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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



In order that the readers of this book may be able to familiarize themselves with the principal facts relating to the early settlement of Oregon without wading through the unimportant details, it is well to say, briefly, that the first earnest and practical effort in that direction was made by Hall J. Kelley, a schoolteacher of Boston who, as early as 1817, began to agitate the matter in the periodicals of his day and by degrees developed some interest in the scheme among certain people of Massachusetts. But in 1817, Oregon was almost as inaccessible as the North Pole is today, for the value of pemmican as a concentrated life sustainer was not then known, and Dr. Cook had not yet begun taking photographs of “the top of the continent.”

But Kelley was an enthusiast on the subject of the Oregon Country, and persistently continued his agitation until, in 1829, as the result of his work, Massachusetts authorized the incorporation of “The American Society for the Settlement of the Oregon Territory.” And that was a long time ago. Amid the swirl and whirl of these days, when the Oregon River so weirdly referred to in Bryant's “Thanatopsis,” instead of gliding to the sea undisturbed save by the “sound of its own dashings,” is continually vexed by the thunderous and ponderous trains of two transcontinental railroads, one on either bank, answering the tremendous demands of national and international trade, one can with difficulty realize the temperament of a man who, while the whole of the Pacific Coast was yet a wilderness unsubdued, would unceasingly devote all his energies to the accomplishment of what to most people seemed a mere dream, a hope without a foundation.

Many of the men, more or less prominent in the affairs of the Oregon country in the early days, have received extended mention in its history whose part in its acquisition and development was incomparably less helpful than was that of Hall J. Kelley. For he was the Pioneer of the pioneers. He was the John the Baptist who could foresee an historical coming event, devoting his lifework to its exploitation; and, like the great prophet of old, upon finally entering the land of promise he saw so gloriously portrayed in his visions, he was misused, mistreated and misunderstood. He started to Oregon in 1832, coming by way of New Orleans across Mexico and to California, where he offered to survey the Sacramento valley for the Mexican Governor. Being refused, he did some work in that line upon his own responsibility and finally joined an overland expedition to Oregon, arriving at Vancouver in October, 1834, two years after his departure from Boston.

Kelley made the trip from California with Ewing Young, a man who afterward figured prominently in the progress of our embryonic government. Their arrival unfortunately was attended by a cloud which cast a shadow over Kelley's connection with the country and, in a way, embittered the remainder of his life. In company with Kelley and Young, who brought a large drove of horses, were some reckless individuals who in some way “acquired” several head not catalogued in the original list. The result of this maneuver was that the Governor General of California sent word to Governor McLoughlin – head of the Hudson Bay Company and virtual ruler of the Oregon Country in those days – of the alleged depredations, and that the “thieves” were bound for the Columbia River. The message of the California Governor, Figueroa, having been received by McLoughlin before the arrival of Young and Kelley, they were met by the old white headed, amiable, but eminently just Doctor with a coldness which was a genuine surprise to them, perfectly guiltless as they were of any wrongdoing. Coming as enthusiastic explorers of a great region, they were met upon its threshold with a charge of horse-stealing, with having arrived richer than they were upon their departure, which reminds one of the declaration of Mark Twain to a friend that his family, as far back as he had any “inside information,” was noted for the abnormally developed bump of “acquisitiveness.” As an instance, he said that when his grandparents, several generations back, crossed the Atlantic en route to America, they were able to put all their earthly belongings in an old carpet sack satchel but, when they disembarked three weeks later at New York, it required three large trunks to hold them all.

There has never been any proof that either Young or Kelley knew of the alleged stealing, but the slander was uttered, and like many other accusations made through ignorance or malice, its effects were difficult if not impossible to counteract. Of this affair, Dr. McLoughlin said in after years:

“I refused to have communication with any of the party. Young maintained he had stolen no horses, but admitted that others had. I told him that might be the case, but, as the charge had been made, I could have no dealings with him until he cleared it up. But he maintained to his countrymen, and they believed, that, as he was a leader among them, I acted as I did from a desire to oppose American interests.”

But Dr. McLoughlin, the Grand Old Man of early Oregon, lived to know what it was to feel the shafts of injustice and ingratitude as the reward for continued substantial assistance rendered to American immigrants, whose coming was the first step toward the ultimate dissolution of the Hudson Bay Company, of which he was the head for quite twenty years.

