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Reminiscences of Earliest Salem by John Minto
John Minto (1822-1915)

Minto was born in England and arrived in Oregon in 1844, settling south of Salem where he was a pioneer in the sheep industry. He served four terms in the State Legislature, organized the first Oregon State Fair, and helped survey the Minto and Santiam mountain passes.

Minto Island is named for John Minto who purchased a 247 acre island in 1867 in the Willamette river near Salem. Minto turned the island was into productive farm land. A neighboring island was owned by Isaac "Whiskey" Brown who had purchased his 10 years earlier was used for livestock grazing and raising tobacco. Today, the islands aren't separate or true islands due to the changed the course of the Willamette River. It is now a city park of 833 acres featuring walking paths, picnic areas, and wildlife viewing - all within 2 ½ miles of downtown Salem.

John Minto’s own story of Salem’s history in his own words, written around 1902:

The writer came to this locality before the City was born, so to speak. It was known as the "Institute," the school founded by the Methodist Missionaries which I believe was conceived in the mind of Rev. Jason Lee as he began to see the probable failure of his mission to the Indians: 1st - Because the condition of the natives of Northwestern Oregon was below the reach of religious effort at the time; 2nd - Because the choice of the first location for a mission was perhaps the most unsuitable to be found in the Willamette Valley. By the time these facts were fully realized the certainty of the needs of the white race was plainly indicated. The writer has good reasons for the belief that the Oregon Institute, now styled Willamette University, was born as a human enterprise on board the ship Lausanne, in which were the last most numerous contingent coming as Missionaries, sent by the M. E. Board of foreign missions which landed in Oregon in May 1840.

The commencement of building a saw and grist mill at Chemeketa was the beginning of the abandonment of the mission to the Indians, and the original mission site was left a wreck by an act of God, if we assume he controls floods of rivers such as that of the Willamette river December 3, 1844. The writer was the first to enter the premises as owner in 1845. All else except six or eight peach trees; a rose bush, some gooseberry and currant bushes and a bed of rhubarb, or pie plant, was carried away by the river or human agency. Most of the fencing was lodged in drift piles in the timber one-half to one mile east from the buildings. They were of logs much like those of a well-to-do frontier settler in timbered portions of western states at that time. At the mills in North Salem a plain frame house stood large enough to shelter two families. It was near if not on the site of Judge R. P. Boise’s present residence, 100 yards north, Geo. Winslow, a Negro, had a brick yard. The Indian village was east a short distance on the north side of the creek at that time. About the northeast corner of the old opera house now occupied by J. Meyers & Sons was an unfinished balloon frame house in which Mr. L. H. Judson lived in the edge of the wheat field about the spot on which the building now used as a bindery stands. Mr. Judson was threshing wheat by tramping out with oxen. Near the southeast corner of the same block now surveyed, Capt. Charles Bennett had or did build a log house and later a roomy frame house, many years used as a hotel. The Parsonage in a grove of noble oaks, on ground now covered by offices and store houses of the woolen mill north of that building and the Institute were the only other buildings at that time. Rev. David Lesley lived in the parsonage. W. H. Willson and W. W. Raymond’s families lived in the Institute, of which Mrs. Willson was teacher and Mrs. Raymond was boarding house keeper.

At this date an idea that had prevailed amongst the Missionaries that the mission and school would received the aid of Congress in a liberal land grant, began to give way, and that land would only be given as encouragement for settled family life. This was the prevailing opinion of the home builders themselves, and under this view as a strong probability the plan was adopted to secure the location of the Institute by Messrs. Leslie on the south; Waller on the east; J. L. Parrish and J. B. McClane on the north so making their claims as to surround a 640 acre tract for W. H. Willson to hold as his claim for the protection of the Institute foundation. There was some friction in carrying out these plans at first between the heads of the Willson and Raymond families. Mr. Raymond for a time being inclined to assert his prior right as a settler on the land on which the Institute yet unfinished stood, and went so far in this as to propose letting the contract for finishing it to Joseph Watt and giving the latter a lien on the building as security for his labor. This information the writer had from Mr. Watt himself, while he was on his way from Oregon City to examine the Institute and surroundings, legal and financial.

At this date, August 1845 the Institute as a building was the most important and best used building west of the Rocky Mountains. Entering it from the north the first rooms on the ground floor were used as school rooms; the second door on the right was the main entrance to the Willson family residence, and the second on the left was that of the Raymond family and kitchen and dining room for students. The room on the second floor over the east school room was used for church purposes from the time it was finished in 1842 or ‘43 till the first church building was fit to occupy in 1852, I think. Between these dates the first legislative assembly meeting at Salem beginning its session at Oregon City finished it in the Oregon Institute and the first court held in the upper Willamette Valley under United States auspices met in west school room.

Joseph Holman built the first family residence on the corner of State and Church Sts. Opposite the present M. E. Church, which is on the site the wooden church building , now used as a steam laundry, was placed in 1852-53.

If my recollection serves, Salem was surveyed and named in 1846 and Joseph Holman began his first frame residence soon after the survey was made. At which date W. H. Willson told the writer he was ready and willing to give any mechanic desirous of pursuing his trade a lot for his residence and another for his business.

The trouble between Messrs.Willson and Raymond was quietly settled in 1846 and the latter moved to Clatsop Plains shortly after July 4, 1846.

Capt. Charles Bennett came to Salem in 1845 and built a keel boat for freighting on the Willamette river which was soon found unsuitable for that kind of navigation. The boat was used as a wharf boat and the Capt. became commander of one of the first; if not the first steamboat put on the Willamette river, as well as the first company of volunteers formed in this country which drilled in Salem July 4, 1846.

Compiled by Monica Mersinger

Edited by Katherine Wallig

"Minto Island." Salem Public Parks History on C. 1994-2004. <> July 28, 2004.

"Minto, John." Salem Pioneer Cemetery online. March 3, 2004. <> July 28, 2004.

Salem, Oregon--Past and Present, an Historical Sketch. Salem: Schaefer Print Company, 1902. [Salem Public Library]


John Minto

John Minto

Courtesy of Salem Public Library
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