Julie McDonald Commentary: From Portland to Centralia, Mary Jane Mills Made Lewis County History


After traveling west from Missouri over the Oregon Trail in 1847, early Lewis County settler Elkanah Mills staked a land claim in Clackamas County, Oregon, on May 5, 1848. That was the day after Matilda (Glover) Koontz, a recent widow, married John R. Jackson in Oregon City. Shortly afterward, the newlyweds, along with Matilda’s four young sons, traveled north of the Cowlitz River to his home, which he called Highland Farm.

In Oregon Territory, the Elkanah Mills family split up for a time.

“Father lived on the Clackamas River until the fall of 1848, then moved to Marion County,” Mary Jane (Mills) Brown recalled in reminiscences she wrote in the early 1900s. “He lived there and worked on the Daniel Waldo farm milking cows, and it was very cold in the Waldo hills. The California gold excitement raged that summer. Father got dissatisfied on the farm and wanted to move again. Mother and I wanted to go to California, but he didn’t, so he moved us back to Oregon City in the fall of 1849.”

While newcomers to Oregon Territory rushed south to California, those who remained in Oregon faced flooding.

“That winter we had terrible high water,” Brown wrote. “It swept away all the mills on the Clackamas River. My father, with several other men, built a raft of lumber and put the two families of us on board and floated down the Willamette to Oswego, and I went to the little school for a three-month term and that was all the schooling I ever got.”

Although she said 1849 is the year Portland was named, records show that William Overton and Asa Lovejoy started the city in 1843 when they filed a claim to land on the Willamette River’s west bank, and the name Portland was selected by a coin toss in 1845, which the proponent of Portland from Maine won over a fellow from Massachusetts who favored “Boston.” Earlier settlers referred to the community as Stumptown because of the thick forests of cedar, hemlock, fir and maple trees. The city of Portland was incorporated Feb. 8, 1851.

“Father took me that fall to visit Portland and all I could see or speak to was old Uncle Tommy Carter and his store just erected on the bank of the river, a small cabin set back about one hundred yards,” Brown wrote. “I tell you it was a very small city at that time. I could stand in one spot and shake hands with all the people in the city at that time, but I don’t think I could do it now.

“We went down to Portland in a small skiff boat floating with the tide as it went out and back home as the tide came up, so it wasn’t a very hard row for Father.”

While there, Elkanah Mills and two other men — Drew Forest and Robert Brown — built flat boats to carry the families and all their possessions down the Columbia River to the mouth of the Cowlitz.

They disembarked at Monticello (which today is Longview) in June 1851. For two weeks, Brown, a New York native who had crossed the Oregon Trail with the Mills family’s company, and the other men worked together to fashion small boats, pike poles, grass ropes and windlasses as well as other tools to push the families up the Cowlitz River. They were accompanied by George Washington, the Black man who founded the city of Centralia, and his foster parents, James and Anna Cochran.

After traveling more than 30 miles, they landed June 21, 1851, at Warbassport, named after Edward Warbass, just downriver from present-day Toledo. They followed the Cowlitz Trail north through Jackson Prairie (named after 1844 pioneer John R. Jackson) to what was called Mud Mountain, a hilly area above Saunders Bottom east of present-day Chehalis.

“There was nothing to speak of raised from the ground that year that the people could live on, but in the summertime, we could get wild berries and wild meats, which kept us from almost starving,” Mary Jane Brown recalled. “We all kept up good courage, and after a few years, times got better as more people moved into the country.”

In 1852, not long after arriving in Washington Territory’s Lewis County, Robert Brown and Mary Jane Mills made local history when they were the first couple married at the Jackson Courthouse. Robert, her father’s best friend, was 27; she was 14. According to Donna Tisdale Taylor, who wrote about the Elkanah Mills family for “Centralia: The First Fifty Years,” both Brown and Mary Jane’s father, Elkanah Mills, helped John R. Jackson and his stepsons, Henry and Barton Koontz, build the courthouse. 

Mary Jane Brown recalled wearing a good calico dress to church after preachers arrived in the country.

“The first sermon I ever heard was preached by Uncle Charley Biles (as we all called him),” she wrote.

Charles Biles, a Tennessee native who grew up in North Carolina, lived in Kentucky and then Illinois before traveling to Washington Territory in 1853 with his brother, James. Charles settled on the Grand Mound Prairie, where he farmed and sometimes preached as a Cumberland Presbyterian Church minister, according to https://accessgenealogy.com/illinois/biography-of-charles-biles.htm.

“Church was held in the old log house as what is familiarly known as the Vien Phillips farm, about two miles from Chehalis Station,” Mary Jane Mills Brown recalled, referring to the home of Sylvester “Vien” Phillips, a widower with two children who married John and Matilda Jackson’s eldest daughter, Mary. “That was in the years of 1854 and 1855. I was Mrs. Robert W. Brown then and Frances and James were babies.”

But life for settlers in Oregon and Washington Territories was about to grow quite turbulent, which I’ll write about next week.


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.