Today’s post is about Dr. Perry Elgin Prettyman, the brother of my 4th-great-grandfather, and the uncle of Alfred Wharton Prettyman, the subject of a recent post. Perry was, by all accounts, an intelligent and hard-working man. Among other things, he was a medical doctor who specialized in herbal medicine, a pioneer, and an inventor. He was also the man who was quite possibly single-handedly responsible for introducing dandelions to the Pacific Northwest. More on that later.
Perry Prettyman, like two centuries of Prettymans before him, was born in Sussex County, Delaware. He was born on March 20, 1796, in Georgetown, Delaware, to Thomas and Mary Prettyman. He married Elizabeth Hammond Vessels in Georgetown on October 23, 1824. A couple of years later, in 1828, he began studying medicine at the Botanic Medical School in Baltimore, Maryland.
Perry and some of his siblings, for whatever reason, made the decision to leave Delaware and head west to seek their futures. His brother Robert headed to westernmost Virginia (now West Virginia), and another brother headed to Chicago. Perry arrived in Missouri in 1839, and stayed there for eight years. On May 7, 1847, he and his family started west again, traveling by wagon over the Oregon Trail to the Oregon Territory, a journey that took them five months and three days to complete.
Stephenie Flora described the Oregon Trail journey of Perry and his family on her site Emigrants To Oregon In 1847:
[Led by] Capt. John William Bewley: started out. Left Independence, MO on May 7, 1847. It joined later with the Cornlius Smith train that had left from St. Joseph, MO per an account by John Cullen. Capt. Bewley was elected the permanent Captain after a shakedown period of several days. Included in the party were the Isaac Bewley family, the Campbells, Crisps, Danforths, Greens, Prettymans, Youngs, and the Victor Wallace family. This train appears to have joined up at some point with the rear company of the Oskaloosa split led by Capt. Kees.
There appears to have been a split because a portion of this train joined up with the Rev. Jolly train at Ft. Bridger. Five months and three days after leaving Independence they had their first view of the Columbia. On Oct 10, 1847 they camped at the mouth of the Umatilla and the next morning the party began to separate and follow different paths. Some of the members of the train chose to go to the Whitman Mission where they became embroiled in the Whitman Massacre.
Sarah Hunt Steeves, in her 1927 Book of Remembrance of Marion County, Oregon, Pioneers, gives additional details about the party with which Dr. Prettyman and his family travelled the Oregon Trail (pages 137–138):
Of the party to start across the plains from the McKinney farm in 1847, many came from St. Joseph and other places. Of this company were a Mr. Doty; John and Hugh Harrison, with their families; Hadley Hobson and family; Mr. Thompkins and family; Dr. Prettyman and family; the two McKinneys; Rev. John McKinney, William McKinney and wife Matilda; a Mr. Davis, who was hauling a set of mill burrs across the plains; Mr. Luellyn who had planted an embryo nursery in a wagon bed…; Dick Adams, and a Major Magoon, with many others. The company numbered about one hundred wagons, with Major Magoon in charge… Very soon, however, dissension arose over who should be officers… caused the train to divide into ten groups of ten wagons each, with Major Magoon as head over all companies. Each ten wagons elected a captain and thus they were enabled to travel with more harmony… Rev. John McKinney was chosen captain of the ten wagons comprising the two of the McKinneys, Mr. Davis…, Mr. Doty, the Harrisons, Hobsons, Dr. Prettyman, Thompkins, the Luellyn family with the nursery stock and Major Magoon.” When his father was sick, William McKinney acted as captain.
Fred Lockley, a columnist for The Oregon Journal newspaper in the early 1900s, interviewed Perry’s son Henry White Prettyman and published some of the interview in his column, “In Earlier Days,” on June 11, 1914:
In talking with [Perry Prettyman’s] son, H.W. Prettyman… he told me many interesting facts about his father:
“I was 8 years old when we started for Oregon in the spring of 1847. There were nearly 5,000 immigrants on the road in 1847, so grass was short. Our wagon train stopped at Waillatpu to rest a few days, and while we were there, Dr. Whitman hired some of (us) to stay and work for him. Among others were Miss Bewley and her brother, Crockett Bewley. He was to help at carpenter work and Miss Bewley was to teach. You know what happened within a few weeks. Dr. and Mrs. Whitman and many of the others with them were murdered. Miss Bewley was taken to the lodge of Five Crows where she stayed until ransomed by Peter Skeen Ogden, the chief factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who rescued all of the survivors of the Whitman party and brought them down the Columbia in batteaux to Vancouver. Several years later I stood beside Miss Bewley at Oregon City and watched Sheriff Joe Meek hang five of the murderers…
“When we got to Oregon in the fall of 1847, father started to look the country over for a good location. He went up to the Puget Sound country, but after looking the whole country over for nearly two years he selected Portland as he thought it was apt to be the head of navigation on the river. He took up a donation land claim three miles back from the river on the east side…
Dr. Perry Prettyman claimed a homestead under the Donation Land Claim Act, and built a log cabin on that land in what is now East Portland. His land can be seen at the top right of the earliest township and range public land survey of the area (which was conducted from 1851–1855):
Because he was married, he and his wife Elizabeth were allowed to claim a full square mile, or 640 acres. I’ve overlain the boundaries of their homestead claim on a modern map of Portland to give you an idea of just how large the homestead was:
The Prettyman homestead was just west of Mount Tabor. Grant Nelson, in his article The early years of Mt. Tabor, stated:
Perry Prettyman’s farm, valued at $3,800, was the most valuable property in the Mt. Tabor area in 1860. Prettyman was well aware of the prospective worth of his property. He told his sons, “I shall live to see this land worth $100 an acre; you will live to see it worth more.” Before his death in 1872, it was worth over $300 an acre.
