Fifty Years in Oregon was written by Theodore T.
Geer, a grandson of Joseph Carey Geer and a shirttail ancestor of
I have put much of the book on
this website. I started because several
chapters describe the early roots of our family history in Oregon. I
kept going because
I found many of the chapters from this perspective on the early
settlers and the history of Oregon to be quite
Although I have
selected "Fifty Years in Oregon" as the title of this book, my actual
residence in the Beaver State – and on the planet – began sixty years ago
today. The opening sentences of this chapter are being written on March 12,
1911, the sixtieth anniversary of an event which, if it had not occurred, would
have materially changed my plans in many respects. I am not an Oregon pioneer in
the sense that I pioneered myself, or was pioneered by somebody else, into this
great and wonderful part of Uncle Sam's domain in the days when it required a
vast amount of courage, self--reliance, and a certain degree of recklessness of
consequences, to abandon the comforts and safeguards of civilization and start
on that difficult journey of over two thousand miles. For those brave souls came
to a country of which they had little reliable information, and the way led
through deserts, plains and mountains yet without roads, or even decent trails,
and inhabited by roving and, in many instances, savage Indians.
When my parents
crossed the plains in 1847, yet single people – they first met while on that
journey – the only settlement of men and women who really intended to become
permanent inhabitants of the Oregon country had been established here but four
or five years. When F. X. Matthieu, an honored pioneer who is still living,
arrived in Oregon in September, 1842, he found very few others here except the
Methodist missionaries and members and employees of the Hudson Bay Company. The
former were dominated by the single purpose of civilizing, converting, and
educating the Indians, and had no fixed intention to reside here permanently.
The Hudson Bay people, on the contrary, were firmly established, and were quite
averse to the coming of any settlers lest the building of homes and the
cultivation of the soil interfere with the propagation and growth of fur-bearing
animals. For this reason, they were bitterly opposed to the location of the
pioneers along the streams, or for that matter elsewhere.
The first real
immigration to Oregon was that of 1843, when the Waldos, the Applegates and
others of their splendid mold bade good-by to "Old Missoury" and other
States which were then in the "West" and started for that far-away
region. Senator Benton had already kept it before the public mind for quite
twenty years, knowing little of its characteristics or possibilities except that
it was farther west and, therefore, must of necessity be a more desirable
habitat for human beings than any spot to the east of it!
For that is the
spirit which for thousands of years has controlled the movements of wandering
mankind. Human history does not record a single great movement of people to the
eastward in any country. Instinct appears to have driven them with the sun in
its daily travels. Of course, there may be a more philosophical and better
solution of the fact, but if so, it has not yet been discovered. Besides, as a
general rule, instinct in the average man or woman is a safer guide many times
than are the results of prolonged investigation.
emigration mentioned in either profane or sacred history is an account of how
Cain, after slaying his brother Abel, moved to the Land of Nod, East of Eden.
This so thoroughly disgusted people that from that day to this everybody else
has been going West.
At any rate,
pioneers have always gone West, even long before Horace Greeley promulgated what
he gave out as a new philosophy. Indeed, generations before that his own
ancestors had set an example which alone prevented his being a noted Englishman
instead of one of America's most eccentric and forceful thinkers and writers.
But what a
transformation has been worked during the past quarter century! If you were
asked to locate the "West" at this time, what would the answer be? Is
it in the Mississippi Valley? Ask the man living in Wyoming. Is it in Colorado?
Inquire of the miner delving in the tunnels of Nevada. Is Oregon in the West?
Not literally so, for here we look across to China and Japan, and call that
wonderful and almost mystical part of the globe the "Orient"! And, of
course, the Orient is in the East, else it would be the Occident. Here we look
to the West to see the East and to the East to get a good and satisfactory line
on the Old West!
I will relate an
incident which well illustrates the revolution in terms and evolution in
conditions which the final encircling of the earth by inquisitive man – and
woman – has brought about. The first white child born within what is now the
boundaries of Salem, the capital of Oregon, was George P. Holman, whose advent
into these low grounds of sorrow occurred February 6, 1842. His father, Joseph
Holman, was one of those rugged pioneers who tackled a hard job in preference to
one of an easier and smoother label and had come to Oregon in the very early
days because it presented a condition of things calling for vigorous action. The
States of Illinois and Iowa in 1840 were becoming crowded for such ambitious and
restless spirits as he, so he hitched his oxen to the wagon and started for a
country where elbow-room was to be had on a farm a mile square and where details
were given a freedom of development which left nothing to be desired. Mount
Hood, the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean were about the smallest objects
to be found here. The first, in all its solemn grandeur and beauty, was pointing
its snow-capped peak heavenward. From its summit, to the south, could be seen
its sister Shasta, in Northern California; to the east the immense region
stretching to the Rocky Mountains; to the north, as far as the eye could reach,
perhaps as far as Dr. Cook traveled toward the North Pole, and to the west until
one's vision was lost in the shadows of the coast mountains which border the
ocean. This great extinct volcano was resting in a solitude unbroken, so far as
we know, since ages before Moses received his mysterious messages direct from
heaven; the Columbia River,
by the eternal hills,
wedded to the sea,"
was emptying its
enormous contributions, drawn from the Rocky Mountains, into the waiting ocean
through a foaming mouth measuring eight miles in width.
