John Minto swimming
across the Columbia RIver in the spring of 1845
Compiled and Published by the North Pacific History Company of Portland, Oregon
JOHN MINTO. - While Oregon was held to freedom and the American union against the magnified sprit of despotism of England, as exemplified in the Hudson's Bay Company's rule, in the valley of the Columbia, it is worthy of note that an Englishman made as good an American, and, in the capacity of settler, would do as much for American independence, as one born in Massachusetts or Virginia. In point of fact, many of the best Americans in Oregon were born in England, and proved in their career that American ideas, after all, are not so much a matter of birth or inheritance as the outgrowth of a grand principle which suits the real nature of the most complete minds of all nations. Mr. Minto, a man of great native force and boldness, with a penetrating and inquiring mind, of marked business ability, and much various culture, is a perfect illustration of this fact; and, indeed, he has been so much of an American settler that Oregon without him would not be Oregon.
He was born at the town of Wylam, near Newcastle-on-Tyne, England, October 10, 1822, the family name coming from Scotland, in the person of his grandfather. He crossed the ocean to the United States in 1840, as a member of his father's family, who settled at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and engaged in coal-mining. Very soon after is arrival in this country, young Minton began to hear or see newspaper allusions to Oregon; and, before the close of the year, he declared to intimate friends that "He would go to Oregon if he ever got the chance." In February, 1844, from a plethora of coal on the market, prices were low and ill paid; and a miners' strike was the result. Hoping either to find opportunity to get land under the pre-emption laws, or, that failing to get employment in the lead mines, Minto started from Pittsburgh to Dubuque, Iowa. The boat on which he was ascending the Mississippi stopped over night at St. Louis; and he there learned of companies forming on the Upper Missouri for emigration to Oregon. Immediately making such an outfit of rifle, ammunition, fishing-tackle, etc., as his means would allow, he took boat for the rendezvous.
On arriving at Gilliam's camp, he was directed to R.W. Morrison, as a party who needed assistants for crossing the plains, and was soon engaged to him in that capacity. On the emigrants forming their military organization, of which Gilliam was the elective head and Morrison one of the captains, Minto was chosen as corporal; but on the sickness of Willard H. Rees, also of Morrison's party, who was orderly sergeant, Minto filled that position until the companies ceased to observe their military rules. On the arrival of the train at Fort Hall, Minto, in company with S.B. Crockett and Daniel Clark, with the full consent of their captains, Morrison and Shaw, left the trains and came forward in advance to the Willamette valley. For this there were two reasons; First, every consumer of food whose services could be dispensed with did a good service to their friends by leaving them and such supplies as yet remained for their families; second, at this point a communication was received from Hon. P.H. Burnett, of the previous year's emigration, saying, "If from any cause there is need of assistance, and the fact is made known in the Willamette settlements, relief will be sent." There was cause of apprehension of suffering, as some families were short of supplies before reaching Fort Hall. In some cases this was caused by improvidence; but the general cause was the slow progress made during the first three months after starting, by reason of rainy weather, and the fact that Colonel Gilliam did not seem to appreciate the importance of traveling whenever possible. Many were dissatisfied with his dilatory course.
The three young men made their way to the Willamette valley settlements without bringing any special appeal for the relief of their friends. they worked about a month while waiting for the latter to reach The Dalles, having meanwhile successfully applied to Doctor John McLoughlin for the use of a bateau with which to return and assist them down the river. The good doctor kindly broke his own rules of trade and opened his store at Vancouver in order to furnish the three lads the means of subsistence during the trip. It was but a trifle, and not "a boatload of provisions," as Bancroft has it; and Minto was in no sense "the leader of the party" thus going to assist their friends. They were equals in every respect; and when they met the train it was only Minto's share of the little joint stock of provisions that he gave to Mrs. Morrison, whom he met at the Cascades entirely destitute of anything to eat in her camp; while her husband, Captain Morrison, was snow-bound near the base of Mount Hood in his attempt to get the cattle of his company and those of Captain Shaw across the Cascades via the Indian trail on the north side of the mountain. Morrison extricated himself and stock by driving them back to The Dalles, where they wintered well, and whence Minto drove them the next spring to the Washougal bottoms, by swimming them to the north side of the Columbia below the mouth of Hood river, and driving them down the river trail to the Washougal.
That service filled a verbal contract made with Mr. Morrison within five minutes of their first meeting at the Missouri home of the latter, and which was lived up to in letter and spirit by both parties, and took a full year's time. The bargain was that Mr. Morrison should board Minto, and Minto would help Morrison to get his family and stock to Oregon. Mr. Morrison bettered his part of the bargain by the gift of a yoke of oxen and chain, which, with his two hands, and an axe purchased at St. Louis, was Minto's capital in starting his business life in Oregon. He had all to earn, but was chiefly anxious to perform well the duties of citizenship. His labor life gave him no trouble.
He had made his declaration of intention of citizenship in Washington county, Pennsylvania, in 1843. He crossed the plains with Americans, as an American, and cast his first vote at Oregon City for George Abernathy, an American candidate for governor under the Provisional government of Oregon. Strange as it may seem, in these days of tax-dodging, he actually was for many years proud to pay his taxes. During early years in Oregon he was a Democrat in the fuller sense of that word than as a mere partisan. Without taking an active part in partisan politics, he noted carefully their drift, and, as the slavery question grew in importance, was strongly opposed to that peculiar institution, but was a supporter of Douglas in his theory that the citizens of a territory and embryo state had as inherent right to shape their own local laws. But he would by no means submit to a partisan rule which placed himself and others in virtual bondage.
