This Month in Oregon History: Firsts in Oregon

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She Flies with Her Own Wings....First



On May 11, 1792, Robert Gray, the first American to circumnavigate the world (1787-1790), sailed the Columbia Rediviva into the Columbia River, the first documented ship to anchor in the river’s broad estuary. He named the river “Columbia’s river” after his ship and drew a sketch map of the river mouth. With Gray’s entry into the river, the United States had an arguable claim to discovery in the deliberations with Great Britain that led to the Oregon Treaty of 1846.


The first house built by non-Natives on the Northwest Coast that was intended to be permanent was built on the south shore of the Columbia River in June 1810. Nathan Winship of Boston warped his ship, the Albatross, forty miles up the river to Oak Point, a few miles northeast of present-day Clatskanie. Seeing the flat land among the oaks, he set his crew to building a log house, known as the Winship Settlement. 


Entrepreneur John Jacob Astor sent Russel Farnham, an American adventurer, explorer, and fur trader, to establish Fort Astoria, the first United States settlement on the Pacific Coast. Farnham would later influence legislation that created the Oregon Territory and the State of Oregon. Although he spent just over three years in the Oregon Country, it made a deep and lasting impression on him.


Jane Barnes is credited with being the first European woman to set foot in the Oregon Country. Originally a barmaid in Portsmouth, England, she was recruited by North West Company partners John McDonald and Donald McTavish to sail aboard their company’s ship Isaac Todd as a seamstress, though it is believed she was also the mistress of one or both men. By the time the slow-sailing ship arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River in April 1814, the fort had become a North West Company property, renamed Fort George after the British monarch.


Henry Schenck Tanner’s “A Map of North America” represents a significant placeholder in the early American literature on continental expansion of the republic to the West. The map was included in the fourth folio of Tanner’s New American Atlas, published in late 1822. A masterful summary of information derived from existing maps and travel and government documents, it is the first printed map to apply to the region the name “Oregon Terry." Tanner (1786 - 1858) likely adopted this toponym from Congressman John Floyd from Virginia, who introduced a bill in January 1822 to establish a “Territory of Origon” [sic] on the Pacific Coast.


The town of St. Paul, established in 1839, was the first Catholic mission in the Oregon Country south of the Columbia River. Rev. Francois Norbert Blanchet, the newly arrived French Canadian missionary, established the mission for the French Indian families then living in French Prairie area of the Willamette Valley.


Early in January 1844, six Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur departed Antwerp aboard L'Infatigable bound for the Oregon Country. After a long journey that took them around the tip of South America, they crossed the treacherous Columbia River bar on July 31. Accompanied by their recruiter, Rocky Mountain Jesuit missionary Pierre Jean DeSmet, the Sisters and four other Catholic priests constituted a significant reinforcement for the recently established Catholic missions in the Pacific Northwest. The Oregon mission was the second North American foundation for the Sisters, after Cincinnati, Ohio (1840). They were the first Catholic nuns in the Pacific Northwest.


Alonzo A. Skinner was the first judge in the Pacific Northwest. In 1846, the Provisional Legislature established a circuit court with general civil and criminal jurisdiction. Skinner’s jurisdiction was what is now Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and western Montana. His salary was $800 a year, and his job was to hold court twice a year in the eight counties in the territory. There were no courtrooms in Judge Skinner's Oregon. The three times he is recorded as sitting in Polk County, for example, he held court once in a homesteader’s cabin and twice in a one-room school.


The Oregon Spectator was the first newspaper published in the Oregon Territory in 1846, preceding newspapers in California and other western outposts. It was more than a journalistic enterprise. In the words of historian George Turnbull, "The Oregon Spectator was not the creature of some early journalist looking for a location; it was rather the project of a distinguished group of pioneers who saw the need for official publication of the corporate acts of the new American territory."


In 1847, Oregon's first dentist, a Dr. Sacket, opened a practice in Astoria. A second dentist, Dr. E.H. Griffen, arrived in Oregon City in 1850. Others soon followed. These pioneer dentists brought new methods, including anesthesia and anatomic forceps. Extractions could now be done by a professional, efficiently and without as much pain. 


