Oregon Pioneer Biographies



By Roger Knowles Thompson



"A most unprovoked murder was committed at the house of Mr. Bonser of Sauvies Island, the 19th inst. a man by the name of Turner stabbing Mr. Edward A. Bradbury, formerly a resident of Cincinnati, some seven times, five of which were in the abdomen, and either of which would have caused his death. The affair occurred on Sunday about 9 o'clock A.M.; he died the following morning. Turner became jealous of the attentions of Mr. Bradbury to a young lady of Mr. Bonser. The latter was a son, The Oregonian learns, of C.M. Bradbury, Esq.; owner of Bradbury's Mills, Cincinnati, Ohio. Turner was formerly of Kentucy."

Creed Turner was hanged shortly after in Washington County and his trial and hanging was one of the earliest hangings under American government.

In 1852, it was apparent there was a need for a road to the rich farm lands on the Hillsborough Plains to the North, both to furnish a route for produce to the river, and to establish adjacent St. Helens as a head for trade. Several communities were growing along the river, the chief being Portland and St. Helen's, and competition was fierce for influence, John and the residents of the eastern part of the island, of course, promoting St. Helens because of its proximity. All the island residents were forced to pass to Portland or St Helens for supplies and it was a long hard pull by rowboat.

A road was pushed over the hills bordering the Willamette Slough starting at Caseno near St. Helens and ending at Hillsborough, its purpose to entice the farmers in the Hillsborough valley to ship at St. Helens. John was a principle in the enterprise and served as one of the official viewers. St. Helens eventually lost the competition, but the road is still there, the present St. Helens-Hillsboro road following the route most of the way.

The Bonser families young men were feeling the want of eligible young women, and John's nephew, Hilton Bonser in 1851 determined to return to Scioto County, Ohio, to seek a wife. He was successful, and returned in 1852 with the Henry Thomas family who had started on the trail from Illinois, and had five eligible young women, more old Scioto County neighbors, and the Knox and Copeland families, many who were to intermarry with the Bonsers. He was also able to persuade his brother Clinton Bonser to accompany him. In the same immigration came the Abner Armstrong family, and two of Abner's sons were to also marry into the family. Most of the 1852 arrivals who settled on Sauvies Island were housed by John and Rebecca until they could establish themselves, and Marquis De Lafayette Armstrong and his brother Daniel Boone Armstrong took a donation land claim on Oak Island across Sturgeon Lake across from the Bonser farm. A flurry of marriages took place in the next few years, and each family began establishing their own household, nearly all at Sauvies Island or in Clarke county.

In the fall of 1856 the Yakima Indian War broke out, and John, his sons and nephews responded, as was noted in one of his obituaries.

"Mr. Bonser alive to every generous impulse and line of duty furnished the volunteers with beef, bacon, horses, cattle, etc., to the amount of $3000 or more at moderate prices for which he has not received payment to this day. Early in 1856 the writer, who was then volunteer QuarterMaster at Vancouver employed him as wagon master. While serving in this capacity, the Indians made an attack upon the Cascades, which was then defenseless, killing and wounding 19 of the few whites there. A company was hastily formed in Portland under Capt. S. J. Powell for relief of the Cascades.

The steamer Fashion, which conveyed this company stopped at Vancouver for supplies, and Mr. Bonser joined the force, and, although then 52 years of age, was the first to leap ashore when the point of danger was reached. He afterward was wagon master under Col. Shaw until the end of the war."(H. R. H. 1893 Vancouver Columbian.)

John was to attempt to recover his contributions to the volunteers for the next 30 years in company with others who had financed the war. But while the volunteers were later awarded pensions, the petitioners were never successful.

For the next decade, John built up his claim, and his sons and nephews married and left home. He and Rebecca continued their hospitality. The race track was still a popular gathering place and it was always known that a "brown jug" was kept on the front porch. A notable feature of Bonser life at this time was the abundance of children. John and Rebecca were known to take in orphaned children, and it was said that at one time, between the Hilton Bonser family, then living In one of the two Bonser houses, and John's children and grandchildren there were over 25 little ones on the farm. Johns two youngest daughters, Hannah and Abigail, were coming to marriageable age, and several accounts say they were beautiful, and contemporary photos bear this out. His two youngest daughters were the apple of John's eye; which did not prevent a steady succession of young men from seeking their hand.

The social life of the Bonsers was oriented primarily to those on the Western end of Sauvies Island and to those families who had settled the northern banks of the Columbia, and at the mouth of the Lewis River. Access to those across the river by boat was easier in many cases than passing overland to the Eastern neighbors. Over the years a social rift was to grow between the eastern and western settlers on the island those in the west end being generally democrats, Catholics and Episcopalians and those on the eastern end republican and Presbyterian. It must not be implied that religious differences were a major factor, as no church was ever built on the island, and the only clergy were circuit riders.

By the 1870's there was some friction between the different families. As an example, Lewis Bonser had married Eveline Reeder from a well-known family whose claim was located just East of the Bonsers, and who were oriented to the upper island. It was not a marriage made in heaven and resulted in many bad feelings, and the Reeders and Bonsers did not speak afterwards. It was vaguely felt on the eastern side of the island that the westerners were crude frontiersmen, and as Portland became dominant and wealthy, those on the adjacent Eastern end prospered, while the western end of the Island became more isolated. The houses built on the eastern portion were certainly more elegant, as is evidenced by the Bybee-Howell House preserved by the Oregon Historical Society.

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Copyright © 1998 by Jan Phillips

Last updated 21 August 2014.