Oregon Pioneer Biographies



By Roger Knowles Thompson


By the middle 1850's steamboats became a common sight from the Bonser front porch, and by the 1860's, local steamers were routinely stopping at the landings in front of the farms along the Columbia and the Willamette Slough. It became possible to ship farm goods to Portland and Vancouver on a regular basis, and to pass more easily to those cities for supplies.

John though still exceptionally energetic, did not prosper during this time as he had earlier in Illinois and Ohio. The earliest settlers had been able to sell their produce to new immigrations, but the wagon trains began to taper off by the late 1850's and the San Francisco market supporting the gold rush had dried up, and there was a general malaise in the Oregon economy based on lack of transport to large markets. It had also become clear that the eastern claims on the island were not suited to the intensive truck gardening and wheat cultivation that became possible in the latter half of the 19th century. The Bonser land was well suited to stock raising and dairying, with extensive reaches of wild hay, but the annual floods inactivated the land from four to six weeks each spring and occasionally the floods were considerable. Sometimes the water flooded most of the island, destroying many improvements and whatever stock which could not be moved to high ground. Modern dairying equipment such as separators, which enabled the milk to be processed at the source before shipment, were not introduced until the late 1870's and the many productive new breeds of dairy cattle were not available until about 1880. John's nephew Hilton Bonser had purchased the Johnson donation claim immediately upriver of John's farm and West of the Reeder place. The Hilton Bonser farmland was more suited to a variety of cash crops and in conjunction with the original claim, which was most suitable for cattle and dairying, the family's operation became more profitable. Hilton established a large family and a successful farm, which still produces crops today.

Clinton Bonser after spending a successful time in California had married Mary Ann McQuinn, who had come into the McQuinn Donation Claim and they successfully farmed this claim on the higher ground along the Willamette Slough. He was later to buy property on the banks of the slough near Scapoose, which became the home farm.

John and Rebecca were good friends with many on the Washington side of the river. Rebecca's sister was married to Ira Patterson, a respected farmer and an early representative in the Legislature, and they were especially close. Rebecca was also a special friend of the wife of Judge Columbia Lancaster, and the Peter Crawfords were visited often at the Lewis river settlements. Rebecca Bonser was a trained midwife and local healer and was often called out to tend the sick, and her skills were well known as far as Vancouver. She kept a medicinal herb garden near the house, and dried many for later use.

Sauvies Island had once been home to a number of Indian villages, one of the largest at Willowbar near the Bonser claim, and been the center of a very large Indian population. Between 1800-1840 however, the newcomer's diseases such as Measles and scarlet fever had decimated the villages, and the early settlers talk of piles of unburied bones at the old village sites. During certain times of the year however, family bands from other areas and tribes were still a common sight. They would come to harvest the wappato which grew in the shallow island lakes, and it was a common sight to see an Indian woman clinging to the side of a canoe as they felt with their feet for the tubers.

While the settlers and Indians normally avoided each other, there could be problems. Bands of young Indian "toughs" were particularly annoying and sometimes dangerous. A homestead with no one home would be found ransacked when the owner returned, and crimes at the isolated homesteads, rightly or wrongly, were sometimes blamed on them. A family story tells of a time when the men were away and Rebbecca and her children received an unwelcome visit. She locked herself and the children in the cabin while the visitors went through the outbuildings and threatened her through the door. They finally ripped the door off it's leather hinges, but Rebecca was able to keep them at bay by throwing ladles of boiling water at those who tried to enter. The armed men returned about this time and the assailants melted away.

The Bonser life style is well described in various memoirs, and was typical of frontier life, the rambling two story house with a fireplace in every room, was filled with home made furniture and was designed to withstand flooding. The families living on the farm were sometimes required to move everything to the second floor until the flood waters subsided, after which the lower floors were cleaned and normal life resumed. Some of the barns and silos were built on stilts as were some of the outbuildings, and the boat landings were built at several different heights to account for water levels. A bunkhouse for hired hands was above the main house and a special building was set aside near the John Bonser house for several large looms and was a favorite gathering place for the family's ladies. Glass windows were never installed in the original house and the windows were closed with shutters.

All the frontier skills were practiced soap making, spinning, weaving, and food preservation. Everything was made on site and John even had a forge and smithy. He was known to build his own boats and usually had two or three of various sizes bobbing at the landing.

In 1862 one of the young daughters, Abigail, was married to William Casto, and soon the young couple determined to move North to the Squak Valley near Seattle. They were among the first settlers in the area and established a successful business manufacturing hoop poles. Shortly after Elizabeth was married, and move to Vancouver. Stephen Decataur Bonser, the oldest son, had moved to his own land on Sauvies Island, and James Halstead Bonser had taken a claim in eastern Oregon.