Thomas J. Dryer was the first editor of the Portland Oregonian and an active member of Oregon's political scene. From 1850 to 1861, he combined editorial advocacy and civic activities in Portland to be a major player in territorial politics. Dryer became the most prominent of the Whig editors in the region, and he became part of the Salem Clique, Democrats who dominated Oregon’s politics at the time. He was also a prominent practitioner of the “Oregon Style” of personal journalism, which laced editorials with insults against rival editors.


On June 4, 1851, surveyors placed the first marker at a point in the Tualatin Mountains (Portland’s West Hills), at the intersection of the meridian and base line for the first survey of Oregon. Known later as the Willamette Stone, the marker was a cedar post. It was replaced in 1888 with an obelisk marker, but the stone marker and bronze plaques were vandalized in 1951, 1967, and 1987. A stainless-steel marker, set into the original obelisk, was rededicated in 1988. The Willamette Stone site is now enclosed in Willamette Stone State Park near Northwest Skyline Boulevard.


In 1852, Nimrod O'Kelly was convicted of murder in the first officially recorded homicide case before the Oregon Supreme Court.


Frank Dekum, an immigrant to the United States from Bavaria, Germany, moved from San Francisco to Portland in 1853. He and Fred Bickel established Dekum & Bickel, the city’s first confectionary business in the city, and later became a successful realtor, banker, and insurance and railway executive. He oversaw the construction of many buildings in Portland, including Dekum Building, an 1871 cast iron structure at Front Avenue and Washington Street.


Margaret Jewett Smith Bailey wrote the first novel on the Northwest Coast, The Grains, or, Passages in the Life of Ruth Rover, with Occasional Pictures of Oregon, Natural and Moral, published by Carter & Austin in Portland. Unique and difficult to classify under a single genre, The Grains is one of the first examples of a book by a Pacific Northwest woman seeking to empower herself through a personal narrative. As historian Edwin Bingham observed in his foreword to the 1986 edition, The Grains is unusual because it is "part autobiography, part religious testimonial, part history and travelogue" and might even be called "a novel.”


The first synagogue opened in Oregon.

In 1861, Congregation Beth Israel opened at Fifth and Oak Streets in Portland. The Gothic-style building, which could seat two hundred people, drew praise from both the Oregonian and the “ladies and gentlemen of nearly all denominations” who attended the consecration.


The first charcoal iron smelter in the Pacific Coast began operating.

In 1864, the Oregon Iron Company built the Oswego Iron Furnace on the edge of the little town of Oswego, south of Portland. It appeared to be a perfect site: ore containing approximately 60 percent iron was available, the Willamette River and Sucker Creek provided transportation and water power, and a dense forest yielded charcoal to make iron. The Oregon Iron Company produced its first pig iron in 1867.


Robert Deniston Hume and his older brothers William and George, who invented the new industry of canning salmon in tins, operated the first salmon cannery on the Columbia River. They were also key innovators, introducing new machinery, techniques, and marketing strategies to the industry. By the early 1870s, the family had succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, with each brother running his own venture and R.D. owning several canneries.


The first school open to African American students in Oregon—referred to as the Colored School—was founded in March 1867 by African American residents in Salem. In 1868, the original school closed when the city opened a segregated public school called Little Central, which was also called the “Colored School.” Oregon did not have a state superintendent of schools to institute and manage free and uniform schools in every district until 1872, so people often organized their own schools and determined enrollment requirements and school fees. In a state where African Americans were legally, economically, and socially marginalized by the white population, the children of black families had been routinely barred from school attendance.


On November 25, 1869, St. Mary’s Academy students performed the first calisthenics exhibition in Oregon’s history. Over succeeding decades, St. Mary’s would expand this athletic foundation with intramural, club, and 6A Conference sporting activities.


Governor LaFayette Grover appointed Thomas Condon the first state geologist in 1872. Four years later, he was named the first professor of geology and natural sciences at the University of Oregon. A Congregational minister, he took his own fossil and rock collection with him to the university to use in his teaching. That collection was the foundation for the university’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History.


