Augustus and Rebecca Denney Fanno – Emigrated 1846

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Pioneer Families

Augustus Fanno was born on March 26, 1804, in Cumberlain, Maine. He took up the life of a sailor at the age of twenty, but his career was cut short when he contracted Yellow Fever in an 1827 epidemic in New Orleans. Augustus remained in Louisiana after recovering. His new career as a teacher was cut short by another outbreak of Yellow Fever two years later.

After spending three years in Mississippi, Augustus moved to Cass County, Missouri, where he met his first wife, Martha Ferguson. Augustus and Martha were married on December 8, 1833. They had one child together eight years later.

In the fall of 1845, Augustus and Martha sold their farm, and the following spring they set out for Oregon together. There is no known firsthand account of their journey, but some episodes have been preserved in family legend:

When Father arrived at The Dalles he helped fell the trees and whip-saw the lumber for the rafts to go down to the Upper Cascades. They used pitch from the trees to caulk the boat. They portaged around the Cascades, floated their rafts down the swift water, caught them at the Lower Cascades, patched them up, and went down the Columbia. Father arrived there with exactly fifty cents. – Alonzo Fanno, son of Augustus and Rebecca, in a 1937 interview

Augustus and Martha were the first settlers to take up a claim in what is now Washington County, Oregon. The 640 acre claim that Augustus registered with the Provisional Government on September 22, 1847, was the twelfth land claim to be officially recorded in the books of the Territorial Government after the Donation Land Act was passed in 1850.

Martha Fanno died in childbirth shortly after arriving in Oregon, and she and the baby were buried in Linn City (today part of West Linn). Augustus, now with five dollars in his pocket, hired Indians to help transport his supplies, livestock, and nursery stock to his chosen homestead on an old Indian trail linking Willamette Falls to Tillamook Bay on the coast. Hoping to sell the produce from his farm to passersby, Augustus claimed a soggy meadow along a creek he named after himself. With the help of his hired hands, he built a small cabin from the trees that were felled to clear fields and pastures. Augustus spent the winter of 1847-48 in his log cabin with his six-year-old son Eugene, the only settlers on Fanno Creek.

Neighbors began to arrive soon enough, however, and Augustus pointed many early settlers of what is now Beaverton, Oregon, toward the land they claimed. The major roads in the area are named for these early neighbors, including Hall Boulevard, Denney Road, and Scholls Ferry Road. While those names are probably better known to modern-day residents of the area, none of those families was the namesake of a community — though Fanno, like neighboring Progress and Robinson, has been all but swallowed by the rapid growth of Portland, Beaverton, and Tigard in recent years.

One of Augustus’ new neighbors was a spinster of 31 years named Rebecca Jane Denney. Rebecca emigrated from Indiana in 1849 with her brothers, Thomas and Robert. Like Augustus, Rebecca was a teacher, and their courtship may have begun over his small collection of textbooks, obtained with the help of missionaries in Hawaii (then known as the Sandwich Islands). Records indicate that Augustus and Rebecca were married on April 17, 1851, which suggests a fairly lengthy courtship by the standards of the American frontier.

In his later years, Augustus turned his attention toward raising onions. There were wild onions in Oregon, but the varieties the emigrants brought over the Oregon Trail with them often failed to thrive. Onions were valued not only as food, but medicinally, as well — placing an onion on one’s windowsill was thought by some to ward off colds, and a thick, almost syrupy onion broth was widely used to treat tuberculosis, congestion, and sore throats. For twenty years, Augustus worked to breed large, sweet onions that would grow well in the damp soil and climate west of the Cascade Mountains. His eldest son and namesake, Augustus J. Fanno, carried on the breeding program and became known as “the Onion King.” Legend has it that he made big money by being the first to ship onions to Alaska during the Yukon Gold Rush.

In the 1850s, the Denney brothers built a sawmill, and Augustus donated land from his claim for the construction of a school and church built of lumber from the Denneys’ mill. In 1859 or ’60, Augustus finally built a fashionable home for Rebecca. He built the house “double strength,” reinforcing it to resist the windstorms that occasionally rattle the Willamette Valley — which perhaps reminded him of the Nor’easters he knew from his childhood in Maine — and it remains standing to this day. Nearby are three of four “American Freedom Trees” Augustus planted in 1876 to mark the centennial of the Declaration of Independence. The Fanno farmhouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

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