A few weeks before the Charleston convention, at which the division of the Democratic party occurred, a precinct meeting was held at Salem. The Democrats, then regnant in Oregon, had under consideration what was known as the "Eighth Resolution," which virtually bound in anticipation all there to support whoever should be nominated. The proposition seemed about to pass as usual, when Minto rose to his feet and said: "Mr. Chairman, I desire to say that I will not vote for that resolution, and will not be bound by it, even though it be carried by a majority of this convention." To the question, "why," he said: "I will tell the gentleman why. Before the nominations are made, to effect which this is the beginning, and before a policy can be declared by the delegates you will to-day elect, the Charleston convention will have met; and all indications point to a division of the Democratic party into pro-slavery and anti-slavery parties. I wish to say here and now, that no resolution that this meeting can pass shall force me to vote for slavery when I have a choice of voting for freedom." This incident is given as characteristic, and as probably being the cause of Minto's nomination two years later - a representative of loyal, adopted citizenship - as member of the state legislature, - a position which he has held three times from Marion county, and virtually refused once in 1874, by declining the nomination of the Republicans, with whom he has generally affiliated since the Civil war.
As an Oregon yeoman, Minto's life has been that of a pioneer, student and experimentalist, his interest being to find the grains, grasses, fruits or domestic animals best adapted to the climatic and other conditions of Oregon, this being to him as satisfactory compensation as making money by some special line of certainly profitable application had been to others. This life of experiment and observation, joined with some facility in telling what he has learned, has brought him into prominence among his fellow-citizens; and consequently he is found among the first exhibitors of fine fruits and improved breeds of stock. It was probably at his house that the first Farmers' Club ever formed in Oregon met in 1853. It was on his farm that three prominent families of the world-famous Merino sheep were brought together in 1860 and interbred, nearly one hundred years after their departure from Spain. The French and American improved Spanish families came to Oregon by importation from Vermont; and MacArthur's Australian descendants of the royal gift of the King of Spain to King George III. of England came via Sydney and San Francisco. In the particular line of breeding of sheep he deemed the best adapted to Oregon, Minto has been prominent since he first owned sheep in 1849, and has given his experience most freely to others. While making sheep-breeding for improvement of wool-growing flocks his own chosen specialty, he has been broad enough to take cognizance of other lines of improvement; so that, in the management of the Oregon State Agricultural Society, his counsel was always valued, its most successful years being the two years of Mr. Minto's secretaryship. During that period the society paid all premiums and running expenses, and, besides putting down a large number of driven wells on the fair grounds, paid over two thousand dollars in experimenting with an artesian well. They also printed a pamphlet of over one hundred pages descriptive of the resources of Oregon, for the purpose of inducing immigration, at a cost of fifteen hundred dollars, and gave a bonus of sixteen hundred dollars to the publishers of the Willamette Farmer, on condition that the board of directors select the editor for the first year. Mr. Minto was elected to that position.
In other lines of action he has not flinched a citizen's duty. Though very poor, and but recently married when the war with the murderers of Doctor Whitman was forced upon the pioneer settlers, he joined the company of Levi Scott, which was detailed to attempt to pass to California in the winter of 1847-48 as escort to Honorable Jesse Applegate, who was sent by Governor Abernethy to make the condition of the settlements of Oregon known to the United States through the commandant of the United States troops then operating in California, and to get ammunition, if possible, with which to prosecute the war, the Hudson's Bay Company having refused to sell to the settlers. The effort failed by reason of deep snows in the Siskiyou Mountains after a portion of the company who volunteered to pass on snowshoes, of whom Minto was one, suffered some sharp experiences. During the raid of the Snakes and Piutes in Eastern Oregon in 1878, Minto left Salem with a half dozen repeating rifles sent by friends of parties at Heppner, and an order on Judge Savage for twenty stand of needle guns with ammunition for the settlers on Rock creek, who were right in the line of march that General Howard's order, published in the Oregonian of July 4th, said the Indians would take. Members of his family were there exposed; and Minto had been in the settlement the previous summer when Joseph's raid began in the Wallowa country; and he knew that the people needed more than anything else arms to defend themselves.
In relation to one other subject, Minto's name may be mentioned, namely, the discovery or re-discovery of the natural pass over the Cascade Range now adopted as the line of the Oregon Pacific Railroad east from the Willamette. In following the waters of the North Santiam river to their sources, at the summit of the range, Minto proved himself, says Chief Engineer Eccleson of the Oregon Pacific Railway Company, " a natural engineer," and discovered the best natural railroad pass yet known across the range. It was done in obedience to the order of his (Marion) county authorities; and if the name given to a certain grass-covered mountain overhanging the railroad line, and immediately south of Mount Jefferson, should be permanent, Mr. Minto will have a grand natural monument transmitting the memory of his mountaineering. At the age of sixty-seven he still takes interest in every means of developing the resources of Oregon, from the summits of her mountains to three leagues at sea. Mr. Minto's home is at Salem, Oregon.