Sarah Winnemucca (Paiute) published her autobiography, Life among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, in 1882, the first book written by an American Indian woman. Winnemucca had a clear purpose in life: “I mean to fight for my down-trodden race while life lasts.” She lived part of her adult life on reservations in Oregon and was an important figure in the Bannock Indian War of 1878 before becoming a nationally prominent spokesperson for Indian justice. She is recognized for overcoming the stereotypes of her gender and race to raise public awareness of the harsh conditions that Indians endured in the United States in the late nineteenth century.


In 1886, Mary Gysin Leonard was the first woman admitted to the bar in Oregon, at a time when women had not yet been granted the right to vote in the state. She persevered in her fight to gain the right for women to practice law in the state, despite social and legal obstacles.


In 1896, William Kinross conducted the first performance of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, with thirty-three players, at the Marquam Grand Theater; the program featured opera overtures and intermezzos and Haydn’s Surprise Symphony.


On May 25, 1898, the Second Regiment, Oregon U.S. Volunteer Infantry sailed from San Francisco to the Philippines to fight in the Spanish American War. It would be the first time that members of the Oregon National Guard fought on foreign soil.


The first public library in Oregon, the Library Association of Portland, was supported by taxes and was freely available to everyone, opened in 1902. While most American cities and towns started from nothing or built on small libraries operated by volunteers, the situation in Portland was different. The city used public funds to open the doors of the Library Association of Portland  in 1902, an existing private subscription library with its own building, staff, and fine collection, which had formerly been accessible only to members.


The Golden West Hotel, located at Northwest Broadway and Everett Streets, was the first hotel in Portland to accommodate African American patrons. For twenty-five years, from 1906 through 1931, it was a social center and a focal point of the black community, a place for African Americans of all ages to gather and socialize in a segregated and largely unfriendly city. On the lower floors of the hotel, there were several black-owned businesses, including a bar, a barbershop, an ice cream parlor, and an athletic club. 


In the spring of 1906, University of Oregon law student Dan Kelly finished fifth in the 100-yard dash at the national championships in Jamestown, Virginia. He won the broad jump with a leap of 23 feet 9½ inches. Oregon had its first national title and, in Kelly, its first All American athlete. In 1908, Kelly and Hayward traveled to the Olympics in London, where Kelly won a silver medal with a broad jump of 23 feet 3¼ inches. Back in Oregon, he received a hero’s welcome.


In the spring of 1913, the Oregon legislature created the first compulsory minimum wage law in the nation and its governing agency, the Industrial Welfare Commission. The law legitimized government’s right to regulate women and minor worker's wages and was copied across the country. The Fair Labor and Standards Act of 1938, which created a national minimum wage, began with Oregon’s minimum wage law twenty-five years earlier. 


The Columbia River Highway, now known as the Historic Columbia River Highway, was a technical and civic achievement of its time, successfully mixing ambitious engineering with a sensitivity to the magnificent landscape of the Columbia River Gorge. Entrepreneur and Good Roads promoter Samuel Hill teamed up with engineer and landscape architect Samuel C. Lancaster to create a highway that would make the idyllic natural setting accessible to tourists without unduly marring its beauty. When the first section of road opened in 1915, the Columbia River Highway became the first paved highway in the Pacific Northwest.


As the first woman elected to the Oregon House of Representatives and one of the first women in the state to serve with the Naval Reserve Corps in World War I, Marian Towne was a leader in expanding opportunities for Oregon women in the early twentieth century. Oregon women had achieved the right to vote in November 1912, and Towne decided to run for the state legislature in 1914, the first time women were eligible to campaign for that office. She filed her candidacy for representative from Jackson County as a Democrat. Towne was elected and went to Salem for the 1915 legislative session. She was joined by Kathryn Clarke, the first woman to serve in the Oregon Senate.


Throughout most of his life, Edwin Markham was known as the Dean of American Poetry, the Laureate of Labor, and—in his own words—the Poet Highwayman. His work as a poet and social reformer brought him recognition throughout the West and across the United States. He founded the Poetry Society of American in 1910 and served as Oregon’s first poet laureate, from 1923 to 1931. 


