American Historic Towns
Historic Towns of The Western States

Edited by Lyman P. Powell
G. P. Putnam' Sons
New York and London
The Knickerbocker Press

"Where rolls the Oregon." - Bryant.

ONE autumn evening in 1843, A. M. Overton and A. L. Lovejoy, two residents of Oregon City, on their way home from Vancouver, landed from their canoe and pitched their tent for the night under the pine trees upon the west bank of the Willamette River. Before they resumed their journey, the next day, they had projected a town upon the site of their encampment. Within a few months, a clearing was made and a log cabin built. From this beginning grew the present city of Portland.

But our story must go back of this beginning, for the historical significance of Portland lies not so much in the fact that it is today the great metropolis of that vast territory, once all called Oregon, and now divided into the States of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and parts of Wyoming and Montana, not to mention British Columbia; but its significance is rather to be sought in the consideration that in Portland culminated and found final form the metropolitan life of Oregon Territory, which, in its earlier and richer historical period, found expression successively in Astoria, Vancouver, and Oregon City. Thus, for the essential beginning of the history of the metropolis of the Pacific Northwest, we must go back to the embryo metropolis established by Astor at the mouth of the Columbia River. This point of departure, while relatively remote, yet carries us back over less than a century of time.

Nearly two hundred years had passed after Henry Hudson sailed the Half Moon up the North River before the waters of the mighty Oregon were disturbed by any craft save the Indian's canoe. Beyond suspicions and reports of Indians, the great "River of the West" was unknown, and that vast territory beyond the Rocky Mountains which it drains was undiscovered until April 29, 1792, when Captain Gray, commanding the Columbia Rediviva, from Boston, crossed its bar and landed upon its banks, to the consternation of the Indians, who now saw a white face for the first time. Gray named the river after his vessel, the Columbia, and took possession of the country in the name of the United States. A few months later, Broughton, a lieutenant of the explorer Vancouver, to whose incredulous ears Gray had communicated his discovery, entered the Columbia, and in turn claimed everything in the name of King George. These conflicting claims furnish a key to the critical period in the history of the Columbia River territory. For a long time neither America nor Great Britain forced a determination of its claim, and a succession of treaties gave to the citizens of both countries equal rights in the territory. Each government, however, encouraged its citizens to make good the national claim by actual possession. The first attraction to Oregon Territory was that which led Captain Gray, with other expeditions, to the coast, viz., the abundance of furbearing animals. The first British occupation was that of the Northwest Fur Company of Canada, which pushed some posts across the Rockies to the far north. The way for American occupation was opened when the successful explorations of the Lewis and Clark expedition, which camped over the winter of 1805 at the mouth of the Columbia, demonstrated the practicability of an overland route to Oregon. Into this opening John Jacob Astor promptly entered. As the "American Fur Company," Astor had successfully checked the aggressions of the powerful Canadian companies in the northern United States. He now projected a scheme, under the name of the "Pacific Fur Company," whereby to check the movements of these same companies beyond the Rocky Mountains, and to possess the new country for the United States. The heart of his plan and purpose was a settlement at the mouth of the Columbia River. Says Washington Irving, to whose fascinating book, Astoria, the reader must go for the story of this magnificent, if ill starred, enterprise:

"He considered his projected establishment at the mouth of the Columbia as the emporium to an immense commerce, as a colony that would form the germ of a wide civilization, that would, in fact, carry the American population across the Rocky Mountains and spread it along the shores of the Pacific."

Jefferson, who had sent out the Lewis and Clark expedition, heartily endorsed this project, as did also his Cabinet. In prosecution of Astor's purpose, on April 12, 1811, the Tarquin, the precursor of an intended "annual vessel," bringing partners, clerks, voyageurs, and artisans, as well as material and merchandise, crossed the, bar of the Columbia and cast anchor. Point George, as it had been named by Broughton, was selected as a site for the embryo metropolis, and was renamed Astoria, after the great commoner whose enterprise it represented. Here, after the Tanquin had sailed away to its tragic fate, the little colony proceeded to establish itself. A fort, a stone mansion, and other buildings were erected, and a schooner, the Dolly, was constructed and launched. The colonists did some trading with the neighboring Indians but delayed to reach out into the surrounding country until the arrival of Wilson Price Hunt, who was bringing an expedition overland and was to establish suitable trading posts en route. Hunt, who was an American and the chief partner under Mr. Astor, was to be in charge at Astoria. While engaged in their work of construction, the colonists were disturbed by rumors that their rivals, the Northwest Company, had entered their territory and established a post on the Spokane River. This rumor was confirmed when a canoe came down the Columbia flying the British standard, and a gentleman, stepping ashore, introduced himself as David Thompson, an astronomer and a partner of the Northwest Company. McDougal, who was temporarily in charge, was, like several of Astor's partners, a Scotchman, and a former Northwest employe. This visitor, therefore, was treated as an honored guest instead of as a spy, which he really was. However, it was determined that David Stuart should at once take a small party and set up a post as a check to the one on the Spokane, which he did at Oakinagen.

