Vol. 1 May, 1899 No. 1
Biographical * William H. Gray

This pioneer of pioneers and historian of events in which he took so conspicuous a part was born in Fairfield, N.Y., on September 10, 1810. At the age of 14 he lost his father, and was apprenticed to learn the cabinet-makers' trade, and before finishing his time became foreman of the shop. Upon attaining his majority he began the study of medicine, but through the intercession of Dr. Samuel Parker and the American Board of Missions he was induced to enlist in missionary work in Oregon before his graduation. In 1836 he left home to accompany Dr. Whitman and Rev. H.H. Spalding and their wives to the field of their new labors. The little party left New York in the early part of that year, and, after a long and tiresome trip, arrived at Vancouver on the 12th of September following. As they passed The Dalles, Mr. Gray was of the opinion that such place offered extra inducements for a site for a mission, but being in the minority was over-ruled in the matter of establishing one there. Subsequent events, however, proved his judgment far-reaching, as the Methodists afterward selected the location for such a purpose, and it was one of their most successful ones. From the time of arrival, he was associated with his colleagues in the establishment of missions until the spring of 1837, when it was arranged that he should return to the East for reinforcements. To defray the expenses of the trip he drove a band of twenty horses along, being assisted by a few young Flathead Indians. All went well until Ash hollow, on the Nebraska river, was reached when they were attacked by a war party of 300 Sioux. The small though intrepid souls defended themselves with such ardor that the Sioux signaled for a cessation of hostilities and a conference, which was accepted, but the terms proposed being such that Gray and his party would be left defenseless they were promptly rejected. Upon this show of determination the Sioux withdrew their demands, and allowed the party to proceed without renewal of hostilities. In the fracas, however, the Sioux lost quite largely, among those slain being a leading war chief. Of Mr. Gray's party five were killed, and he narrowly escaped such fate, having his hat pierced by a bullet and two horses shot under him. On the return trip he was accompanied by his newly made bride, formerly Miss Mary A. Dix, of Ithica, N.Y., and the Rev. Elkanah Walker, Cushing Eells and A.B. Smith, with their wives, and Cornelius Rogers. Mr. Gray was assigned to the Lapwai mission, and from thence until July, 1842, his labors were among the Flatheads. At his time he resigned and came to the Willamette valley, where he was engaged as general superintendent and secular agent of the Oregon Institute - now Willamette University - in which occupation he remained several years. The services of Mr. Gray in the establishment of the provisional government were as that of originator of the scheme, and he was no sooner located in the valley than he began to agitate such a course among the settlers. He gathered a few of like opinion together for consultation as to the best means of bringing about the desired end, and they devised a simple but most effective plan - one which worked to a charm. Many domestic animals had been destroyed by wild beasts, and a meeting was called on February 2, 1843, for the ostensible purpose of exterminating them, nothing being said about a more important object. The meeting was largely attended, and the fate of the animals was referred to a committee who was to report at a meeting set for the first Monday in March following. At this meeting the animals were lost sight of when Mr. Gray introduced the following:

"Resolved, That a committee be appointed to take into consideration the propriety of taking measures for the civil and military protection of this colony.

"Resolved. That said committee consist of twelve persons."

The resolutions were unanimously adopted. Mr. Gray was one of the committee. The meeting adjourned to meet May 2, 1843, at which time a legislative committee of nine members was, by the report adopted, selected, he being one of the number. This was really the first legislature of Oregon. The session was held at Oregon City, July 5, 1843, and lasted three days.

In writing of these events, the words of Hon. J. Quinn Thornton, in an address delivered in 1874, are recalled. He said: "Historical justice requires the fact to be noted that William H. Gray, by his untiring labors, ceaseless vigilance and ready tact, which seemed to render him equal to any emergency, contributed more than any other man to the result of the measures which brought about the meeting of July 5, 1843."

After the free establishment of the provisional government on a firm foundation, he left the more active duties of its conduct to others, and turned his attention to business pursuits. In 1852 he made another trip East for a band of sheep, which he drove across the plains in safety, but when almost at home the scow upon which he had placed them for transport down the Columbia was wrecked on Chinook spit, near Astoria, and all of the flock were drowned. In 1849 he dug gold in California. In the '60's we find him in the Frazer river mines, and in 1864 writing his history of Oregon from 1792 to 1849, which he published in 1870. He was one of the promoters and indefatigable workers for the erection of the monument which marks the scene where Dr. Whitman and others met their death at the hands of the Indians, and are buried. An organization of the Oregon Pioneer and Historical Society in 1872 was brought about through his efforts.

The latter years of his life were passed at Astoria. He died in Portland November 14, 1889, at the home of his daughter, Mrs. Jacob Kamm, and his remains were taken to Astoria and rest beside those of his wife, who had preceded him to a better world.

It would be hard to find in the history of Oregon a man who was more thoroughly identified with its early upbuilding than William H. Gray. He was among the few first Americans to come here. He assisted in the building of the first homes, schoolhouses and churches; was foremost among those who launched the first government in our midst, and the evidences of his life have left indelible impress for good upon our social and political structures.

He left four sons, J.H.D., William P., Albert W. and James T., all of whom have been identified with navigation, and are leading and honorable citizens. The daughters have long been known in the social circles of the state; they are Mrs. Jacob Kamm, Mrs. Sarah F. Abernethy and Mrs. Mary Tarbell, deceased.


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R. GESS SMITH