Josiah Failing

Josiah Failing portrait

Gaston, Joseph. "The Centennial History of Oregon, 1811 - 1912." Vol. 2. Chicago, S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1912. p. 14.


among the men who have left their impress upon the city of Portland in the days of its early development, Josiah Failing was prominent. Not only did he contribute to its material progress but also aided in establishing its educational and moral development, while in the field of charity and general helpfulness his nature found ready and prompt expression. No history of Portland therefore would be complete without reference to Mr. Failing as one of its pioneer business men and most valued citizens. The ancestors of Josiah Failing on his father's side were citizens of the Palatinate in Germany, plain, sturdy people. They were Protestants, and, being persecuted on account of their religion, rather than yield they preferred to sacrifice everything else. When offered the alternative of a wilderness and freedom of conscience they accepted it. In the latter part of the seventeenth century and beginning of the eighteenth the wars of Europe were waged largely on religious grounds. The Lower Palatine was for a long period the scene of the ravages incident to such strife, and finally the remnant of people adhering to the Protestant faith were compelled to flee to England for refuge. Queen Ann, upon the recommendation of her Board of Trade, granted the petition of Joshua Kockenthal and fifty-one of his coreligionists, and furnished vessels to transport them to the American colonies. These religious refugees arrived in New York in 1708, having been naturalized in England. Most of them located in the valley of the Mohawk and subsequently acquired from the crown the lands upon which they settled. Others followed in 1710 to the number of three thousand.

Josiah Failing was the second son of Henry Jacob Failing, of Montgomery county. New York, who, in 1804, married Mary Chapman, bom in Bradford, Wilshire, England. Josiah was born in the town of Canajoharie, in Montgomery county. His wife, Henrietta Legge Ellison, the daughter of Henry Ellison, of York, England, and Mary Beek, of New York city, was born in Charleston, South Carolina. Soon after her birth her father died and the widow, with her infant daughter, returned to her parents in New York city. This daughter was there married to Josiah Failing, July 15, 1828. The name of Failing is a common one in Montgomery and the neighboring counties. The village on the north side of the Mohawk river, opposite Canajoharie, is called Palatine Bridge, from the township so called in memory of the European home of the early settlers. The family is referred to creditably at various points in the Broadhead papers, notably as participants in the battle of Fort Herkimer, and the names of three Failings appear on the roster of the Palatine battalion, which did good service in this battle. Further notice of the family appears in Sim's Frontiersman of New York.

Henry J. Failing, or Jacob Failing, as he was ordinarily called, was a farmer and had a trading post with settlers. From his father he inherited three farms, one of which, situated on the Mohawk was the birthplace of Josiah. The other two were in the neighborhood, one of which is the present site of St. Johnsville. One of his farms he gave to a brother who had been carried off by the Indians when quite young but who was rescued by Sir William Johnson and restored to his family after many years of captivity. This act may be noted as somewhat characteristic of Josiah Failing's father and of his ancestry generally. They were people of generous instincts, freehearted and liberal, and hence were not likely to be suspicious or mistrustful of others. They observed only one part of the maxim, "Never to cheat or allow yourself to be cheated." On one occasion Jacob Failing's partner in the trading post went to Albany, carrying a large sum of money with which to pay the bills of the firm and buy goods, and was never heard of afterward. But they were men in whom honesty was ingrained and instinctive, and no suffering that they might undergo at the hands of others through indirection or imposition could impair their reverence of integrity and their scrupulous practice of this virtue. They were industrious and intelligent, independent and self-reliant, and held debt in abhorrence. If any fault is to be found with them in their way of life it is that they seemed to have had no large ambitions. If they were less thrifty than the Knickerbockers, this can be explained partially by references to their surroundings and opportunities in the quiet Mohawk valley, and to that kindliness of spirit which, like lending, dulls the edge of husbandry. But they managed to have an abundance of good thing's, which they knew how to enjoy, for they suffered the minimum from those pains and worriments which are begotten of acquisitiveness. Their nearest markets for the products of their farms and orchards of which some of the latter stand much as they were to this day were Albany and Schenectady, to which places they journeyed once a year in sleighs or wagons in long trains. Those were great occasions and much enjoyed, we may be sure.

