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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


Chapter XVI

In common with thousands of other men in the Willamette Valley, in the spring of 1862 my father went to the Caribou mines, in British Columbia, and did not return for a year and a half. In consequence, at the end of the term of school in May, our family moved to the home of my grandfather, eight miles east of Salem. I worked on his farm until September of the next year, when my father returned to Salem temporarily for the purpose of putting me into school again. At this time, I made an urgent appeal for the privilege of going to the Institute. The fact was that even at that early date there was some “class,” – using the word in one of its strictly modern phases, – to the Institute, which I discovered soon after becoming enlisted as a pupil at the Central. Those who were favored with tuition privileges at the former had socially a higher prestige and there was an atmosphere – intangible, but very distinctly felt, nevertheless – that made a marked distinction between the pupils attending the two schools. There was not a child attending the Central who didn’t entertain high hopes that he might at some time be transferred to the Institute; so it was with unalloyed delight that I was told by my father when he returned that, if it were possible to find some place where I could work for my board, he would pay for my attendance there. And it was so arranged, he returning to the mines at Canyon City immediately afterward.

At the opening of the fall term at the Institute in September, 1863, Thomas M. Gatch was president of the Faculty. The other members were Professor L. J. Powell, Professor F. H. Grubbs, Miss Lucy Anna Lee, and Miss Cornell, the last two conducting the primary departments. I was found competent to enter the Academic Department under the tuition of Professor Grubbs, having for a seatmate John Minto, a son of the well known pioneer of 1844, who has since filled many positions of trust of a public nature in Oregon. He was for four years sheriff of Marion County, chief of police in Portland for a term, passed several years in the United States Internal Revenue service and not long since completed a five-year term as postmaster in Portland.

Professor Grubbs was a new “hand” at teaching, though, as I remember it now, I had no conception of the fact at the time. The son of a pioneer of 1852, he had by dint of persistent industry and personal deprivation of many of the comforts of life literally worked his way through college and won his graduation diploma. Of course I knew nothing of all this at the time. A school boy seldom knows or cares anything about the antecedents of his teacher, or whether he has any. After I left the University in 1865, I did not see Professor Grubbs for thirty-five years, but when we met in the Governor’s office in the Capitol, whither he had gone to pay his respects to a former pupil, the tears came to his eyes as he recalled bygone days. After we had exchanged greetings and had rapidly indulged in many reminiscences, he suddenly said:

“Well, in the old Willamette days, when my room was full of sturdy boys, I am not sure that I would have picked you out to be a future Governor of Oregon, had I been assured that such an honor was in store for one among that lot.”

“Why, of course not,” I replied. “You must remember how very modest and unassuming I was then – being endowed with all the characteristics which are noticeably absent in the average successful politician. I suppose, then, that you recall me as a sort of model boy?”

“Oh, no, not that,” he replied,” you simply didn’t look it. But you can’t always bank on appearances. I remember that my father, who was a farmer, used to say, ‘Well, sir, you can’t ever tell what a lousy calf will come to be.’ “

In return for this sally, I at once offered to appoint him to any office within my gift that in my judgment he was qualified to fill, and requested my secretary to get a blank notary public commission, But the Professor quickly said ,he was “not in politics,’“ so the matter was dropped at that point.

When he rose to take his departure, he said: “Say, it looks good to see you here – seems as if I had a sort o’ proprietary interest in you and something to do with your getting here.”

I assured him that I entertained a similar feeling as to his share in laying the foundation of such success as I had achieved, and that if he found our meeting delightful after the lapse of so many years, it was equally so to me. Our interview was a treat for us both-for thirty-five years is a long break between teacher and pupil, though not infrequent.

Professor Grubbs was a very affable man but, withal, had a quick temper; it was usually well under control, however. In the classroom, he instituted what he called “object lessons” – short instructions in matters not contained in the text-books. For this purpose he would occasionally dismiss the school twenty minutes before the usual time, requesting a dozen of the older boys to remain to receive the benefit of the extra lesson. At the particular time of which I speak he was giving some demonstrations in chemistry to a class of boys who had never studied that branch, and with some apparatus was showing some very marvelous results produced by certain combinations of fluids. He was explaining that he was about to make a combination of chemicals by which he could actually set water on fire.

