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HON. ORVILLE CHARLES PRATT

 

 

HON. ORVILLE C. PRATT.--An eminent western jurist of whom it may well be said, without injustice either to the brilliant legal luminaries of today or to those distinguished advocates of justice who have passed to the great unknown, that he had few equals and no superiors--such an one was the late Hon. Orville C. Pratt. He was born in Ontario County, N. Y., on April 24, 1819. His preliminary education was received at Rushville, in his native county. Early in life he displayed a remarkable proficiency in mathematics and became a master of several branches of that science.
Orville C. Pratt, when about eighteen years of age, received from President Jackson an appointment to a cadetship in the United States Military Academy at West Point, which famous institution he entered as a member of the class of 1837. In those early days such an appointment was a recognition of marked ability and an acknowledgment of his great usefulness for the future. He remained at West Point but two years. Although ranking among the first in his class, he possessed but little taste for military studies, except those connected with higher mathematics. As the goal of his life was to become a lawyer, the career of an army officer could not satisfy the earnest desires of his nature. With his unusual talent as a forceful and convincing speaker, he knew himself to be especially fitted for a wider and more useful sphere. Subsequently he resigned from the army, where, if he had remained, he would doubtless have risen to a high rank as did many of his fellow cadets, among them being General Sherman.
After leaving West Point he entered the office of a very distinguished jurist and a leader of the bar of Albany, N. Y., Samuel Stephens, who had recognized his especial fitness for the legal profession. Two years later he was admitted to practice in the supreme court of the state of New York. At the age of twenty-one he began his professional career, opening an office in Rochester, N. Y. During the exciting presidential campaign of 1840, when President Van Buren was again the nominee of his party, Orville C. Pratt addressed large audiences in Western New York and in this way introduced himself to the public and acquired presence of mind and self-possession, so essential to success in the legal profession. Already he was recognized as a man of signal ability and brilliant promise. He entered into partnership with one of the leading attorneys of Rochester, Fletcher M. Haight, and the business was successfully conducted until 1842, when the senior partner withdrew.
Even in those very early days, the attention of many prominent men was directed towards the great western wilderness as the land were new states would soon be born. O. C. Pratt resolved to be in the vanguard of those daring and adventurous spirits who were already moving forward into that mysterious region. His first move westward was to Galena, Ill., where he opened an office in the latter part of the year 1843. After James K. Polk had been nominated for the presidency, in 1844, Mr. Pratt's services were in demand as a public speaker, for his fame as an orator had preceded his removal to Illinois. Proof of the high esteem in which he was held by the community, was evidenced by his election, in 1847, to membership of the convention which revised the first constitution of Illinois. Mr. Pratt took an active part in the convention, although he was one of the youngest members. Later he received from the hands of that famous courier, Kit Carson, a dispatch from the United States War Department, requesting him to proceed to Mexico, California and Oregon, to transact business of a confidential nature for the government. He started on his journey accompanied by sixteen men as an escort. During the trip the party encountered all the dangers and hardships incident to pioneer days, the journey being a continuous struggle with obstacles of nature and the hostility of savages. At Los Angeles they first heard of the discovery of gold and proceeded to Monterey, where Mr. Pratt transacted confidential business with the United States Consul. When he reached San Francisco, or as it was called in those days, Yerba Buena, a village of three or four hundred inhabitants, great excitement prevailed owing to the arrival of the first large consignment of gold. The merchants were busy shipping to the mines and receiving gold dust in exchange, at the rate of fourteen dollars per ounce. But Mr. Pratt's destination was Oregon, of which territory he had been appointed, by President Polk, as an associate justice of the supreme and district courts, in recognition of his services as confidential agent of the government.
At the time of Judge Pratt's arrival in Oregon, the people of the territory were in most unsettled condition, owing to the activity and depredations of the Indians. His comprehensive knowledge of the principles of jurisprudence inspired all with confidence in his judgment and uprightness. He administered the oath of office to the members of the first legislature of Oregon. He served with ability and distinction as a judge in Oregon until the spring of 1853. As a token of appreciation of his judicial career, the University of Oregon conferred on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.
Ever since his arrival on the Pacific Coast Judge Pratt conceived a strong preference for California as a permanent home. In June, 1856, he removed to San Francisco, where he engaged in the practice of law and soon acquired an extensive and lucrative practice, making a specialty of land cases. Later he was elected judge of the Twelfth Judicial District Court, for the City and County of San Francisco and County of San Mateo. His decisions are regarded as classics of the law, and his scrupulous regard for justice to all gained for him the confidence and high esteem of the district. In addition to his fame as a jurist, Judge Pratt manifested keen business acumen in his commercial transactions. An incident of his ability in this direction was the making of forty thousand dollars on a cargo of lumber. With a portion of his profits he built a vessel which was employed in the lumber trade. By judicious management his fortune assumed large proportions and after his removal to California he invested fifty-five thousand dollars in the purchase of the Aguas Frias Rancho, in Butte and Colusa Counties. It consisted of six square leagues (twenty-seven thousand acres) of alluvial land. From its acquisition until his death, in 1891, he passed a large part of his time there, and devoted himself to its improvement and intensive cultivation. Wheat, barley, hay and stock were the principal products.
In 1877, Judge Pratt was united in marriage with Mrs. Elizabeth Eugenia (Greene) Jones, the daughter of Dr. Greene, a former New York physician. She was a most estimable and refined woman, a native of New York, where she was reared. She survived her husband almost twenty years, dying on January 29, 1911. This union was blessed by the birth of one son, Orville C. Pratt, Jr., who was born in San Francisco, on December 19, 1882.
Judge Pratt was a life member of the Society of California Pioneers and was a liberal subscriber to many social and charitable organizations. The vigorous prosperity of California is directly traceable to the sturdy characters and untiring perseverance of its pioneers, who brought hither Eastern conservatism and practical experience to the aid of Western chaos and impetuosity. On the roll of these noble men, the name of Orville C. Pratt will always stand out most prominently.

 

Transcribed by Sande Beach.

Source: "History of Butte County, Cal.," by George C. Mansfield, Pages 428-430, Historic Record Co, Los Angeles, CA, 1918.


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