For two generations the Palatine settlement on the Mohawk was almost exclusively German. The Lutheran church was the only religious teacher and German the only language used in the schools. The mother tongue was fast deteriorating among them, however, owing to the isolation of the immigrants and besides it placed them at such disadvantage in the midst of English speaking people that Jacob Failing, realizing this, insisted that nothing but English should be spoken in his household. English had not yet become the language in the common schools and German was still the language in every day use in the settlement. The building of the Erie canal, that grand act of internal development, brought a new and active life into the quiet and restful community. The world was thereby brought to their doors. Aggressive people came in with progressive ideas. The country was awakened and English began to be taught in the schools and spoken on the streets and at home. The only relic of the German vernacular in Jacob Failing's speech was a slight difficulty in managing his Ts and his Ds. This good, easy man of inflexible honesty and pure charity, died at about middle age in a singular way; he was stung on the top of the head by a yellow-jacket, the poison of which proved fatal. He left a widow with seven children and a fair estate in land and houses, though had he cared more for money, had he known how to economize as the mode was in New England or in New York among the Dutch, or had he been able to say no to his neighbors who needed his signature on notes to strengthen and ultimately to replace theirs, he could have left a considerable estate in money and realty. His wife was one of the few English persons in the Palatine settlement. She came there with her parents on a visit to her sister, who had married Thomas Day in England and with her husband had come to live in this neighborhood. There she met and married Jacob Failing. She was a woman of sterling character. In her likeness are seen unmistakable signs of strong sense and uncompromising will. Her presence, while anything but unkind and severe, compelled respect and consideration. No description of her is so apt or so suggestive as that contained in the word, now gone out of use, but which was in vogue during her time, "gentlewoman" ---stately and dignified, yet sympathetic and affable. Obedience to her in the household was absolute though never compelled. Compliance with her wishes on the part of her children was unhesitating and seemed a matter of course. Her influence over them was such that her discipline was not only never questioned but to her children it would have seemed an unnatural thing not to obey. She was a woman of deep religious sentiment, a Baptist in creed, and fashioned her life upon the teachings of Scripture. Her views she impressed deeply upon her children. She was devoted to them and, being of such positive character and possessing culture much beyond her day and locality, it is not singular that a knowledge of her individuality is well preserved among her descendants. In order to maintain her family and give them such opportunities of study as the neighborhood afforded and also to keep up a household the hospitality of which a long list of acquaintances and friends always found themselves at liberty to command, she was compelled to dispose of land piece by piece as the exigency arose. When she died in her eighty-eighth year the farm that remained she willed to her only surviving daughter, Sarah Rapp. Of late years it fell in the line of railroad development and was traversed by the Lake Shore road, which purchased it rather than foot the bill for damages. Mrs. Failing retained her mental and physical force to a very late day in life. Such was her vitality that at the age of eighty-two her handwriting was admirable for its firmness and regularity. From her to her son Josiah the transition is easy and natural, for though he is not unlike his father in some respects, his more distinctive characteristics are those of his mother.

Josiah Failing was born July 9, 1806, in the environment already described. In an atmosphere of peace and good-will to all, direct, straightforward behavior, scrupulous sense of moral and religious obligations, labor respected, independence and self-reliant pride to which aid is distasteful but which delights in all that is charitable and for the elevation of man in such an atmosphere did Josiah Failing pass his days until he was fifteen years of age. His early years were not eventful. He was faithful in school and made the most of the best opportunities available in acquiring an education. The lessons that were taught he mastered thoroughly and constantly built upon this foundation ever afterward by the perusal of good books, the chief of which was his Bible and by association with and friction among men. In his sixteenth year, feeling that it was his duty to shift for himself and become helpful to others as soon as he was able, he obtained his mother's consent to go to Albany and learn the paper-stainer's trade, the art of which at the time consisted in impressing designs upon wall paper by hand with blocks. It was what his hands found to do and he did it. He completed his apprenticeship in New York city in 1824 and worked at the trade there until his marriage. Then, his health not having been good while engaged in paper-staining, he went into the draying business and subsequently, for many years, held the office of city superintendent of carts. Of the Draymasters' Association he was secretary. His means were limited but he continued to support his family in comfort and to educate his children. This was his chief care. As their number increased his anxiety for their welfare caused him to think much of ways and means to better his financial condition. Early in the '30s he became greatly interested in Oregon and was on the point at one time of joining a company of emigrants to the Pacific coast, but he was a man of great caution and responsibility of his family, together with the uncertainty of the venture, deterred him. The idea never left his mind, influenced largely by letters from the early missionaries. When, however, years afterward the undertaking had become more feasible, though it was still a bold step for him to take, situated as he was, he did not decide upon it fully until it had been talked over among the members of the family for, perhaps, twelve months. His life in New York city, meanwhile, was not marked by any notable event. It was one of great activity, nevertheless, from 1824 until 1851. First of all he discharged his duty conscientiously to those dependent upon him. And it was no light task to provide comfortably for and rear with good educational facilities a family which had increased to six children. His business required the closest attention, yet his charity which began at home did not end there. In the Baptist church, of which he was a deacon and leading spirit, he always found time to take an active part in promoting the cause of religion and morals, and to do the greatest good in many practical ways. In relieving the needy and comforting those in distress he was always a ready and cheerful helper. His interest in the public schools was hearty and earnest, and he was an active friend of this bulwark of sound morality and good government. But the sphere of his activity in this respect was not so wide or pronounced as it became later in the pioneer field, where he earned the title of "father of the schools."

