Honest Jim Baker: The Wild, Wild Frontiersman Canby was (Almost) Named After

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If you’ve been following our history series on Canby’s founders, you know the city was originally known as Baker Prairie, probably named after James Baker, one of the area’s earliest pioneers.

What you might not know is that Jim Baker was one of the most colorful figures of the old Frontier West. Also known as “Big Jim” and “Honest Jim,” he was a frontiersman, trapper, hunter, fur trader, explorer, army scout, interpreter, soldier, territorial militia officer, rancher, mine owner, toll keeper and mountain man who married not just one Native American bride, but perhaps as many as 20. Eat your hearts out, Sister Wives.

Baker was born in  Belleville, Illinois, and even as a child he was said to excel in fishing and hunting small game with a gun. At age 17, his father sent him to St. Louis for schooling, but he had no interest in education. Instead, he met a capper who told him tales of adventure at the frontier. The young Baker needed no other encouragement. He went promptly to the offices of the American Fur Company and joined his first trapping expedition.

It was as a fur trapper that he met the legendary Jim Bridger and Kit Carson — two larger than life figures who, sadly, never lived in Canby. But Big Jim Baker did. He settled here in the early 1830s and operated a huge ranch and farm on the rich lands that now form north Canby.

He stayed until at least 1838, and possibly as late as 1845. The records aren’t exactly ironclad. What is certain is that Baker eventually tired of farming and left, selling his interests in the farm business to a man named W. C. Dement. He became a highly regarded U.S. Army scout and Indian interpreter for Generals John C. Fremont, William S. Harney, Albert Sydney Johnston and George Armstrong Custer, thanks to his fluency in the Shoshone language and use of Arapahoe sign language, as well as his knowledge of the rivers, trails, and mountains, all of which he’d picked up in the fur trade.

He eventually rambled his way to Savery, Wyoming, where he build a log cabin and became a beloved member of the community. It was there he picked up the nickname “Honest Jim.” He died in 1989 and was laid to rest in a small cemetery. The Baker Cabin was later relocated to the Little Snake River Museum.

Coming back home to Canby, you may remember we last left you with the deaths of two of the city’s earliest and most influential residents: Philander and Anna Lee, who died in the year 1900 at age 92.

But it was not only they who would make their mark on Canby’s history, but also their children and grandchildren for decades to come. Philander and Anna’s son Heman A. Lee was Canby’s first mayor, and a strong challenger to his father’s claim of “Canby’s Most Glorious Facial Hair.”

Their son Albert — the one born on the Oregon Trail — would keep his rambling ways, serving as the area’s railroad agent when the trains started arriving in 1873. He was also one of Canby’s first merchants, opening the town’s first general store, Roork & Lee, with his brother-in-law in 1871.

George Roork was a “circuit-riding Methodist minister” who had married Philander and Anna’s sweet daughter Caroline. Together George and Albert opened the store on Main Street, across from what would later become the railroad depot.

The store soon closed however, due to “lack of customer payments.” I mean, I’m no expert business man, but yeah, that checks out. Albert went on to open another store in Brooks, near the railroad there. Hopefully he instituted the policy of not selling people things unless they could actually, you know, pay for them.

Ora Lee Cattley, daughter of Heman and Eda Lee, was the first queen of the Clackamas County Fair, first woman elected the Canby Union High School Board and Canby’s head librarian for many years.

Her cousin, Millard Jerome Lee — always called “M.J.” because he didn’t like his first name, can’t say I blame him — would also come to be known as “Mr. Canby.” A son of Albert, M.J. Lee was a dynamo who almost singlehandedly spurred much of the town’s early growth. He ran the first coach service between Canby and Oregon City, long before Highway 99E was even thought of.

In 1909, he dug a canal to serve the city’s first power plant, which was operated by a waterwheel on the Molalla River. The flow ultimately proved too weak, and the plant failed, though its 30-inch concrete walls would stand for 70 years — even resisting an attempt to demolish it by 200 sticks of dynamite in 1959.

He published the city’s first newspaper, the Clackamas County News, and helped organized the its first municipal water system. He ran a succesful irrigation company and installed systems throughout eastern Oregon and Washington. He also  took mining expeditions to California and Alaska.

He served as a state representative and was on just about every city and county board you could serve on at some point in his life. In his earlier years, he had been a champion cyclist, winning scores of races across the Pacific Northwest. As a boy, he won bets bicycling from Canby to Portland and back.

Suffering from cancer, he was known to still take his daily bicycle trip into town up until the day before he died, at age 78.

We have much more to tell you about Canby’s founders — maybe even ones who didn’t have the last name of Lee! — but it will have to wait till next time, on Canby Then.

Photo of Jim Baker courtesy the Canby Historical Society.

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