“Now,” said he, as he stood with match ready to scratch on the edge of his desk, “did any of you boys ever see water burn?”

Without any hesitation at all, Egbert Brown, a boy whose real brightness was perceptibly dimmed by the slight provocation upon which he was ready to display it, said: “Yes, sir. This morning I stuck my hand in a pan of hot water and it burnt one of my fingers so that it hurts yet!”

This unexpected and really witty reply caused a burst of laughter from the entire class, but the Professor missed the point of the joke altogether. His face flushed, and after the demonstration was completed, he dismissed the boys, with one exception – the exception being requested to remain in for a few minutes, which he did. Just what happened during the interview we never knew, though Egbert’s demeanor afterward pointed to a possible armistice whose chief concessions came from his side of the house.

The last term I attended the University I was transferred to the room over which L. J. Powell presided. Professor Powell was a big man, both physically and mentally, with a head which appeared even larger than is usual for a man of his proportions. He was rather heavy, too, in his method of procedure, but an instructor whose qualifications were of the best.

In my class in this last department were a dozen boys who were as fully surcharged with the spirit of mischief as could be found in a seven days’ journey. Nothing could have produced greater results in this direction except more boys. There was Tom Nicklin, afterward a prominent dentist in Portland, who died several years ago; Miles Miller, who for many years was a banker in eastern Washington, of whom I have not heard in recent years; Fred Schwatka, who graduated from West Point and afterward made a good reputation as a successful Arctic explorer, but who died some twenty years ago; Charles B. Moores, the irrepressible wit and excellent writer, graduate of Ann Arbor, and Speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives in 1895, who declined an election to Congress, now a successful business man in Portland; Emmet Williams, who for many years has been a prominent lawyer in Portland; P. H. D’Arcy, a successful attorney and business man whose home has been in Salem for more years than anybody can remember, and who is now the president of the State Historical Society – and several others whose names I shall not mention out of consideration for their retiring dispositions.

One day when Professor Powell was hearing the class in anatomy, he was describing the manner in which the muscles of the scalp perform their several functions. He was holding a sure-enough skull in his hands and was very carefully illustrating the marvelous construction of said muscles in their relation to the connecting ligaments. To make the subject clearer, he told the members of the class to move their scalps by the aid of the muscles, without moving the head, and he proceeded to lead the way by giving a personal demonstration. He had a shaggy head of hair, always uncombed, each individual hair standing on end, and he could turn his scalp almost half way around his head. The success which attended his maiden effort before the class was so astonishingly complete that it brought forth a roar of laughter in which the Professor heartily joined – though it was a ghastly smile, since his mouth was where his right eye usually was and his ears were under his chin.

When order was finally restored, or partially so, for the Professor’s exhibition continued to entertain the class during the remainder of the recitation, he requested the boys to see what they could do in the same line. Each one tried it, with varying degrees of success, but Tom Nicklin’s effort was a hopeless failure. It was the only thing I ever knew him to undertake in which he did not succeed; but his failure, as he made superhuman efforts to move his scalp, was as superlatively laughable as Professor Powell’s grotesque success had been. Finally, after the poor fellow had made all the oblique grimaces the class could endure, the Professor said:

“Thomas, what is the matter with your head ?”

“I don’t know, sir,” replied Thomas, “unless I am the only one in the room whose head is so full of brains that they crowd his scalp.”

And this sally abruptly ended the recitation in anatomy, with everybody, Professor Powell included, enjoying the wholesome fun.