On the 15th of April, 1851, Josiah Failing, accompanied by his sons, Henry and John W. Failing, sailed from New York city to thoroughly examine the Oregon country, which he had studied as carefully as he could from a distance and which he was satisfied should be the future home of the family. In 1851 Portland had a population of three or four hundred people who had settled near the river. Back of the few small buildings which had been hastily thrown up stood a virgin forest. In the one or two streets laid out there were still the stumps of great fir trees. In the immediate outlook there was a little tonic as in the autumn rains beyond which the sun was hidden; but there was a future for the country, a great and solid future. They could see it. They had the gift of patience to wait for it and do what could be done in the meantime. The stock of goods with which Josiah and Henry Failing were to begin business did not arrive until October. While waiting for their arrival they occupied themselves in building a store for their reception, twenty-two feet front and fifty feet deep, on the lot in the southwest corner of Front and Oak streets. This was replaced by a brick building in 1859 and the original wooden structure was removed to the lot in the rear, where it long stood as a memorial of 1851. In the first structure they started with a miscellaneous stock adapted to the somewhat restricted requirements of the pioneers who were at first exclusively farmers. Later as the wants of their customers became more varied and extensive their stock grew in volume and variety to meet their demands. Father and son did not start out auspiciously in traffic. A succession of disasters befell them in 1852. Three vessels, the barks Mendora and J. C. Merithew, and the brig Vandalia, the latter with all her crew, went down on the bar of the Columbia river in one night. In order to divide the risk as much as possible, for insurance could not be had at that time, they had goods on each of these vessels. Their loss by this wreckage was therefore total and severe. At the end of the first seven or eight years they were but little in advance of the point at which they started, but while struggling against adversity they were acquiring strength and laying a foundation deep and broad. Their connections were with New York and they imported a great many goods for San Francisco. Henry Failing shared in the management and control, with his father. They did a strictly legitimate business and avoided everything like speculation, taking only such risks as were inevitable in their line of trade. They were conservative and prudent, but they did not lack either in activity or enterprise; in every respect they conducted their affairs upon the highest principles. They employed no drummers. They resorted to none of those artifices which inflate traffic by proportionately increasing the expense account. They started out with the determination not to incur any obligations they could not meet with certainty. Father and son planted themselves in the confidence of the people and as the country grew they grew with it. Whoever traded with them once traded with them ever afterward and in this was their advertisement. Their business was from the beginning confined almost entirely to supplying up country merchants. As each of these enlarged his business theirs was enlarged; and whenever new stores were established in the interior they secured their share of the custom. In the spring of 1864 Josiah Failing withdrew with a comfortable competency.