It was a dream
like this which lured Joseph Holman from his Eastern home, and the winter of
1841 found him located in Salem, then a wilderness without a legal existence or
name, an Indian camp, not yet abandoned, called Chemekete Prairie. Here the boy
George first saw the light of day, as has been stated, and here he lived until
his middle manhood.
In I870, he
served his native county of Marion in the lower house of the State Legislature,
removing a few years afterward to Salt Lake, where his residence has since been.
He makes regular pilgrimages to his old home, however, usually every two years,
sometimes oftener, and his coming is a treat not only to himself but to his old
associates. The last time he was home he told me this experience, which he
encountered a few years ago:
He had been
sojourning for a week in New York City when one day, as he was killing time in
the lobby of his hotel, he heard a young man say in a rather pompous manner to
his companion, who had asked him where he was from:
"I am from
the West, sir."
In a little while
Holman, hearing the same declaration, or rather boast, made to another man with
whom the stranger was talking, made it a point to engage in conversation with
understand you are from the West," he said, after a few commonplace remarks
had been made.
replied the traveler.
of the West are you from?" inquired Holman.
"My home is
in Pittsburgh, sir," answered the Westerner.
said Holman, "as we go here and there we find people from every section,
said the other, "it's a big country – mighty big. May I ask where you are
"Me? Oh, I
am from the East."
East?" said the Pittsburgher. "What part of the East?"
said Holman, "I was born in Salem, Oregon, out on the Pacific Coast, but
about twenty years ago I went East and settled down in Utah. My home is in Salt
The point of
which is that whether in this day and generation the East is west of you or the
West is east of you depends altogether upon where you are when making the
account of the early settlement of the "Oregon Country" reads more
like the creation of a vivid imagination, the work of a trained writer of
fiction, than a straightforward narrative of bare facts. Nowhere does the
history of mankind reveal a similar "hegira" with apparently nothing
to justify it other than mere restlessness and an irresistible desire to move
on. The fact was, there was such a limitless area of country – almost
measureless in comparison with the number of people who came to claim it –
that the average man could not content himself long in one place lest there
might be a better one farther on toward the setting sun. The true pioneer spirit
had a lodging place in the composite Western bosom. The man who had been born in
Pennsylvania, for instance, and had gone to Ohio or Illinois in 1840, acquired a
quarter section of good land, built a comfortable log cabin and had broken up
most of his "prairie," saw visions of a better country 'way out on the
Pacific Coast, and, through fear that some other man should get there first,
sold out "for a song" and joined the great caravan which moved on to
the land of promise.
In truth, there
was much more room than it was possible for the pioneers to occupy. The very
immensity of the opportunity created a veritable sense of intoxication and a
condition of instability, which interfered with the development of any one
region. The roving disposition of the pioneers of the last century reminds me of
scenes I have frequently witnessed on the farm among the animals – for be it
remembered that I never had a home save on a farm until thirty days before I
moved into the executive offices in Salem in January, 1899, and my love of
animals, inborn, has been strengthened by my prolonged association with them.
Observation of their habits has often brought out the most astonishing
exhibitions of what some people call instinct, but which is often far above
occasional displays of what in many people is termed by courtesy intelligence.
It must have been this same sort of observation which constrained "Bab"
– a very versatile and spicy syndicate woman writer of two decades ago to
close a remarkably clever treatise on Man and his characteristics with this
confession: "The fact is, the more I have been thrown in contact with men
and the greater my opportunity for studying their traits and tendencies, the
deeper has become my respect and admiration for dogs."
With this little
digression, which is pardonable I hope, let us return to a consideration of the
pioneers, who abandoned a comfortable competency, already assured, for what
appeared to have as little of tangibility as the "baseless fabric of a
dream." With a boundless field in every direction there was far less of
contentment than where opportunities were restricted.
