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Fifty Years In Oregon

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Fifty Years in Oregon was written by Theodore T. Geer, a grandson of Joseph Carey Geer and a shirttail ancestor of ours.

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 interesting.

Table Of Contents

This book was originally published in 1912 by The Neale Publishing Co. If you are interested in a copy, search at Powell's Books.

Fifty Years in Oregon

BY T. T. Geer, formerly Governor of Oregon, and one of her native sons



At this point, I desire to devote a chapter or two to the remarkable steps which were taken by the United States in the acquisition of the western half of the continent, for it is really an important part of the history of the Oregon country. “The Fathers,” especially Jefferson and Madison, were believers in what was known as the strict construction of the Federal. Constitution; that is, that the States held within themselves the supreme power in all cases except where the powers of the Federal Government were specifically defined. In other words, all powers not expressly conferred were to be exercised by the States. This doctrine was specifically promulgated in the famous “Resolutions of '98-99,” of which Jefferson and Madison were the authors.

And according to this interpretation of the Constitution the United States had no right, either expressed or implied, to acquire new territory. Compliance with this view of Jefferson and his political associates would have fixed the western boundary of the original thirteen states as the permanent one for the nation. Think of it! If it had been settled upon as the unalterable definition of the powers and limitations of the Constitution, today the western boundary of Pennsylvania would be the eastern line of some foreign nation, perhaps of some French dependency, as Canada is now subject to the British Government, and Oregon might now be settled by a people speaking Spanish or German!

But many events bearing the mark of special divine interposition occurred, the chief of which was the alarming situation in which Napoleon Bonaparte found himself in 1803 because of the probability that he would soon be involved in a war with England, in which case he could foresee that it would be impossible for him to hold the Louisiana possessions in America, It was most fortunate for the future of the United States that at this particular time Jefferson, then President, was anxious to purchase New Orleans, as a means of insuring the navigation of the Mississippi, and the Floridas. To negotiate for this purchase he sent envoys to France in 1803, who, upon their arrival, found that the Marquis de Marbois, the French councilor representing Napoleon, had already been instructed to sell the whole of Louisiana to the United States – for the reason outlined above. The following extract from Napoleon's instructions to his representative fully discloses his motives in that very surprising move on the world's political chess board. Speaking of the evident purposes of the English he said:

"They shall not have the Mississippi, which they covet. The conquest of Louisiana would be easy if they only took the trouble to make a descent there. I have not a moment to lose in putting it out of their reach. I think of ceding it to the United States. They ask of me one town in Louisiana, but I already consider the colony as entirely lost, and it appears to me that in the hands of this growing power it will be more useful to the policy, and even to the commerce, of France than if I should attempt to keep it."

After further consideration he decided the matter definitely in these words:

"It is not only New Orleans that I will cede; it is the whole colony without reservation. To attempt to hold it would be folly. I direct you to negotiate this offer with the envoys of the United States. I will be moderate, in the consideration of the necessity in which I am of making a sale, but keep this to yourself."

It is not necessary to follow this most interesting story, of such vital importance to the future of the United States and resulting in such benefits to the human race, further than to add that Livingstone and Monroe, the American representatives at Paris, were thunderstruck by the stupendous possibilities which the situation opened to their country. But as they had instructions to purchase only New Orleans and the Floridas, they hesitated to accept Napoleon's proposition, magnificent as it was. Jefferson was fearful that his representatives would not be able even to succeed in arranging terms for the purchase of New Orleans. Knowing this, they were astounded to find themselves upon their arrival with nearly all of the western half of the continent literally thrust upon them at the nominal price of fifteen million dollars! And as both were political disciples of Jefferson in his strict construction of the Constitution, as opposed to that of Washington and Hamilton, they of course understood that a great obstacle would be en countered upon their return to the United States with so vast an empire added unconstitutionally to the national domain.

But luckily, being farseeing statesmen, and probably understanding the statesmanship of their chief in its adaptability to circt1mstances which promised well for the future, they accepted Napoleon's proposition and returned to Washington with an agreement duly signed, the chief clause of which read as follows:

The colony or province of Louisiana is ceded by France to the United States, with all its rights and appurtenances, as fully and in the same manner as .they have been acquired by the French Republic, by virtue of the third article of the treaty concluded by His Catholic Majesty at St. Ildephonso of the 1st of October, 1800.

