Tales of Pioneers
PETER BRITT. To Peter Britt belongs the distinction of taking the first photograph in the state of Oregon, the much-valued print still being a prized possession of this master portrait painter and photographer. The date of this undertaking was February 26, 1858, and the subject was Judge Moser. Probably no one living in the West has so large a collection of pioneer pictures as Mr. Britt, the majority of his subjects having long since passed over the great divide. All degrees and kinds of photographic development are represented, and probably most of the faces which had to do with the frontier days may be studied under the hospitable roof of this earnest and high-minded lover of art. His gallery also contains many examples of his portrait work in oils, and upon his canvases are perpetuated many of the ideal landscapes for which Oregon is noted far and wide. Many of these paintings represent great value, and as a collection they rank with the landmarks which illustrate western development up to the present time. The Britt house and gallery commands a view over the entire city and Rogue River Valley, the horizon being banked by the Cascade Mountains. Surrounding it are flowers, shrubs and trees in profusion, the trees including ornamental palms, magnolias, chestnut, lemon and orange trees, as well as cherry, plum, apple, peach and others which bear their burden of fruit each season, an ideal home, occupied by an artist who has gone through life with seeing eyes, and one who has observed and thought with extreme intelligence. It is not surprising that his eighty-five years are crowned with the honor of all, the love and affection of many and the supreme consciousness of having performed well whatever he set out to do.
Mr. Britt was born in Glarus, Switzerland, March 19, 1819, his ancestors having settled in the Alps country many hundreds of years ago, emigrating from their home in England. Jacob Britt, the father of Peter, was born near Glarus, and married Dorothy Britt, a native of the same locality, and daughter of Kasper Britt. Jacob Britt brought his family, consisting of two sons, his wife having died some years before, to America in 1845, locating in Highland, Ill., where he lived to be seventy-three years old. In his native land, and also in the country of his adoption, he engaged in the wood business, importing the finest of woods for cabinet and other ornamental work.
Peter Britt was twenty-six years old when he came to America with his father in 1845, bringing with him a practical common-school education and a mastery of portrait painting. Seven years later, in 1852, he joined a party of three in a trip across the plains, having one wagon and six yoke of sturdy oxen. They were eight months on the way, and though they had much to do with the Indians, invariably received kind treatment from the denizens of the plains. It is one of the pleasantest recollections of Mr. Britt that they were always thoughtful and considerate of the red men, and that they often gave them food and otherwise purchased their good will. Locating in Jacksonville, he plied his art, which he had perfected in Illinois and St. Louis, Mo., in which latter city he had also taken up daguerreotyping, as possibly better understood and appreciated in this country. At the same time he took up a half section of land adjoining the town of Jacksonville, to which he later added eighty acres, combining its management with portrait painting and daguerreotyping. In the spring of 1853 he started a pack train to Crescent City, a distance of one hundred miles, and continued the freighting business until 1856. He then sold out his train and went to San Francisco, where he purchased a larger and more complete photographic outfit, and soon afterward took the first photograph before referred to. His life in the meantime has been a busy one, and here he married Amalia Grob, who for years watched his growing success, but died in 1871. Two children were born of the union, Emile and Amalia D. Aside from his beautiful home, Mr. Britt owns several farms in the Rogue River Valley, upon one of which is a vineyard yielding delicious grapes and fruit for wine production. The balance of the land is in orchard and pasture. Formerly Mr. Britt voted the Democratic ticket, but owing to the currency attitude of his party he has espoused the cause of Republicanism. Too much cannot be said in eulogy of the life and work of this disciple of nature. In a groove in which comparatively few excel, he has tenaciously maintained a high standard, and at the same time has made a practical success of his life work. It is the unusual artist who has the financial part of his makeup well developed, and especially one who has not sacrificed the dignity or simplicity of his calling.
Portrait and Biographical Record of Western Oregon, Chapman Publishing Co., Chicago, 1904, pages 966-967
Peter Britt, a Leading Figure Among Pioneers.
First Photographer in this Section of the State
And 'Father of the Grape Industry in Southern Oregon.'
