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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



I do not now and never did belong to the Methodist Church, but certainly no loyal Oregonian breathes with soul so dead as to deny for a moment the great obligation his State owes to that organization for its great work during the decade between 1830 and 1840 in making the initial occupancy of the Oregon Country. To be sure, the early Methodist missionaries were governed first by a desire to convert the .Indians to Christianity – vain effort, in the main – but they were Americans, imbued with an unswerving attachment to their country's institutions, and as a counter influence to the Hudson Bay Company wrought mightily in the great conflict which finally brought victory to American sovereignty.

No matter whether you believe in the perseverance of the saints, the administration of baptism by sprinkling or whether you stand for complete immersion; no difference if you are a supporter of the doctrine of original sin, foreordination and election – even if you are confirmed in your opinion that shouting during the culminating proceedings of a revival meeting is not only indecorous but bordering on the absurdly emotional, you have no business to set up your claim to any degree of sincere love for Oregon's early history if you fail to take off your hat to a Methodist when you meet him, if not for his sake, then, at least, for the sake of the great religious organization he represents.

And among those early Methodist missionaries, head and shoulders above all others stands Jason Lee. This distinction will be unhesitatingly accorded him by all his church fellows. In effective work along lines which bore immediate fruit, and which not only required great personal sacrifices but finally snapped the thread of his strenuous life, he stands pre-eminent. He was so wholly in earnest and so persistently zealous in his chosen work that one might almost term him a fanatic, but this would be very unfair. He was rather a man wrapped up in his chosen work, and being nervously active and full of restless ambition to accomplish his great purpose, he abandoned all the comforts of civilization and insisted upon being sent to the wilds of distant and practically unknown Oregon. To be sure, Hall Kelley had devoted nearly twenty years of his life to promoting emigration to Oregon before he finally came here, but he remained scarcely six months; Lee on the other hand founded a mission, started a school (which ultimately became the present Willamette University) at Salem, opened several farms, made the first move toward the agricultural development of the new country, and employed every hour of his time until his unfortunate death in spreading the gospel not only of religion, but of those earthly activities which make for the uplift of men and women.

In all these things, it is impossible to go beyond Jason Lee in Oregon history. Back of him, there is a void – no schools, no churches, no agriculture, no homes. Indeed, there was no civilization. There were trappers, fur-traders, a few white men with native wives, adventurers without purpose in life. But Lee, with his companions, P. L. Edwards, Cyrus Shepherd, and his nephew, Daniel Lee, joined the expedition guided by Nathaniel Wyeth of Massachusetts, left their homes in New England in March, 1834, plunged into the wilderness on the western borders of Missouri on April 24, and arrived in Oregon on October 1. On the sixth day of that month they pitched their tents on the banks of the Willamette River, ten miles below where Salem now is, and proceeded to found the Methodist Mission, from whence at once began to radiate the influences of Christianity for the first time in all the Oregon Country!

In paying this brief, but deserved, tribute to Jason Lee as the first potent factor in the development of my beloved native State, I am reminded of a story related by Dr..Whitcomb Brougher, until recently the popular pastor of the White Temple Baptist Church of Portland. He had preached a sermon one Sunday in which he referred to the primitive Jews in a way that called forth innumerable protests from local people of that persuasion, and the daily papers were printing many communications combating his interpretation of Jewish characteristics, as portrayed in ancient times. The Jewish paper in Portland lent a hand in the attack, with the result that Dr. Brougher replied in a letter in the Oregonian which bristled with a vigorous defense; but this only invited a renewal of the discussion. Finally, he announced that on the following Sunday he would preach a sermon, the text of which would be the Jewish race, cordially inviting all the Hebrews in Portland to attend. The invitation was responded to quite generally, many of the most prominent Jews in the city occupying seats here and there throughout the congregation.

Dr. Brougher welcomed them in his introductory remarks in that hospitable manner for which he is justly noted, and in the course of his sermon highly eulogized the excellent qualities of Jews who have figured prominently in the world's progress in politics, literature, science and religion.