Although the popular notion is that Jefferson was aggressively favorable to the acquisition of the Louisiana territory, history proves that he never seriously dreamed of such an accomplishment even as a remote possibility, and that no man was more surprised than he when he learned what his representatives had done. And he was inwardly as well pleased as he was surprised, for with his great perspicacity he could readily foresee the boundless advantages which would be derived by the United States in the years to come from the addition of this vast region.

Jefferson's first difficulty, however, was not to disown the act of his emissaries but to devise some way of justifying it. To do so he must revise his political doctrine of a strictly interpreted Constitution, and this he at once set to work to bring about. He found the situation perplexing, but his resources were as boundless as those of the country whose servant he was. He began immediately to write letters to his closest friends, explaining and excusing his change of doctrine. He first seriously proposed the submission of an amendment to the Constitution which would specifically legalize the purchase of Louisiana, and by that means harmonize his political preaching with his political practices. But his most confidential associates advised him to remain quiet on the general phase of the difficulty and to depend upon the public approval of the step as a means of escaping from the legal tangle which his conscience was inclined to recognize and magnify. To a friend Jefferson wrote at this time:

"The less that is said about any constitutional difficulty the better… It will be necessary for Congress to do what is necessary in silence… Whatever Congress shall think it necessary to do should be done with as little debate as possible, and particularly so far as respects the constitutional difficulty."

In another letter he said:

"Congress has made no provision for holding foreign territory, still less for incorporating foreign nations into our Union. The Executive, in seizing the fugitive occurrence which so much advances the good of their country, have done an act beyond the Constitution. The Legislature, in casting behind them metaphysical difficulties, and risking themselves like faithful servants, must ratify and pay for it and throw themselves on the country for doing for them un authorized what they knew they would have done for themselves had they been in a situation to do it. It is the case of a guardian investing the money of his ward in purchasing an important adjacent territory, and saying to him when of age: “I did this for your good. I pretend to no right to bind you; you may disavow me and I will get out of the scrape as well as I can. I thought it my duty to risk myself for you.” But we shall not be disavowed by the nation, and their act of indemnity will confirm and not weaken the Constitution by more strongly marking out its lines."

Jefferson was one of the most prolific letter writers of his or any other day, and these brief extracts are but samples of his activity in urging his friends to believe that the Constitution would survive this sudden shock. His versatility is exhibited in his characterization of the opportunity to violate his previous interpretation of the Constitution as a “fugitive occurrence” which the “Executive have seized,” the latter expression, which would not be considered grammatical in these days, being in accordance with the custom of kings and other rulers of the previous century, and not at that time discarded by those so recently divorced from the forms of the Old World governments.

One of the really humorous incidents of history is afforded by the diplomatic somersaults of Jefferson in connection with the acquisition of Louisiana. The expression “fugitive occurrence” was a gem in its line and fitly defines the justification which all great figures in governmental and religious reforms present by way of vindication when they have applied the stiletto to established and perhaps tyrannical customs.

But under the tactful guidance of Jefferson the little tempest blew over. Congress ratified the treaty of acquisition “with as little debate as possible,” though while it lasted the discussion was warm and almost furious. In order to pass rapidly over this historical feature of the first movement, which resulted in the final acquisition of the whole western part of the continent, including ultimately the Oregon country, I shall quote but a single paragraph of a single speech of the many made in Congress in opposition to legalizing the action of Jefferson in the Louisiana Purchase. When the question of ratification was before Congress, Senator James White, of Delaware, one of the most influential members of that body, said:

“But as to Louisiana, this new, immense, unbounded world, if it should ever be incorporated into the Union, of which 1 have no idea, can only be done by amending the Constitution, I believe it would be the greatest curse that could at present befall us. It may be productive of innumerable evils, and especially of one that I fear ever to look upon. Thus our citizens will be removed to the immense distance of two or three thousand miles from the Capital of the Union, where they will scarcely ever feel the rays of the General Government; affections will become alienated; they will gradually begin to view us as strangers; they will form other commercial connections and our interests will become extinct… And I do say that under existing circumstances, even supposing that this extent of territory was a desirable acquisition, fifteen millions of dollars is a most enormous sum to give.”

All of which, after a century of development of this supposedly “worthless territory,” appears absurdly ridiculous. It is amazing that even then an intelligent man should have entertained so immature a conception of the great country which the Louisiana Purchase included. Today every heartthrob of the nation, having its inception at Washington, is felt as keenly and responded to as quickly at any point on the Pacific Coast as at Boston or Richmond. By snatching a “fugitive occurrence” and abandoning his former narrow conception of the powers of the General Government, Jefferson performed, or accepted, an act which was second in importance in his great career only to the writing of the Declaration of Independence.


