Hidden history: Boone family made their mark on Portland
Fans of tall tales from the early days of western expansion would be amiss to think the myths and stories surrounding frontiersman Daniel Boone are the only colorful stories regarding the Boone family, the namesake clan for Boones Landing in Oregon (later to be named Wilsonville).
When Boone's grandson Alphonso decided to emigrate to Oregon in 1846, the tall tales only continued, confusing the city's origin story.
In the condensed, Wikipedia-lite version of Boones Landing and its namesake family, Alphonso Boone and his adult sons crossed the Oregon Trail, made large homestead claims along the Willamette River near the community of Butteville, established a ferry (and built a road to Portland from said ferry).
Then some of the Boones spent a year or more in the California gold mines where Alphonso died before the remaining family members returned to Boones Landing to farm and run the ferry until Jesse was killed by a fellow farmer and the other Boone children dispersed.
Or, maybe not.
The details are fuzzy
"We have very few letters or documentation to verify anything," said Boone descendent Janet Boone McGarrigle of Wilsonville. "There's no way to prove or disprove any of the stories. There are so many versions."
While we can't say any of the stories are wrong, unequivocally, we can say that there seems to be some of it (that has) considerably more to the story than is commonly known.
Wilsonville Boones Ferry Historical Society Secretary Doris Olsen has been trying to get to the bottom of some of the discrepancies in the Boone family history as part of a project to prepare a Wilsonville history display in the Clackamas County administrative building in Oregon City.
"I've been going through all of our files, and things just weren't adding up," Olsen said. In particular, by whom and exactly when the Boones Ferry was instituted was her mission to discover since even the histories cited by Boone family members didn't agree. She was joined in this quest by Charlotte Lehan, society member and passionate historian.
"I found an account by someone who stayed with Jesse when he first started the ferry, (and there were) a lot more mentions about Jesse and the ferry than Alphonso and the ferry. The family didn't arrive until December 1846, so doesn't seem likely they'd already have a ferry in 1947," Olsen said.
According to documents unearthed by Lehan, the family didn't actually arrive in the Butteville area until the spring of 1847.
"My father wanted my sister and I to get involved in Boone history in the worst way when we were young, but, of course, we wanted nothing to do with it," McGarrigle said. She and her sister Carolyn are descended from Jesse Boone.
Things we do know (or think we do): Alphonso Boone, a middle-age widower for eight years before emigration, left Missouri in 1846 with seven of his eight children (George was working away from home at the time; he joined them later).
Also emigrating with them was Alphonso's sister Pathea, her husband, Lilburn Boggs, and their nine kids.
In Kansas, the Boone/Boggs party (with others) was joined by another large party, the Donners (this group split from the Boones in Wyoming to take another route — with catastrophic results well-documented in the history books). The Boggs family split from them in Idaho and headed south to California.
The Boones took the new Applegate Trail, which still had snow in fall, so they did not reach the Willamette Valley until Christmas 1846, where they camped for the winter. In February, Jesse filed a Provisional Land Claim while in Polk County.
Finally in Oregon
In spring 1847, the family traveled downriver to the French Prairie area. Many histories say Alphonso had a land claim of 1,000 acres, but Land Donation Act claims were limited to 640 acres per married couple — and the Land Donation Act was not adopted until 1850 anyway, so any "claim" was more likely squatting in anticipation of future homesteading. The Land Donation Act recognized land grants made between 1848-1850. No evidence of a land grant in Alphonso's name has been found but a letter written by George infers that a family member later took it over.
According to State of Oregon records, Jesse filed a provisional land claim in Clackamas (Champoeg) County in July 1847 and another in September.
None of the Boone men were married in 1847, when they arrived in Butteville, or even in 1850, when the Land Donation Act was made official, so they would have only been entitled to 320 acres each, so the oft-repeated tale of 1,000-acre homesteads is unlikely.
An 1855 land donation claim map of the area (claims were recorded consecutively as they were recorded) shows no claim for Alphonso and, a 633-acre claim for Jesse south of the ferry site that was filed immediately before the claim of George Law Curry, his brother-in-law, in the future Charbonneau area.
In 1883, a Butteville resident named Judge Grimm told the Daily Astorian newspaper that he learned of the gold rush from Jesse Boone in October of 1847.