During those really “halcyon days” at the University I saw every day Miss Lucy Anna Lee, who had charge of the primary department. At that time I had never heard of Jason Lee, or if I had, so short a time had elapsed since his activities in Oregon that I did not appreciate who he was or what he had done. The fact is, I believe most of us knew nothing about him, though he was the founder of the school and had many times been in that very building. So it was not until after years that I understood the fine lineage of Lucy Ann Lee, but I easily recall that she was a tall, pale young woman whose face habitually bore a sad expression. It seems to me now that she usually wore a loose white shawl around her shoulders, as if chilly, and that her manner was so very kind that it excited one’s wonder as to the occasion for it. It was unnatural in a world where nearly every act was prompted by motives more or less selfish and where in the ceaseless struggle for place every person one met was a competitor, and therefore in that sense an enemy. But Lucy Anna Lee was not an enemy to any mortal; on the contrary she was a positive inspiration in a time of difficulty-and at other times. I have often wished in subsequent years that I had known, at the time; she was the daughter of such a purposeful man as was Jason Lee. Surely prenatal influences were in evidence in her temperament, manner and thought. She was the daughter of Jason Lee’s second wife, Lucy Thomson, and was named after her mother and Lee’s first wife, Anna Maria Pitman. Upon the death of her mother, she was taken by Rev. Gustavus Hines and wife and given the same care they would have bestowed upon one of their own. Lee went to his old home in Canada in 1844, when the child was two years of age, and, as has been stated, died there the following year. Twenty days before his death, he wrote the following pathetic letter, received long after his passing away was known in Oregon:

Feb. 8, 1845


I have written you twice since I reached this country, once by Mexico and once by Panama. I have heard nothing from you since I left you in Oahu. I have seen a notice in the Advocate that Brother Gary had arrive! and that the missionaries are all well. I inferred that you and all reached Oregon in safety and were in good health. ‘I suppose you wrote by the same conveyance that Brother Gary wrote, for I just received news that there are letters for me in New York. I think I mentioned in my last letter that I was afflicted with a severe cold and that no medical aid I could secure has been able to remove it. I have suffered severely from pain and am so reduced that I have been confined to my bed for several weeks, and unless some favorable change occurs soon it is my deliberate opinion that it will prove fatal.

If I should continue to fail, I think I shall appoint an executor here and in New York. These, I suppose, will do all the business so that you can draw what ever money there may be in New York without any trouble. There will be an opportunity by the express to write you. Some favorable change may take place, and I may be advising you to be looking for me coming around Cape Horn or threading my way up the Willamette, as I used to do. But if I should never make my appearance, what shall I say concerning the dear little one! Let her have, if possible, a first-rate education. But, above all, do not neglect her religious education. My dear brother and sister, I must hold you responsible under God to train that child for heaven.

I remain your affectionate friend and brother,

In July, 1864, when twenty-two years of age, Miss Lee became the wife of Professor Grubbs, both having graduated from the University on July 13, 1863. They continued in the teaching profession for several years in various parts of the State until failing health compelled Mrs. Grubbs to abandon her chosen vocation. She died April 25, 1881, leaving a little daughter now living in Portland. Soon after becoming a widower Professor Grubbs established a printing business in Portland which he followed until his death, which occurred a month ago.

* * * * * *

One of the thrilling events connected with the earlier history of Oregon was the great flood of December, 1861, well remembered by all the older inhabitants. It was altogether unprecedented both as to the height of the Willamette River and the time of year in which it occurred. Usually the rivers and smaller streams reach their highest stages in the spring, when late rains combine with the melting snows to produce disastrous results, but this flood was caused by a protracted “wet spell” during the first week of December.

We had been living in Salem little more than six months and had moved into our new house on Commercial Street, within one block of South Mill Creek. In the first week of December the river had risen so rapidly because of the enormous downpour that there was much alarm as to the outcome. All business was suspended and the people spent most of their time on the banks of the river watching its progress toward the high water mark limit. It had covered the lowlands just west of town, had swept away the big steam sawmill owned by B. M. Du Relle, and was still rising rapidly. It was full of driftwood, interspersed with small barns, rails and other evidences of damage done to farms. One man was seen going down the river on what seemed to be a huge barn door.

One morning at four o’clock a night watchman rapped at our front door and warned us that we would have to vacate the house, as the water was within a foot of the big bridge which crossed the creek and still rising very rapidly. We at once arose and hurriedly crossed the bridge, against the floor of which the water was flapping. We sought refuge, I remember, in the home of Ben Strang, who lived just across the creek, and remained there until the water subsided two days later.

The hero of that flood was Captain George A. Pease, who took the steamboat Onward from Canemah to Salem during the highest stage of the waters solely for the purpose of saving the lives of those who were endangered. It was a most perilous journey, but he was an unusually skillful navigator and wholly without fear. The river was filled with saw logs, thousands of fir trees, many of them two hundred feet in length, houses and barns, which occasionally contained men and women, as well as horses and other stock.

