October 25, 2004
What, you’ve never heard about the only Revolutionary War veteran buried in the state of Oregon? The first blacksmith and millwright at Fort Vancouver? The not so good hunter who finally brought down a buffalo only to be treed by a grizzly b’ar on his triumphant way back to camp?
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William Cannon was all of these and more. Very little is known of his early years but most historians agree that he was born in 1755 in the territory near Pittsburgh which was claimed by both Virginia and Pennsylvania. With this beginning, he seemed destined to always live his life in disputed territory. In later years he told his friends that he had been in the Revolutionary War battle of King’s Mountain in 1780 and at Cowpens in 1781. A natural mechanic, he probably spent his first 25 years learning the blacksmith and millwright trades. In the army he was probably an artificer (mechanic).
In 1810 Cannon was a soldier at one of the frontier outposts and was at Fort Mackinac, at the juncture of Lakes Michigan and Huron, when Wilson Price Hunt was forming an overland party to go to the mouth of the Columbia River. Hunt was a partner of John Jacob Astor, New York fur merchant, who thought he would settle the ongoing political and commercial border disputes by himself becoming King of the Pacific fur trade. Another group would go by sea aboard Astor’s ship Tonquin. That story has been magnificently told, of course, in Washington Irving’s Astoria published in 1836 and still in print.
Irving’s one and only mention of Cannon on that trip concerned his ineptness as a hunter. Now Cannon was a great mechanic and doubtless knew how to fix guns, but he didn’t know how to operate them very well, and for this took a lot of raillery from his friends. He would go off by himself to practice and one day, to his great delight, he brought down a buffalo. Cutting out a few choice parts, he bundled them up and started proudly back to camp. Suddenly he heard behind him a loud Wauughh! and turned to face a grizzly bear. He dropped the meat and ran–dropped the rifle and climbed a tree, because grizzlies are not very good a climbing trees.They are, however, powerful good at waiting beneath them for long periods of time. Night fell, Cannon couldn’t see but imagined that Ursa Major was still there. Finally, dawn came and the bear (with the meat) was gone, so he climbed down, recovered his gun and went back to camp. Finally, on Feb12, 1812 ffter many other adventures the Overland Astorians finally reached the mouth of the Columbia River and the little fort–Astoria–that had been built by the men of the Tonquin. Along the way they had been the first white party to travel what would become the Oregon Trail, from American Falls to the Dalles. Cannon was first assigned to Willamette Post, near Salem, OR where he bacame one of the first Americans on the French Prairie, near Champoeg, along with Alexander Carson and John Day.
But the war of 1812 dashed all of Astor’s high hopes for the fur trade and Astoria was sold to the Northwest Company. Cannon, among others, chose to stay with the NW Company, and spent ten years with them, as employee in the summer and free trapper in the winter. In 1821, the NW Company and Hudson’s Bay finally merged, and by 1824 Cannon found himself building Fort Vancouver under the direction of Hudson Bay’s new chief factor, John McLoughlin.
By this time he was 69 years old, but apparently still strong and valuable for his skills as a millwright and blacksmith. He created the fort’s first grist mill by gouging a depression in a stump for a mortar and hanging a heavy wooden pestle from a “spring – pole device.” It must have been something like a CB Antenna. He later carved the framework and gears for a larger mill and cut millstones from the local hillside. He also built a sawmill powered by an overshot wheel. He became superintendent of the mills, as well as the blacksmith shop and, in his own domain, was certainly at the top of the pay scale.
All this time Oregon was slowly being settled by a melange of French Canadian and British HBC retirees, American missionaries and businessmen. Cannon had apparently retired from HBC in 1836 and was living and working around Champoeg. Somewhere along the line he married a Chinook woman, but nothing is known about this relationship and he has no descendants.(Since first writing this story more information has come to light. Jim Tompkins found the 1846 will of William Johnson Another early settler in which he conditionally leaves part of his estate to the “son of William Cannon”. Subsequent to that George Brown gave me a copy of the baptism records of Rev. Herbert Beaver at Champoeg, which notes the baptism of John Cannon, son of William Cannon and Polly Clackamas. It was the custom to create a surname for the native by using their tribal name. Nothing further on this matter has surfaced as of Nov. 2003
By 1841 sizeable communities had grown up around French Prairie and Oregon City. In 1838, a petition had been sent to Washington to extend US jurisdiction over Oregon, but nothing was done. The death of Master Trapper Ewing Young finally forced the community into decisive action. Young, in a few short years, had become the wealthiest landowner in the area, and his estate needed some kind of administration. At that time William Cannon was appointed as a Justice of the Peace.
In 1843 a series of meetings was held about the problem of wolves in the area. After the regular meeting, a secret meeting was held by a select few to talk about forming a government. Would the territory be Independent, British, or American? On May 2, 1843, that question was answered. After a heated debate the vote was 52 – 50 in favor of an American provisional government. William Cannon was one of the 52. An obelisk with Cannon’s name on it stands at the spot of that meeting at Champoeg State Park. There is also a plaque to his honor in the DAR cabin at the park.
William Cannon died in 1854, at 99 years of age, and was buried by Bishop Francis Norbert Blanchet in the old cemetery at St. Paul Oregon. The Sons and Daughters of the Revolution researched Cannon and in 1991 a gravestone was erected in the cemetery at St. Paul, declaring him to be the only Revolutionary War soldier buried in Oregon. That 1991 headstone was only a temporary piece of plywood and fell apart a few years later, leaving the grave unmarked for several years. However, on April 12, 2003 an official U.S. Army headstone was erected to Cannon’s honor. it should be there forever.