Peter Britt, one of the earliest pioneers and Southern Oregon's first photographer, arrived in Jacksonville on November 8th, 1852 and camped on the site of the present Britt residence. At that time mining excitement was at its height, and the hills and gulches for miles around were staked, and men were making good wages with rocker and "long tom." Mr. Britt, with several others equally inexperienced in mining, took a claim on Ashland Creek. They built sluice boxes and for two weeks worked hard. In the evenings they discussed what they would do with their money when they make a cleanup. They finally decided upon going to South America, where they heard there were good opportunities to be found. When the cleanup was made it netted them 75 cents each, and the South American trip was indefinitely postponed.
This cured Mr. Britt of the mining fever and, equipped with the first camera ever brought to Oregon, he opened "P. Britt's Photograph and Daguerreotype Room," where people came from all parts of Southern Oregon to have their photographs taken; and at the Britt home today there is a wonderful collection of photographs taken in the early 'fifties of men who later became famous in Oregon's history. Among them are pictures of Binger Hermann, Judge Deady, D. P. Thompson, ex-Governor Woods and dozens of other men who have made their mark in state history. In the early 'seventies Mr. Britt, accompanied by his son, Emil, journeyed to Crater Lake and secured probably the first photograph ever taken of Southern Oregon's famous resort. To accomplish this they had to take in all their cameras, plates, plate-holders and other equipment amounting to several hundred pounds on pack horses--a very different thing than nowadays when one can go in with a Kodak and a few rolls of film in his pocket.
With an intermission of some years when he was engaged in freighting by pack train from Crescent City to Jacksonville, Mr. Britt followed the occupation of portrait painter and photographer for 50 years and had in his studio at the time of his death the most complete line of pioneer portraits, historical scenes and scenic views in the state. To him belonged the distinction of having taken the first photograph on paper ever taken in Oregon, and for many years he had the most complete photographic apparatus south of Portland.
Mr. Britt was an ardent horticulturist and surrounded his home in this city with a collection of rare plants, shrubs and trees, including palms, lemon and orange trees, giving it the appearance of a tropical park. He was known as the "father of the grape industry in Southern Oregon" and owned the first commercial vineyard, consisting of 15 acres, which was one of several that demonstrated that Rogue River Valley could produce a grape equal to the best of the famous grape districts of Europe. Mr. Britt was reared in the grape districts of Switzerland and, having traveled much in France, he gained much knowledge of the grape industry. Noting the vigor of the wild grape vines about here, he determined to give tame grapes a trial and got his first vines from California in 1854 or 1855. These were the old Mission grapes, and they grew so well that he later got in other varieties and for 50 years, up to the time of his death in October 1905, he carried on the work of demonstrating what were the best grapes for this soil and climate, and in that period he grew over 200 varieties of American and European grapes. Mr. Britt furnished vines for every vineyard in Rogue River Valley.
Peter Britt was also the first to plant peach trees in Southern Oregon. In 1857 he planted a little peach tree in the yard of his home here. Two years later it bore fruit, and for over fifty years it produced peaches for members of the family. On Thanksgiving morning, November 24, 1910, weighted down by clinging snow, our first peach tree bowed its head and went the way all things which have life must go.
Realizing that a section adapted to so many varieties of choice fruits and blessed with so fine and equable a climate was destined to be thickly peopled in the future, Mr. Britt acquired title to a large amount of choice land, and at the time of his death was one of the leading landholders of the valley. He was a leading figure among Southern Oregon's pioneers and was well known and highly respected in all parts of the state. The following is an extract from a biographical sketch printed in a Portland paper at the time of his death.
Among all the early settlers it is doubtful if any were more closely identified with the early life of the southern part of the state than Mr. Britt. Born in the historic town of Obstalden, Canton Glarus, Switzerland, March 11, 1819, he came with his father to Highland, Illinois in 1845, where he followed the occupation of portrait painter for five years, taking up daugerreotyping in 1847. In 1852 the returning "forty-niners" determined him to remove to the Pacific Coast, and after an eight months' trip by ox team via the Fort Hall route and Portland, he arrived at Jacksonville in the fall of that year, where he made his home.
Jacksonville Post, July 31, 1920, page 1
Last revised Marrch 29, 2017