The headlines in the Weekly Oregonian of December 14, 1861, were in part as follows:

Flood Highest at Salem Ever Known By Whites – Du Relle’s Sawmill and Matheny’s Wharf Carried Away – A Family Saved Going Down on a Raft People Saved from Trees, Rafts and Buildings – Gallant Conduct of Captain Pease of the Onward – Warehouse at Wheatland Containing 7000 Bushels of Wheat Carried Away – Desolation and Ruin on the River – Orleans, Opposite Corvallis, Entirely Swept Away.

The Oregonian of that date, December 14, says: “We have the Salem Statesman of the 5th inst., brought down by Tracey’s Express by O.A. Brown, who went up for that purpose.” All old-timers well remember O.A. (One-Armed) Brown, and it was entirely characteristic of him that he should have made that trip.

The Oregonian further recites how “on Tuesday a shouting was heard across the river (this was from the Salem Statesman). Two boats were sent over and twelve persons were saved from a barn. Two young men, Elias Peasely and William Farrell, went to relieve Mr. Chitwood’s family, but their boat was broken against a tree, which they climbed, and they were saved by the Onward. Two of the younger Chitwood boys were drowned.”

Since the Columbia was not unusually high, the flood did not work so much damage at Portland as at Oregon City, Salem and other points to the south. I remember seeing the Onward as it arrived after its perilous trip to be welcomed by the entire population of Salem, together with that of a large part of the surrounding country. It made fast where the Willamette Hotel now stands, on Commercial Street, and carried as passengers forty people who had been rescued from the tops of trees and from houses and barns, either surrounded by water or actually afloat and drifting down the river. In Salem, the water reached the corner of the court-house grounds and skiffs were in use in many parts of the city.

This freak in the weather in early December, 1861, which has not been repeated in the fifty years ensuing, has constituted an event in the history of Oregon by which comparisons are made. The old people reckon the births, marriages and deaths of their acquaintances by the occurrence having taken place so many years before or after the Big Flood.

Captain Pease, who did such valiant work on that occasion, at the risk of the destruction of the Onward and the loss of his own life as well as that of his brave crew, still lives in Portland at the advanced age of eighty-two years. His general worth as a man has won the esteem of all the people of Oregon.

* * * * * *

Perhaps no murder trial which has ever been conducted in Oregon received wider attention from the people than that of Beale and Baker, in Salem, in March, 1865.

On January 9, Daniel Delaney, an old farmer living six miles south of Salem, had been called from his house at dusk, shot and killed, and his house robbed of a large sum of money. Delaney had lived alone for some time, save for a negro boy twelve years of age, who as soon as he recovered from his fright alarmed the neighbors. The news spread rapidly and the greatest excitement prevailed everywhere, for Delaney was one of the best known of the early pioneers.

Suspicion soon pointed its finger to George Beale, a prominent saloon-keeper of Salem, who had worked several years for Delaney on his farm and who had frequently discussed with his friends his belief that Delaney had large sums of money hidden about his house. He had said that he believed he knew where it was, and had predicted somebody would murder the old man for his money – that it could be easily done without danger of the perpetrator being discovered, etc. Naturally these conversations were recalled by those who had heard them, as they discussed the appalling tragedy. Investigation also disclosed the fact that Beale was away from home on the night of the murder and had staid all night at the farm of William Taylor, an uncle of his wife, on the night before that. Other circumstances strengthened the suspicion and within a few days he was arrested, accused of the murder. With him was arrested a man named Baker, a butcher, and the two were charged by the grand jury with murder in the first degree.

Beale was a prominent Mason and had good standing with the business men of Salem. He kept a saloon, to be sure, but his character as a man of integrity had not been questioned and his arrest caused general surprise.

The trial began on March 20 and was one of the most notable in the history of our State courts. The accused men were prosecuted by Williams and Mallory and were defended by David Logan, assisted by Caton and Curl, of Salem. Rufus Mallory, one of his prosecutors, was elected to Congress the next year, and Richard Williams, his partner, was given the same honor eleven years later. David Logan, one of the best criminal lawyers in the State, was ably assisted by the local firm. Reuben P. Boise, who continued in the judicial service of the State for forty years afterwards, and who had then been on the bench for ten years, presided.