“And when it comes to the matter of well-established remote ancestry,” said the Doctor, “the Jews have us all beaten out of sight. Most of us are inclined to be vain if we can trace our ancestry back as much as three generations on both sides of the house; and if one of us can name his grandfathers and grandmothers in a direct line for a century he is quite likely to boast of the fact in an insufferably egotistical manner. But, no matter what you can do in that direction, don't mention it when in the presence of a Jew, for he has you skinned a mile in the matter of ancestry. He will at once refer you to Abraham or Moses-and then where are you? You would be like the man who was drowned in the Johnstown Rood, after fighting the fierce waves successfully for nearly an hour. After a most heroic effort he nearly escaped, but was again overtaken by the surging waters. After three victories over the angry torrent he was finally drawn under and lost his life. Upon entering the pearly gates he was quite a hero and a crowd gathered around him to listen to his narration of his thrilling experiences. When he had finished describing how he escaped the first time, his listeners with one voice said: 'What a remarkable escape! What an awful experience!'

“But an old man who stood apart from the others merely said: 'Oh, pshaw!'

“Again the man gave the details of his second success over the rising current, and the crowd repeated its exclamations, but the old man only said: 'Oh, pshaw!'

“When the man had finished the account of his third triumph over the swift-running torrent, and had used all the adjectives at his command in his portrayal of the awful event, the audience again expressed its astonishment that any man could have fought against such odds for so long a time, but the old man merely voiced his increasing disgust by repeating for the third time: 'Oh, pshaw!'

“At this juncture a man who had stood by and taken in the entire scene turned to St. Peter and said: 'Who is that old fellow over there who says “Oh, pshaw” every time the man tells about how he fought the waves in the Johnstown flood for so long a time?'

“ 'Whom do you mean?' inquired St. Peter. 'That fellow over there with the long beard?'

“ 'Yes,' said the man."

" 'And you don't know him?' returned the keeper of the keys. 'Why, that's Noah!'“

Of course it may seem somewhat irreverent to couple this story with anything relating to a man so very sedate and serious as Jason Lee, but it aptly illustrates the utter tameness of the undertakings of those who came to Oregon after him, when we recall that when he and his four companions made their way up the Willamette valley on that day in October, 1834, there was not a civilized American settlement anywhere west of the Rocky Mountains. All was wilderness and savagery solitude and barbarism. Those who came after them had at least “The Mission” to give them a welcome and a temporary home until. they were able to find a permanent location.

Surely the man who would make the journey to such a , country under such conditions as then prevailed, led by the motive which governed Jason Lee, had the zeal and inflexible purpose which should have given him a passport into that mysterious realm where the perseverance of the saints is a sufficient warrant for unquestioned admission!

I have been where the old Mission house stood scores of times, as the spot is but fifteen miles from my birthplace and the farm which was my home for thirty years; It was a beautiful location, about a half a mile from the Willamette River, and that section has ever since been known as “Mission Bottom.” At present, it consists of several large farms noted for their wonderful fertility. But how different the scene then and now-in 1834 and in 1911! Today there are several extensive peach orchards on Mission Bottom, one of them being thirty years old. During this time, it has had but two failures from late frosts. Some ten years ago the State Agriculu1ral Society offered a handsome premium for the greatest variety of products of the best quality to be raised on anyone farm in Oregon, to be exhibited at the State Fair. The result was one of the most attractive features at the Fair that fall. Many farmers entered the contest, but the blue ribbon went to Alex Lafollette, one of the best farmers in Oregon, whose land covers a part of the Old Mission where Jason Lee located in October, 1834, and where he built his log cabin as the first step toward converting the noble red man from ways that are dark to a semblance of Christianity. Lafollette's exhibit included almost every variety of vegetable, fruit, grain and grass known to any portion of the United States. His premium, a new Studebaker wagon, was so gorgeously finished and varnished that he was ashamed to ride in it or to use it in any manner.

When Jason Lee pitched his tent in the little grove of fir trees beside which he afterward built his cabin, the present site of Portland, with its population of more than two hundred thousand people, was an unknown forest, and where is located the beautiful city of Salem, the capital of the State, with its magnificent State buildings, there was a small prairie called by the Indians ‘Chemekete,’ which was a favorite camping place for such tribes as were on friendly terms. At other times and under different conditions it afforded every facility for a convenient battlefield. Where the State Hospital for the Insane now shelters a thousand unfortunates, savage tribes had for thousands of years, no doubt, made their history, which was handed down in tradition, while the site of the State House, in the midst of the prairie, was in those days used for the propagation of another kind of incoherency which made those most interested sit up and take notice – as now. But between these two modern cities, electric cars now spin across a splendidly improved agricultural country every hour, passing within two miles of the Old Mission.

