Old Pioneer of 1842

Morning Oregonian, March 6, 1898

Sketch of Sidney W. Moss, of Oregon City

Some of the Experiences in the Life of a Rugged Frontiersman of Ripe Years.

Sidney W. Moss has been a resident of Oregon City since September 26, 1842, and he is one of the very few surviving Oregon imigrants of that year.


He has been regarded as an old man ever since he came to Oregon, but says he was born less than 88 years ago in Paris, Bourbon County, Ky., his birthday being March 17, 1810. His parents were well-to-do people; indeed, they became as rich as people in Kentucky got to be those days, owning slaves and vast estates. But for some reason they indentured their son, at the age of 4 years, to William Purnell, a stonecutter and mason, who resided in the adjoining county of Fleming. Mrs. Purnell was a sister of Jeff Davis’ father, and a woman of considerable force of character, though illiterate. The Purnells had no children of their own, and they were gald to adopt so promising a lad as young Moss, treating him as a member of the family. They managed to send him to school nine months in the little log schoolhouse at Flemingsburg, where Jeff Davis, who was a year older than Moss, was among his mates. And as evidence of the old pioneer’s singular modesty he tells not a tale of “thrashing” or outspelling Jeff in those budding days.

“I was raised by good democrats,” he says, “and I came as near to worshiping Andrew Jackson as I ought to come to worshiping God Almighty.”

Young Moss served his apprenticeship as stonecutter in Maysville, and then he engaged in railroading and building bridges and locks in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. Finally he left his native state to take charge of the stonecutting and masonry at Fort Smith, Ark., where fortifications were being constructed by the government. Finishing his work there, he left, April 15, 1842, intending to go with William Bird Powell to assist in a geological survey of the Rocky mountains. In May he arrived at Independence, Mo., and found that plans for the surveying trip had been changed, and he concluded to join an emigration party for Oregon then forming there. About all the specific information he had of Oregon was that a Dr. McLoughlin had located a claim at the falls of the Willamette and planted an orchard. So he became one of the company that came over the plains and mountains to Oregon, the members of which have made much history for the state.

“My first employment in Oregon City,” said Mr. Moss to an Oregonian reporter, “was cutting cordwood. I cut and put up the first cord of wood ever put up in Oregon; it was to make a coal kiln for Hugh Burns. My next job was to build a large house on Kaiser’s prairie, near where Salem is now located. In the summer of 1843 I cut a crop of wheat from land where Salem now is. In 1844 I began to build my first hotel in Oregon City. The first part was small, and I continued to add to it till 1847, when it was completed, a two story building 68×105 feet. Then I built a storehouse and commenced selling goods.

“At that time there was no wholesale house in Oregon, and I could only get a small lot of goods at a time when some sailing vessel would arrive. I took into partnership Henry A. G. Lee and sent him East with $63,000 in gold dust to buy goods. He spent some time in the East, and died at Panama on his way home. My daughter, who was with him, brought his trunk and effects, with $110 as all that remained of my money, and no goods bought. Afterward I paid a note for $1,000 to James P. Hyatt, of Wall Street, which Lee had given for borrowed money.

“I assisted with the compass I had intended to use on the Rocky mountain trip, in surveying the town; I dug the first well, built the first hotel, ran the first livery stable, dug the first stump and made the first board fence in the town, and I built and ran the first ferry-boat on the Willamette River. All of this I did with my own hands, unaided by any one.”

And the old man is very proud of this record.

Mr. Moss’ career in Oregon City has been mostly that of tavern-keeper and merchant. He was shrewd and an active business man, and has accumulated a valuable estate, which, however, did not remain with him. For more than a decade he has been unable to do any regular work, and has made his home with his daughter, Mrs. Theodore W. Clarke.

Mr. Moss’ first wife was a niece of President Zachary Taylor, Rebecca, daughter of Thomas Taylor. She died in Cincinnati, Ohio, leaving three children. Two of the children died in the East, but the third, Minerva, came to Oregon and, on New Year’s day, 1852 married Lieutenant Gustavus Harrison, a grandson of President W. H. Harrison. In Oregon City, Mr. Moss married a Mrs. Richardson, who left him three children, two of whom, Walter and Honora (Mrs. Clarke) survive.

Though reared in a good democratic family, young Moss had a mind of his own, and he soon became a whig. He was editor of the Piqus, Ohio, Gazette for five years, including the two Harrison campaigns. The first time he supported Harrison, but Van Buren won. In the next campaign, Moss went to see the general and told him frankly that he would not vote for him.

“Why, I have been relying a great deal on the support of your paper, and would be sorely disappointed if it should fail me,” said Harrison.

“Ah,” responded Moss, “the paper will support you as usual, I merely said I would not vote for you.”

But Harrison was elected then.

The religious convictions of Mr. Moss were always far from orthodox. He was open, brusque of manner, vigorous rather than over-refined, and anything savoring of the hypocritical received his sternest displeasure. The needy pioneer could always reckon Moss for assistance. When he had grown to manhood, he returned home to visit his mother, whom he had not seen since he went to live with the Purnells. His father had died and his mother had married a man who was a long-faced, straight-laced, sanctimonious Methodist, and staked his religion all on stubborn fasts and stated prayers. Sidney not only was not “saved” and he had ways that enabled his associates to discover the fact very soon. When the young man was upon his horse ready to mount, his stepfather presented him a Bible, and besought him in a final appeal to turn from his worldly habits. He drew a vivid picture of the torments of the damned, and showed with orthodox conclusiveness the certainty that all the unregenerates would have that portion.

“Father,” said Sidney, respectfully, “do you really think that all who do not believe as you do will go to hell?”

“I certainly do, my son” said the old man, “Why, there can be no doubt about it, it is in holy writ, and -”

“Then all I’ve got to say,” interrupted the young man, “Is that you must have a rousing, great, big hell.”

And he rode away unconverted.


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