Frequently on the
farm I have fenced off a portion of a pasture intended for the use of sheep,
keeping it separate, in order that the grass might attain a growth that would
afford real nourishment, when needed, to the flock. After the older portion of
the pasture had been literally "eaten into the ground," after the
manner of sheep, upon turning them into the fresh, luxuriant grass, the really
hungry animals, instead of feasting near the entrance, would at once begin an
exploration of the whole area of the new-found bonanza in vegetable wealth– eating as they ran and bleating as they ate.
And I have, just
at the beginning of harvest, fenced off an acre of splendid wheat, yielding
thirty bushels, for the benefit of a dozen hogs which needed thus to be tided
over during the particularly scant part of the season. Within an hour of their
admittance there would be no square rod of that acre that had not been trampled
down and sampled by the bogs, whose appetites could have been satisfied to the
full without going more than twenty feet from the gap.
So the pioneers
of the first half of the last century were dissatisfied with the conditions
prevailing in Illinois, Iowa and Missouri, as well as in other
"Western" States, and gathered their limited substance together for
the journey across the plains. The great and fertile prairies of Kansas and
Nebraska presented no attraction to them. Indeed, Illinois and Indiana, as well
as Iowa and Missouri, were but half settled. The rosy representations of the
possibilities of the Pacific Coast, with its salubrious climate, were
irresistible. And then, besides, it was farther West – which constituted one
of its strongest appeals.
There were two
marked differences between the great immigration to Oregon in the '40's and
other movements leading to the subjugation of new countries. One was the
remarkable distance – more than two thousand miles – and the other the
innumerable hardships which were certain to be encountered and the danger of
being attacked by the savage tribes of Indians found everywhere. But, far from
discouraging the hardy settlers, in most cases these features appeared to be an
actual incentive to make the journey "or bust." With a degree of
courage almost beyond classification, even the women accepted the situation with
as much enthusiasm as the men, and often furnished the nerve which was necessary
to carry to a successful issue the gigantic undertaking.
A man is but a
weak brother, at best. He was always so. Even Adam fell the very first time he
was tempted, as we are informed in his only biography, and when questioned as to
the origin and development of the little affair out in the Garden, sought to
defend himself by saying his wife was entirely to blame; and for this instance
of ungallant cowardice I desire to say that he is the only one of my ancestors
– at least those of whom I have any definite knowledge – that I am not
extremely proud of. From his day to the present, woman has been the burdenbearer
of the race, the center of the home, the mainstay of civilization, the
foundation of society, the mainspring of every commendable undertaking of man,
and performs her never-ending duties with a patience and allabounding love which
entitle her to a crown not yet accorded her and a universal homage which
thoughtless and selfish man should yield her with his every breath and pulsing
At a Fourth of
July celebration in Salem, a few years ago, the orator of the occasion dwelt at
one point quite eloquently upon the virtues of the Pilgrim Fathers, paying them
a red-hot tribute for their many privations in the interest of human liberty,
ecclesiastical freedom, etc. No band of men since the great Exodus had done so
much for the race as had the Pilgrim Fathers, etc. After he had closed, the
presiding officer invited several others, as was the custom, to make a few
"spontaneous remarks." Among them was a well-known pioneer lawyer, who
said, among other things:
President, I was very much interested in the eulogy the orator of the day paid
to the Pilgrim Fathers, all of which was no doubt deserved; but I want to say a
word for the Pilgrim Mothers. All my life, Mr. President, I have heard speakers
sing the praises of the Pilgrim Fathers for the great hardships they underwent.
It has always been the Pilgrim Fathers this and the Pilgrim Fathers that, and I
think the time has come when we should give due credit to the Pilgrim Mothers,
for they not only endured all the hardships of the Pilgrim Fathers, but, in
addition, endured the Pilgrim Fathers besides!"
privilege of indulging a few words of personal reference, I may say that I
belong to a family of pioneers whose wanderings began in 1636, when two
brothers, Thomas and George Geer, came to America from Devonshire, England, and
settled in what is now Windham County, Connecticut. These young men, fifteen and
seventeen years of age respectively, soon after landing in Boston found their
way to the interior where each acquired a tract of land. The archives of Windham
County contain at this time descriptions of their holdings by "metes and
bounds," copies of which I have in my possession.
The father of
these two young pilgrims who had the grit and ambition to seek the New World was
a farmer in Devon County, England, Jonathan by name, but he never left the
"old country." On February 17, 1658, George Geer married Sarah Allyn.