Chapter V

But the acquisition of the Northwest was yet to be accomplished, though, strange as it may appear, until little more than ten years ago the belief was quite generally entertained by the American public that the territory embraced in the Louisiana Purchase included all that lying between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Coast, notwithstanding that the historical facts bearing upon the case were accessible to and should have been understood by everybody. Even the official map issued by the General Land Office, as late as 1898, so represented the matter. The question coming to the notice of Hon. Binger Hermann, then the Commissioner in the Land Department, and for the twelve previous years a member of Congress from Oregon, that gentleman compiled from the official records the exact history of the treaty with France and published a correct map showing that all of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming were secured to the United States in after years by the enforcement of rights obtained through discovery in 1792, exploration in 1804-1805 by Lewis and Clark, occupation by American settlers, and, finally, by treaties with England. Indeed, the western boundary of the Louisiana Purchase was not defined in the terms of the cession, since Napoleon himself did not know where it rightfully belonged. When questioned concerning this important feature of the transaction by the American representatives, Marbois referred the matter to Napoleon and ex pressed his regret that the western boundary of Louisiana should be so “obscure.” To this the Man of Destiny gave a reply which was eminently characteristic, to wit, that “if an obscurity does not exist already, it would, perhaps, be good policy to put one there.” So, with this indefinite understanding as to what the United States was getting for its fifteen million dollar investment, the country was accepted and the details were afterward worked out as circumstances and responsibility demanded. Fortunately this process required no bloodshed, and in the course of time the United States came into its own through the occurrence of a chain of events which those not too skeptical are justified in believing were ordered by the decrees of a Providence that looks after the ultimate welfare of the human race.

Having satisfied his conscience as to the constitutionality of the proceeding which made the most of a “fugitive occurrence,” Jefferson at once conceived the Lewis and Clark expedition and lost no time in getting the movement under actual headway.

Jefferson's undoubted ability as a statesman was exemplified in his proposed organization of the Lewis and Clark expedition even before the acquisition of Louisiana was accomplished – before he had even dreamed of such a thing as a possibility. He had no knowledge of the action of the American representatives at Paris until their return to Washington in July, 1803, and the treaty of acquisition was not ratified by Congress until the 20th of the following October. In the previous January he had asked Congress to provide an adequate appropriation for an expedition to the mouth of the Columbia River, by way of the headwaters of the Missouri, and that body had generously granted his request. This is related here for the purpose of showing that Jefferson, in inaugurating the Lewis and Clark expedition, had no thought that the great Northwestern territory belonged to the United States through the purchase of Louisiana, or for any other reason. Indeed, he had argued in favor of some such procedure a dozen years before, while Secretary of State under President Washington.

There can be no doubt, however, that his perspicacity led him to see the great advantages which would ultimately come to the United States if its territory could be made coextensive with the continent, and that it was in accordance with this idea that he was anxious to have American representatives in the field of exploration with the purpose of establishing prior rights. When we consider the great activity of Jefferson in the matter of acquiring new territory, together with the ease with which he surrendered his previous contention for a strict construction of the Federal Constitution that the country might expand in landed area, one may well believe, that if he had been actively in the flesh during the past twenty years he would have aligned himself with the pronounced “expansionists.” The history of his time fairly bristles with evidence of his anxiety to acquire Cuba as apart of our domain, and in 1807 (August 10), during his second term as President, he wrote to Madison, his Secretary of State, discussing the possibility of war with England, as follows:

I would rather have war with Spain than not, if we are to go to war against England. Our southern defenses can take care of the Floridas, volunteers from the Mexican army will flock to our standard and rich pabulum will be offered to our privateers in the plunder of their commerce and coasts; probably. Cuba would add itself to our confederation.

Two years later he again wrote to Madison, who was then President, as follows:

"That Napoleon would give us the Floridas to with hold intercourse with the residue of these colonies cannot be doubted, but that is no price, for they are ours the first moment of the first war; but, although with difficulty, he will consent to our receiving Cuba into our Union to prevent our aid to Mexico and other provinces. That will be a price, and I would immediately erect a column on the southernmost limits of Cuba and inscribe on it a ne plus ultra as to us in that direction. We should then only have to include the North in our confederacy, which would be, of course, in the first war, and we should have such an empire for liberty as she has never surveyed since the creation, and I am convinced that no Constitution was ever before so well calculated as ours for extensive empire and self-government."

