Calais Man Wins Coin Flip To Name Portland Oregon

The Portland Penny 

The 1835 coin shown above is now in the possession of the Oregon Historical Society. The coin has an interesting history and may well have come from Calais where its owner, Calais native Francis Pettygrove, sometimes spelled Pettigrove, had been a merchant before going west in 1843. It was a flip of this coin, or three flips of the coin depending which history one believes, that decided the name of the town in Oregon of which Francis Pettygrove was a co-founder. Would the town be named Portland or Boston? Oregon owes a good deal to Francis Pettygrove and should be almost as grateful to his sister Mary whose pioneering spirit was at least equal to that of her brother.                               

Two of the original Calais’ settlers were Thomas and Francis Pettygrove. Both came to the St. Croix in 1784 and each bought a 100 acre lot from the proprietors. Francis’ lot was down river near the Carson Road.  Thomas bought 100  acres on Hinckley Hill which extended downriver to what is now the golf course.  At the time there were only about 15 families on the Calais side of the river and fewer than 75 inhabitants. Thomas’ son, Thomas, Jr. had 10 children including Francis W. Pettygrove, born in 1812 and his sister Mary Charlotte Pettygrove born a year earlier. Both Francis and Mary grew up on Hinckley Hill in Calais and were educated in the Calais schools of the day. When still young they were seduced by the lure of the West and became important figures in the settlement of Oregon, Francis as the co-founder of Portland Oregon and Mary as an important figure in the history of the Oregon Trail.

In 1832 Francis, a prominent merchant and lumber dealer in Calais, entered into a logging partnership with Philip Foster, a resident of Argyle in Penobscot County.  Foster moved to Calais where he and Francis opened a store supplying the burgeoning lumber industry in the St. Croix Valley.  Perhaps the famous coin was taken from the till at the store.

Philip Foster married Francis’s sister, Mary.  In 1842 Francis found his bride in Portland, Maine: Miss Sophia Roland.

Long before Horace Greeley admonished Americans, “Go West, Young Man,”  Francis and Sophia Pettygrove and Philip and Mary Foster grasped the opportunity to make the trip.  They sailed from New York to Oregon via the Sandwich Islands.  An agent of New York business associate, A. W. Benson, Francis intended to open a dry goods store with a large stock of Benson’s goods.   The 1840 census showed the Oregon territory with a population of 140 so it took courage for these two families to uproot themselves, with Sophia it seems pregnant, and risk a long sea journey to a little known and nearly uninhabited territory.  

In the 1840s Hawaii was still called the Sandwich Islands. 

We don’t know why their ship went to the Sandwich Islands instead of up the coast to California. The Sandwich Islands are today’s State of Hawaii and 2500 miles from the coast of Oregon. In the 1800’s Calais had a long and colorful relationship with the islands. Two Calais men were consuls to the Hawaiian Islands, including George Chase who in 1853, finding the climate did not agree with him, died soon after arrival and was shipped home in a pickle barrel for interment at the Calais cemetery.  The Pettygroves and Fosters not only survived the climate shock of Hawaii but while waiting six months for a ship to Oregon, the Pettygrove’s had their first child, Alfred.  

 In May of 1843 the families finally arrived on the Oregon coast on the ship Hama at Vancouver and by a smaller craft transported their merchandise to Oregon City. According to an early Oregon history only ten other immigrants arrived by sea in the Oregon Territory that year. The families settled in Oregon City, a short distance from what is now Portland and opened a trading post. Francis became Oregon’s first grain merchant and a leading businessman. According to accounts in the newspapers he was well liked and found to be trustworthy by the small community. It is said that an “order” on his store in Oregon City was worth more than greenbacks or other currencies.

Front Street Portland 1850. Some of these buildings were probably built by Francis Pettygrove

In 1844 Francis decided to branch out. He and a man named Asa Lovejoy bought the rather dubious claim of a man named Overton to the tract of land now known as Portland, Oregon. Pettygrove gave Overton an “outfit” from his store worth $50 for his half interest. Pettygrove and Lovejoy cleared a piece of land in what is now the city center, built a store and in 1845 laid out the land in lots and blocks. The town did not as yet have a name, but this problem was rectified by the flip of a coin. Lovejoy was a Bostonian and Pettygrove a Maine man so it was determined a coin toss would decide whether the new town was to be Boston or Portland. Pettygrove won the toss.   

The noted Oregon historian Frances Fuller Victor described the “coin flip” in her 1884 Oregon history:

 Of the two owners, Mr. Pettygrove was from Maine and desired the bantling to be called after the chief town of his native State. With the same laudable State love, Mr. Lovejoy, who was from Massachusetts, insisted on calling the town Boston. To end the dispute a penny was tossed up and Mr. Pettygrove winning, the future city was christened Portland. When it is taken into consideration that Portland, Maine, is nearly 2 degrees further South than Portland, Oregon, and that roses are blooming in the gardens of the latter, while snow lies white and winter winds whistle over the leafless gardens of the former, the older city has no occasion to feel concerned for the comfort of its godchild.