Lee and his associates at once entered upon their labors and soon had a handful of native children attending their school, but in the long run – though it was a comparatively short run, after all-the effort was a failure so far as any improvement in the moral or spiritual condition of the Indians was concerned. Lee himself was to a certain extent discredited through the disappointment felt by the Missionary Board of New York that greater progress had not been made in uplifting the heathen. When on his way to “the States'“ in February, 1844, while stopping for a few days at Honolulu, he learned that Bishop Hedding had appointed Rev. George Gary, of New York, his successor. Nevertheless he continued his journey, which was undertaken largely for the purpose of explaining to the Missionary Board the many difficulties under which his work had proceeded.

Lee never returned to Oregon, the field of his greatest efforts, though it was his intention to do so. Going to his birthplace in Stanstead, Canada, for a much-needed rest, he contracted a severe cold from which he never recovered, and on March 12,1845, he passed into the Great Beyond with the hope of receiving the reward of a faithful servant of God.

The life of Jason Lee was a singularly sorrowful one. In June, 1837, the Mission was blessed with the arrival of twelve new members from the East, seven of whom were women. To one of these, Miss Anna Maria Pitman, Lee was married within four weeks, and on the same day and with the same ceremony Miss Susan Downing, another of the new arrivals, was united to Cyrus Shepherd. And although the joyous occasion was not celebrated amid the accompanying strains of Mendelssohn's “Wedding March,” nor in a gilded parlor adorned with smilax and imported ferns, yet in the grove of firs, God's own temple, these Christian people probably pledged their fidelity to each other with as full a measure of bliss as ever filled the hearts of the “idle rich” in the centers of civilization.

In March of the next year, 1838, Lee began the journey overland to New York for the purpose of presenting the needs of the Mission to the Board. On the first day of the following September, while at the town of Westport, Missouri, he was overtaken by a messenger sent from the Mission to inform him of the death of his wife and infant son on July 26. Burdened with this great affliction, he went his way, devoting himself during the next twelve months to organizing a new expedition to the Oregon Country, composed of those who were closely identified with the Methodist Church. These people, fifty-one in number, sailed from New York on October 9, 1839, bidding adieu to former friends and associations and casting their lot with the much-talked-of region on the Pacific Coast.

There is something intensely fascinating about this great movement to all Oregonians, but especially to those who, like myself, can remember most of those grand pioneers who so industriously and patriotically set about creating a State from the raw materials by which they were so lavishly surrounded. This addition to the Mission, and incidentally to the forces which so soon afterward began to shape affairs toward American ownership of the country, was called the “Great Reenforcement” and to this day if you should speak of the “Great Reenforcement” to an active Methodist his eye will kindle with enthusiasm and, if he is not tongue-tied (and I have never yet seen a Methodist so afflicted), he will begin a deserved eulogy upon the many virtues of that band of men and women. Numbered among them were Rev. J. L. Parrish and wife, Rev. Gustavus Hines and wife, Rev. A. F. Waller and wife, George Abernethy, who became the first Governor of Oregon under the provisional government, Dr. I. L. Babcock, L. H. Judson and others who won conspicuous places in the subsequent development of the country.

With these people on the good ship “Lausanne,” returning to the scene of his labors, was Jason Lee, who, just before starting had married Miss Lucy Thomson, of Barre, Vermont. The ship arrived in the Columbia River on May 21, 1840, and within a few days those who were destined to locate at the Mission reached that point and took up their appointed tasks. At the Mission on March 20, 1842, Lee's second wife, like his first, died in childbirth, leaving an infant daughter who grew to womanhood.

