himself, his wife and one son. Two daughters and one son were subsequently born. His wife has but recently departed this life. In December, 1853, Mr. Carson with his family settled at the crossing of the Puyallup river, about a half mile from the town of Puyallup, on the county road from Steilacoom to Puyallup valley. At that date, or rather after the immigrants of 1853 had distributed themselves and taken their Donation claims, there was only one wagon in all the Puyallup valley, and that belonged to Benjamin F. Wright, who lived on a claim adjoining Mr. Carson. Mr. Carson established a private ferry across the Puyallup river for the crossing of passengers traveling the county road between the valley and Steilacoom, at that time the county seat of Pierce county, and the only town or American settlement or community within the county, if we except the garrison of Fort Steilacoom, about a mile and a quarter back from the Sound.

Mr. Carson was a Democrat in politics, and was elected a member of the House of Representatives of the Legislative Assembly of the session 1855-56. He was a modest, unassuming man, made no pretensions as a speaker, but was a very useful, industrious member. The Indian war had broken out on Puget Sound in the month of October 1855. Mr. Carson’s family were at that time obliged to leave their home and take refuge in Steilacoom. During the sessions of the legislature (December, 1855, and January, 1856), they had resided at Olympia. His dwelling house was at the crossing of the Puyallup river, on the line of communication between Fort Steilacoom and the Muckleshute Prairie, in the heart of the hostile region, at which point Lieutenant Colonel Casey, U.S. Army, in command of the military district of Puget sound, established a blockhouse, to which were dispatched six companies of the Fourth and Ninth United States Infantry.

On the opposite side of the river from Mr. Carson’s log-cabin home, a blockhouse was erected February 14, 1856, to guard the ferry and keep open the communication between Fort Steilacoom and Muckleshute. Between the sides of the river a government boat was used for the crossing of troops and supplies. To Mr. Carson was committed the charge of that ferry boat. To protect his side of the river, he raised an independent company, consisting of twenty-three volunteers, of which he was captain. They refused to be mustered into the United States service, but acted as a garrison for the defense of that settlement. They were provisioned by the United States regulars at Fort Steilacoom, and provided with arms from the United States steamer Massachusetts. For two years and four months Mr. Carson was employe’ of the United States quartermaster of Fort Steilacoom, engaged as a carpenter on the buildings erected at Fort Steilacoom.

In the year 1858, it became safe for him to return to his Donation claim at the Puyallup ferry, by the cessation of Indian hostilities. He then, under a charter of the Legislative Assembly of the territory, established a toll-bridge across the Puyallup river, which was carried away by the high water of the winter of 1862-63. He then established a ferry under a license of the board of county commissioners of Pierce county. When hop-raising began to be a specialty in Puyallup valley, like the rest of his neighbors he participated in the cultivation, and was very successful. He had realized a sufficiency in 1882 to justify his building a sawmill in the suburbs of the new city of Tacoma. This was burned to the ground in the early summer of 1886; but Mr. Carson rebuilt in July, 1886, a mill of increased running capacity, capable of sawing thirty thousand feet per day. He was among the earliest to build a brick store on Pacific avenue in the city of Tacoma, at the time quite distant from the occupied portion of that street, and when the approach was over stumps and without sidewalks. The road, while not so bad as the immigrant road of 1853, was bad enough, and required quite as much moral courage to put faith in such an investment.

John Carson for fifteen years successively was one of the board of county commissioners of Pierce county, and was elected regardless of which party was dominant; and most of that time he was the chairman. He still lives, a hale, hearty, active business man, esteemed and beloved by all who know him, proverbial for his integrity, and respected for his industry, attention to business and sterling qualities as a citizen.



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

1 thought on “Biography of John Carson”

  1. Maryanne Cottmeyer

    John Carson & Emmalane Darrow Carson were my great great grandparents. Most of our part of the family still lives in Washington State.

    My mother & her 11 siblings have all passed on but there were 42 of us first cousins.

    We were honored to be present at the dedication of the Emmalane Carson School in the Puyallup School District in the early 2000’s.

    John Carson’s history is written in the Pierce County history written by Bonney.

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