COL. JOHN COLGATE BELL. – Colonel Bell, enjoying a wide reputation from Southern Oregon to Idaho, and back again to the Pacific seashore throughout the state in which he has successively lived and made a multitude of personal acquaintances, merits a special recognition on account of his public services in official relations and in the early Indian wars of Southern Oregon.
He was born at Sterling, Kentucky, February 24, 1814. His parents were from Virginia; and among his ancestors were those distinguished in the early history of the nation, his father having served with General Harrison in the war of 1812. The young man received his education at the Mount Sterling Academy, and began business at his native town in the dry-goods store of David Herren. In 1834, he began his western career by removing with his father to Missouri, engaging with him in mercantile business at Clarksville, Pike county. Eight years later he entered into business on his own account at Weston, and in 1845 was married to Miss Sarah E., daughter of General Thompson Ward, of honorable fame in the Mexican war.
In 1847 he was engaged with the General in organizing the regiments of Donovan and Price and the battalion of Major Powell sent to new Fort Kearney on the plains for the protection of emigrants. It was in these operations that he received his military rank.
In 1849 he gratified his desire for a life wider than that of the east by setting forth with Doctor Belt, a brother-in-law, for the El Dorado of the Pacific. The journey was accomplished amid the usual difficulties of the way, – such as hail-storms on the Platte that stampeded the cattle, or the necessity of bearing to one side of the main traveled way to avoid cholera, or the delay of ten days at Crooked river and again at the Malheur by reason of sickness. Having met with Major Davis’ train of twenty-seven wagons on the Platte, and meeting him once more on Bear river, Colonel Bell abandoned the route through Sublett cut-off to California, and with Major Davis came via Raft river to Boise and to Oregon.
Arriving at Oregon City, he went back in November to The Dalles, then occupied by Major Tucker’s battalion, who were living wholly in tents, and had removed the old mission buildings preparatory to erecting the barracks. Being active in obtaining materials, he was the first to erect a building upon the present site of the city. Here he opened a store, bringing goods from Oregon City and other points on the Willamette. The spring following he closed out his stock, and buying thirty mules took a pack train from the Willamette to Yreka in prospect of the gold discoveries in the latter section. By this he was brought into the midst of Indian troubles, being requested at the Illinois river by Major Phil Kearney, then engaged near the Siskiyous in surveying out a military road, to raise a company and come to his assistance, as the Indians were threatening. Gathering fourteen men, he hastened to Major Kearney’s relief, incurring, on the way a running fight with the Indians. An irregular battle was brought on some days later, in which there was some skirmishing in the chaparral; and Colonel Bell’s little company made a charge, capturing fourteen of the enemy. The Indians were dispersed, and a number of fugitives were picked up, although by disregard of the Colonel’s advice the main band escaped. Much irregular warfare was carried on during 1851; and Colonel Bell sustained a notable part in the Siskiyou Mountains, and moving on to Yreka assisted Kearney to a loan of five thousand dollars.
The same spring he returned East with Mackay of Spring Valley, performing the journey at a time of the year when all the streams to the Rocky Mountains were so swollen as to be crossed only by swimming. In 1854, having disposed of his effects at his old home in Missouri, he determined to make Oregon his future home, and brought his family across the plains, having in his train fifteen horses and three hundred cattle, many of which were lost from eating poisonous herbs. Their journey was expeditious; and on the Platte they overtook various well-known pioneers, as Mrs. Peters and the Strattons. While not enduring great hardships, nor experiencing great dangers, they passed near the scene of the massacre of the Ward family, – Colonel Bell being among the number to search for the women of that ill-fated party, whom he found at some distance from the point where the first massacre occurred; One had her throat cut, another drawn by knives, and the third impaled upon a wagon iron, which had been heated red-hot for the purpose. This atrocious work, when known throughout the settlements, sent a thrill of horror and hate through the white population, and was one of the things that nerved the arms of the volunteers the next year.
Reaching Oregon once more, Colonel Bell prepared for a permanent home and business by buying a stock of goods and a store at Corvallis. He operated here in a mercantile line until 1857, removing then to Salem, where, for more than twenty-five years, he successfully conducted a store, carrying on an extensive trade. In 1884 he was appointed by President Cleveland as postmaster at Astoria, and has faithfully and ably conducted this office to the present time.
The Colonel has raised a family which have occupied a prominent position in the business and society of the communities in which they have lived; Laura W., the wife of Captain J.H.V. Gray, resides at Astoria; Anna, who married Mr. Jackson, is deceased; William T. is successfully engaged in business at Salem; John C. is deceased; Sarah, the wife of Walter E. Davis, of the well-known drug firm of Hodge, Davis & Co., resides at Portland; Alice P., Jennie V., and Robert E. are still at home.