Another interruption was occasioned by the shocking news of the massacre of the Tonquin's crew by Indians and the destruction of the vessel. To grief at the loss of their friends was added fear of the Indians, who they now suspected were plotting against them. However; McDougal's wit served and saved them. He threatened to uncork the smallpox, which he professed to hold confined in a bottle, and so gained the fear of the Indians, and the title, "The great smallpox chief."

After a gloomy winter, Astoria was cheered in the spring by the arrival of Hunt and his party. These, after a journey the account of which reads like a romance, through sufferings of all kinds and over difficulties all but insurmountable, reached their destination; haggard and in rags.

The arrival, soon after, of the annual vessel, the Beaver, with reinforcements and supplies, cheered them all and made possible the establishment of interior posts. The Beaver proceeded to Alaska, in compliance with an agreement between Astor and the Russian Fur Company, which had been made with the consent of both governments; and Hunt went with her. The absence of Hunt, which was prolonged by untoward events, proved fatal to the Astoria enterprise. Just as the partners from the several posts were bringing to the rendezvous the first fruits of what promised an abundant harvest in the future, McTavish, another Northwest partner, surprised Astoria's people with the alarming news that war had been declared between the two countries, and that he was expecting a British armed vessel to set up a Northwest establishment at the mouth of the river. Without waiting for the appearance of this vessel, without any attempt to send their treasure inland, and although the Astor Company was in a stronger trading position than its rival, McDougal, chief factor in Hunt's absence, sold out to McTavish all Astor's property for one third its value. Opposition was offered by some of the partners and the American clerks were furious, but Hunt's ominous absence dampened opposition and cleared McDougal's way. It is significant that McDougal soon after received a valuable share in the Northwest Company. Had Astor been there he would have "defied them all." "Had our place and our property been fairly captured I should have preferred it," wrote Mr. Astor to Hunt, who doubtless shared the spirit of his chief. Shortly after the sale, a British officer took formal possession of the country in the name of his Britannic Majesty, and Astoria became Fort George. Although the treaty of Ghent restored the status ante bellum, Oregon remained for many years in the actual possession of England, through the occupation of its chartered companies. Mr. Astor's desire to reoccupy. Astoria received no backing by the government and so no American settlement was even attempted until Captain Wyeth's venture at Fort William in 1832, which proved futile.

This change from American to British possession was marked by a transfer of the metropolis from Fort George to Fort Vancouver. When Dr. John McLoughlin, upon the absorption of the Northwestern by the Hudson Bay Company, in 1821, was sent out as "Chief Factor of the Columbia River Territory," he declared that the chief post should be as central as possible to the trade; that after leaving the mouth of the river there is no disadvantage in going to the head of navigation; and that a permanent settlement must be surrounded by an agricultural country. These considerations which took McLoughlin to Vancouver are those which today determine the commercial strength of Portland, across the river from Vancouver. Thus Fort George sunk to a subordinate position. After the boundary was determined a new American town sprung up under the old name Astoria, where there are large salmon canneries.

Vancouver, with the outlying posts scattered throughout the territory, was the centre of a semi feudal organization, and its life was picturesque and full of charm.

Within the palisades was the residence of the Chief Factor ("Governor" by courtesy), surrounded bye those of the other gentlemen servants of the Company; together with the stores, offices, and all other important buildings. Between the fort and the river lay a clean, neat, and decorous village of about forty log houses, occupied by the inferior servants of the. Company, who were, for the most part, French Canadians. Nearly every man, from the "Governor" down, had an Indian wife; for no white woman had as yet set foot in Oregon. One of these servants writes: "They all had Indian women, never more than one; old Dr. McLoughlin would hang them if they had." The farm, blacksmith's shop, and other productive activities at Vancouver not only furnished the subordinate posts of the Company, but provisions were sent to Alaska, exports were made to the Hawaiian Islands, and the American settlers were dependent upon this post for many of their supplies. Not only was Vancouver the trading centre, it was also the "heart and brains of Oregon Territory." The post hospital offered relief to American settlers as well as to the subordinate posts. Here was established the first school in the territory. The services of the English Church were regularly maintained, and opportunity was offered to missionaries of all denominations to hold service. An annual dispatch kept open communication with the outside world and brought books and papers from the centres of civilization.