All of which is worth knowing and remembering as very important features of the great movements which, in the aggregate, resulted in the acquisition of territory which gives us practically three times the area that we claimed at the close of the Revolution. And it is also interesting to note the opposition which has always been made to such expansion, even by men who, in the phrase of the day, should have known better. The acquisition of the “Oregon Country” – by which term was known almost all that region north of California and New Mexico and west of the Rocky Mountains – was not to be merely a “fugitive occurrence, ”since the first serious consideration of the matter was taken by Congress in 1825, President Monroe having recommended that a military post be established “at or near the mouth of the Columbia River,” the purpose of which was not to declare our title to the country but to protect “our increased and increasing fisheries on the Pacific.” A bill was introduced at once in the House complying with the President's request and, in addition to the main purpose of it, pro vision was made for granting each settler one mile square of land, a forerunner by a full quarter of a century of the Donation Land Act, which became a law in 1850.

This bill evoked such a curious debate, manifesting the crude conception which many of our statesmen had of this Western country at that time, that I quote a few samples which will illustrate what we have had to “come up through” in the exploitation of what is really one of the finest sections of the globe for the development of that which is best in men and women.

Among the most prominent and sagacious men who took an active part in the debate on the Oregon bill in the session of 18245 was James Barbour, a Senator from Virginia, who, after insisting that England had no claim nor title to the Northwestern country, devoted himself to answering the statement that it was worthless anyway, and that so vast a country annexed to the United States would not only make our government unwieldy, but would present a real menace to its perpetuity. Concerning this phase of the matter, he said:

Fifty years ago and the valley of the Mississippi was like the present condition of the country of the Oregon; it is now teeming with a mighty population – a free and happy people. Their march onward to the country of the setting sun is irresistible. I will not disguise that I look with deepest anxiety on this vast extension of our empire and to its possible effect on our political institutions. Whatever they may be, however, our forefathers decided that the experiment should be made. Our advance in political science has already cancelled the dogmas of theory. We have already ascertained, that by the happy combination of national and state governments, but above all by a wise arrangement of the representatives system, republics are not necessarily limited to a small territory, and that a government thus arranged not only produces more happiness, but more stability and more energy than those most arbitrary.. Whether it is capable of indefinite extent must be left to posterity to decide. But, in the most unfavorable result, a division, by necessity, from its unwieldy extent – an event, I would devoutly hope afar off – we even then can console ourselves with the reflection that all parts of the great whole will have been peopled by our kindred, carrying with them the same language, habits and inextinguishable devotion to liberty and republican institutions.

This was the language of a statesman, of a man who had studied governments and people, and who was sufficiently free from prejudice to take a higher view of a great opportunity.

Senator Dickerson of New Jersey was the leader of the opposition to the effort to provide for a military post at the mouth of the Columbia. He was certain that, since England and the United States had signed a treaty in 1818, according to the terms of which both countries should occupy the Oregon country without claiming title thereto, the proposed bill, if passed, would be considered as a hostile act by Great Britain and would probably result in war. Senator Dickerson then turned his shafts of ridicule upon the proposition to acquire Oregon 'in any manner, and closed his speech with a remarkable exhibition of misinformation regarding a section of our common country which is bound in the course of events to become one of its most attractive and valuable sub divisions. Fully twenty years after the wonderful journey of Lewis and Clark and fourteen years after the settlement of Astoria, Senator Dickerson displayed his lack of foresight as to the character of the Pacific Coast and of the genius of the American people by the following amusing calculations and sidesplitting predictions. Estimating the distance from Washington to Oregon to be four thousand six hundred and fifty miles, he said:

