By Margaret Gilbert

Alvin Thompson Smith and his wife Abigail Raymond Smith were the first settlers* of West Tualatin Plain, the area now called Forest Grove. A.T. Smith had been a farmer and carpenter in Illinois who wanted to go west to help the Indians learn about Christianity. The Smiths rode horseback over the plains with Rev. Harvey Clark, an independent missionary. Alvin and Abigail arrived at the confluence of the Tualatin River with a large creek (now Gales Creek) on September 28, 1841, where they decided to settle on rich farm land that now lies just south of Forest Grove. Here they built their first log cabin during the fall of 1841 when it rained almost every day. During the winter of 1842 he built furniture for the cabin, made plow, rake, harrow, and wagon so he could start farming. In the spring he plowed and planted wheat, peas, potatoes, and house garden. During the summer he started making rail fences to enclose his cattle, horses, and sheep. In the fall he brought in his harvest and built a second log cabin. In 1843 he surveyed and claimed 643 acres of land as his property, his donation land claim. By 1846 he had a prosperous farm where he harvested 50 bushel/acre of wheat, along with other crops, all of which he shared with the new emigrants who arrived each fall.

Smith’s property is now the Zurcher Farm, south of Forest Grove. The third house that Smith built, a large stately three story house, was finished in 1854. This house still stands on its original site, has been occupied most of the time for the past 126 years, and is now the Zurcher home. This “A.T. Smith House” is the oldest house in or near Forest Grove. Smith and his first wife occupied the house until she died in 1857. He continued to live in the house, remarrying in 1867. In 1874 he and his wife moved to a house in Forest Grove, leasing out the farm. A.T. Smith died in Forest Grove in 1888 and is now buried in Mountain View Cemetery.

Alvin T. Smith kept a daily diary from 1840 to 1885 in which he recorded what he did each day, where he went, and who he talked with. These small notebooks, now kept in the Oregon Historical Society Museum in Portland, provide the only known history of West Tualatin Plains, as this region was called during the 1840-1854 period. It shows that Smith was not only the first settler, but also the first magistrate, elected at Champoeg on July 5, 1843. He was appointed the first postmaster in 1850, with his first log cabin being used as the post office and a small store. He was a member of the monthly Probate Court in Hillsboro during several years. He helped start the first church (1845), the first school (Tualatin Academy, 1849), as well as the public school district #15, 1855.

Each year he rounded up the men of the district every June to repair roads and bridges. He was the first town carpenter, called on to make the coffin for each death. During the first years, he cut down the trees for the first house of nearby settlers, dragged the logs to the site with his famous ox team, and then helped raise the walls. On July 9, 1850, he was one of the men who raised the walls of the oldest building still in use in Forest Grove – the first classroom building for Tualatin Academy, now called “Old College Hall” situated on the campus of Pacific University.


*There were settlements in the area at the time, though some of them were only occupied part of the year based on the seasons. This is based on archaeological evidence recorded in the Oregon Historical Quarterly, as well as research by Professor Lystra, PCC History Professor at Sylvania Campus in 1996. Dr. Lystra argued European American arrival was a re-settlement of the land.