Elizabeth Lord and Edith Schryver formed Lord & Schryver in 1929, the first firm of women landscape architects in the Pacific Northwest. Based in Salem, they practiced for forty years, designing projects for clients in Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Salem, and elsewhere in the region. The women designed over 250 gardens, including those at Reed College, the Asahel Bush House, the Hoover-Minthorn House, and Gaiety Hollow, the women’s personal residence in Salem.


Skiing enthusiasts in Portland just before World War II knew the name Hjalmar Hvam as readily as most people recognize the names of professional athletes. Inducted into the National Ski Hall of Fame in 1967, Hvam was the dominant downhill and cross-country ski racer in the Pacific Northwest during the 1930s. He was also the inventor of the world’s first workable safety ski binding. Hvam also recorded what may have been the first ski descent of Mt. Hood from the summit in 1931.


Known as the Dean of American Cookery, James Beard, who was born in Portland, appeared on a local television show in New York City with a fifteen-minute cooking lesson. That appearance led to a national show on NBC in 1946-1947, the first such program in television history. The author of twenty-two cookbooks and many magazine and newspaper articles, he paved the way for today's celebrity chefs. As Julia Child proclaimed, “In the beginning, there was Beard.”


Arthur “Artie” Wilson, a professional baseball player who was a longtime Portland resident, played for the Pacific Coast League for most of his baseball career. He was the first African American player hired on an integrated team, the Oakland Oaks. “He was an impressive gentleman,” Reverend Leroy Haynes of the Allen Temple Christian Methodist Church remembered in 2011. “I saw in him a man of purpose, a man of destiny.” From 1948 to 1962, he played for Pacific Coast League teams—the Oakland Oaks, the Seattle Rainiers, the Sacramento Solons, and the Portland Beavers (1955-1956; 1961). By the time he retired in 1962, he had won six batting titles, had over 3,000 hits, and had maintained over a .338 batting average in more than 1,900 games.


Portland State College opened in 1955, the first publicly supported institution of higher learning in the city. The college had its beginnings  as the Vanport Extension Center, established in Vanport in 1946 in a converted shopping mall and recreation center. In 1968, the college became Portland State University.


Ethel Romig Fuller was Oregon’s first female poet laureate, from 1957 to 1965, succeeding Ben Hur Lampman as the third poet laureate in Oregon history. Gov. Robert D. Holmes selected her from among twenty-one nominees for her “outstanding work and encouragement and help she has given poets of Oregon.”


Clarence V. Hodges and two other doctors—J.E. Dunphy and Joseph E. Murray (who would win the Nobel Prize in 1990)—performed the first successful kidney transplant west of the Rocky Mountains at University Hospital in Portland. Hodges continued his research in prostate cancer and was awarded the Eugene Fuller Award in 1977 for this work.


Maurine Brown Neuberger entered politics as an Oregon state legislator and, as of 2010, was Oregon’s first and only woman to serve in the United States Senate. An advocate for consumer rights and women’s issues, and she advanced the causes of the Democratic Party in Oregon and the nation. Her husband Richard Neuberger won election to the U.S. Senate in 1954, the first Democrat from Oregon in that body in forty years. In failing health, he died in March 1960. Maurine Neuberger ran for the seat in November 1960 and won with 54 percent of the vote. She represented Oregon in Washington, D.C., for one six-year term.


As a child, Gus Tanaka was imprisoned at Minidoka with his mother and siblings during World War II. His father, Benjamin Tanaka, had been considered an enemy alien because he was born in Hawaii, which was not yet a state. After the war, the family settled in Ontario, where the Tanakas established the Tanaka Clinic in 1958. Gus went on to become the first minority elected president of the Oregon Medical Association in 1971.


The Timbers lost their first game at Civic Stadium on May 2, 1975, against the Seattle Sounders. (The Timbers won their first MLS Cup in December 2015.)


Hilmar Grondahl, an advocate for the arts and a member of the Oregon Arts Commission, was the classical music critic for the Oregonian for forty-five years. During his two terms on the commission, he earned a reputation for promoting excellence in public art, especially community music programs. In 1977, shortly before his retirement from the Oregonian, he received the first Governor’s Awards for the Arts, under Governor Bob Straub.