The central figure and inspiring genius of Vancouver was Dr. McLoughlin, who was a striking and remarkable character. The remoteness of his post, combined with a selfreliant nature, made him practically independent of his superior officers in Montreal or London. He was indeed, absolute monarch of all the territory west of the Rocky Mountains. But the "good doctor," though firm in character, was a benevolent and a beneficent despot. "Standing over six feet, six inches, in height, he was of commanding presence, with courtly, yet affable manners." Red man and white man alike revered and loved him, for to each alike he was kind, and at the same time just. He was the soul of hospitality and every traveller found at Vancouver a ready welcome to a seat at the rich but temperate board in the common dining hall, and a bed in the doctor's house. Library, horses, and boats were all at the visitor's command. This spirit of hospitality, joined to a freedom from national prejudice, characterized the attitude of McLoughlin towards the missionaries and other American immigrants who ultimately began to come into the territory. There was scarcely a party which was not indebted to him for material assistance in getting started, as well as for a courteous welcome at the fort. Some indeed owed their lives to him and the other officers at Vancouver, and once at least their prompt help was in marked contrast to the indifference of the American settlement. To this service the missionary records bear constant testimony, and Lieutenant Fremont, "the pathfinder," says in his report: "I found many American Emigrants at the Fort. Others had already crossed the river to their land of promise, the Walainette valley."

We must now follow these American immigrants, for with them the political dominance is to pass from Great Britain to the United States, and the metropolis to move from Vancouver to the Falls of the Willamette. Curiously enough, McLoughlin in his own course will typify this transition.

The very first settlers in the Willamette Valley were servants of the Hudson Bay Company, who settled there by the advice and with the assistance of McLoughlin, who from the first had properly estimated the value of this river and valley. He himself took possession of the falls, with the adjacent land, and held them as a personal claim, "until such time as there should be established a government which could give him title." The town which he developed on this site he called Oregon City.

The first American settlers on the Willamette were the Methodist missionary party, under Jason Lee, which crossed the plains in 1834. To these McLoughlin gave material aid. Of the Canadians, Lee's nephew writes: "They gave us a very polite and generous welcome to the best they could set before us."

Lee's mission was to the Indians, but meeting with great discouragement in this direction, he turned his attention to the more interesting task of forming a political state, which should be American and also Methodist The, missionary work was not abandoned, but only subordinated. In furtherance of his political plans, Lee secured both money and immigrants from the eastern States and invoked the protection of the United States Government. Since 1820 there had been a party in Congress, representing a sentiment in the country outside, which desired to abrogate our treaty with England and establish our government over the whole of Oregon Territory. But notwithstanding an "Oregon fever," developed by Lee and others, the United States was not yet ready for any action with regard to the new territory. In the meantime immigrations from the western States had brought to the Willamette Valley a number of people differing in spirit from the missionaries and not at all in harmony with them. These after a while outnumbered the adherents of the Mission. Hence arose three parties in the Valley of the Willamette, two American and one British. The new American party was in favor of forming a provisional government, which should maintain order until the boundary question now burning between England and America should be decided. The missionary party accepted this as an evil less than the rule of the Hudson Bay Company, which was the only established authority. The Canadians wanted only quiet. As a result, in 1845 was completed the organization of an independent commonwealth, which recognized the sovereignty of neither America or Great Britain, but which allowed every man to retain his individual citizenship under either government until the territorial question should be settled. Against the wish of most of the missionary party, but upon the insistence of the more liberal Americans, the plan was extended so as to include the country north of the Columbia River, and McLoughlin was invited to unite in this organization. The Chief Factor thought it wise to put the property of his Company under the protection of a government which would probably be formed whether or no, and therefore he entered the organization.

The seat of the new government was called by the legislature, "Willamette Falls," but the place was afterwards incorporated under the name of Oregon City given it by McLoughlin, its founder.

