REPRESENTATIVE AND LEADING
MEN OF THE PACIFIC
JAMES WILLIS NESMITH.
By THE EDITOR.
This early pioneer of Oregon occupies a prominent place among the representative men of the Pacific Coast. He is one of the few surviving public men who sought the extreme west, impelled more by the love of adventure than by a thirst for fame or fortune. He came to these shores when a very young man, long before the discovery of gold in California, and made his home in Oregon, where he has passed the greater portion of his life.
His remote paternal ancestors migrated from Argyleshire, in Scotland, and settled in Ireland, in the province of Ulster, about the year 1612. His great, great grandfather, James Nesmith, emigrated from the valley of the river Bann, in North Ireland, to America, in 1718. He was one of the first sixteen settlers in the town of Londonberry, New Hampshire. In this town the father of James Willis, their only child, was born July 23d, 1820. His mother died when he was but eight months old. At the age of nine years, the boy was thrown upon his own resources, his father, who was a merchant and trader, having been unfortunate and reduced to poverty some years previous. By hard work of various kinds he kept himself above want. At the age of fifteen he walked the entire distance from Brooks, Maine, to Aeworth, New Hampshire. In summer, whenever he could find employment, he worked upon farms, and devoted his winters to study at the district school.
When eighteen years old he left Clearmont, New Hampshire, with all his worldly goods packed upon his back, and twenty-five dollars in pocket, and traveled on foot to Albany, New York. Thence he proceeded, partly on canal boats and partly on steamboats as a deck passenger, to Cincinnati, Ohio. Here his funds gave out. He obtained employment as a farm hand near the Queen City, and continued for some time to work at his old occupation, receiving twelve dollars per month for his services. When the “melancholy days” returned, he was no longer required upon the farm, and was compelled to look elsewhere for work. He soon secured a new “engagement” to cut cordwood, at fifty cents per cord.
From 1838 until the spring of 1843, Mr. Nesmith followed a sort of nomadic life in the States of Illinois, Missouri and Iowa. During this period he learned the carpenter trade, at which occupation, being of a mechanical turn of mind, he became very proficient. During the latter part of 1842 and the beginning of 1843, the young carpenter assisted in the construction of Fort Scott, now in the State of Kansas.
In the spring of the latter year a number of men were preparing to emigrate to Oregon from Missouri. Mr. Nesmith determined to join them. He had concluded that his prospects of acquiring a competence by hard labor were dismal; and as he loved the adventures incident to a frontier life, he gladly embraced the opportunity which now offered to penetrate the solitudes of the wilderness, and explore the vast unknown regions which stretched to the west of the Missouri. The party started overland from Independence. Among its members were Peter H. Burnett, afterwards first Governor of the State of California, Pierson B. Redding, Samuel J. Hensley, and others who have attained distinction in the States of the Pacific. Being expert with the rifle and the shot-gun, Mr. Nesmith hunted for a mess of six or eight men, whom he kept supplied with meat in regions where any game could be found. He arrived with his companions in the valley of the Willamette, Oregon, October, 1843. For two or three years thereafter he worked at the carpenter’s trade. Soon after his arrival he determined to prepare himself for the legal profession. While following his trade he devoted his leisure hours to reading law.
In 1846, Mr. Nesmith was married, and settled on a farm, which he cultivated for about two years. He appears to have always cherished a fondness for the life and labors of a husbandman. But it was appointed that he should not remain secluded from the observation of his fellow men. From 1846 until 1866 he served the Territory and State of Oregon in many and varied capacities. During that period and since, he has also been engaged in many varieties of business pursuits: farming, milling and merchandising have alternately received his attention.
In 1848, he was a captain in the expedition against the Indians of Middle Oregon, during what was known as the “Cayuse War.” In the latter part of that year he visited California, and worked for more than twelve months in the gold mines.
In 1853, he served as captain in the war with the Indians of Southern Oregon.
In 1853 and 1854, he was United States Marshal for Oregon.
In 1856, he commanded a regiment during the war with the Yackama Indians in north-eastern Oregon and Washington Territory.
In 1857 and 1858, he was Superintendent of Indian affairs for Oregon and Washington Territory.
His patience and ability displayed in the management of the complicated concerns of this department, attested his practical wisdom and absolute integrity.
When the memorable controversy arose between President Buchanan and Senator Douglas, Mr. Nesmith adhered to the views expressed by the latter, to whose course and conduct he gave a hearty endorsement. Though holding a federal office, his sentiments concerning the events then disrupting the Democratic party were candidly asserted, without malice yet without reserve.
In June, 1860, President Buchanan removed him from the office he had held for more than three years, and in the administration of which he had given so much satisfaction. Three months had not elapsed thereafter, when the people of Oregon selected him to represent them in the national councils.
The Legislature of that State convened in September, being divided into three nearly equal elements— the Douglas Democrats, Administration Democrats, and Republicans, with the first-named party in a small plurality. After a few ineffectual ballots, Mr. Nesmith was elected United States Senator for the full term of six years from the forth of March, 1861. Col. E. D. Baker was chosen for the short term of five years. During his Senatorial term, Mr. Nesmith served on the committees on Military Affairs, Commerce and Revolutionary Claims. He was a “War Democrat,” and supported most of Mr. Lincoln’s measures for the suppression of the Rebellion. He opposed the Emancipation Proclamation on the ground that the Constitution did not warrant its issuance. He believed President Johnson’s policy of reconstruction was right, and endorsed it. He sympathized warmly with Mr. Johnson in his disputes with Congress. In the last Presidential election he supported Seymour and Blair, and the weight of his name and influence, in that election, probably turned the well-balanced scales in favor of the Democracy in Oregon.
Mr. Nesmith is an earnest and forcible, though not an eloquent speaker. He never wearies his auditors, and has no difficulty in engaging their attention, no matter to what subject he addresses himself. His bold, plain and emphatic utterances carry the conviction that he is a practical and truthful man. He is a devoted son of the State where he has so long lived, and his popularity is very great throughout the new north-west. The speech which follows this sketch, in which he urged upon Congress the necessity of establishing a branch of the United States Mint at Dalles City, Oregon, will be found interesting on account of the view it presents of the mineral resources of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, while his humorous attacks on the principal enemy of his favorite measure render its perusal anything but monotonous.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Shuck, Oscar T., “Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific”, Bacon & Co., Printers & Publishers, San Francisco, 1870. Pages 439-443.
© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
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