They had eleven children, the second of whom was a son, Jonathan, born May 26,
1662. Jonathan married Mary -??-, date of marriage not known; to them seven
children were born, the first being Jonathan Jr., who married Elizabeth Herrick
June 17, 1721. Of this union, five children were born. Losing his wife in 1743,
Jonathan married Hannah Putnam in 1745, by whom he had two children. His first
child by his first wife was named Aaron, born on May 7, 1722.
married Mercy Fisher, of Preston, Connecticut, on January 20, 1742, by whom he
had four children. By a second wife, Isaiah was born in 1765. This son was
married in about 1790, his wife's maiden name being Carey; to them several
children were born, among them Aaron, Joseph Carey and Irene. Joseph Carey first
seeing the light of day on February 5, 1795. His sixth child was a son named
Heman Johnson, born September 23, 1828, who was the father of this writer.
Geer, my grandfather, was the first of his name to "come West" all his
ancestors having remained in Connecticut or the States immediately adjoining. In
1813, he enlisted as a private in the war then being waged between the United
States and England, and in 1815, at the age of twenty years, married Mary
Johnson, a native daughter of Rhode Island. Three years later, having
accumulated some property, consisting of two horses, a wagon, a bolt of cloth
woven by his wife on a hand-loom, two children, Ralph C., aged two years, and
Fred W., an infant, and one hundred dollars in money, he bade a long farewell to
Connecticut, the home of his ancestors for nearly two hundred years, and started
for the Northwest territory. Crossing the Alleqhany Mountains, he settled in
Union County, Ohio, where for two winters he taught school, working in the
summers for neighboring farmers for the princely sum of eight dollars a month. I
heard him say in his latter years, when recalling his early experiences in Ohio,
that he could always get work on the farms, but could not succeed in having his
remuneration increased. In 1821, he leased for six years a small tract of land
near where the town of Woodstock now stands, but sold it the next year and
leased a larger place on the same terms on the Big Darby Plains. Here he built a
house and raised two crops, but being driven out by malaria, so prevalent from
July to November each year, he moved in 1824 to Madison County. Here he bought a
splendid farm and prospered, giving special attention to the raising of fine
stock. When after twenty-two years of persistent effort in Ohio he decided to go
West again, he was a thriving farmer surrounded by a family of five sons and
five daughters, the two older sons having in the meantime surrendered to the
world-wide reign of Dan Cupid and taken unto themselves wives from among the
fair damsels of the immediate neighborhood.
Speaking once of
his early married experiences in Connecticut, Grandfather Geer said: "I
found, after working from daylight until dark for three years, that I could
never make anything on that poor, worn-out land. So I concluded to go to the
'Far West,' as Ohio was then called, and on September 10, 1818, with my wife and
two little tow-headed boys, less than one hundred dollars in money and a light
team, I bade farewell to the old Geer farm and joined a company of about forty
– Burnhams, Hathaways and Howards – and crossed into the Mississippi Valley,
being the first Geer to venture West, as far as I can learn."
In the winter of
1839-40, however, after having become well provided with this world's goods as
the result of twenty-two years of bard labor, with a good farm improved with
houses, barns, orchards and all that would insure a great degree of comfort for
the remainder of his days. my grandfather again surrendered to the curiosity to
know from personal observation what there was of a desirable nature farther
West, disposed of his farm, and with all his children, accompanied by his
sister, Mrs. Irene Eagan, and her large family, chartered a steamboat at
Cincinnati and started down the Ohio River. Their destination was Knox County,
Illinois, where it was rumored there was better (?) land. No doubt, a still
further incentive to make what seemed, or would now seem, a great sacrifice was
found in the fact that it was several hundred miles farther west. As to this
fact they were taking no risk.
This journey was
made in September, 1840, and my father was then a boy of twelve. I have often
listened to his description of the intense excitement which was encountered
everywhere by reason of the famous presidential campaign, then at its height,
between William H. Harrison, "Tippecanoe," and Martin Van Buren. Log
cabins and coonskins were universally in evidence, and the extravagance of the
partisan demonstration was a revelation to the boy, not yet in his teens, who
had never before been five miles from the little town of Summerford in Madison
Illinois after a very tedious voyage up the Mississippi River, my grandfather
purchased a farm near Galesburg, in Knox County, and went through the same
general experience which had been his in Ohio. Within seven years, however,
being exposed to the Oregon fever, he contracted such a serious case that in the
spring of 1847 he disposed of all his property, except the necessary teams for
the journey, and started for the Pacific Coast, arriving at Oregon City in
October of that year. Two years before that his son, Joseph Carey, Jr., had come
to Oregon, and his son Fred, with his young wife and two children, one year
before, had joined the great westward movement in 1846.
