A native of Indiana, John Whiteaker was born on May 4, 1820. The son of John Whiteaker and Nancy Smales, he was one of five children. John was primarily self-educated, due to having only six months of formal schooling. Growing up, he was involved in a number of jobs, then volunteered during the Mexican War for military service. John married Nancy Jane Hargrave on August 22, 1847 and in time, the couple became parents of six children.
Leaving his family behind for a time, Whiteaker headed west in 1849 to participate in the California Gold Rush. By 1851, his efforts had allowed him acquire the funds necessary to move his to family Oregon where they settled on a farm in the Willamette Valley. Once settled, Whiteaker soon joined the Democratic Party and moved into politics.
John won his first election in 1856 to become Judge of the Probate Court for Lane County. This was followed by a place in the Territorial Legislature, representing Lane County in the House of Representatives.
Oregon began making preparations for statehood in 1857 after voters approved a state constitution. The first gubernatorial election for Oregon occurred in June 1858 in which John won by a margin of 1,138 votes against another Democratic following the Republican candidate dropping out of the race.
Whiteaker was inaugurated on July 8, 1858, but did not assume his office at that time; choosing instead to wait eight months until Oregon was officially a state. On February 14, 1859, it was announced Congress passed Oregon’s bill for statehood. During this timeframe, Oregon essentially had two governors. George Law Curry, the Territorial Governor, was still technically in charge until Oregon officially became a state.
Getting down to business, Governor Whiteaker set about to untangle the large quantity of claims and counter claims placed on public lands. Add to that, he also began to promote a variety of economic policies, such as home industries, which would serve to help put Oregonians on the road to self-sufficiency with home industries and products such as pickles, soap and socks. Though a number of individuals nicknamed the governor “Honest John,” many others referred to him as “Old Soap, Socks and Pickles.”
A few years after Oregon joined the United States, the American Civil War erupted. Holding a pro-slavery position, Governor Whiteaker managed to alienate a large percentage of the state’s population. Though vilified as a traitor, Whiteaker would serve out his term of office, which ended in September 1862.
After leaving office as governor, Whiteaker became a member of the legislature in 1865. A special session was called by Governor Gibbs in order to accept the constitutional amendment to abolish slavery, with Whiteaker opposing it. He remained active in the legislature during the years 1866-1868 and 1870, then moved on to the Senate in 1876.
In 1878, Whiteaker went to Congress as Oregon’s Representative-at-large; the main reason being to give the Democrats additional leverage in the House and offering one more vote to help support their choice for Speaker of the House. With the vote scheduled for March 18, 1879, Whiteaker was sailing on a steamer he boarded in Portland, destined for San Francisco. Immediately after he docked in San Francisco on March 12th, a railroad agent met him and quickly transported John to a waiting Central Pacific Railroad in Oakland, which had been chartered by the Democratic Party. The regularly scheduled transcontinental train had left Oakland 25 hours earlier and was now chugging its way east. Somehow, Whiteaker’s train managed to catch up to it. Arriving in Washington on the morning of March 18th, he was on time to be seated by Congress and cast his vote. The cost of the trip was approximately $1,500, a fact which was strongly pressed by the media, along with Whiteaker’s political opposition, who referred to the trip as “Whiteaker’s Ride.”
Whiteaker lost his bid for re-election in 1880 to Republican Melvin Clark George by 1,379 votes and retired to his farm near Eugene. His political vacation would last five years. In 1885, President Grover Cleveland appointed Whiteaker to be Oregon’s Collector of Revenues at the U.S. Customs House in Portland.
In 1885, Whiteaker was appointed to be Oregon’s Collector of Internal Revenue, then retired four years later. In 1890, Whiteaker was back in Eugene and purchased 10 city blocks in the central section of the city, known today as the Whiteaker Neighborhood. Calling Eugene home the rest of his life, Whiteaker died on October 2, 1902 and was laid to rest in the city’s Masonic Cemetery