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
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. <http://www.open.org/~pioneerc/pg48.html#WillChlo7317>
June 8, 2004.