There had long been disaffection in England over McLoughlin's liberal attitude towards the Americans. A climax was reached when Lieutenants Warre and Vasouver, who came to the Columbia River shortly after the formation of the provisional government, reported McLoughlin to be a disloyal subject, if not an unfaithful servant. The Chief Factor's defence was complete and he was not without friends, both in the Council of the Company and in the House of Commons. However, moved by a combination of considerations, he resigned his office, retired to Oregon City, and, after the settlement of the boundary question, became a citizen of the United States. For this much vexed boundary question was settled by treaty in 1846. Polk was elected upon the platform, "Fifty four forty, or fight." But more moderate counsels prevailed, and a compromise was made upon the forty ninth parallel of latitude. This determination of the boundary line had as a result the extinguishing of the Hudson Bay trade on the Columbia River, and Vancouver was purchased by the United States for an army post, which is still maintained. A town has also grown up outside the reservation.

Seldom has fate been more ironical than in its treatment of Dr. McLoughlin. Driven from Vancouver for his kindness to the missionaries, he was now defrauded of his claim at Oregon City by the missionary party, and to accomplish this iniquity anti British prejudice was appealed to, in concealment of the fact that the doctor had applied for American citizenship. After his death, restitution was made to his children. Some of his descendants now live in Portland.

In presenting a portrait of Dr. McLoughlin to the Oregon Pioneers, in 1887, on behalf of the city of Portland, Judge Deady said: "He stands out today in bold relief as the first man in the history of this country, the pioneer of pioneers."

With the passing of Vancouver, Oregon City became the metropolis. And when Oregon was erected into a Territory of the United States, in 1848, Portland was as yet only "a place twelve miles from Oregon City."

Shortly after the incidents mentioned at the opening of this chapter, Overton sold his interest to F. W. Pettygrove. A year later Lovejoy and Pettygrove erected a business building, known as the "shingle store," on what is now the corner of Front and Washington streets. Hitherto known as "the village" or "Stumptown," the little settlement was now dignified with the name of Portland. Lovejoy, who was a native of Boston, wanted to call the town after his birthplace, but Petty grove, who was equally loyal to Maine, preferred Portland, and the tossing of a coin gave the choice to Pettygrove, What a pity they could not have compromised on the Indian Multnomah! Lovejoy, who was a man of education and had been prominent in the provisional government, sold his interest in the future city to Benjamin Stark and eventually died a poor man. Other transfers of interest made Daniel Lounsbury, Stephen Coffin, and W. W. Chapman partners with Stark in the ownership of the town site, and under these four men began the active development of the town. This development, however, soon met with a decided check from two events which in turn led to the subsequent upbuilding and supremacy of Portland.

The massacre of Whitman and his companions at Walla Walla by the Cayuse Indian led to a war of vengeance, which drew almost every man who could bear arms away from normal pursuits. Portland contributed a company of infantry. The movements of the troops, which rendezvoused at Portland during this war, demonstrated its superiority over the city at the falls as a point of arrival and departure with regard to the Columbia River. This discovery was to influence the future location of the metropolis.

The other event mentioned was the discovery of gold in California. The immediate effect of this discovery was a stampede from Oregon. Portland contained at one time, it is said, but three adults. Soon, however, the demand for provisions in California opened up a lucrative trade in the products of the fertile Willamette Valley and drew men back to the soil. This California trade afforded an opportunity to develop Portland's advantages which the Cayuse war had emphasized, and which Lovejoy suspected when he said, "I observed the masts and booms of vessels which had been left there and it occurred to me that this was the place for a town."

Up to 1848, the annual arrivals in the Columbia had ranged from three to eight vessels. In 1849 there were more than fifty arrivals. The shore of the Willamette at Portland was lined with all kinds of vessels, and wharfs and warehouses were in great demand.

It is upon this command of the two waterways, with her superior port, that the permanent commercial supremacy of Portland rests. The most conspicuous name in connection with this development of Portland's shipping interests is that of John H. Couch. In 1840 Captain. Couch brought into the Columbia the first American trader which had crossed the bar since the Wyeth expedition. This was the brig Maryland, from Newburyport, Mass. After subsequent voyages he brought his family from Newburyport and settled in Portland, in i849. In partnership with his brother in law, Captain Flanders, he built wharfs and warehouses and established the first regular shipping business in the city. The first brig sailing from Portland to China, Emma Preston, was dispatched by Couch & Co.

