Reverend John Smith Griffin was born in 1807 in Vermont. He received a formal education in New England and Ohio before becoming an ordained minister for the Congregationalist Church. When he was 21 years old, Griffin was sent by his church to Oregon Country as an independent missionary. On his way out west, Griffin married his first wife, Desire C. Smith, in Saint Louis, Missouri.
Griffin arrived at the Whitman Mission near present-day Walla Walla, Washington, in 1839. He stayed for a year prior to moving to Fort Vancouver. Griffin tutored children and served as the fort’s chaplain for a year before moving to the Tualatin Plains, west of present-day Portland, Oregon. In 1842, Griffin established the first church on the plains, located at East Tuality Plains, in what would later become the town site of Hillsboro. In 1843, Griffin participated in the Champoeg Meetings that established civil government in Oregon, where he represented the Tualatin Plains. In the 52-50 vote, Griffin voted in favor of forming a provisional government even though he did not fully agree with the measure.
During his time on the Tualatin Plains, Griffin would document the arrival of settlers in the area. He also started a newspaper called the Oregon American and Evangelical Unionist, which he printed on the same portable press that missionaries had used at Lapwai a decade earlier. Among other articles, Griffin published accounts of the Whitman massacre and a series called "Sketches of Oregon," which recounted Griffin's journey to the west. Griffin’s subscribers included people from the Oregon region, the eastern United States and Americans living abroad.
After Griffin’s first wife died in 1884, he married Lina Harvey Kenyon of Three Oaks, Michigan. Henry H. Spalding, a fellow missionary and a friend of Griffin, married Griffin’s sister, Rachel Johonet Griffin. Griffin continued to live in the Tualatin Plains region until his death in 1899.