It goes without saying that both Kelley and Young were indignant at the injustice of the accusation made against them. Young, however, settled down, acquired a tract of land and died here in February, 1841. In a paper read before the Oregon Pioneer Association a few years ago by Courtney M. Walker, he said, after declaring that Ewing Young was “a very candid and scrupulously honest man, thoroughgoing, brave and daring,” that “being in want of supplies and having a few beaver skins, he sent them to Fort Vancouver to exchange for supplies. But Dr. McLoughlin, having been apprised by no less authority than the Governor General of California that Young was the head of banditti, refused to purchase the beaver, but sent Mr. Young the articles which he had wished to purchase, besides sending him several articles of refreshment for his table. But when the articles came, Young indignantly refused to accept the goods or refreshments, and went in person to Vancouver. The Doctor satisfied Mr. Young that he could not, being at the head of a company trading directly with California, have acted otherwise than to give credence to the charge by the Governor of California. On the return of the Cadboro to California, Dr. McLoughlin wrote to the Governor of California, as also did Mr. Young. The ensuing fall the Governor wrote to Dr. McLoughlin, withdrawing the charges against Young and regretting the occurrence.”

Hall Kelley, after spending practically twenty years in enthusiastically advertising the Oregon Country, remained here but a few months, owing to his unfortunate reception, and returned to Massachusetts where he died in 1873. In his later days, when his mind had become partially clouded, he imagined the Hudson Bay Company was pursuing him in a cruel effort to punish him for his exertions in colonizing the Oregon Country and thus destroying the fur industry, which was not only the source of its entire income but its only excuse for existence. Kelley died at an advanced age, a hermit, and embittered against mankind in general.

In reading about the career of Hall Jackson Kelley, I have always felt regret that so little is known of him by the people who occupy the great country in whose future he had such faith. There is something appealingly pathetic about his high and unquenchable purpose when considered in connection with the disappointment which accompanied his first and last visit to the great region of which he had dreamed so long. And so little is known of his efforts by the people who have profited by his sacrifices and persistent labors. I ask the average graduate of any of our colleges or universities who Hall J. Kelley was and he will be astonished beyond measure. He does not know that such a man ever lived. And there are thousands of our most successful business men who can “at the drop of the hat” tell you who has the best score among the crack baseball teams of the country, but who have never heard even the name of Hall Kelley. Scores of men who have had their little day in the State Legislature and have won State-wide attention by their log-rolling maneuvers are well known to the public generally, but the man who perhaps did more to make Oregon than any other, or at least who had as clear a conception of its value as any other, has no place in our school histories and is less generally known than is Pocahontas or William Tell.

Kelley was impressed with the commercial opportunities he found in Oregon. He foresaw the upbuilding of a great city on the Columbia River. After studying the situation, he chose what is now known as the “Peninsula,” that section between the Columbia and Willamette rivers, as the most promising location for the metropolis to come, and actually surveyed a town site near the present dividing line between Portland and St. John. Today the cars of the Portland Railway, Light and Power Company carry thousands of busy people every day across Kelley's town site; automobile joy-riders make the night hideous with their carousals as they violate the “speed” laws while driving over the very ground which he trod as he wended his way through the heavy underbrush skirting the banks of the Willamette, which even then was answering the soft call of the sea; lovesick young people stroll in the moonlit groves where Kelley heard no sound except the occasional drum of the pheasant or the call of the astonished red man; magnificent ocean steamers gracefully glide on the bosom of the rivers which then knew only the rude canoe; the bustling town of St. John has its annual, semiannual, quarterly and perennial scraps over important and unimportant matters where Kelley sat on a fallen log while ruminating on the ingratitude, not only of republics, but of Tillicums in the individual state – but Kelley himself is practically unknown to the people of the land which was his daydream and his song during his younger manhood, where he resided but a few months of his eighty-five years of life, and where, during his brief residence he was compelled to establish his innocence of the charge of being a horse-thief!

And, of such is fame!


Next Chapter - The story of Jason Lee, a Methodist minister who came to Oregon as a missionary in 1834 and was one of the founders of the first university in Oregon.


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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