Such has been the development of Portland shipping that' it is now well up among the great ports of the country. Last year (1900), according to the annual review by the Oregonian, it was ahead of Philadelphia and Baltimore. Its wheat shipments (15,858,387 bushels) exceeded those of San Francisco, and more than equalled the combined shipments of Tacoma and Seattle. Henry Villard's great genius suffered no aberration when he selected Portland as the centre of Pacific coast transportation. For not only does this city command the waterways, but it is also the great railway centre. Four transcontinental systems, beside local lines, make the Union Station their actual terminus. The Hotel Portland, one of Villard's many projects, should be to Portlanders a memorial of Villard's brilliance and public spirit, as to the tourist it offers, with its elegance and comforts, a suggestive contrast to the camp of the early traveller.

To conclude from Portland's rapid growth and commercial supremacy that it is a typical "western" town, would be to strike wide of the mark. One must go east from Portland to find the typical characteristics, good and bad, of a western town. Portland's character was largely formed before the railway came, for it had a population of nearly twenty thousand before there was connection by rail with the United States. This population was made up of the influx from the Willamette Valley, whose civilization had been deeply impressed by the religious and educational establishment at its foundation, and of a good class of immigrants coming directly from the eastern States. A characterization of Portland by Judge Deady, in 1868, is illuminating: Theatrical amusements never ranked high. There is no theatre house in the town fit to be called such. On the other hand, church going is comparatively common."

As early ag 1849 some citizens of Portland organized an association, elected trustees, and built a school and meeting house at a cost of over two thousand dollars. This was the first enterprise of the kind on the coast. Within a few years all the prominent religious denominations were represented by houses of worship. The earliest of these buildings were those of the Methodists and Congregationalists. The Methodists, Roman Catholics, and Episcopalians also supported institutions of learning and of charity. No single religious denomination or individual clergyman has exerted such a commanding influence in the religious development of the city as to warrant any attempt at discrimination. It may be less invidious if two among the many citizens who have influenced the thought and ministered to the higher non ecclesiastical life of the city should be briefly noticed. Matthew P. Deady, who was prominent in the territorial government of Oregon, and whose was a controlling mind in framing both the organic ands statute law of the State, was, upon the admission of the State, appointed Federal Judge, which office he held until his death. Upon his appointment he secured the location of the court at Portland, and identified himself with the city. The city, too, became identified with him, inasmuch as the act of its incorporation passed the Legislature as it came from his hand. Judge Deady ever strove to promote the, higher interests of Portland, through his important office, which he filled with great ability; through the institutions of the Episcopal Church, of which he was an honored member; and through the various channels which offer themselves to the public spirited citizen. His monument, perhaps, is the Public Library, which, with its fine building, is largely the result of his interest and efforts; although much of the money for the building was directly derived from a bequest.

When it is known that the Oregonian has been published in Portland practically since the foundation of the city, and that it is deemed by competent judges to be the best edited newspaper west of the Atlantic coast, the conclusion is not far away that the man who has been the editor and master mind of that journal for more than thirty years must have wielded an immense influence upon the thought and opinion of Portland and the Pacific Northwest. That man is Harvey W. Scott.

It is needless to say, these two men do not stand alone. C. E. S. Wood, Esq., might be named as one who has contributed more than any, perhaps, to the development of the city in the appreciation of and interest in art. Judge George H. Williams, who was Attorney General in Grant's Cabinet, might be cited as an example of those who have served the nation as well as the city. Others, too, have shared in making Portland, but space forbids even the mention of their names.

With almost a hundred thousand inhabitants, drawn from all parts of the world, and with a "Chinatown" in its midst, the social character of Portland has, of course, changed since 1868. And yet Judge Deady's characterization given then would fairly hold good today. This means, of course, that Portland is eminently conservative, with the advantages and disadvantages of conservatism.

In externals, Portland is an attractive city, with the trees in its streets and the lawns about its houses and its wonderful roses. Its early architecture is poor, but many of the recent buildings, municipal, ecclesiastical, commercial, domestic, and general, are not only large and imposing, but good. The city is beautifully situated, with the rivers at its feet and the wooded hills behind it, and in the distance the snow mountains, of which the finest and the favorite is Hood. Portland sits today mistress of the North Pacific, and with historic and prophetic reasons for expecting to be the metropolis of the whole Pacific coast. If the sceptre slips from her, it will be only because she lacks the faith, the courage, and the enterprise to enter into her inheritance.

Historic towns of the Western States

Return to History at Rays Place