From that time until his death, on the 14th of August, 1877, he had ample leisure to look after those interests which had always been dear to him, chiefly the affairs of the church and the public schools, and he made good use of his time. This was, perhaps, the happiest season of his long and active career, for the dominating idea of his life was to do good. While in business he was attentive to its requirements, methodical and thorough in the discharge of his duties as a merchant, but the store did not swallow him up and separate him from the world. There was never a time when he was not a leader and recognized as the spirit and inspiration of practical beneficence in Portland. The Baptist church remembers him as one of the most active builders and liberal contributors to its well-being, for a quarter of a century. He was devotedly attached to his own denomination, but he entertained a broad charity for the people who disagreed with him. He was not demonstrative in his religion. His faith was rather manifested by his acts. His was the first family of Baptists that came to live in Portland, and the church may be said to have grown up about him as a nucleus. He was active and earnest in securing the site of the Baptist church on the corner of Alder and Fourth streets, which was originally a gift of the town proprietors. He was a trustee of the church which in his case was not a nominal office, and he discharged all his duties conscientiously and as a labor of love. The cry of distress never reached his ears unheeded or found him unprepared. The immigrants of 1852 will never forget his activity in their behalf, when stricken with disease and threatened with starvation beyond the mountains he worked for their relief as earnestly and as tenderly as though they had been members of his own family. His influence was felt everywhere in the young city in shaping its affairs for the better. It is largely due to his exertions that the first school district in Portland was organized and a tax levied to build a schoolhouse. He was ever a firm believer in the cause of education as a preparation for life's practical and responsible duties, believing that thorough instruction should be given in the ordinary branches of an English education. But he did not believe in the expenditure of public moneys in the maintenance of schools of higher education, which the children of the poor could not attend because of a necessity that would force them out into the world at an earlier age to earn their own livelihood. He felt therefore, that the schools wherein science and languages were taught were for the benefit of the people who could probably afford to pay for such educational training for their children.

Mr. Failing gave his early political support to the whig party and upon its dissolution joined the ranks of the republican party. In 1853 he was elected mayor of Portland on the citizens or non-partisan ticket and in 1864 he was a delegate to the convention which nominated Lincoln and to that which nominated Grant four years later. He held to federal views as opposed to state rights and believed in a protective tariff. He was not an abolitionist in the sense of laying violent hands upon an institution, recognized by the constitution of the United States, but what his feelings were on the subject may be determined by his vote in 1857, when three questions were submitted to the people of Oregon territory: first, the adoption of the constitution; second, whether Oregon should be admitted as a free or slave state; and third, whether negroes other than those already citizens, should be allowed to live in the state. He voted against the constitution, believing that it would be wise for Oregon to remain a territory until it had a larger population; he was against slavery and in favor of free negroes. His political views were a matter first of reason and then of faith. He sought good government but was not offensive in his partisanship and some of his warmest personal friends were those practically opposed to him in politics. He was not a man of sharp angles, however, and never aroused an antagonist needlessly. He would not insist on a point but would not yield a principle, yet he was so considerate and gentle that differ from him as you might he never seemed unkind. He had little of what is termed policy, but few men ever had better self-control.

It is due to Mr. Failing's persistent effort and personal influence that the city council of Portland in 1856 decided to have four cemented cisterns dug at regular intervals on First street from Oak to Yamhill, so that a supply for engines could be depended upon in case of fire.

The value of these was soon demonstrated and many more were dug. Josiah Failing was a man of noble character and the luxury of his life seemed to do good. He found great happiness in aiding others, giving freely of his means or his advice and wise counsel as the case demanded. He never judged by appearance but looked under the surface to get at the real facts in the case. He was a man of dignified carriage, address and demeanor and while cordial in manner had that in his nature which prevented familiarity. He was a man of natural rugged intellectual power, of contemplative habits and inflexible will and at the same time he possessed a most sympathetic and kindly nature which reached out in helpfulness to all humanity. He has been characterized a grand, good man; a Christian gentleman, who loved his fellow beings and did all he could for them.

The home life of Mr. and Mrs. Failing was largely ideal, each being the supplement and complement of the other. She was a woman of strong character, affectionate and loyal disposition and remarkable personal beauty. Devoted first of all to her husband and children, her home was her world, yet quietly and without confusion she discharged her full duty to society until called to her home beyond in 1883.


Transcriber's additional notes:

This same biography appears in the following book:
"Oregon Pictorial and Biographical"
by Joseph Gaston
S. J. Clarke Publishing Co.; Chicago; 1912
Page 23


Submitted to the Oregon Bios. Project in December 2008 by Diana Smith. Submitter has no additional information about the person(s) or family mentioned above.

ORBios Project