The Burbee Family of Kalama

Hello from the History Department –

For most of the pioneer wagon trains making their slow and often treacherous way across the Oregon Trail, the trip ended in or around Oregon City. But for a select few, the journey veered north, up into what would one day be the Washington Territory. Read the story of the Burbee family, from Illinois.


Jonathan BurbeeAt the end of 1846, just 14 settlers were recorded as living in the wilderness north of the Columbia River. When Jonathan Burbee (shown), his wife Cynthia and their five sons arrived at the end of their long journey from Peoria, Illinois, in 1847, they nearly doubled the population.

Originally settling where the Kalama River flows into the Columbia (present-day Kalama), Burbee quickly realized there was good money to be made if one knew how to make use of the local waterways. After securing a scow (a flat-bottomed sailing barge) in Oregon City, he set up shop ferrying tired settlers and their belongings up and down the river to their final destinations. The boat was doubly useful as it also served as the Burbees’ first homestead.

The family lived aboard the scow until at least 1849, when they moved further north to the west bank of the Cowlitz River, named for the tribe who had been living in the area for thousands of years. The Burbees homesteaded 640 acres at Monticello, the first town in the county (part of present-day city of Longview), which had been a trading site for the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). Their fellow settlers in the area included Kalama’s namesake John Kalama, one of many Hawaiian natives who came to the Northwest for better opportunities, such as working for the HBC.

There, the river’s verdant flood plain offered a fertile soil bed in which to start their first garden with a handful of corn seeds brought with them from Illinois.

Soon that rich farmland would present a new opportunity for the family, one that had its roots in the Gold Rush that was flourishing in California. Burbee knew the proliferation of miners making their way to San Francisco equated to a lot of hungry mouths to feed. So in 1851, he gathered a group of fellow settlers at Townsend’s general store, which served as the community meeting place on the Cowlitz, and presented a new business idea. It was quickly decided that the group would charter a ship and haul their combined crop of potatoes to their southern neighbors in California.

Alas, the decision proved deadly and deeply troubling for the Burbee family. Not far into the voyage to California in 1853, the schooner bearing 300 tons of Cowlitz potatoes wrecked just off the mouth of the Columbia in a severe storm. Jonathan Burbee and the ship’s crew presumably perished, as none were ever seen again.

While most young widows in such a difficult position would have retreated, the remaining Burbee family – which now included Cynthia and her six sons (the youngest, Albert, being the first white person born on the Cowlitz) – stayed, thanks to the aid of other settler families living nearby. The Native Americans, who were friendly and quite generous with the Burbees and other pioneer families, kept Cynthia and the boys well stocked with local game and fish. The six Burbee boys grew up alongside the native children as their playmates and friends.

Though Jonathan Burbee’s time on the Cowlitz was cut tragically short, he made a lasting impression on the area. A prominent and well-respected settler, he was the first Probate Judge of Lewis County, which at that time stretched from the Columbia River to the tip of Alaska. In 1852, Burbee had been one of the 26 delegates to the Monticello Convention, at which he petitioned Congress for a new territory north of the Columbia, officially separating the Washington Territory from the Oregon Territory.

Of course, Burbee’s greatest legacy was the six sons he left behind: Jonathan Jr., Augustus, Edgar, Ralph, Albert, and Norman. They all lived their lives in the Lewis County area, settling in small towns from Longview to Chehalis. Augustus, the eldest, was a farmer on Burbee Hill by 1864. The youngest of his ten children, Allen Burbee, took over the farm and kept it going until it was sold in 1955.

That rich fertile land where Jonathan and Cynthia first put down roots in 1849 was farmed by generations of Burbees for more than a hundred years. And some of the descendants of those first American settlers on the Cowlitz still reside in the region, to this day.

Written by assistant historian Emlyn Stenger


  1. Erich R. Ebel on February 27, 2020 at 6:04 pm

    What a great addition to the e-newsletter! Thanks for the great history lesson…there’s so much to learn about the Pacific Northwest!

  2. ouch she fell on the railroad tracks riding her bike on June 23, 2021 at 6:46 pm

    We are staying in the John Burbee Room at the McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge and wondered what was spilling out of the bags piled in the boat in the picture on the wall with Johnathan standing in the boat with his five sons. There is a picture behind the bed also with the choppy water and bobbing what we have now come to learn are potatoes. We never knew potatoes could float. Tragic that Johnathan and the potatoes perished. Cynthia is a true pioneer woman. Janie Wilson

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