It was a forensic battle among the “higher-ups” that will long be referred to by the State lawyers as one that put the contestants on their mettle and made lasting reputations for those who participated. It was a case purely of circumstantial evidence, but incidents fitted in so closely that the evidence was regarded as completely and conclusively proving the guilt of the accused men. After a trial lasting one week, the jurors found a verdict without delay.

When Judge Boise read the verdict he requested Beale to stand up, and asked him if there was any reason why he should not be sentenced. Beale said:

“I don’t know that there is. I don’t think I have a friend in the community. There has been false swearing against me here in this court. Everybody seems to think I ought to die and I suppose I must be hung to satisfy them. I hope everybody here is as ready to die as I am. I expect soon to meet old man Delaney in the other world and will say to him, ‘Delaney, it was not me who killed you.’ I knew the old man well in this world and always was a friend to him. I am an innocent man. Give me time, Judge Boise, and I can prove my innocence – I know I can.”

When he resumed his seat, Judge Boise said: “The court does not see how the jury could come to any other conclusion than it did. The accused did not attempt to show their whereabouts and the jury was warranted in their conclusion. A man who will steal will lie about it, and a man who will murder will lie about it. They always declare themselves innocent. I never knew it to fail. There remains no doubt that Daniel Delaney died at your hands. There is no hope for you to escape and it only remains for you to prepare for death. I advise you so to prepare, and that you confess and make some restitution to Delaney’s heirs. The old man’s money was sweat for and hoarded up for them. Let it be your last act to restore it.”

Beale and Baker were hanged in Salem on May 17, on a public square, in the presence of at least one thou sand spectators. Persons came from the surrounding counties – whole families eating their luncheons in their wagons, having tied their teams near by, in order that none of the details might be missed.

As I have already narrated, I was living with Beale’s family at the time he committed this murder, and, as the occurrence broke up his household, my schooldays: were permanently terminated. This circumstance of my association with Beale did not deter me from the desire to see him hanged – must I confess it? It may have been the reason I harbored the desire. At any rate, I walked to Salem, a distance of seven miles, carried a luncheon with me prepared by my grandmother – having not a cent of money – and was so fortunate (?) as to get a good position near the scaffold. I remember seeing the two men walk up the steps to the platform, with their guards, and closely watched them as the black cap was drawn down over their faces. At this moment, I recall distinctly the shudder that went over my body when this was done, as it caused me to realize the awful feeling they must have experienced as that cap cut off their vision of this world forever. For a moment, I felt an intense revulsion against the whole proceeding, or rather against being a part of the crowd that had assembled to witness it, but I soon recovered, as a woman immediately behind me fainted and was carried from the grounds.

Sam Headrick was the sheriff, and I remember that when the trap was sprung and the men shot downward to the end of the rope he dropped to his knees in prayer for a moment, as if to ask for forgiveness for the performance of his distressing official duty.

A few days before their execution Beale and Baker made a full confession of the murder. Their intention, they declared, was merely to rob Delaney. They planned to call him out, as they did, and Baker was then to cover him with his gun while Beale was to ransack the house and get the money. But when Baker pointed his gun toward the old man, Beale, fearing he might shoot, since he had been drinking quite heavily, shouted, “Don’t shoot!” At once, Baker fired his gun and Delaney fell dead. He afterward said he thought Beale said “Shoot!” seeing perhaps some danger which he did not, and obeyed what he thought was an order.

It would be a difficult matter to find to-day a man in Marion, Linn or Polk Counties, who was living in them in 1865, who was not present at the hanging of Beale and Baker. Most of them at the time said they “had business in Salem that day, anyway,” and, being there, attended the “hanging.” That people would not flock to see such a gruesome sight to-day, if the opportunity offered, is an evidence that some progress has been made along certain lines – or would they?


Next Chapter - Thomas M. Gatch ran several of the early universities in the Northwest, including the Willamette University, Portland Academy, Oregon State University, and the University of Washington.


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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