Oregon Pioneer Biographies



By Roger Knowles Thompson


An article from the St. Helens newspaper March 17, 1893:


"John Bonser of Sauvies Island, who died a few days ago at the age of 90 years, was, perhaps, the first man who successfully floated a boat over the Cascade Falls. When he and his party of immigrants reached that point by boat from the Dalles, they were confronted with the difficulty of making the portage around that obstruction to navigation. He determined to load a bateau (contemporary accounts say it was a flatboat) with their household effects and send it over the rapids. In order to do this, he cut a tree, took the bushy portion of the top, and lashed the boats to this and set them adrift. They went through safely, and were picked up below. The tree prevented the boat from being twirled around and upset. This bit of early history was told by the deceased pioneer himself to our informant many years ago."

The party arrived relatively unscathed at Linnton December 12, 1847. They were able to rent the old Jimmy Johns cabin and its cleared land at Linnton, and settle in for the winter. Stephen D. and Hilton Bonser had set out to drive the stock overland down the banks of the Columbia from the Dalles, distance of about ninety miles. This was a hazardous procedure at best, with most of the stock usually being lost to the weather or Indians. However, they arrived at Linnton safely in January, not losing a head.

As early as possible that spring, crops were put in, and John and Rebecca were able to fatten up the stock. Many of the late stragglers of 1847 and those who came in later waves were in bad shape and needed immediate help, and John and Rebecca had cash specie, a rare commodity at that time and place. It was said they loaned to all without regard to ability to repay. They put in what John called the" settlers's" garden and reserved a portion of their herd as the "settler's" share. Later in life he said that he had lent more than $3500, some never repaid, but that for many years, people he hadn't seen in years would send small amounts of money or press it into his hand on the street. John was not unique in his support of the later immigrants, but was one of the few who had cash, which could be traded for supplies at Ft. Vancouver or Oregon City.

John's family had all crowded into the cabin that first winter, but they soon were traveling through the territory and into the Willamette Valley looking for land.

The Donation Land Claim Law of 1850 allowed a married couple to take up to a full section of land provided they lived on it and developed it, and in anticipation, John settled on a piece of land on the south bank of the Columbia, at Sauvies Island with its rich alluvial land, abundant wild hay, and access to river transport.

Sauvies Island is the largest river island in the United states, and is about fourteen miles long and four miles wide at the widest point .It had been the site of unusually large Indian populations well into pre history, and was rich with wild camas and wappato root which were a staple of Indian diet. The numerous inland lakes on the island were choked with fish particularly the giant Sturgeon, and the rivers themselves, were a source of salmon and steelhead. An early Sauvies island settler tells of a Sturgeon so big, that when laid over the back of a horse, the head and tail touched the ground on opposite sides. Others told of standing on the banks of the Columbia during the great salmon runs, and seeing the glinting and flashing of the fish all the way across the river. They said it appeared one could walk across on their backs.

In anticipation of territorial status which was to be granted that year, and the authorization of congress to confirm claims, several pieces of land, both on the Island and in the Willamette valley were registered. Each of the young men also applied for claims, some at Oak Island at Sauvies island, and others on the northern shore of the Columbia. In 1850 The Donation land act was passed as expected, authorizing a half section of land to each man and another to his wife if married.

It is interesting to note that none of these claims could be finalized until the territory was surveyed and a final treaty with Britain could nullify the claims of the earlier British inhabitants. The treaty was not signed until 1860, and by then a mishmash of claims, counter claims, boundary disputes and claim jumping was making the lawyers at Ft. Vancouver very happy. Most of the Bonser men were to be later involved in litigation.

In 1848 the excitement of the gold fields swept Oregon and most of the able-bodied men disappeared to California over night. John himself never held with "gold chasing," but some of the Bonser men to include Stephen, were to have some success in California.

In the spring of 1850 a large cabin was built on a knoll to avoid the annual floods, and added to for the next several years. It was to become a rambling structure capable of housing both a large family and guests, and several years later another frame house was built just below the first. The claim and cabin were located at what was to be later called Willow Bar on the northeastern shore.

A letter to the Oregon Historical Society by Paul M. Reeder, Sauvies Island Historian and later the President of the Oregon Historical Society; "The lower Bonser home was built in an "L" shape with a porch on the front, as the one in the picture, but on a knoll to keep it above water."

John and Rebecca had registered a claim in Lane County Oregon, but the claim was never settled and later claimed by others. John Ferguson and John Shoemaker, his nephews who had come with them, did settle in the Willamette Valley, and raised large and respected families.

The next several years were eventful ones. Oregon was fast passing into the hands of the American settlers and counties, voting districts, and courts were being formed as quickly as possible, and in 1852 Columbia County was formed. The southeast corner of the county was formed at the southeast corner of John's claim, and he later served in many county offices, serving as Captain and viewer of his voting district and signing many petitions for local improvements. His name appears on many petitions addressing the issues of the time (the earliest county government was in petitionary form), and John was appointed a county Commissioner in 1854.

The Bonser home was a popular gathering place on the river, his hospitable nature and prosperity, several beautiful young daughters, all contributing to a constant stream of visitors. John was noted for his interest in horse racing, and cleared a track on the northern portion of his farm adjacent to what is still called Racetrack Lake. He had several good horses, and race meets were frequent. His horse" Patriot" was the chief rival to "Old George," another noted horse of the time, and it appears the rivalry was a hot topic in the early community. He was also noted for the quality of his cattle. Bancroft's history of Oregon says the stock he brought "did much to improve the livestock in the Oregon country."

The Bonsers had taken in several young women of the Lee family who had been orphaned, and with John's own marriageable daughters, The Sauvies Island homestead drew a swarm of men from throughout the area. Congress had unwittingly created a marriage market with the passage of the donation land act, which stipulated any married woman could also make claims. No young girl over the age of twelve was safe from the stampede of young farmers wanting to add another half section to their land. The suitors appeared to get out of hand per the Oregon Spectator in October of 1851.

On to Page Three of John Bonser's Biography

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Copyright © 1998 by Jan Phillips

Last updated 21 August 2014.