So less than one year after arriving in the Butteville area, some of the Boone family men left the area to follow the gold rush into California. Only three daughters remained in Oregon; Lucy was only 11, Chloe married within a year, and Mary already was married to a man who immigrated with them. Mary and her family settled in Benton County.
Deaths and some mysteries
If indeed the Boone men had time in that first year to prove up land claims and establish a ferry, it is unknown who operated it until they returned from California in 1850 (1851 was the year Jesse married a girl from the Corvallis area where the family sheltered their first winter in Oregon), or indeed how Jesse's land claim was kept secure with no family present.
Lehan finds it suspect that the Boone family would incur the expense of establishing a ferry with landings at property where they had no title, making the cited 1847 founding of the ferry dubious, even if they had found the time to set it up.
Alphonso died in 1850 in California of an unspecified illness.
Some histories cite Alphonso Jr. as running the ferry in its early years, but he was only 10 when the family arrived in Butteville, so that seems unlikely. Wikipedia — citing the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center as a source — says, "Initially Alphonso Jr. operated the ferry, but soon sold it to his brother Jesse, who operated it until his death in 1872 at the hand of a neighbor over a river access dispute."
Even Jesse's untimely death has mysteries associated with it. According to the Oregon Enterprise newspaper of March 29, 1872: "… the trouble originated about some sheep getting into Mr. Boone's pasture and Mr. Engel went there to drive them out. In doing so, he was about to drive out some belonging to Mr. Boone; when Mr. Boone's son told him to leave their sheep in the pasture. Mr. Engel made threats against the boy and told him he would shoot him, at the same time advancing towards him with his gun cocked. The boy, about 16 years of age, alarmed, ran to the bank of the river where his father was and informed him of Engel's threat …immediately came up and as they met, Engel fired the shot taking effect in Mr. Boone's face and breast, three shots entering the heart. … There were persons present at the time of the shooting. … No evidence was offered by the defense. … Engel is a bachelor in comfortable circumstances, having a farm of 500 acres of land, considerable stock and by many it is believed that he has several thousand dollars buried somewhere."
By May 10, Boone's killer, Jacob Engel, was convicted of second-degree murder and by July Engel also was dead from an unknown cause in the Oregon Penitentiary.
Keeping the memory alive
Jesse's fate after death also is unknown, because even though several of his children were buried in a local pioneer cemetery, there is no stone for Jesse, nor is any found elsewhere on any database for Oregon burials.
Early this summer, Olsen got wind of a possible "burial" site for Jesse Bonne, when a local history Facebook page published a photo of a "found" stone marker in Portland. After some sleuthing due to a confusing address, she finally found the stone, nestled next to the road between the Beth Israel and River View cemeteries in Portland at the northern terminus of Boones Ferry Road.
"A woman said her husband was clearing brush and found it," Olsen said. "She was annoyed that the city of Portland would put up a marker, then ignore it." But as it turned out, the city didn't not place the stone, which says it was installed by members of the Boones Family Association in 1937.
Lehan, a dedicated "grave dowser" who can find unmarked burials, is convinced both Jesse Boone and his wife, Elizabeth, are buried in Butteville with their children, despite the lack of markers.
"The Boones lost two children in 1869, and three of their children are buried there. Why would they be buried anywhere else?" she said. To complicate matters, in 1894 the Butteview cemetery — and all of its residents — were relocated to a new site.
"My dad's Aunt Myrtle was responsible for installing that marker," McGarrigle said. "She was quite a bit older than my dad and was very interested in keeping the family and its history together." McGarrigle's father used to keep the overgrowth from swallowing up the marker, and after his death she took over the task for several years, even planting some flowers. But it's been at least a decade since she's done any maintenance on the marker, McGarrigle said.
What is known is that Jesse Boone kept the family's enterprising nature intact after his return from the gold mines — if indeed he did go. In 1863 he announced plans to sell $75,000 in $100 shares in an enterprise to "macadamize" (an early paving technique) his self-named Boones Ferry Road, previously topped as a corduroy road, with logs set perpendicular to the direction of the road. It's unknown whether this business was successful.
Today, the website for the Boone Society (with membership composed of descendants and historians) still says of the Wilsonville Boones: "Alphonso established the Boone's Ferry north of Salem on the Boones Ferry Road. Alphonso and his sons located on adjoining tracts of 1,000 acres of land."
Jesse is never mentioned by name.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.