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Long before Ralph Raines, Washington County man was left penniless and outcast



When James Harvey McMillan arrived at the end of the Oregon Trail in 1845, a fortune teller might have seen a long life ahead of him, one that would bring him riches and glory.

But he would not have liked the ending to his story — the part where he dies penniless and despised by people who once idolized him in Washington County.

McMillan was a pious man and in 1845 he would not have sought the services of a fortune teller. Besides, he was too busy for such frivolity. Within days of arriving in Oregon City, he became friends with arguably the two most important men in the Oregon Territory: John McLoughlin, Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and George Abernethy, Oregon’s first provisional governor.

Abernethy and McLoughlin were merchants who needed flour to sell to the pioneers. McMillan was an expert millwright, having learned the trade in his native New York. Before long, his two powerful friends made McMillan a very wealthy man.

McMillan took a Donation Land Claim near Hillsboro on some of the richest farmland in Washington County. Then, in 1847, missionary Marcus Whitman was killed by Native Americans near Walla Walla, Wash., and his friends in Forest Grove and Oregon City organized a militia to avenge his death.

Abernethy and McLoughlin needed a man they could trust to shuttle orders and reports to and from the battlefront east of the Cascades. McMillan was their man, and before long he was “Captain” McMillan, and he was a famous war hero.

Then in 1856, at his farm near Hillsboro, Captain McMillan shot Andrew Jackson Masters in the face and left him to die a slow, painful death.

Masters was another of Washington County’s pioneers, and one of the most loved. The public was outraged. McMillan was a hated man.

But McMillan was a man with powerful friends, and he won acquittal in the courts. He did not win back the hearts of Washington County pioneers, however, so he packed up his belongings and moved to his new wife’s family land claim near Sullivan Gulch, across the Willamette River from downtown Portland. McMillan quickly helped develop the boomtown of East Portland, which for a time rivaled its sister city to the west. McMillan became an even wealthier man.

McMillan ruled his East Portland empire until 1903, when his wife died. The once deeply pious man lost his religion and sought solace in the First Spiritual Society of Portland. He hosted séances and other occult events in his lavish home and became friends with all the city’s fortunetellers.

One day in 1904, he went to the Courthouse with one of his psychic friends and deeded her a huge tract of prime Portland real estate in return for $1.

Then he and the medium went to the clerk’s office to get a marriage license.

The clerk knew McMillan and refused. Clearly, Captain McMillan was a very confused man.

The medium was furious. She and her adult daughter hustled the addled Captain onto a train to Tacoma. Soon Captain McMillan was a newlywed, with a psychic wife and a psychic step-daughter.

Within months, the fortune teller left McMillan and he realized she had taken his fortune with her. He sued her to recover the losses but the medium apparently knew what was coming because she had spent all but $1,000.

Captain McMillan was a pauper and newspapers in Hillsboro reported the story by reminding everyone that he had killed a beloved pioneer 50 years earlier. McMillan was not welcome back in Washington County and had lost his home in Portland. He lived out the last 10 years of his life in Ohio with relatives. Captain James Harvey McMillan died a lonely, destitute old man.

This is an excerpt from the upcoming "Law and Order at the End of the Oregon Trail," Copyright 2015 Ken Bilderback and Kris Bilderback. All Rights reserved.

Contract Publishing

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