Oregon Pioneer Biographies



A Biography By James Henry Elgin II, 1988
(Transcribed by Susanna Elgin Lingross, 1998)


James Henry Elgin was born on December 17, 1833 in LaGrange, Tennessee and emigrated with his family to Missouri in 1834. They settled between Kansas City and Independence on the "Big Blue". This may have been Blue Springs, Missouri where the other children of George and Levica Elgin were listed as being born. James, in his letters, notes also that he spent his boyhood days at 610 Maple Ave., Independence, Missouri.

He was quite literate and an avid letter writer; and from his writings it can be gleaned that in his heart he would like to have been a writer. We do not know of his formal education, if any, but he notes that his mother taught him to write and later his daughters worked on him to improve his spelling.

It is known that he learned the wagon-making business at an early age. It is also known that he was in Santa Fe, N.M. in 1850 and went through the "Oklahoma Country then traversed by the murderous Comanches". It is not known why he was in this area, but at the very least he was adventuresome.

He crossed the Plains to Oregon in 1852* with his family, leaving behind, as gathered from copies of his correspondence, quite a few uncles, aunts and cousins, one being his namesake Uncle James H. Elgin of Farmington, Missouri. His family reached the Willamette Valley in the Fall, but it is not certain if James continued on from The Dalles, Oregon with them. We do know that he spent some time in 1853 in Shoal Water Bay. He also lived in or near The Dalles and worked in a wagon shop and also served for a time on the steamer "Wasco".

He must have had a very good time, because in his letters he recalls the events and girlfriends of this earlier time and place. He also must have built a log house and hay shed in the general area because they were burned by Indians on 26 March 1856 and he filed a claim* in later years for compensation. When the Indian troubles worsened and hostilities broke out with the Yakima Indians, he enlisted in the Oregon Volunteers, and this was about 20 Oct. 1855. The records indicate that he was 5' 10" tall, blue eyes, & light hair with a fair complexion. He was honorably discharged in Feb. 1856 after suffering injuries. He was not only thrown from his horse, a disability from which he never recovered, but he also had both his feet frozen, the effects of which he continued to suffer. Congress must have passed enabling legislation some years after the Indian Wars*, because it was not until 1891 that James filed a claim for compensation for damage to his property. He also filed a claim for his personal injuries, as he had to walk with a cane. Copies of his correspondence indicate that he pursued these claims at least until 1905. He did receive a pension, but the amount is not known.

We do not know how he and Josie (Josephine Humphreys*) met, but they were married in 1858 and in 1860 their first child was born. The 1860 census shows that they lived with his parents (George Wethers & Levica Elvira (Ruby) Elgin*) in Marion County and listed his occupation as wagonmaker. In 1862 he was again in The Dalles area as his second child, Wallula, was the first white child born in Walla Walla County, Wash. Why he and his young family were here is not known. By 1864 James and family were back in Linn County and the next child, Charles, was born in Scio. The next two were also born in Scio, in a house on Lot #106. The 1870 census shows them in Scio where James had a wagon shop*.

He was in the Salem area in 1872 when son George was born, and was in the wagon business in Salem also. Records indicate that after 1872 and his return to the Salem area by 1876, that he engaged in the wagon business in The Dalles as well. He and his family had returned to the area south of Salem known as the "Red Hills" where he purchased a farm. It was very near to the Donation Land Claim that had been settled by his father. The Family Bible indicated that the four youngest of his children were born in the "Red Hills". The 1880 census indicates that James was now farming. His old letters indicate that the younger sons, as they became able, did much of the farming chores.

All of the children of James and Josephine were quite literate. Charles, the eldest son, was a graduate of Willamette University, class of 1887. The daughters were all quite well educated, with Emma a graduate Nurse and the others trained as school teachers. The girls corresponded quite extensively with one another and their parents, and some of these girls wrote quite a bit of good poetry and sent it to one another. The three younger sons, George, Harrison and Clifford, were not as well educated but did attend school, mostly the local Ankeny school. It is known that Clifford pursued further education through correspondence in the fields of Math and Surveying; the others may have done likewise.

Some of the children took up 160 acre timber homesteads (near Salmon River), and James sounded as if he would have liked to have been there, but he was over 70 at that time. Some of the claims were more valuable than others and he notes of Emma's claim that she "perfected 160 acres of Uncle Sam's most valuable domain, making her a near relative of the Oil King and by ties of blood a near cousin of Pierre Pont Morgan".

Misc. notes indicate that James was Baptized in The Dalles at St. Paul's Episcopal Church on 20 Nov. 1881 by W.L. MacEwan, officiating. He was 47 years of age and his letters indicate that he had always had a very strong religious conviction. His Baptism was witnessed by his future son-in-law, C.H. Laughead. James' uncle and namesake, James H. Elgin died in Missouri in 1887 and letters between his attorneys and heirs show that not much of an estate was left. James, the nephew, received $ 20.30.

By 1906 the farm was known as "Oak Ranch" , and by this time they had a telephone, although James apparently did not like to "talk over" the device. In late 1907 or early 1908 the now older couple moved to 1364 Saginaw Street in Salem where they evidently retired. In 1910 his son Clifford and his young family moved into the house on Saginaw and James and Josephine moved to 246 Cottage St., Salem.

James died in 1913 and Josie survived until 1922. Grandchildren surviving in 1988 have at best only vague recollections of James but Kathryn Elgin Foreman remembers that her grandmother came to stay with them in Salem and that she was "great fun". James enjoyed life and for the most part his letters indicated that he thought it was wonderful to be alive. In one letter, referring to his friends both past and present, he says "I hope they are enjoying this beautiful world". His correspondence, especially to his grandson, Elgin Chipman, shows a great deal of humor. Some of his other letters are full of witticisms, such as "Old heads are seldom on young bodies".


* View James Henry's own accounts of these events, plus photos and family & court records at the: "ELGIN NET" web site.


James' Family
James Henry Elgin's Family, circa 1888

Click here to read Excerpts from Salmon River Sayings, circa 1905

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Copyright © 1998 by Jan Phillips

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