Leonard White was a steamboat captain that began his career in early Oregon at Salem. White was born in Indiana in 1827 and came to Oregon Territory in 1843 with his father James and mother. They took a 640 acre donation land claim in West Salem, Polk County in 1845. Leonard White married Gertrude Hall in Salem in 1853. Gertrude was one of the children survivors of the Whitman Massacre in 1848.
Captain Len White became a legendary pioneering riverboat captain on the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. Records suggest that he did his training in California on the Sacramento River during the gold rush, and then later returned to Oregon. He was the first to successfully navigate a stern wheeler to Corvallis, Harrisburg, and Eugene. He established a regular shipping route on the Willamette for several years. Captain White would hire Local Native men to help on his steamer. On one occasion, his Native man left the boat and demanded payment, which White refused to pay for a partial trip. The Indian Agent wrote him a letter that he needed to pay the Native man, regardless. Native men were good boatmen, were commonly hired to help in this early period, and well know the best and safest routes on the rivers.
By at least 1850 Leonard began his career navigating uncharted rivers between Oregon City and Salem.
White advertised in the Oregonian that the keel boat Salem Clipper had successfully navigated the river to Salem on October 31, 1850 and that he was available for runs above the falls to “any conceivable point above.”He was loading cargo at Canemah above the falls.
White’s advertisement of April 17, 1851 suggests that the river was charted by Oct 31, 1850. White’s accomplishment would have caught the attention of George Gibbs and Edmund A. Starling when they were searching for a map of the area to depict tribal boundaries and cessions. The map was referred to and marked on during the April 11-15 1851 treaty meetings between the Willamette Treaty Commission and the Kalapuyan and Molalla tribes of the Willamette Valley when they met at Champoeg. The Kalapuyans chiefs would gather about the map and point out where their territories were for Gibbs and Starling.
Monday morning: The morning was pretty much consumed in trying to get the exact boundaries of the territory claimed by this tribe. It was finally defined as clearly as it was possible, on a map prepared by Mr. Gibbs, from information obtained both from the chiefs and whites who are old settlers.[Original essay of this treaty]
The map legend states that they used a “survey by Leonard White of Salem” for the section of the Willamette River from the falls to Salem, and that the map was created following the negotiations with the Kalapuyan Indians of Oregon in April and May of that year.
The survey mentioned was likely a river navigation chart created by Captain White. It’s probable that previous to the negotiations, George Gibbs and Edward Starling met with Captain White and copied his map as the base map for the treaty negotiations. There were very few detailed maps made of the Willamette Valley within this time period. The first maps were plat maps of the various towns being settled. In 1846 there was a plat map created for Salem, Oregon. Riverboat captains would have to make river navigation maps to show where the safe river channels were in this early period for their broader boats. Most rivers were subject to regular flooding and containing lots of woody debris in the main channels. For this reason, it was only safe to travel by canoe, until the woody debris, logs, and even rocks and boulders were dragged from or blasted from the river using dynamite, by settlers and river travel entrepreneurs. Once the rivers were cleared of debris, the steamers and barges could be used to transport agricultural products from the farms to Oregon City and its mills, and passengers would have safe passage up and down the rivers. Many steamers carried passengers and cargo.
Following his early success in opening the majority of the Willamette to riverboat travel, Captain White piloted the sternwheelers Fenix and Canemah out of Canemah until 1856, when he became pilot of the Clinton. Many of the early steamboats were built at Canemah, and there was also a boat works at Milwaukee, Oregon.
He navigated on the Willamette until 1858 when he took assignment on the sternwheeler Colonel Wright, built at the mouth of the Deschutes River. He became the first to navigate this type of craft above Celilo Falls. In preparation, Captain White spent some time studying the upper Columbia and learned its dangers, then aided by a sail the steamer, made it to Wallula and back without incident. In 1861 he piloted the Colonel Wright up the Snake River to become the first to making a landing at what was to become Lewiston. In 1863 Captain White captained the steamer Cayuse as far as the Grand Ronde River. That year he bought an interest in the Cascadilla from W.H. Gray. In 1865 he was captain of the Forty-Niner which reached further up the upper Columbia than ever before, to Little Arrow Lake, British Columbia, where he met ice.
White continued to operate the Forty-niner on the upper river until he took ill in 1869. In 1869 White traveled to San Francisco for a cure. He returned to Portland in 1870 where he died. Captain Len White remains one of the greatest steamboat captains in the annals of river travel in the Northwest.
This essay is an expanded version of the OE entry which I wrote a few years ago
I draw up various other references I have found to Len White in various sources and readings about steamboat building and river navigation. The references to the payment of the Native Man is in Federal Indian affairs records.
The most recent find was the 1852 GLO map that clears depicts the James White DLC in West Salem.
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.