In November of 1864 word was brought to John that his beloved daughter, Abigail, her husband, and a nephew of Rebecca's John Halstead, had been murdered by the Indians, and John and a son went to the Seattle area with vengeance in mind. There was nothing to be done however, as the killers from the Snohomish Tribe had been followed and killed by Aleck, a Klikitat who had worked for the Castos. John brought Abigail and William's bodies back and they were buried at Vancouver. It is interesting to note that Aleck and his wife accompanied the party back to the island and until Aleck's death were welcome at the Bonsers. They would return in the summer, build a shelter near the Bonser home and gather wappato and camas root. The Bonser family album contains a picture of them both.

On February 11, 1864, Rebecca was called across the river to attend to the ill Lancaster family. After several days there, she rowed herself back across the river, and was badly soaked in a freezing rainstorm. Within a week she was dead, probably of pneumonia. John was left alone in the house and was beside himself. He moved to the Clinton Bonser home and the houses near Willow Bar stood empty. The land continued to be farmed by Stephen, Clinton, and Hilton, but eventually was sold except for a small parcel at Willowbar. John had earlier come into the donation land claims of a son-in-law, Marquis De Lafayette Armstrong, and his brother Daniel Boone Armstrong, which comprised part of Oak Island across Sturgeon Lake from his original claim. A small house still existed there and the now 61 year old John moved into it, to be near his son Stephen, who farmed the other half of Oak Island.

Further bad news was to follow. In 1865 John and Rebecca's other young daughter Hannah, was lost in the wreck of the "Brother Jonathan" off the coast at Crescent City, California. Hannah and her husband were returning from San Francisco, and the mishandled and overloaded coastal steamer had gone down in a storm with a loss of over 300.

Hannah Bonser Knowles, John's granddaughter, said that this series of losses took the "heart" out of him, and with advancing age, John began to slow down. Hannah told her daughter Ruth Knowles Thompson, that Grandpa Bonser was adored by his many grand children, that he was a jolly man who would wrestle and play games, and his visits were much anticipated. He was troubled with arthritis in his old age, and she remembered he would do tricks with his cane.

As the years progressed, John began to rotate living with his now well-established children and grandchildren, most of whom lived in Clarke County, Washington near Vancouver.

On a visit to Olympia, John married Ruth M. Dow the widow of an old family friend and she and her son Frank came to live on Oak Island. Frank and his family were energetic farmers and the farm was successfully built up over the next 30 years, primarily as a dairy farm called "Meander".

As John aged, he and Ruth became active travelers often visiting children and friends all over Oregon and Washington. John was fascinated with the steamboats, which were everywhere on the rivers by the 1880's, and although the railroad had come in 1874, the steamer was still to be an important form of transportation until about 1900.

Most of the Bonser Children and grandchildren followed the river trade and served in many capacities. John H. Bonser, was a noted skipper at Portland and the Lewis River. He was later to be called north by the Hudsons Bay Company, and was instrumental in opening Northwest British Columbia. Others owned or brokered boats and ferries, and others served as everything from deckhands to masters and pursers. John was an investor in the shipyards at Columbia City, later called the Soderstrom Bros. Shipyard, and as late as 1885 when he was 82 years old, he and his nephew Hilton and son Stephen, built the "Lena" a small steamer built to serve the island and the Lewis River trade.


An article in the St.Helen's paper March 20, 1885:

"Mr. Bonser of Sauvies Island (probably Stephen Bonser) has built a farm wagon of a new description, she is a steamboat, sternwheeler, cog rigged, direct action, plenty housing, 20 tons burden, 45 feet overall, 9 feet beam, 3 feet depth of hold, draws 18 inches of water, and is named the Lena. She is admirably adapted for the purpose of her owner who loads farm truck, apples, vegetables, etc., on this river wagon and goes all over creation, independent."

About this time John lost the use of his legs and until his death was forced to walk with crutches. A special platform with a chair was built for him, just below the wheelhouse on the Lena, and John became a familiar sight as the small steamer moved about its business.

In 1887, Ruth Dow passed away, and the farm on Oak Island was signed over to John's stepson, Frank Dow. John's health had begun to decline, and he began to spend more and more time on the home farm.

In 1893 he died at age 90. The steamer Kellogg was chartered to carry the body to Vancouver and several hundred friends and family members accompanied the body and attended the funeral. He was buried in the old post cemetery and later the Vancouver City Cemetery.

After this time, the only Bonser living on Sauvies Island, was Ewell Bonser, a grandson, who lived in a small house on the land at Willow Bar retained by John when the donation land claim was sold. Ewell was a local character, who ran a well known still, lived alone and finally died in 1921.

The entire Western half of the island was annexed over the years by the state of Oregon as recreational land. On the Western side of the island the state land begins at the eastern boundary of the original Bonser claim, which is also the Columbia County line. Nothing is left of the original homes, but the racetrack may still be vaguely discerned and rock piles which may come from the foundations are in the locations shown as structures on early maps. Several foundations and trails may also be found on Oak Island.

In the early 20th Century, the island was ringed by dikes, and the flooding problem was solved. The present farms on the eastern half of the island are still productive and many of the descendants of the original settlers still live there. The descendants of John and Rebecca are numerous in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, and the memory of the early settlers is honored in many branches of the family.

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Copyright © 1998 by Jan Phillips

Last updated 21 August 2014.