"But is this Territory of Oregon ever to become a State? Never! The distance that a member of Congress from this State of Oregon will be obliged to travel in coming to the seat of government, and returning, will be nine thousand three hundred miles. This, at the rate of eight dollars for every twenty miles would make his traveling expenses amount to three thousand seven hundred and twenty dollars. Every member of Congress ought to see his constituents at .least once a year. This is already very difficult for those in the remote parts of the Union. At the rate which members of Congress travel according to law, that is, twenty miles per day, it would require to come to the seat of government and return .four hundred and sixty five days. But if he should travel at the rate of thirty miles a day, it would require three hundred and six days. Allowing for Sundays, forty-four days, it would require three hundred and six days. This would allow the member a fort night to rest himself at Washington before commencing his journey home. This rate of traveling would be a hard duty, as the greater part of the way is exceedingly bad and a. portion of it over the rugged mountains, where Lewis and Clark found several feet of snow in the latter part of June. Yet, a young, able bodied Senator might travel from Oregon to Washington and back once a year, but he could do nothing else. It would be more expeditious, however, to come by water around Cape Horn, or through Behring's Strait, around the north coast of the continent to Baffin's Bay, through Davis Strait to the Atlantic Ocean, and thus on to Washington. It is true that this passage is not yet discovered, except on the maps, but it will be as soon as Oregon will be a State."

The fallibility of the human judgment is well illustrated by a glance at the industrial condition now prevailing in all parts of the Oregon Country, in connection with this prediction of Senator Dickerson. Of course that speech was made eighty-six years ago, and that is a long way to look into the future with any degree of certainty, yet there were those at that time who had the most exalted opinion of the possibilities and value of the region in controversy, Among these was Jefferson himself, who soon after the close of the Revolution began to cast his eye west of the Mississippi and to covet all the country lying between that stream and the Pacific Ocean, But the man who was one of the earliest champions of Oregon and who accomplished more than any other when it came before the public as a matter to be disposed of one way. Qn the other, was Thomas H. Benton, of Missouri. But for his unceasing championship of the right of the United States to the whole of the Northwest, and his iaithin its great industrial and commercial value after it should be settled by the American people, it is quite among the possibilities that England finally might have succeeded in obtaining title to it.

The State of Oregon contains only about one-fourth of the area of the original Oregon Country (the remainder being composed of the States of Washington and Idaho and parts of Montana and Wyoming) yet Oregon alone now produces not far from two millions of dollars in gold each year; its annual wool clip amounts to four millions of dollars, its wheat fifteen millions and its salmon one million. Its other industries already developed cover perhaps a greater variety, owing to its wonderful climate and soil, than any other State in the Union. It has more standing timber of the best quality than any other State, and Portland, with over two hundred thousand population, stands at the head of the list of cities in the United States as an exporter of wheat.

In view of this condition, while the exploitation of its natural resources is yet in its infancy, the extract from the speech of Senator Dickerson in 1825 makes good reading and is well worth a place in this rapid review of events which preceded the final legislation that established a territorial form of government for Oregon. After a protracted debate, a bill for this purpose was passed on Sunday morning, August 13, 1848. The treaty of 1818, providing for joint occupancy, was terminated by the mutual consent of Great Britain and the United States in 1846, after a life of eighteen years, and as the result of satisfactory concessions the whole of the Oregon Country became American territory.

It is interesting to note, in passing, that one of the greatest forensic efforts of John C. Calhoun was made in the Senate in opposition to the bill admitting Oregon as a territory, for the reason that it did not specifically provide for the introduction of slavery within its boundaries. In the course of this speech he bitterly assailed the Declaration of Independence, and among other things, said:

"The proposition that 'all men are created free and equal' is a hypothetical truism. Men are not born free… Infants are born. They grow to be men. They are not born free. While infants, they are incapable of freedom; they are subject to their parents. All men are not created. Only two, a man and a woman, were created, and one of these was pronounced subordinate to the other. All others have come into the world by being born, and in no sense, as I have shown, either free or equal. Instead of liberty and equality being born with men, and instead of all men and classes being entitled to them, they are high prizes to be won, rewards bestowed on moral and mental development."

But in spite of Mr. Calhoun's false philosophy and Mr. Dickerson's skepticism, Oregon became a Territory. Ten years afterward she became a State – the final result of a contest that occupied the attention of our greatest statesmen for more than thirty years, which in many of its characteristics was without historic parallel, and which was illuminated by a series of unusually dramatic and romantic features. These will be noticed briefly in succeeding chapters while considering the wonderful westward movement of the Oregon pioneer – a movement which has no counterpart in history as a peaceful subjugation of a beautiful wilderness, peopled by savages and under the protection of no nation!


Next Chapter - The aspirations of Hall J. Kelley to settle the Oregon and his efforts, starting in 1817, to be a pioneer.

Some other sites with a perspective on early Oregon history can be found at:


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 Alibris service 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:


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