[Note: we have two different accounts of the Geer
family's journey on the Oregon Trail: one by his son, Ralph Geer, and one by
This, in outline,
is the experience of a typical pioneer, who in the course of the first fifty
years of his life, after coming to maturity in a New England State, made two
farms in the Central Mississippi Valley, where be wrought for twenty-nine years
in the subduing of such adverse conditions as are always to be found on the
frontier drove an ox team two thousand miles across deserts, uninhabited plains
and frowning mountains to a country practically unknown and began making a new
farm on the west bank of the Willamette River, opposite where Butteville now
lived thirty-four years after his arrival in Oregon – passing into the other
life August 27, 1881, aged eighty-six years and six months. I am perfectly
justified in saying that he lived an upright life in all respects and died
without an enemy. He was a remarkably industrious man and was endowed by nature
with a sunny disposition which endeared him to all. In clearing land on his farm
in 1856, he became overheated while burning brush and stumps, and as a
consequence cataracts formed on each eye, which, because of inefficient
treatment, resulted in total blindness. During the following twenty-five years
he saw no ray of light, but notwithstanding this great affliction his
cheerfulness never deserted him. He was blind the first time I ever saw him –
I was then a chunk of a boy. I remember how he had me stand by his side, in
order that he might get a line on my stature, physiognomy and phrenological
development to date, and he insisted that I read for him, that he might
determine bow far I had advanced in that direction. There was a wire stretched
between two posts, about fifty feet apart, and by means of an attached ring he
would walk from one post to the other for hours every day in pleasant weather
for the purpose of exercise, using the ring as a guide. I used to watch him as
he walked along his well-beaten path, and I am sure that the first sentiment of
pity I ever felt was excited by the sight. He was the first blind man I had ever
seen, and I am certain that until then I had never understood that people ever
lost their eyesight.
thirty miles from Butteville – a distance so great in pioneer times that it was not
often covered for the sake of a mere pleasure trip. A few times we had been to Butteville, however, and I understood that we went there to visit my
grandfather. I thought much more of him than if he had not been my grandfather.
I didn't know why, except that in a general way your grandfather is a better man
than his neighbors, and, besides, he makes more over you. And that helped some.
But one of my earliest and greatest surprises came when, after returning from
one of these visits, I learned through listening to the conversation at the
fireside that my grandfather was my father's father! Somehow this phase of the
situation had never presented itself to my mind, if I had any – which seems
doubtful, as I look back and recall the circumstances – but the astounding
revelation served to impress upon me the fact that the men who are the fathers
of the children we know, themselves at one time had fathers, and that some of
them were still living. I had never delved any further into these mysteries than
a cursory examination of the first strata of cause and effect.
The last time I
saw Grandfather Geer was during the summer of 1880 – a few months after he had
passed his eighty-fifth birthday – and he was the same cheerful man as in his
younger days, though he had then been totally blind for twenty-five years. It
was on that occasion that he told this story at the dinner table, illustrating
the great devotion and faith some people have in the Divine Being, even to the
smallest details. He said:
lived in Connecticut there was a man who bad the habit of thanking the Lord for
every favor he enjoyed or whatever success of any kind he achieved. He would
also ask the Lord for assistance when he was about to undertake anything, no
matter how trivial it was. One day, when he had been plowing his corn since
early in the morning, the noon hour arrived, and as he was very tired he
concluded to ride his horse to the barn. He was a very tall horse and it was no
easy thing to mount him without stirrups. So, placing his hands on his back, he
looked into the sky and asked the Lord to help him in his difficult undertaking.
Having attended to this necessary preliminary, he summoned all his strength and
with a superhuman effort made the leap, but the result proved that he had
overdone the affair. He not only got on top of the horse, but, since there was
nothing stationary to hold on to, he went on over, burrowing his head into the
plowed ground. After he had pulled himself together, dug the dirt out of his
ears and secured his hat, be put his hands on the back of the horse again lifted
his face to the skies, and with meekness as well as devotion written all over
his face, said:
when Thou art good, Thou art too good!"
Next Chapter -
A history of the trail westward taken by John Eoff, T.T.
Geer's other grandfather, John Eoff.
If you are interested in finding this book, Fifty
Years in Oregon, it can
often be located at Powell's Books in Portland
which is one of the largest used book stores in the United States or, through the
which catalogs used books from stores across the country. For more information on the Geer Family, visit the Geer Family website. Other resources
and references include: