Neighbors, particularly children, still discuss the story of Danford Balch. Familiar with family strife and tragedies with no obvious villains, we are still transfixed by the hints of poor Danford caught up in something truly terrible happening almost 150 years ago. Whispers of parental violence and destroyed love float around the elementary school yard — someone was shot. The dank park under the bridge by Balch creek seems a likely place for such gruesome undertakings, but everyone plays there anyway.
A hopeful Danford Balch arrived in Portland in 1847, only three years after the first cabin was built at the townsite. Danford and his wife of five years, Mary Jane Curtis, came overland with their young children and probably found lodging in a rough plank building or log cabin somewhere in the town proper. The streets had been platted along the west side of the Willamette between Washington and Jefferson Street, but Portlanders logged only some of the streets and even those still had the stumps remaining as obstacles for travelers.
The forest came down to Second Street and sheltered the cabins on Third Street. Families and individuals living scattered about the surrounding area, now considered central Portland neighborhoods, and the towns of Milwaukie and Oregon City to the south supplemented the hundred odd people living in Portland.
Danford had been born in Massachusetts, and spent his early childhood in Onondaga County, New York, where he attended an occasional month of grammar school. He then moved with his parents to Ohio, where they probably farmed, and lived with them until he was thirty years old. When he moved on to Iowa in the early 1840s, he met Mary Jane Curtis and they married on June 12, 1841. This migratory life of continually pushing west was not that uncommon – and required considerable self-reliance by the Balches.
In 1850, Danford made his Donation Land Claim, the mechanism by which early settlers could obtain land from the US government. His claim was smaller than the possible 640 acres but located close to the Portland townsite. There are no records of what Danford and Mary Jane did prior to their land claim – tumultuous years for early Portland. The California gold rush drained so many men from Oregon that that local newspapers lost their printers and had to suspend business. Danford may have left for California, leaving Mary Jane behind with at least three young children. More likely, the family explored Portland and the different, competing small towns along the Willamette. Certainly, Danford chose his land claim well for further development of the city, even if the Balches themselves gained little from its prime location.
The Balches 1850 land claim included roughly everything between present-day NW Lovejoy and Thurman streets, and from NW 23rd avenue up through Lower MacCleay Park. Prime real estate in today’s Portland, Danford’s new home was forested land somewhat distant from Portland itself. The family settled into their new life, probably logging their land as well as farming and working on small crafts.
In later years, the general area was known for home alcohol stills, and Danford may well have helped start this tradition.
Other than census and tax records, the Balch family, now consisting of nine children, escaped official notice until 1858. Danford posted a message in the local papers in May of 1858 that a cow had been found wandering on his property, a very neighborly
thing to do.
That fall, however, more serious trouble enveloped the Balch family. The eldest child, Anna, was now fifteen years old, and apparently somewhat beguiling. The family was doing well enough to have hired on some help in the form of Mortimer Stump, a young man who lived and ate with them. Mortimer was the eldest child of Cuthbert and Perlina Stump who had a Donation Land Claim across the Willamette River, along the Columbia Slough just northeast of what is now St. Johns.
Although some newspaper accounts reference a Shakespearean-style feud between the Balches and Stumps, there are no records of standing animosity between the two families. Indeed, it seems more likely that there was some fond regard since Mortimer was living and working with the Balch family.
In this intimate environment, Mortimer and Anna fell in love. Mortimer spoke to Danford Balch about marrying his eldest daughter, and Danford rebuffed Mortimer and relieved him of his position with the family. Danford Balch, still not fully part of the burgeoning Portland society, probably viewed the Stumps, with their even more distantly located land, as beneath his family. Suitable as hired hands, unacceptable as relatives.
Anna, either feeling the pull of her paramour or the push of an authoritative father, met up with Mortimer on the west side of the Willamette or traveled by herself to the Stump land claim across the river. She chose the Stumps over the Balches, and her decision would reshape the future of both families.
A Fort Vancouver Justice of the Peace married Mortimer and Anna, who then returned to the Stump land claim. On Thursday, November 18, only a few days after Anna had fled her family, the Stumps, including the newlyweds, came into Portland. They crossed the Willamette River on the Stark Street Ferry with a wagon to purchase supplies in Portland to set Mortimer and Anna up on the Stump family land.
At Benjamin Starr’s tin shop on Front Street, the Stumps had the misfortune to run into Danford Balch. Since Anna had left home a few days earlier, Danford had not been doing well. Not eating or sleeping much, and drinking at least some, Danford wanted his daughter back. Perhaps Danford truly did love his daughter and missed her terribly, or maybe feelings of pride and honor compelled him to demand her back.
At Starr’s shop, Danford and several of the Stumps exchanged words. The Stump family patriarch, Cuthbert, wanted to know what Danford had against the Stumps, and, according to Danford, used increasingly harsh language. Danford reported that midway through
their exchange, Cuthbert said, “You are making a great fuss about your child; she is an ordinary little bitch and I do not know what the hell you want of her.” The conversation did not improve.
After this exchange, Danford rode back to his home, a journey of over 45 minutes, and retrieved his loaded shotgun. He headed towards the Stark Street Ferry, hoping to intercept the Stumps. As he approached, he saw Anna for the first time since she
had left home. Danford went onto the ferry after her hoping to talk with her or even bring her home. When Mortimer appeared from behind a wagon, Danford shot his son-in-law in the face and neck with buckshot. The horrified audience included the Stumps, Anna, and a dozen or so other passengers.
A bystander grabbed Danford by the neck while the ferryman protested Danford’s actions. Danford insisted it was an accident. The sheriff arrived and despite Danford’s continued protestations of innocence, he took Danford off to the county jail. The reactions of Anna, Cuthbert, or the other Stumps are not described, nor is Anna’s fate given much coverage in the official accounts. She had left her family home and lived only briefly with her in-laws before her own father shot their eldest son. Neither household could have felt very welcoming. If she had married for love, she had lost it. If she had married to escape her family, her new family was not an improvement. Clearly, Cuthbert Stump was a strong spirit, and on some level the Stumps probably held her responsible for Mortimer’s death. For that matter, she might have held herself responsible.
Danford spent the winter in the Portland jail awaiting trial in a jurisdiction that was more interested in development, trade, and liquor than in crime. The jail was rickety, and the public was not convinced that Danford acted outside his rights as an employer and father.
That spring, Danford escaped. The local papers did not record this incident with much excitement. Although ships regularly came into Portland bound for Hawaii, San Francisco, and South America, Danford did not flee the city or country. Instead, he returned to his land claim, still heavily forested and including some hilly portions. Sheriff Starr did not pursue him with any immediate seriousness and he began eating some of his meals at the family house. Anna presumably remained with Stumps and had not returned to her family home.
In July of 1859, the sheriff finally arrested Danford while eating breakfast at his home. His escape and the failure of law enforcement to recapture Danford obviously galled some community members, and reportedly someone tipped the sheriff off about Danford’s location. The law returned Danford to jail and deputies guarded him fairly heavily, as the jail remained inadequate and public sentiment was still mixed.
On August 17, he came to trial, offering little in his defense and several witnesses testified to his threats against Mortimer Stump prior to their fatal meeting on November 18. The trial lasted four days, and the jury returned a guilty verdict within a few minutes. Judge Wait asked Danford if he had anything to say about his conviction and sentencing. Danford replied, “Nothing.” Judge Wait sentenced him to death by hanging on October 17.
Danford composed in jail, with the significant assistance of the Methodist Reverend Thomas H. Pearne, a lengthy account of his life, the accidental shooting of Mortimer Stump, and his hopes for his nine children. The Weekly Oregonian, well aware of the value of his words, published his words the weekend following his death. The Methodist minister reinforced the role of alcohol in Danford’s crime, which the papers reiterated.
There are hints in Danford’s account, as well as in the newspaper articles from the time, that there were greater conspiracies afoot. Danford felt the need to insist that he hadnothing to do with the dead man found in the gulch three years earlier, and allude to “injuries” he had received that would clear his name if he could have articulated them to the jury. Danford’s bewilderment at his conviction permeates his account – he was a father protecting his rights and love towards his daughter and, furthermore, it was an accident. The legal machine had caught him up and undermined his own natural rights and disregarded his need to protect himself against Mortimer Stump.
This time, Danford did not break out of jail. His hanging would be the first legal hanging in Portland, and the spectacle excited the public. The sheriff constructed a gallows near the jail, and similar to Rose Festival parades, citizens began saving their seats early for the big event. One enterprising citizen even blocked off a section with seats to rent, but someone tossed the chairs into the river before the execution took place.
Five or six hundred people came out to watch Danford Balch hang on October 17. Several accounts, although somewhat questionable, indicate that Anna Balch Stump and her mother, Mary Jane Balch, watched the hanging together. The Stumps also numbered among the audience. The Weekly Oregonian reported that most of the audience was not from the town proper (which would have included only the most eastern parts of Portland’s current downtown), but from outlying areas, the “interior” The editor had scathing
words for Anna’s decision to watch the execution for a crime for which he deemed her partly responsible.
Danford’s family lost his land, located in such a prime direction for expansion of the city, as easily as he forfeited his life. Although he wished for the claim to be split between his wife and children, John Confer, Mary Jane’s new husband, gobbled up her half even before they married in 1862 or 1863. Subsequently, John H. Mitchell, a local attorney who later became a US Senator, arranged to benefit from the land instead of fulfilling his role as guardian of the family’s interests. Between John Confer and John Mitchell, the nine Balch children gained barely anything from their father’s estate.
Today little is left of the Balch family. The creek retains the name, and a sign underneath the bridge over Balch creek mentions the family and their tragedy. A local realtor helped rescue from demolition a house built in the 1870s and apparently occupied by Mary Jane Balch. And children continue to murmur about the man from the neighborhood who was hanged by his neck until dead.
A short historical essay about Danford Balch that was originally posted on www.bluesweatshirt.com (my personal website), but seems like it belongs here. Read the comic about Danford Balch by Glynnis Fawkes.
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