Salem Online History This site is provided by Salem Public Library (Salem, Oregon).
space space
Brief History
Natural History
Timeline Search
William H. Willson

William Holden Willson is remembered as the "founder of Salem" because he  filed the first plat of the city and held the original title to the land that now comprises Willamette University, the State Capitol, and downtown Salem.  He is also reputed to be the one who gave the name "Salem" to the new settlement. During his 51 years, Willson was a carpenter, medical doctor, pharmacist, store owner, lay preacher, civic leader, treasurer of the provisional government, and trustee of Willamette University.   His name lives on today in Willson Park, directly west of the capitol building, at the approximate center of his former landholdings.

William Holden Willson was born in New Hampshire April14,1805.  He was raised in New York, where he worked as a ship's carpenter, and went to sea on a three-year whaling voyage prior to coming west as a missionary.  In 1837, he answered missionary Jason Lee's request for skilled reinforcements and became one of the first lay workers sent to the Willamette Mission.  During the trip west and after his arrival at the mission, Willson acquired an informal medical education from Dr. Elijah White, another member of the "reinforcements," and began a long career as as an unlicenced doctor and pharmacist.

Dr. Willson was licensed as a local preacher, and traveled widely in the early Oregon country. In 1839, he was sent along with Reverend David Leslie to establish a new mission outpost in Nesqually, near the Puget Sound. In 1840 he was joined there by Miss Chloe Clark, who had come west as a missionary teacher. Willson and Chloe were married in August of that year.  In June 1841, the Willsons were moved to another mission station at the Willamette Falls, now Oregon City.  They worked there until 1844, when they rejoined Lee's mission in its new location at a place the local Indians called Chemeketa.  Chloe Willson was chosen to be the first teacher at the Oregon Institute, a school established by the missionaries, which eventually developed into Willamette University.

Despite Willson's twin practices of preacher and physician, he found time for many civic activities.  He served as the first treasurer for the Oregon provisional government.  In 1848, he and seven other men founded the Oregon Exchange, which minted Oregon's first currency, $5 and $10 gold coins known as "beaver money."  Willson ran for congress in 1851, but lost to Lane. In 1853, he served as Marion County Commissioner.

In 1843, Willson was elected to the the board of the Oregon Institute, and acted as its secretary in 1845.  In 1846, Willson was chosen as business agent for the board and took charge of its landholdings, which included what is now downtown Salem, for "safekeeping."  He was empowered to sell off lots to "worthy individuals" in order to raise money for the Institute and attract settlers to the new town, which they named Salem.  Willson drew up the first plat of Salem, covering an area thirteen blocks by five blocks, bounded by the Willamette River and Mission, Church, and Division streets.  The plat was recorded by the Marion County Clerk in 1850.

After the Donation Land Claim Law of 1850 was passed, conflicts arose between the Willsons and the Oregon Institute trustees over the title to the  land.  Under the 1850 law, the 640 acre property belonged jointly to both William and Chloe Willson.  Although Dr. Willson was bound to the trustees to administer the land for the Institute, his wife was not, and insisted that her legal right to the land be recognized.  The dispute was resolved in 1854, when the Willsons and the trustees reached a compromise. A line was drawn splitting the property in half along State Street; the 320 acres to the south would belong to the University, and the 320 to the north would belong to Chloe. Throughout the disagreement, Dr. Willson apparently remained a member of the board of trustees, and Chloe continued teaching at the Oregon Institute, and later at Willamette University.

The Willsons donated a portion of their land at no cost to build the new Oregon territorial capitol building.  The capitol would be located in the center of a long, open space designated on Willson's original plat as "Willson Avenue," just south of his house on the corner of Court and Capitol streets.  It was Willson's wish to preserve open spaces within the growing town, similar to the village commons in the New England towns many of the settlers came from.  With this in mind, the block between the capitol building and the Marion County Courthouse was declared a public square.  It eventually became known as Willson Park.

In 1853, Dr. Willson established Salem's first drugstore. He did a thriving business on Front Street, near the heart of what was quickly becoming a bustling town.  He was not a licensed pharmacist but, as old-timer Joe Baker recalled in the 1930s, people didn't worry so much about licenses back then. As Baker recalled, Willson was a cheerful, kind, and easy-going man, always ready to entertain his friends and patients with stories of the seagoing adventures of his youth.

Willson died suddenly in April 1856, while working in his drugstore. He was buried in the old Oddfellows cemetery (now the Pioneer Cemetery) where a marble Obelisk marks the gravesite he now shares with Chloe. Both Willsons had a major influence on the development of Salem and its religious, educational and governmental institutions.  Without Dr. Willson's stewardship and generous land donations, the map of Salem would look much different today.

Written by Suzanne B. Morrison and Katherine Wallig

"Bits for breakfast: Who Platted Salem?"  Oregon Statesman. 26 April 1929, p. 4.  Salem Public Library Hugh Morrow Pamphlet Collection.

Dobbs, Caroline C.  "William Holden Willson." Men of Champoeg.  Portland: Metropolitan Press, 1932. pp. 56-9.

Gatke, Robert Moulton.  Chronicles of Willamette, the Pioneer University of the West.  Portland: Binford & Mort, 1943.

"Marion County Personalities:  Dr. W. H. Willson."  Oregon Statesman Illus. Ann. Ed.  1893.  Salem Public Library Hugh Morrow Pamphlet Collection.

"Oldest of Pioneers gives recollection of Salem founder."  Capital Journal.  18 April 1930, p.1. Salem Public Library Hugh Morrow Pamphlet Collection.

Westenhouse, Sybil.  "The Willsons in Salem."  Marion County History, Volume XV (1998), pp.13-49.

"William Holden Willson." Salem Pioneer Cemetery website.  March 3, 2004. <>  June 8, 2004.


Additional Links
William H. Willson
William H. Willson
[ View Image ]
Chloe Willson
Chloe Clark Willson
[ View Image ]
Oregon Institute
The Oregon Institute
[ View Image ]
Original plat of Salem
Willson's original plat of Salem
[ View Image ]
Home | About | History Resources | SiteMap | Historic Photographs | Salem Public Library
Brief History Commerce © 2005-2006 Salem Public Library (Salem, OR) Culture Education Maps Natural History People Places Timeline Search Transportation