History of the Portland Proprietors
Discover your family's story.
Enter a grandparent's name to get started.
There were three that were usually termed the Portland proprietors, and who so far broadened and deepened the movements of things as to be called with some propriety the founders of the place-not, however, to the exclusion of any honors due to the first trio. Of these proprietors, the first on the scene was D. H. Lownsdale, whose name is most honorably perpetuated among us in the person of his son, J. P. O. Lownsdale. He was one of the representative men of the nation of half a century ago; intelligent, restless, and strongly patriotic, making the needs of his country an active motive in determining his choices. He was sprung from one of the old families of Kentucky, and at an early age moved with his wife to Indiana. On this remote frontier he was much distressed by the loss of his companion by death, and returned home, but soon went to Georgia, engaging in the mercantile business. In a few years, owing to failure of health, he traveled abroad, making a prolonged tour of Europe, and spent thus the time from 1842 to 1844. Returning to the United States he found the American public much excited upon the Oregon question, and with no hesitation decided to come to the Pacific shore, and help hold it against the aggressions of the British. Reaching the Columbia in 1845, he looked about for a location, and found none superior to that of Portland. He laid his claim as near the river as he was able, taking the place now owned by A. N. King. This was then a dense woods, much of the timber being hemlock. The presence of these trees and the abundance of hides in the territory, led Mr. Lownsdale to establish, as a means of livelihood, a tannery, upon the small creek which flowed along the eastern side of his claim, and which, from the fact of the business thus established has become known as Tanner’s Creek. This was the first leather making establishment of any importance on the coast and well nigh made Portland. Lownsdale was fully impressed with the value of Portland as a prospectively great city, and sought to gain a holding on the river front. In 1848 he found the opportunity. Lovejoy had sold his interest to Stark, and now Pettygrove was becoming so much shaken by ague as to desire to retreat to the coast. Lownsdale accordingly bought of the latter his whole interest, paying therefor $5000 in leather-specie not then being current in Oregon.
Being now owner of the whole site-afterwards coming to an agreement with Stark by which the latter had the triangular strip now included between Stark and A streets, and the river-Lownsdale set in operation as many plans as he could devise for the increase of the place. He sold lots at small prices, or even gave them away, for the sake of improvements. He saw quite early the need of a partner in this work and found the right man in Stephen Coffin, then of Oregon City, to whom he sold a half interest.
Coffin, who became during the troubled times of 1861-62 Brigadier-General of the Oregon Militia by appointment of Governor Gibbs, was one of those men of noble presence, fine bearing and generous feelings, for which the early days of our State were distinguished. He is described as possessing a most benevolent face and in his later years a crown of abundant white hair upon his head. He also was a “Down Easter,” having been born at Bangor, Maine, in 1807. While still young he went to Ohio, and as early as 1847 arrived in Oregon. The first two years of his life in our State were spent in hard work at Oregon City so successfully as to enable him to take advantage of Lownsdale’s offer.
In the autumn of the same year the third partner, William W. Chapman, was admitted to the partnership, making a very strong triumvirate. Chapman was a Virginian by birth. Early deprived by death of his father, he was left to make his own way in the world, with what assistance might, be rendered him by a kind brother and affectionate mother. He succeeded in gaining a substantial education and a recognized position as a lawyer before the Virginia Bar. While still young he went with his family to Iowa, and soon took the lead among the lawyers of that region-in a day so early that the Hawkeye State was still a part of Michigan. He was soon appointed U. S. District Attorney, and in this office made so good a record that when Iowa was set off as a separate Territory he was chosen delegate. At Washington he made his mark as the defender of Iowa’s claim to the strip of territory on the south border which was also desired and at length contested for by Missouri; and against heavy odds he was entirely successful. In the convention to form a constitution for Iowa upon its admission as a State, he was very influential and became the father of the measure to transfer the gift of public lands from public improvements (roads) to the use of public schools, and to provide for judges by popular election. Both these were new and untried measures, but have now been incorporated into the organic law of the Western and of even some of the Atlantic States. He was also, either in Congress or out of it, the originator of other important legislation, such as the pre-emption law for settlers.
He had come to Oregon in 1847, settling first at Corvallis and later at Salem. He was also much at Oregon City, and was making a study of the points most likely to rise to commercial importance. He was ultimately convinced that as at Portland transportation by water could most conveniently reach that by land, this must be the place for a city.