William A. Hilliard was the first African American editor of the Oregonian and one of the few to serve as the editor of a major newspaper. Growing up in Portland, he had been refused a paper route for the Oregonian for fear that white subscribers would resent it, and he transferred from the University of Oregon after a professor told him there was no place for blacks on newspapers. He began his career at the Oregonian as a copy boy in 1952 at the age of twenty-five. He rose to sports reporter but was never sent to cover a game until the Harlem Globetrotters played an exhibition. After working several reporting beats, he became an assistant city editor in 1965 and city editor in 1971. Hilliard was named executive editor in 1982.


In December 1984, the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus sang at the inauguration of Secretary of State Barbara Roberts. It was the first LGBTQ chorus to sing for the inauguration of a statewide elected official. PGMC also was the first gay men's chorus in the nation to have a woman, Phylis Myles, serve as board president.


Tonya Harding, born in Portland in 1970, was the first American woman to land a triple axel—a spinning jump with three-and-a-half rotations—in competition, leading to her first-place finish at the 1991 U.S. Nationals. Harding learned to skate at Lloyd Center Mall and later trained at Clackamas Town Center Mall. By 1986, she had finished sixth at the U.S. Nationals and was a rising star in the world of figure skating. After competing at a high level in national and world championships throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, she finished fourth in the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France.


Jim Hill was the first person of color to be elected to statewide office in Oregon, winning the state treasurer’s post as a Democrat in 1992. Ten years earlier, he had been only the second African American elected to the state legislature. When Hill took office as state treasurer, the office was under fire for ethics violations. The pension fund had lost millions of dollars on a questionable investment, and under Hill’s predecessor the treasurer's office had approved a $5 million loan to a campaign donor. Some legislators wanted to split off the treasury's investment operations to a separate agency, but Hill pushed back by reorganizing the agency and delegating important work to trusted subordinates. While in office, Hill won high marks for integrity and effectiveness.


Chris Eyre, the nation's most celebrated American Indian film director, was born in Oregon. An enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, he gained national attention in 1998 with the movie Smoke Signals. People Magazine called him "the preeminent Native American filmmaker of his time." At a directing workshop at the Sundance Film Festival, he had begun to develop Smoke Signals, which was bought by Miramar Films. The film won the Audience Award and Filmmaker's Trophy at Sundance and became the first nationally distributed feature film that was directed, written, co-produced, and featured American Indian actors.


Susan Castillo was the first Latina elected to the Oregon State Legislature and the first to hold statewide elected office as superintendent of public instruction. She was also the last person to fill that post, which was abolished by legislation in 2011. Castillo made important legislative and policy contributions to Oregon and has provided leadership during challenging times for education in the state and the nation.


In January 2002, 114 years into its history, the Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine named Christine Cassel its first woman dean. A national leader in geriatrics and medical ethics, Cassel literally wrote the book on academic geriatrics in the United States. The thirteenth dean to lead the medical school, she worked to strengthen OHSU’s programs in geriatrics and medical ethics and focused on improving measurements of quality of care and clinical outcomes. In July 2003, Cassel left Oregon to become president and CEO of the American Board of Internal Medicine and the ABIM Foundation.


In 1933 and 1934, Elizabeth Jacobs interviewed Clara Pearson, a member of the Nehalem Tillamook tribe, and recorded her repertoire of Nehalem myths and folktales. The collection of stories, Nehalem Tillamook Tales, was published in 1959, and The Nehalem Tillamook: An Ethnography was published in 2003 (edited and annotated by William Seaburg after Jacobs’s death in 1983). In 1935, Jacobs worked with Upper Coquille culture bearer Coquelle Thompson, recording in English over eight hundred notebook pages of linguistic, ethnographic, and folkloristic information. A first volume of Thompson’s stories, Pitch Woman and Other Stories, was published in 2007, the first book-length collection of southwestern Oregon Athabaskan stories.


Esperanza Spalding’s fierce talent in double bass and vocal work earned her a Grammy in 2011 for Best New Artist, making her the first jazz musician and one of only four Oregonians to ever win that award. She won three more Grammys in 2013 and 2014, one of them shared with her mentor, Portland jazz trumpeter Thara Memory. Not only did Spalding master singing while playing bass, but she also distinguished herself as a woman in the male-dominated jazz genre within the even narrower pool of female double bass players.