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Revisionist Portland history

Amateur historian unearths new details about city's first non-native resident


PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: DEAN BAKER - Randall Trowbridge conducts historical research after work at his home office. Randall Trowbridge plays Chopin on his piano in his spare time, but his obsession is early Portland history. He traces the past for hours on his computer.

“I can’t get out of the 1840s,” he joked, speaking of his fondness for the composer, Frédéric François Chopin (1810-1849), and for Portland city history, dating back to 1843.

By trolling through thousands of pages of documents on his computer, Trowbridge has uncovered the life story of a mystery man, William P. Overton, a founder of Portland. He also unraveled intricate legal land ownership fights over who owned what became downtown Portland.

He has put another spin on those early years, on Overton’s role in the founding of the city, says Oregon historian Chet Orloff. “This is a corrective and it is healthy.”

“It’s like a really great detective story,” says renowned Portland architect and historian William J. Hawkins. “I do believe the story is there about a guy named Overton who kind of vanished and is being brought back to life.”

By day, Trowbridge, 40, is a computer specialist at Netxposure Inc. in downtown Portland.

Home at night in St. Johns, he’s tireless, digging online into the past, beginning before 1843. That was the year the illiterate Overton, a part-Creek Indian from Alabama, met the Boston lawyer Asa Lovejoy at Fort Vancouver. Together, the odd couple canoed over and staked out “the clearing,” a site that became Portland.

Trowbridge, who grew up in Missouri and always loved history, moved to Portland from San Francisco, when it became too expensive for him in 2001.

It seemed wrong to him that Overton helped clear the site for Portland and then disappeared. He decided to find out who this shadowy guy was. As Harvey Scott, an early historian, wrote: “This man Overton stalks through the twilight of these early annals like a phantom of perdition, so little is known of his history, character and fate.”COURTESY PHOTO - Portland's first post office with wood cut by William Overton.

“I read that and it became embedded in my psyche,” Trowbridge says. “It was this idea that this person, who was there before Lovejoy and Pettygrove, is this person who is just a name, and no one seems to know where he came from, where he went to. He was a mystery.”

The late Portland historian E. Kimbark MacColl wrote that Overton was the first European to live on the Portland site, made shingles and barrel staves and hailed from Tennessee.

“Those were the three things that anyone knew about him, and yet, he was the guy who started Portland,” Trowbridge says.

Disputing who owned downtown

He wanted to know more. Relentless, over many months, Trowbridge tracked Overton through ancient, handwritten journals and musty land transaction files.

Along the way, he found more of Overton’s story and also unearthed land disputes around Portland’s beginnings. The complex legal maneuvers and lawsuits involved a decade of court battles among Portland founders: Lovejoy, Francis Pettygrove, Job McNamee, William Chapman and Daniel Lownsdale.

Overton skipped out early. He sold Pettygrove his interest in the land that is now downtown Portland. Pettygrove joined with Lovejoy to plat the first 16 blocks of Portland in 1845.

While all the founders struggled over ownership of land — tangling with McNamee— in the original downtown of Portland, Benjamin Stark eventually came up the winner, Trowbridge says. He bought Lovejoy’s share in 1845.

Because of all the infighting, it’s unlikely that anyone made much of a profit off the land speculation until Stark entered the picture, Trowbridge says.

But Trowbridge reached back in the years before that, examining traces of many “William Overtons” before finding the right one, in Alabama in the 1830s. He found William traveling to Missouri and Oregon and on to Hawaii and back to Oregon again in the 1840s.

Trowbridge picked up an encouraging “wing man,” Dan Haneckow, the Powells book buyer and history blogger who writes “Café Unknown” online, detailing findings about Portland history. Haneckow consulted and urged him on.

The researchers found that Overton dipped in and out of Portland and got little credit for the founding of the city because he moved around a lot, and likely also because he was different in nature and culture from the two East Coast founders who were lawyers, businessmen and politicians. Lovejoy was from Boston, Pettygrove from Maine.

Overton had Southern roots and Native American blood, and he owned a slave in Alabama, Trowbridge says.

“He would have had a thick accent, and perhaps a dark complexion and would have definitely not been like Lovejoy at all,” he says. Overton was a wanderer and a carpenter, while Lovejoy and Pettygrove were patricians.

Using wagon train records

Both Overton and James Johns, the founder of modern St. Johns in North Portland, were among the pioneers on the 1841 Bartleson-Bidwell wagon train, the first emigrant group that used the Oregon Trail, Trowbridge found. It was by tracing Overton through wagon train records that Trowbridge came to know he was looking at the history of the right Willliam Overton.

The Bidwell party set out from Missouri for California, but about 90 members left the group at Soda Springs, Idaho, and came to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Overton and Johns were among those coming to Oregon.

Along the way, Overton stayed at the Whitman Mission in Eastern Washington and at The Dalles. He landed at Fort Vancouver when John McLoughlin was chief factor. That outpost swarmed with Native Americans, Kanaka Hawaiians, soldiers, fur trappers and sailors.

Overton and Lovejoy formed an alliance and canoed from Fort Vancouver down the Columbia and up the Willamette in 1843. They came to the forested site, which was home to Chinook Indians, but they claimed it for a townsite.

The area lay where today the homeless sleep, under the west end of the Morrison Bridge on the bank of the Willamette. The river was deep enough for ship traffic, the land suitable for building.

It was Overton who cut the first logs for the first building on the site, Portland’s first post office. Pettygrove finished the building, and got credit for the job.

The restless Overton had sold his share of the provisional land claim to Pettygrove, and gone on to Hawaii to seek his fortune. Over the next few years, he traveled back and forth from Hawaii to Fort Vancouver.

It was in 1845 when Pettygrove and Lovejoy famously tossed a coin in the parlor of the Francis Ermatinger House in Oregon City to give “the clearing” its name. Pettygrove wanted Portland for his hometown in Maine, and Lovejoy wanted Boston. Pettygrove won the toss.

Pettygrove didn’t live in Portland until 1846, and Lovejoy never lived in Portland until a few years in the 1860s, Trowbridge says. The fact they did not live on the land, as required to prove a land claim under federal law, was the basis under which McNamee attempted in court to take the land as his own, prompting extensive, arcane arguments for years.

It appears that late in the 1840s, Overton returned from Hawaii and may have staked out land claims on the east side of the Willamette in today’s Albina area. But from there his history vanishes.

A story arose decades later that Overton was hanged as a horse thief in Texas. But Orloff says that’s “an old saw. There is a tendency in Western history of stories getting repeated and then taking on an aura of truth, and that may have been a rumor started in his time, or much later.”

It’s a doubtful tale, Orloff said.

Trowbridge speculates that the founders of Portland sometimes told yarns, and may have had a reason to make up the hanging story in Overton’s case.

“What if he came back, or his relatives came back, and claimed some land?” he says. That would have made even more legal problems.

What became of Overton and where he died remains unknown, but Trowbridge is still investigating and hopes others will too.