Of the company thus formed, Coffin was the President, and Chapman, Secretary, and the land was held as an undivided interest. Schemes for the growth of the place began to be elaborated, and all three of the men worked with untiring energy. The section was surveyed and platted. The new streets running north and south were made eighty feet wide. The river was examined, and at Swan Island a large log that was a menace to navigation in the narrow channel was removed.
It must not be supposed that simple natural advantages can ever make a city. It is pre-supposed that as much energy and intelligence are put forth in its interests as in that of some rival point. It is only by making the human factor equal to that in other places that the factor of better natural facilities is ever made preponderating. In the early days of Portland, the proprietors had to work like heroes day and night to hold their city up to its advantages. It had a number of exceedingly strong and pugnacious rivals. Oregon City was rather easily letting go the race for commercial supremacy, holding on confidently to its position as the political capital, but Milwaukie was coming into the race with great vigor. The proprietor, Lot Whitcomb, was a man of as much ambition as ever lived in Oregon, and had staked his last dollar and his whole hope of fortune upon the supremacy of the city that he had laid off on his claim. It was for him a serious matter to miss having the greatest city of the Pacific Coast upon his farm. In 1847 he began his operations, and in ’48 was greatly strengthened by the arrival at the place of Captain Joseph. Kellogg, who at once entered into his purpose to build the city. A sawmill was erected, and soon ships loaded with lumber and produce were dispatched from her wharf down the Coast to San Francisco. The avails of some of these trips were so great that a vessel, the old bark Lausanne, was purchased out of the profits. The transaction was made at San Francisco, and the bark happened to have at that time a pair of engines and all necessary machinery for a steamer, which were included in the bargain. Coming into possession of this steam engine, Whitcomb determined to build a river racer to make sure the advantages of his city. By Christmas day, 1850, his task was done, and the steamer Lot Whitcomb, amid the tumultuous rejoicing of the people, slid down the ways into the Willamette. She was a first-class, commodious boat, staunch and moderately swift, and at once began making a trip to Astoria, charging $15 fare, and passing by Portland, as she steamed to and fro, without so much as giving a salute.
St. Helens was also a formidable rival. The Pacific Mail Steam-ship Company, who first made Astoria their stopping point, soon bought at St. Helens a large land interest and made this the terminus of their line. By the terms of existing navigation in the winter of ’50-’51, Milwaukie was the head of river and St. Helens the head of ocean steam navigation; and Portland was left forlornly in the midst unprovided for. But before seeing how the proprietors extricated themselves from this difficulty it would be more accordant with chronology, and indeed the order of growth, to see what class of citizens and what improvements were being added to the city.
During the summer of 1849 the rush to the gold mines became so general that the city was well nigh depopulated, but three men remaining within its limits. These were Lownsdale, Warren and Col. King. This out-going tide was necessarily calculated to leave Portland high and dry on her alluvium. But there is never an ebb that is not followed by a flow, and the autumn of that year, and the winter following, saw the Portlanders flocking back again. Losses were more than made up, and the “dust” from California set in motion the wheels of enterprise in a wonderful way. We are told that “the year passed out and 1850 was enthroned with brighter promise. The prices of wheat, flour, lumber, fruit and vegetables, went up to fabulous figures in San Francisco and Oregon began to reap a splendid harvest from her fertile soil. By and by, too, the miners began to return. They were not much to look at-tanned, tattered, inhabited, maybe, but under their frowsy gaberdines was a complete mail of money belts, and they were just as good as gold. Business revived and enterprise got upon its legs.
Besides Chapman and Coffin, there was a considerable number of new men who added force and brain to the little community. Deacon Homan M. Humphrey, who gave name to Humphrey’s Mountain by taking there his claim, settled in 1849. A descendant of an old Eastern family, he had for some years before coming to Oregon been a pioneer of Iowa, and incorporated in his character the inflexible virtues of his ancestry and the added facility and adaptability of mind gained from Western life. Thomas Carter located his claim a little later, and one Jones, farther up the canyon, made his beginning on the land now occupied by the Poor Farm.