Jason Lee's first wife was buried on a beautiful knoll overlooking the Chemekete prairie — where Salem now stands — and it has ever since been known as Lee Mission Cemetery. It is just outside the city limits of Salem, and while its lots are at the service of the general public it is distinguished as the last resting place of many of the State's most prominent Methodists and is owned by that religious organization. When I was a boy in my early teens, attending the Willamette University, the Lee Mission Cemetery was “way out in the country.” Many a time, I have gone in company with boys of my age “prowling” through the scattered woods that intervened between the city and the cemetery. Sometimes we ventured inside the fence of the “graveyard” where, under the spreading branches of a giant oak tree which had been there — and almost its present size — when Columbus landed on the eastern shores of America, we stood in awe, mingled with a quite well-defined sense of fear, and read this inscription upon a huge slab of marble in letters even then dingy with age:

Beneath this sod,
The first ever broken in Oregon
for the reception of
White mother and child,
Lie the remains
wife of
and infant son.
She sailed from New York, July, 1836,
Landed in Oregon, June, 1837,
Was married July 16,
and died
July 26th, 1838,
Aged 36 years.

By the side of Anna Pitman Lee and her little son lie the remains of Mrs. Lucy Thomson Lee, Jason Lee's second wife.



The history of Oregon will be searched in vain for a more pathetic story of individual experience than that which clusters around the career of Jason Lee. Imbued with a fervent religious zeal, he desired to consecrate his life to the service of Christianity, and his special ambition, even before the proposition to come to Oregon was presented to him, was to work among the Indians. Making the long journey across the continent as early as 1834, he found conditions here even more difficult and unpromising than he had supposed. After working under these dispiriting circumstances for three years he returned to New York overland in 1838, the sad news of his wife's death overtaking him when his journey was but little more than half over. He returned to Oregon in 1840 and two years later lost his second wife. He was virtually discharged from his superintendency in 1844, through misrepresentation and the fact that the undertaking, because of impossible conditions, had not met with a great measure of success. The same year he made his second journey to the Mother Church in New York in the interest of the Mission, was seized with a severe cold, and on March 12, 1845, at his home in Canada, yielded up his life.

I have never read of a sadder career than this — have you? And yet it bore fruit of the rarest character, and the results of Lee's efforts are felt in all Oregon to this day. Not only those who came here in the earlier days recognize his great sacrifices made in laying a great State's foundation, but our newer citizens, as they familiarize themselves with the pioneer history of their adopted State, will read with growing admiration of the man who gave his life for the promotion of a great cause.

For sixty-one years, the body of Jason Lee lay in the cemetery of his native town in Canada. Frequently the proposal to bring it to Oregon and place it by the side of his wives in Lee Mission Cemetery was made by appreciative citizens of Oregon, and the General Conferences of the Methodist Church often seriously considered it, but the pressing demands for money in matters calling for immediate action caused delay after delay. Finally, however, in the summer of 1995, the movement inaugurated by the Conference and a few outside individuals was successful. On a beautiful June afternoon in 1906, when the sun was approaching the western horizon and all nature was in an exceptionally happy mood, — just such a day as is known in all its perfection no place on earth outside the Willamette valley, — the body of Jason Lee was deposited by the side of his loved and faithful wives and infant son, after a separation of nearly sixty-five years!

Standing under the shade of the majestic oaks which had all these years stood as sentinels over the graves of the partners of his successes and disappointments, chiefly the latter, a thousand people witnessed the solemn ceremony. Many of the oldest Methodists in the Northwest were there, but, singularly enough, no one who had ever seen Jason Lee. At the graveside, after the casket had been lowered, President Coleman, of the Willamette University, invited several prominent men who were present to make short addresses. I recall that among these was Rev. John Flinn, then eighty-eight years of age and one of the oldest ministers in point of service as well as age on the Pacific Coast. He is of Irish extraction, of an unusually sunny disposition, and as devout a man as may be found anywhere. His remarks on this occasion were very impressive. With quivering voice, he referred to the reverence he felt while in this city of the dead, which held the remains of so many of the pioneer Methodists — Bishop Haven, William Roberts, Father Wilbur, J. L. Parrish, Gustavus Hines, Harvey K. Hines and others who had wrought with such good effect in the old days.”But our ranks are thinning,” said he, “and within a few days at most, Dr. Driver, you and I will be with them, singing praises to the Lamb. Bless the dear Lord!” And as he said it he made his way to where Dr. Driver stood and embraced him fervently, while the tears streamed down the cheeks of the distinguished Methodist patriarchs who had carried the banner of the Cross in Oregon for more than fifty years.

