A Brief Incomplete History of St. Johns

The Portland Metro area, including St. Johns, rests on traditional village sites of the Multnomah, Wasco, Cowlitz, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Bands of Chinook, Tualatin, Kalapuya, Molalla, and many other tribes who made their homes here. Indigenous people have created communities and summer encampments in this area for the last 11,000 years.

The written history of St. Johns starts much later, and is largely the story of white people written by white people. Much of the oral history of the time before white settlers came has been lost, in part due to systemic policies of genocide, relocation, and assimilation that still impact many Native American families today. We are lucky that some of the details of our history of racist past were brought to our attention by the Edison Street Mural, where key events were painted on the street within a giant Black Lives Matter mural, all within a short walk from Cathedral Park. The Portland Bureau of Transportation repaved Edison St., and the mural was destroyed in the process. Happily, it lives on, on this website.

So when we talk of the history of St. Johns, we know that it is incomplete because we simply do not know what happened. Here are some things we do know:

The original plat for the town of St. Johns was filed on July 20, 1865. The neighborhood is named for one of its settlers, James John. John moved to the peninsula in 1844, after originally settling across the river in Linnton. By 1849, twelve families were living in the area – many of whose descendants still live in the neighborhood today.

James John was a generous man and donated eight blocks of his land for the town site. Upon his death, he left the rest of his property to build a public school where children from all religious denominations could learn together.

St. Johns was officially recognized as a municipality by the Oregon State Legislature on January 5, 1902. In 1915, after 12 colorful years as a township, voters in St. Johns decided to give up their charter and merge with the City of Portland. Today, we have a population of 15,291 souls. 60% identify as white, 20% as Hispanic or Latinx, and the other 20% Black, mixed, Islanders, native Americans, and others.

One more thing: St. Johns has the unexpected distinction of being the city where plywood was invented, or at least where it was first made commercially.