The new proprietors of Portland began selling lots even though they had no real title. The Centennial History of Portland puts in thus:

“It must strike every reader that it was a most singular proceeding counting very largely on the lax ideas held by these pioneers on the subjects of land titles, that these two men could take up a tract of land in the wilderness without the shadow of a title from either the United States or Great Britain-governments claiming title to the land- and proceed to sell and make deeds to purchasers for gold dust, beaver money and beaver skins, as came in handy, and everything going as merry as a marriage bell.”

Francis Pettygrove family, probably  about 1870

Two years later Francis Pettygrove sold his share in Portland for $5000 in tanned hides, a very large sum at the time and went on to found Port Townsend, Washington where he prospered and died in 1887. Portland also went on to prosper and become the largest city in Oregon and one of the most attractive in the country. His partner Lovejoy embarked on a political career in Oregon where he lost a gubernatorial race by just 16 votes but continued to serve in the Oregon House of Representatives, once as speaker. According to the Oregon Pioneer Association, Overton who sold the property to Lovejoy and Pettygrove then “wandered east and southward, finally reaching Texas, there winding up his earthly career at the end of a rope.”

 Life was indeed unforgiving on the frontier. When Francis Pettygrove died in Port Townsend Oregon 1887, he was survived by just two of his six children. His wife had died in 1880. The obituary in the Port Townsend newspaper titled “Death of Portland Founder” extols his virtues and accomplishments and notes:

 “After living in Portland until the nucleus of the city had been established, he sold out his business and came to Port Townsend, about 1850 or 1851, and took up a claim on which the principal part of this city is now built. Mr. Pettygrove has held many of the most important territorial offices, and was respected by all the people of the territory, and the whole coast will mourn his death.”

The famous coin toss has not been forgotten with the passage of time. For the last 150 years newspaper stories appear from time to time which describe the event, sometimes it’s just a flip of the coin, sometimes two out of three. Boston folks claimed that found among the belongs of Francis Pettygrove on his death were two-headed coins

In 1966 Boston’s persistent demands for a reflip were graciously acceded to by the good citizens of Portland. Boston lost again although the outcome depended on the final flip.

1966 Boston Again Loses out to Portland in reflip but it was close

Over the years the “Portland Penny” has been reflipped on several occasions but as Portland Oregon has not changed its name apparently the coin made up its mind back in the 1840’s which city it preferred. Perhaps, as Oregon’s historian suggested, the coin enjoys the winter roses in Portland Oregon.

  Oregon’s 1973 Miss Dairy Queen takes the coin to Boston to give Bostonians “a second chance.”

Philip and Mary Foster

Mary Pettygrove Foster’s story is equally interesting and more historically significant. She and her husband Philip continued to operate the store in Oregon City until 1846.  At the time settlers coming to Oregon from the east on wagon trains were prevented by Mt. Hood from bringing their wagon trains to the coastal region. A dangerous and expensive raft trip down the Columbia River was the only option open to settlers which discouraged most from attempting the overland route.

 In 1845 a wagon train led by Sam Barlow reached the east side of Mt. Hood and decided on the unprecedented and drastic course of trying to reach Oregon City overland by breaking a trail to the south of the mountain. They became stuck just as the first snow began and Barlow left the wagon train to seek help. He finally stumbled, exhausted and starving, into Mary and Philip Foster’s trading post in Oregon City. The wagon train was rescued, and the Fosters, Sam Barlow and Joel Palmer partnered to build a toll road which skirted the South side of Mount Hood.

Thousands of wagons and people used the road over the next few years, finally opening up the Oregon territory. Mary and Philip moved to the end of the road and opened a store. Almost all of the early settlers spent a night or two at Foster’s Farm which is now on the National Historic Register and is one of the principal sites on the Oregon Trail. The exhausted and often hungry settlers who arrived at the Foster’s farm were forever grateful to Mary and Philip for their kindness.

From the New York Evening Post 7 December 1850:

Mr. Philip Foster, at the foot of the Cascade mountains, is said to have had the philanthropy to furnish immigrants with potatoes at $1 a bushel that are worth in Astoria $4 to $5.

Mary and Philip’s farm at the end of the Oregon Trail is now an historical site

Now a major historical site, thousands visit “Foster’s Farm” every year where both Philip Foster and Mary Pettygrove Foster are buried in the family cemetery. A lilac bush she brought from Calais still grows on the farm and is claimed to be the oldest lilac in Oregon. Mary died in 1880 and Philip in 1884.

 The San Francisco Examiner reported his death:

Philip Foster died last week at his home on Eagle Creek, Clackamas County, Oregon, age 74 years. His house was located in the Carlow pass of the cascade mountains and was the first civilized habitation which immigrants from 1845 to 1853 met in their journey after leaving Fort Leavenworth. For nine years every party camped at his house.

The pioneering spirit of Mary and Francis Pettygrove was a product of their parent’s example and their upbringing in Calais during those very hard years of the early settlement of Calais. Calais has the right to be proud of these Calais natives, Francis W. Pettygrove and Mary Pettygrove Foster.

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