But what about the dandelions?
Fred Lockley, the columnist for The Oregon Journal who interviewed Perry’s son Henry White Prettyman and wrote about the Prettyman family’s journey to Oregon, had this to say on June 11, 1914, in a column feature he titled “Do you know how the dandelion came to Oregon?”
When the pioneers came to the Williamette Valley in the early 1840s, there was no red clover or white clover or dandelions or many other plants and weeds and flowers which we now see on all sides.
Dr. Perry Prettyman, one of Portland’s pioneer physicians, is the god-father of the dandelion in Oregon. He was born in 1796 in Delaware… At Baltimore… he studied medicine and became a botanical doctor, whose only medicines were made of herbs and barks and plants. In 1839 he moved to Missouri and in the spring of 1847 he with his family started for Oregon. He took a donation land claim in what is now East Portland and built a log cabin at what is now the head of Hawthorne Avenue. He needed dandelions in the practice of his profession, but was unable to find any. After a year’s unsuccessful search he sent back to Missouri and secured some seed, which he planted in his garden and carefully tended. How well they throve is attested by the millions of their smiling golden faces seen in every lawn and vacant lot, every country lane and woodland path throughout the valley.
The dandelion story has been told and retold many times over the past 140 years. I’ll share just a few of these with you below.
A very short mention was made in The Chehalis Bee-Nugget on July 3, 1931:
The full page that includes the above article:
The story was mentioned in a short piece that appeared in Portland’s Oregonian newspaper on October 18, 1936:
Lucile McDonald wrote an article titled Settlers brought weeds that was printed in the Seattle Daily Times on April 20, 1952:
The full page that includes the above article:
In 1989, Eugene Snyder published We claimed this land: Portland’s pioneer settlers. That book contained an essay on pages 207–209 entitled The doctor and the dandelion:
He seemed like such a pleasant man—kind, intelligent—and in many ways he was. And yet Dr. Perry Prettyman did this terrible thing. Of course, he thought he was doing “good.” But that, probably, could be said of every perpetrator of evil—they always think they are doing the right thing. One wonders if Dr. Prettyman saw the awful results of his act before he died, and repented of his folly. He lived only 25 years after he introduced the first dandelions into Oregon. But that should have been long enough. As every householder knows, dandelions multiply very rapidly and it must have been apparent to him, by the time he died in 1872, that he had released a malevolent genie.
Dr. Prettyman, his wife (nee Elizabeth Vessels), and their children arrived in Oregon in December 1847. He was then 51 years old. They made the journey across the plains from Missouri, but they were originally from Delaware, where Perry Prettyman was born in 1796. Perry graduated from a school in Baltimore called the “Botanic Medical School,” whence came his title “Doctor.” That school taught the use of herbs, barks, and plants to make medicines. It was there that he acquired his unfortunate devotion to dandelions, which have long been used in Europe and Asia as a tonic—the leaves make “greens” and the flowers and roots make “tea.” This prolific weed came to America from Europe. It was brought by the colonists, who also brought smallpox. By the middle of the nineteenth century, dandelions had reached Missouri. It was from there that Dr Prettyman brought the seeds to Oregon. Dandelions would have got here anyway (by seeds caught in the cuffs of pioneers’ trousers, perhaps, or by birds or on the wings of the winds), but not so quickly or deliberately. If Dr. Prettyman had foreseen their fierce reproductivity, he might have kept them under lock in a guarded greenhouse.
Dr. Prettyman was a man of awesome energy (presumably a great advertisement for his herbs and tonics!). Upon reaching Oregon, he began exploring the Northwest to decide where to “settle.” He visited many localities, including the Puget Sound area—all this on horseback. He chose Portland because he guessed, correctly, that it was at the head of ocean navigation and would become a large city. I suppose we are glad he settled here! The 621-acre claim he selected is on the west slope of Mt. Tabor. It is bounded today by 41st, 60th, Stark and Division streets. The Prettyman family settled there in March 1850. The doctor built a log cabin at what later became the head of Hawthorne Boulevard. From there, he cut a three-mile trail to the Willamette River. His trail’s route approximated the present-day line of Hawthorne Boulevard, and it ended at a point on the river bank from which a “ferry” made crossings to the village of Portland, on the opposite bank of the river. The ferry (it was a row-boat) was operated by “Uncle” Jimmy Stephens (as he was called). He was another of our original DLC settlers.
In a 2012 article in The Southeast Examiner, entitled The history of Western Seminary, Don MacGillivray stated:
…Hawthorne Boulevard was not Prettyman’s only contribution to the landscape in southeast Portland. Planning to research its medicinal qualities, Prettyman brought dandelion seeds with him when he moved west, and the plants quickly escaped his property line.
Grant Nelson, in his undated article The early years of Mt. Tabor, stated:
Probably a naturopath rather than an M.D., he had studied medicine at the Botanic Medical School in Baltimore. We have Prettyman to thank for that nemesis of the green lawn—the dandelion—for it was he who introduced that plant to the Northwest, having brought it here from Missouri for medicinal purposes. Prettyman practiced medicine from the back of a horse up until his death in 1872.
The dandelion—its seeds serve as a fragile symbol of the fleeting nature of time, but the plant itself is a tenacious survivor. Perhaps Dr. Prettyman didn’t choose it to be his most enduring legacy, but I think he’d be happy to know it was.