John H. Couch

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John H. Couch
John H. Couch.png
Treasurer for the Provisional Government of Oregon
In office
March 4, 1846 – October 15, 1847
Preceded byFrancis Ermatinger
Succeeded byWilliam K. Kilbourne
ConstituencyOregon Country
Personal details
BornFebruary 28, 1811
Newburyport, Massachusetts
DiedJanuary 19, 1870(1870-01-19) (aged 58)
Portland, Oregon
OccupationSailor, ship captain, politician

John Heard Couch (/ˈk/ COO-CH[1] February 28, 1811 – January 19, 1870) was an American sea captain and pioneer in the Oregon Country in the 19th century. Often referred to as Captain Couch, he became famous for his singular skill at navigation of the Columbia Bar. He was a founder of Portland, Oregon.


He was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts. As a boy, he developed a desire to be a sailor and shipped on a voyage to the East Indies on the brig Mars. The Mars was owned by the uncle of Capt. George H. Flanders, with whom he would later go into business. The financial success of his first voyage led to his receiving a command of the Maryland in 1840 from John Newmarch Cushing, the father of diplomat Caleb Cushing. His first voyage in the Maryland was from Newburyport to the Columbia River, where he intended to exchange various goods for a cargo of salmon. At the time, the mouth of the Columbia was considered one of the most hazardous places for navigation on earth, because of the presence of a large sand bar. His attempt at a trading voyage was rebuffed by the Hudson's Bay Company, which controlled commerce in the Oregon Country. The Maryland was subsequently sent to the Hawaiian Islands, where it was sold. Couch returned to Massachusetts by finding passage on another vessel.

Cushing did not attribute the failure of the trading voyage to Couch, however, and entrusted him with a command a second vessel Chenamos, named after a Native American chief along the Columbia with whom Couch had established friendly relations on his first voyage. He arrived in the Pacific Northwest in June 1842, navigating up the Columbia and the Willamette River to just below Oregon City, which was the largest settlement in the Oregon Country, which at the time was still disputed between the U.S. and Great Britain. Couch successfully established a general store and sent his brig home, remaining in the Oregon Country for five years. In 1845, during his stay in Oregon, he took a claim of land, now known as "Couch's Addition", in present-day Northwest Portland. The dispute between the U.S. and Great Britain over the Oregon Country, however, prevented him from perfecting the claim at the time. On March 4, 1846, Couch was appointed as treasurer of the Provisional Government of Oregon after Francis Ermatinger resigned.[2] In 1847 he took passage back to Massachusetts via China, arriving in Newburyport in 1848.

Couch's grave marker

Later in 1848 he was convinced by a shipping firm in New York City to take command of another vessel, the Madonna, on a voyage to the Pacific Ocean. Captain Flanders, who had been for years master of vessels for the Cushing shipping company, agreed to serve as chief mate, and to assume command of the vessel so that Couch could remain in the Oregon Territory to discharge the cargo. The Madonna sailed from New York Harbor on January 12, 1849, and arrived in Portland the following August. His passengers included United States Senator Benjamin Stark. Following his instructions, Couch stayed in Oregon City while Flanders took the vessel on short trips between Portland and San Francisco. In 1850 Flanders and Couch began a trading and wharf business together. The Oregon Treaty of 1846 (in which the U.S. acquired the Oregon Country below the 49th parallel north) and the subsequent passage of the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 allowed Couch to perfect the land claim in Portland he had filed on his previous voyage to Oregon. From 1850 onward, he was a resident of Portland and became one of its most well-known and well-respected citizens. His residence was near present-day Union Station. John Couch died on January 19, 1870, in Portland and was buried at River View Cemetery in that city.[3]


The contribution to Portland for which he is most remembered today is the platting of his land claim in Northwest Portland, which stretched from Burnside Avenue north for 1 mile (1.6 km), between Northwest 23rd Avenue and the Willamette River. In laying out the streets, Couch named the east–west thoroughfares in alphabetical order as A Street, B Street, etc. The streets were later renamed, retaining the alphabetic ordering, with "C Street" renamed "Couch Street" in his honor. "F Street" was named in honor of his business partner Flanders. Couch Park in the district is also named for him. The park was formerly the estate of Cicero Hunt Lewis, who married Couch's daughter Clementine. The area has become known more recently as the Alphabet District.

The side-wheel river steamer John H. Couch, built in 1863, was named after John H. Couch.


  1. ^ "Where We Live: Couch Street in Northwest Portland". Archived from the original on 2019-01-10.
  2. ^ Brown, J. Henry (1892). Brown's Political History of Oregon: Provisional Government. Wiley B. Allen.
  3. ^ John H Couch. Find-A-Grave, accessed November 5, 2007.

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