John Fleming – Pioneer Printer

John Fleming was born March 19, 1795 in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania. As an adult he worked on several newspaper, including the Platte Argus in Missouri. In 1845 he joined Joel Palmer’s company and crossed the Oregon Trail, settling in Oregon City. In February 1846 he became the printer of the Oregon Spectator, the first commercial newspaper published in the Oregon Territory. He is credited with printing the first bound book in the Oregon Territory, a Webster’s Spelling Book offered by the Printing Association which had been formed to publish the Spectator.

On September 7, 1848 the Spectator temporarily suspended publication, John Fleming having gone to the mines in California. Publication was resumed on October 12 with a new printer, stating: “The Spectator, after a temporary sickness, greets its patrons, and hopes to serve them faithfully, and as heretofore, regularly. That “gold fever,” which has swept about three thousand of the officers, lawyers, physicians, farmers, and mechanics of Oregon, from the plains of Oregon into the mines of California, took away our printer also – hence the temporary non-appearance of the Spectator.”

After February 22, 1849 the Spectator again suspended publication, reappearing on October 4, 1849 with little explanation other than noting that a new editor and a new printer, Geo. B. Goudy, had been placed in charge of the paper. After several more changes in editors and format, J. Fleming reappears as the printer of the Oregon Spectator in October 1850, with D. J. Schebley as editor. T. F. McElroy was also listed as a printer on the masthead. In the February 13, 1851 issue Fleming’s name had been dropped, leaving McElroy as the sole printer, soon to be joined by C. W. Smith. The newspaper changed editors several more time before ending publication in 1855 and Fleming’s name does not appear again as the printer. His occupation after 1851 is unknown but he appears to have remained in Oregon City.

July 1856 Fleming was appointed Postmaster in Oregon City, replacing W. W. Buck. While serving as Postmaster he also ran the Post Office Book Store. Although according to government records he was replaced in October 20, 1862 , an article in the Oregonian reported he was replaced by John M. Bacon in January 1869. Advertisements in the Oregon City Enterprise show that Bacon also took over the Post Office Book Store when he was appointed and that Fleming opened a new book and stationery store under his own name which he operated until his death in 1872.

John Fleming died on December 2, 1872 after a year of poor health. He was buried in the Masonic Cemetery, then adjacent to Mountain View Cemetery, under the auspices of Multnomah Lodge No. 1 A. F. & A. M. of which he was a member.


Oregon Spectator, January 21, 1847
ELEMENTARY SPELLING BOOK – The (Printing) Association’s edition of Webster’s Elementary Spelling Book will be ready for all who may be in want thereof, by the first of next month. It is excellently well gotten up, and we think will prove highly satisfactory. Stitched copies may be obtained for twenty five cents, and bound ones for the additional tax of the binding, which is certainly very cheap, as the volume will comprise ninety six pages of actual matter. Let each town and precinct be preparing its orders.

Oregon State Journal, December 26, 1868
(In response to an article in the San Francisco Examiner claiming that the first newspaper on the Pacific Coast was printed by Dr. Robert Semple in July 1846 on an old press used to print official documents when the region was under Mexican rule.)

To which the Oregon City Enterprise replies; “We dislike to have our statements disputed, but when we make an error we take great pleasure in correcting it, when shown to us. We have often asserted that the honor of publishing the first newspaper in the English language on the Pacific Coast belongs to Mr. John Fleming of this city. Whatever others may say to the contrary, it is nevertheless a fact that the publication of the Oregon Spectator was commenced in this city in February, 1846, some five months, at least, before the issue of Dr. Semples’ paper at Monterey. The Spectator was printed upon one of Hoe’s Washington Presses, and its size was nearly half that of the Enterprise. The press, type, ink, paper, etc., was brought from New York upon the order of Geo. Abernethy, Esq., the first American Governor on this coast, then Governor of Oregon. The same vessel brought the news that General Jackson was dead, and that the “51 deg. 40 min. or fight” boundary question between the American and English governments had been settled. We thus contest the claim set up by the Examiner, and demand that the Pioneer Society make the proper record of the facts.

Albany Democrat, April 24, 1869
OLD TYPE – A late Oregonian says: The first font of type ever put in case in Oregon, was thrown in by Mr. John Fleming, of Oregon City, in February, 1846, preparatory to the first issue of the Spectator. Since then it has experienced various fortunes. It was used in the publication of the Spectator while that journal lived, and if we mistake not, in the Argus, which was published many years afterward at Oregon City. It has been used at Eugene City and also at Astoria, at the latter place in the Gazette office. Thence it returned to Oregon City, when Mr. Ireland commenced the publication of the Enterprise, and has remained there since, till day before yesterday, when Mr. Ireland brought it to this city and sold it to the Willamette Iron Works as old and worn out type, to be used in making box metal. On the day it was packed in the Enterprise office for removal, Mr. Fleming came in and bade farewell to the old friends (they type) of twenty-three years ago.


Oregon City Enterprise, March 8, 1872
COMPLIMENTARY – We notice that our fellow-townsman John Fleming Esq., has been elected and honorary member of the Oregon Pioneer Association. Uncle John is a pioneer and worthy of the compliment the society has conferred upon him.

Oregon City Enterprise, March 15, 1872
HISTORY CORRECTED – While the early history of Oregon is a prominent subject for discussion, we must correct an error which has generally been acknowledged as a fact. S. J. McCormick, Esq, of Portland, claims to be the Pioneer Book Printer of Oregon. This distinguished honor belongs to Uncle John Fleming of this city who printed a lot of Webster’s Spelling Books in this city in 1846. The machine by which they were trimmed was made by Mr. Jas. Athey. Both these old pioneers are now residents of this city.

Oregon City Enterprise, December 6, 1872
DEATH OF ANOTHER PIONEER – John Fleming, an old and highly esteemed citizen of this city, died at the residence of Mr. I. N. Bradish last Monday morning at about 10 o’clock. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1795, and was 77 years, eight months and three days of age. Mr. Fleming is well known throughout this State having come here in 1845, and resided in this city ever since. He was postmaster for about 12 years in this place, and held other positions of trust, which he discharged with credit and honor to himself. He was the oldest and first printer on the Coast, having set the first type in this city in February 1846 on the Oregon Spectator which was edited by Mr. T’Vault. He was also the oldest book printer on the Coast, having set up, printed and bound an edition of Webster’s Spelling Book in 1848, when no books could be obtained in this State. He was well known throughout the State by all old printers and universally respected. Before he came to this State, he had worked in St. Louis, Cincinnati and other Western cities. He has a daughter living at Warren, Ohio, who was out her about two years ago, and a son at Painsville, Ohio, which constitutes his family. He has also brothers living in several of the Western States. Mr. Fleming has been sick for over a year, and during that time was confined to his room for about four months, but recovered so far as to be able to attend to his business until within the last month when he was again compelled to confine himself to his room, and on Monday morning he passed away without a struggle, dying with such ease that those around him were not aware that he had breathed his last. He was buried on Tuesday, Rev. Mr. Sellwood preaching the funeral sermon, by Multnomah Lodge No. 1 A. F. & A. M. of which he was a member – being a Master Mason. Peace be to his ashes.


Fleming Hand_Press_Triptych
The original Washington hand press used 1846-1855 to print the Oregon Spectator , first newspaper of the West. Currently housed at Allen Hall by the University of Oregon School of Journalism.  Photography by Mandi Garcia. From Oregon Digital Newspaper, University of Oregon.



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