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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



By common consent, Thomas M. Gatch stands at the head of the list of men who have devoted their lives to the upbuilding of the cause of education in Oregon. This estimate of him will, I am sure, be endorsed without exception by all his co-workers in this State during the past half-century. He came here in 1860, after spending a short time in the California mines and occupying the chair of mathematics in the University of the Pacific at Santa Clara, to become professor of Greek and Latin in the Willamette University. The next year he was chosen president of that institution to fill a vacancy, and held that position until 1865, when he resigned to return to California. A few years later, however, he returned to Oregon and served as president of the Portland Academy until 1870, when he was again elected to the presidency of “Old Willamette.” After another incumbency of nine years, he resigned to accept a position at the State University at Eugene, after which he was elected principal of the Wasco Academy at The Dalles. He subsequently moved to Seattle, where he became president of the University of Washington, which post he held for ten years.

In 1896, Professor Gatch was elected president of the Oregon State Agricultural College at Corvallis, which latter position he filled with marked ability until his advancing years suggested that he permanently rest from his long service in the cause of education, which had covered fifty years of his life and a field co-extensive with the three Pacific Coast States.

Thomas M. Gatch was born in Clermont County, Ohio on January 28, 1833. His grandfather, Philip Gatch, of Prussian extraction, was one of the first three ministers ordained in America in the Methodist Church. He was a chaplain in the Revolutionary War and served under [George] Washington, afterwards moving to Ohio, where he became a member of the first constitutional convention of that State.

The father of Professor Gatch was a prominent man in Ohio, an officer in its militia, and had served several terms in the State Legislature, which, it is sincerely hoped, was more of a badge of respectability and honor than it has been in that State in recent years, notably the present one.

One of the first men I met upon entering the Institute was Professor Gatch, who kindly asked me my name and where I had attended school before. I especially recall his kindly manner, for, finding myself actually a pupil in the building toward which I had been longingly gazing for a couple of years, while realizing how improbable it was that my ambition to attend it would ever be attained, I felt some misgiving as to the outcome of the wild adventure. I had the impression that all the other boys and girls had always been pupils there, as they appeared to know one another and to be engaged in lively banterings and greetings, while I was a lone pilgrim without a friend or acquaintance. I am sure now, as I look back to that first hour at the Institute, that I regretted I had not, after all, returned to the old Central.

But this feeling did not last long. I soon became impressed with the fact, or what appeared to be a fact, that the superiority which had been generally conceded to the Institute students was wholly imaginary, and that Tom and Fred and Charlie were not different in their outward, or other, make-up from Bill and Jerome and Jo.

I had precisely the same feeling after the first week that United States Senator Nesmith experienced upon entering, as a member, the upper house of Congress. Nesmith was one of the earliest of the Oregon pioneers, coming here in 1843, then a young man, from Maine, where he had been born and reared. A man of great natural ability and force, he took an active interest in affairs in the new country at once, and being very companionable in his manner and the very best storyteller Oregon has ever known, became a general favorite.

In 1860, after a protracted contest in the State Legislature over the election of two United States Senators, a compromise was effected between the Republican and Union Democratic members by the election of Nesmith, a “war Democrat,” and Colonel Edward D. Baker, a Republican. Nesmith had been several times a member of the territorial Legislature, Superintendent of Indian Affairs and a colonel in the Indian wars, but he was a large landowner in Polk County, and farming had always been his vocation. His home was at “Pixie,” a country Post Office, but he was for much of the time in the public service in some capacity. Upon the approach of the Civil War, however, he broke with his political associates who sympathized with the South and supported Breckinridge for President, and with most of the Douglas Democrats openly supported the cause of the Union. In the Senatorial contest referred to, the Breckinridge Democrats insisted upon the election of Delazon Smith as one of the Senators, but the Douglas men would not accept him under any circumstances, and finally made a combination with the Republicans which resulted in the election of Nesmith and Colonel Baker.

Nesmith became a Senator March 4, 1861. Upon his return home the next fall, while entertaining a few old friends in Salem with a narration of some of his experiences, in answer to an inquiry how it felt to be a United States Senator, he said:

“Well, I must tell you. After my election in October I had several months to think it over before going to Washington, and I often wondered if I hadn’t overstepped myself in pushing my ambition. I had always been a common clodhopper, as you all know, had slept in my blankets all over the Northwest, lived for weeks on sowbelly and beans while chasing Indians, worn buckskin trousers and gone barefooted, – and here I was, elected to a seat in the United States Senate, the greatest lawmaking body in the world! Often, when I was out looking after the cattle or harnessing the horses, I would debate the situation with myself and wonder if, after all, I hadn’t made a mistake, – whether it wouldn’t be better to resign, giving an opportunity for the selection of some man who was competent to hold his own with the big men whom a Senator is compelled to meet.

“I had a mighty exalted idea as to the size of the United States Senators – of any United States Senator – and many times in the night I would lie awake and almost shudder at what my friends had done in putting me in such a position – knowing as they did, my limitations. And when I was on my way to Washington, I got right down to bedrock in my analysis of the situation and said: ‘Nesmith, how in the d––––l did you ever get to be a United States Senator, anyway?’ But do you know that after I had been with Sumner, Morrill, Wade, Bayard, Chase, and Cameron and the rest of ‘em, and got to know them well, my wonder was how in they ever got there!”

As I was saying, however, Professor Gatch himself came to my rescue, and with his reassuring words, I began to feel at home at the Institute and soon had a bunch of chums who were original enough and mischievous enough to make life worth living. Many of these I meet frequently in these days, so far removed from the joyous time when it required a mighty solid obstacle to form a real shadow across our pathways.

Professor Gatch lived in an “L” which projected to the south from the main Institute building, and which had been occupied by former presidents of the school. He was universally liked, though he seemed to be devoid of humor – due to the fact, probably, that his time was so valuable and so completely taken up that he found his only recreation in added application to his work.

In 1877, after having lived in eastern Oregon for ten years, I returned to the Waldo Hills to resume my permanent residence there, taking with me a certificate of membership in the Cove Lodge I.O.O.F. I desired to transfer my membership to the Olive Lodge in Salem and gave the certificate to Professor Gatch for presentation. I found he had again become president of the University and was himself a member of Olive Lodge. I shall never forget the warmth with which he greeted me. I had not seen him since my school days, twelve years before, and he always regarded one of his old pupils as a member of his family.

Professor Gatch undoubtedly occupies an exalted place in the esteem of more people than any other man in the Northwest, since his great work has covered so much territory. There are many thousands of men and women on the Pacific Coast now who owe him a direct debt of gratitude for his splendid example, his helpful advice, and his invariable insistence up on having the right thing done. At the age of seventy-eight years, he is resting from his labors and enjoying the fruits of a long life well spent in the interest of his fellows.


Next Chapter - The complete trail diary from Elizabeth Dixon Smith Geer who crossed the nation along the Oregon Trail in 1847.


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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