And there were other eyes, many hundreds of them, similarly affected by this exhibition of pardonable emotion aroused by the recollection of days and experiences long gone by.

At this point, Father Flinn gave way to a reminiscent vein and, forgetting for the moment where he was and the seriousness of the occasion, said:

“Brother Driver, do you remember the time of your conversion down in Umpqua valley? I was there and I will never forget,” etc. He then related a humorous incident connected with Brother Driver's conversion and finished with a chuckle, the entire audience joining in the laugh which the anecdote forced. Driver replied with a sally, recounting the first time he ever saw Flinn, and the predicament he was in, — the entire incident at the graveside, although out of harmony with a solemn occasion, presenting a humorously pathetic feature which was enjoyed and appreciated by those present, but which would have been sheer irreverence if indulged by younger men. On the whole, it well illustrated how indistinct, after all, is the dividing line between life and death, and was a demonstration born of religious enthusiasm which would have pleased Lee himself if he could have witnessed it — and who is prepared to say that he did not?

It was very fitting that this burial ceremony should have been under the management of Dr. John Coleman, the then president of Willamette University, for it was Jason Lee who made the preliminary move toward the establishment of that institution when, at a meeting at his house in Chemekete, now North Salem, on January 17, 1842, a committee was appointed to look into the feasibility of founding an institution of learning. This committee consisted of Dr. J. L. Babcock, David Leslie and Gustavus Hines. It took up the matter promptly and called a meeting to be held on February 1, two weeks later, at the Mission. It was on motion of Gustavus Hines that the new school was to be called the “Oregon Institute.” This meeting chose the first Board of Trustees of the proposed school, consisting of .Jason Lee, David Leslie, Gustavus Hines, J. L. Parrish, L. H. Judson, all preachers, and Messrs. George Abernethy, Alanson Beers, Hamilton Campbell and Dr. J. L. Babcock — all characterized by force of character and intensity of purpose — such men as it is seldom possible to find in any community, young or old.

Jason Lee, the president of the Board of Trustees, was empowered ''as agent to labor for the interests of the school in the United States, whither he was going soon to promote further the civil and religious welfare of Oregon,” as is recorded in a contemporaneous account of the movement. The United States was at that time regarded as a foreign country, which, indeed, it was. The construction of the Institute was well under way when Mr. Lee was superseded in the missionary field in Oregon by Rev. George Gary, who upon his arrival here, finding the conditions of the Mission Manual School very unsatisfactory, soon afterwards sold it to the trustees of the institute for four thousand dollars. The Indians did not take to the matter with any degree of interest. Many of the children died, others had been taken by their parents to their tepees in their forest homes and the great effort of Jason Lee to “convert” the red men ended in failure, so far as immediate results were concerned. But he had laid broad and deep the foundations for a great university, had blazed the way for a substantial civilization, and had sacrificed his life at the age of forty-one in support of a glorious cause.

The Oregon Institute was opened in September, 1844, with Mrs. Chloe Willson as its only teacher. She was the wife of Dr. W. H. Willson, the clerk of the Board of Trustees, and, as Miss Clark, was one of the young women who had come here for the purpose of teaching the children of the missionaries. She continued in this service until 1850. Soon after the opening of the school, Rev. F. S. Hoyt was elected a teacher and continued at the head of the school until 1854, during which time it had so prospered that several instructors were employed. In 1853, the Board of Trustees applied to the Legislature for the passage of an “Act to establish the Willamette University,” and its charter was enacted during that session.

Thus came into existence an institution of learning which has had a wider influence in furthering the educational interests of the Northwest than all others. Many of the most prominent men and women on the Pacific Coast, in all walks of life, have been students within its walls. For nearly seventy years it has been striving to advance the material as well as the spiritual welfare of all this region roundabout, and while, like all institutions of similar character, it has had its seasons of adversity as well as prosperity, its immediate directors and supporters have been intensely loyal, and to-day it is enjoying a measure of success not before known in its long and useful career.


Next Chapter - Interesting details from the journey of Anna Maria Pitman who traveled to Oregon around South America.


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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