Religious societies began to be formed. Rev. George H.. Atkinson, whose name will always be known in Oregon as one of the most able and self-denying of her missionaries and pioneers of civilization, had come to Oregon the year before and located at Oregon City. While attending to his own field, he was also seeking to establish churches at other points, and for the work at Portland was urging his society to provide a pastor. Designated for this field was Rev. Horace Lyman, together with his wife, who sailed from New York in November, 1848, on the bark Whitton>, making the passage around Cape Horn in six months to San Francisco. From that city they voyaged up to the Columbia Bar on the Toulon, which was a month ‘ or more on the water, often rocking on the idle swells and lying too, in the murk of a very smoky autumn, waiting for a west wind, and at length running upon a sand flat once inside the breakers. Up the rivers to Portland they were accommodated on the prim little Sarah McFarland, while the brig worked up on the tides so slowly that the passengers had ample time to go ashore and hunt bear, or go fowling for geese and ducks. Mr. Lyman was from Massachusetts, born in 1815 at East Hampton; an alumnus of William’s College, and of Andover Theological Seminary. Arrived in Portland, he found accommodations for himself and wife in a building erected to serve as a stable. The first winter was spent by him in teaching school and in preaching, and making ready for a church organization and a church building. He was exceedingly active in religious, educational, benevolent and temperance enterprises, and soon became known over the whole State as among the foremost in these endeavors. He cleared with his own hands the ground occupied by the First Congregational Church at Second and Jefferson streets.
Even more widely known was the first Methodist minister, Father Wilbur, who arrived upon the scene at about the same time. He was a New Yorker, having been born at Lowville in that State in 1811. This was out in the wilderness in those distant days, and as he grew up the boy had the struggle to make with labor and self-denial. By his Presbyterian parents he was rigorously brought up; taught that the chief end of man was not in the trifling pleasures of the world. With this creed he was not, during his younger days, in full accord, but bent himself to the acquisition of fortune and the accomplishment of secular ends. At the age of twenty-nine, however, but a month after his marriage, he gave up wholly his worldly aims and offered himself to preach the Gospel. His services were accepted by the Methodist Episcopal Church, and he was licensed to exhort. Having obtained a fair academic education, he was able to perform satisfactory work, and labored with much zeal and fidelity in the Black River Conference. In 1846 he was sought as a missionary to Oregon. He came by way of Cape Horn, and was accustomed, to perform labors on the vessel for the sake of relieving the tedium of physical inaction. Arriving in Oregon, June 27, 1847, he passed by Portland, in its woods, to Salem, and at that place and Oregon City remained two years. After this he was appointed to the Portland circuit. Being a man of great physical force and power, he not only did the work of pastor, but also performed much manual labor. His toils at that early day are well described by Rev. H. K. Hines in the following language: “Stalwart and strong, the great forest that stood where the church (Taylor Street) now stands, fell before his axe. Versatile and resolute, the walls of the old church and academy rose by his saw and hammer, or grew white and beautiful under the sweep of his brush. Tireless and evangelical, Sunday listened with gladness to his earnest preaching of the Gospel. Poverty was fed at his table. Weariness rested on his couch. Sickness was cured by his medicine.”
An ambitious man, full of plans and endeavors for the promotion of religious and humane enterprises, Father Wilbur was a central figure in the community in which he aged. He was one of the radical men of the early days.
Another man noted for his urbanity, generosity, and ability was Hiram. Smith. He came to Oregon first in 1845, as a sort of scout of civilization, to spy out the new promised land for the restless millions behind. He was sometimes known ‘as “Red Shirt Smith,” to distinguish him from the other Smiths, who bore such pseudonyms as “Chickamin,” “Carving Knife;” “Three Fingered,” or “Blubber Mouth.” Such soubriquets as these were by no means a sign of contempt, but rather a mark of familiarity and good fellowship, and illustrates how the early pioneers enlivened their difficult circumstances by broad humor. In 1849 he dispatched goods by way of Cape Horn, in the care of his brother Isaac, and a store was established at Portland in 1850. Himself with a large company came across the plains in 1851. Captain Smith, as he was frequently called, was a man of much business experience, having been a manufacturer of fanning mills in Ohio, and was wealthy, having acquired a fortune of one hundred thousand dollars. He used much of his money in coming to Oregon, and in assisting immigrants. During one season lie went out toward the Snake River with a supply of provisions to meet the incoming train of immigrants, but found so many of them destitute of means, and being unable to refuse any of them, whether rich or poor, the necessaries they so greatly needed, he finally gave away the most of his flour and beef, without money or price. Some of those benefitted finally paid him; as a man who came into town a few years later bringing to his store an enormous dressed hog as principal and interest, and also unburdened himself of a long meditated apology for having cursed him because he had not been allowed more. But many never did. To the poor and unfortunate in the city Hiram Smith was a sort of angel of deliverance, and made a special point of putting broken or dispirited men on their feet once more. Since his death unknown benevolences have come to light, and his gifts during the Oregon Indian wars, for the relief of, settlers and wounded soldiers, and his fund placed at service in his old home in Ohio for the widows of soldiers of the War of the Rebellion, reflect a world of credit not only upon his own name, but no less upon Portland.