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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



To many people no part of the story of a State is so interesting as that which pertains to its early settlement. Not only is this true as to the pioneers themselves – those who actually endured the privations necessarily connected with the reaching and subjugation of a region thousands of miles removed from the nearest outposts of civilization – but younger people, those who are fond of history or even of romance, take a delight in hearing of the incidents which constituted the experience of those who "crossed the plains" and formed a part of the immigrant trains which conquered the desert, met the savage Indians without fear, mocked at the roadless mountains, swam the fordless rivers, used "buffalo chips" for fuel, went hungry much of the time at the last end of the trip, and finally reached the promised land destitute, most of them, many of them sick, but all of them brave and hopeful.

For the weakling didn't start to Oregon in the '40s; or, if he did, he soon lost his "grip" and returned to his former home. Many did this. But the pioneers were all of the stuff out of which real men and women are made and the historian doesn't need to draw upon his imagination in order to make his narrative read like a composite story of the old martyrs. For instance, my own mother was thirteen and a half years old when she started across the plains with her parents in April, 1847, but she walked practically all the way from the Missouri River to the Willamette valley. She was the oldest of six children, and as there were some loose horses and cattle every day which would not follow the train unless made to do so, she was required to "trail" behind them and see that none was lost. To be sure, the distance made would not average more than ten or twelve miles a day, but it necessitated walking in the dust caused by hundreds of tramping oxen and horses, besides the duty of keeping the stubborn or contrary or indifferent animals from lagging behind. And her duties were not deemed particularly hard when compared with those assigned to every other member of the train who was old enough to stand alone. Everybody, including "father," was required to work, and the slothful one was not permitted to lag very far before he was made to feel an energetic prod which brought him up standing.

For the purpose of illustrating to the younger generation the suffering experienced by thousands who came to Oregon in the early days, it is deemed well to incorporate here a few pages of extracts from a diary kept by a pioneer woman, Mrs. Elizabeth Smith, who crossed the plains in 1847, and who was afterwards well known in the Willamette valley. She was the mother of Mrs. P. S. Knight, of Salem, and of Judge Seneca Smith, a well-known attorney of Portland. Each night, after her eight children were asleep, she would write her notes for that day. She wrote it in letter form the next year and sent it to some friends in Indiana, who, fifteen years later, sent it to Mrs. Knight. It is now the property of the State Historical Society, where it will be kept permanently as a valuable contribution to the history of Oregon as vividly portraying the hardships endured by those who laid the foundation for one of the greatest States in the Union. Her letter and diary, in part, follow:


May 25, 1848


Dear Friends,

By your request I have endeavored to keep a record of our journey from "The States" to Oregon, though it is poorly done, owing to my having a young babe and, besides, a large family to do for; and, worst of all, my education is limited.

April 21, 1847  Commenced our journey from La Porte, Ind., to Oregon. Made fourteen miles.

April 22  Made twelve miles. Rain all day.

April 23  Made nineteen miles; traveled till dark. Ate a cold bite and went to bed chilly and cold, which is very disagreeable, with a parcel of children.

April 25  Last night our cattle ran off, consequently, we made only eleven miles.

April 26  Made sixteen miles. Had a view of Mt. Juliett. It is one of the great works of nature. We see a great many admirable works of nature and art as we pass through Illinois.

April 29  Made sixteen miles through a delightful country and camped on the Illinois River. Cold and rainy.

April 30  Made fourteen miles. Passed through Peru. Traveled through a beautiful and fertile country. Cold and rainy.

May 1  Made nineteen miles. Passed through Princeton, Bureau County, Ill. Rich soil. Hundreds of acres not owned nor cultivated by anyone.

May 2  Made twenty miles. Exceedingly cold for the season.

May 3  Made twenty miles. Cold and dry. All in good spirits.

May 4  Made twenty miles. Pleasant weather.

May 5  Made sixteen miles. Passed through Hendersonville and Galesburg, Knox County, Ill. Good roads. Fine weather.

May 7  Made twelve miles. Rainy weather .

May 8  Crossed the Mississippi River on a ferry. Delayed in Burlington. Made seven miles. In Burlington I saw Percy Mitchell's first wife.

May 9  Passed Augusta, a small village. Ferried Skunk River.

May 10  Fine weather. Laid by to wash.

May 11  Laid by for rain.

May 14  Forded the Des Moines River. Made eighteen miles.

May 15  Fell in with several Oregon wagons. Made eighteen miles.

May 16  Made fifteen miles. Rained all day.

May 17  Laid by for rain.

May 19  Last night one of our cows went back one day's journey to see her calf that we had given away that morning.

May 20  Made eighteen miles. Rainy weather, bad roads.

May 21  Made seven miles. Water-bound by a branch of Grand River. Hilly and bad roads.

May 22  Water-bound by a creek called the Muddy.

May 23  Crossed Weldon River, Missouri State. Made seven miles.

May 24  Made twelve miles. Rain all day. Encamped in a marsh. Shoe-mouth deep in water. The men peeled bark, made a floor, built a fire on it to dry themselves and get supper by.

May 25  Made two miles. Water-bound.

May 27  Made fourteen miles. Crossed Big Creek. It has on it one sawmill and one gristmill.

May 28  Made twenty-eight miles. Crossed Samson Creek. Encamped without food or water on a large prairie. Ate a cold bite and went to bed.

May 30  Rained this morning until late. Made eight miles. Crossed a river called Hundred and Two on a dangerous bridge and encamped.

May 31  Laid by to wash.

June 1  Lying by.

June 3  Passed through St. Joseph on the Missouri River. Laid in our flour, cheese, crackers and medicine, for no one should travel this road without medicine, for they are almost sure to have the summer complaint. Each family should have a box of physicing pills, a quart of castor oil, a quart of the best rum and a large vial of peppermint essence.

June 4  Crossed the Missouri River. Doubled teams with difficulty .Ascended a hill or mountain. Traveled three miles and encamped. We are now in Indian Territory.

June 6  Made eighteen miles. Passed seventy Oregon wagons as they were encamped.

June 8  Made twenty miles; crossed one creek. Very high and steep banks. Where I know the names of streams I give them.

June 11  Made eighteen miles. Crossed the Blue Earth River. One wagon turned over just at the water, but happily nobody was hurt.

June 14  Made eighteen miles. We are continually finding elks' horns, buffaloes' skulls and carcasses.

June 16  Made seventeen miles. Saw one grave day before yesterday and one to-day by the lonely wayside. Made this spring.

June 17  Made twelve miles. Fell in with eighteen wagons. Broke an axle-tree. Laid by and made a new one. Stood guard all night in the rain.

June 18  Finished the broken axle. Made five miles. Encamped in a circle as is our custom. Put out guards and retired to rest.

June 19  Made twenty miles. Every night when we encamp we make quite a village, but take it up the next day. We have plenty of music with a flute and violin and some dancing.

June 20  Made ten miles. Encamped on the Platte. The ground here is covered with a white surface. Something between salt and salts. The cattle are fond of it.

June 21  Made eighteen miles. Last night had two more horses stolen. One belonged to the same man who lost one of the first ones. It was a fine horse and his last one. Our road along the Platte is beautiful and level. The river is a mile wide or more, and very rily and shallow.

June 22  Made fifteen miles. See antelope every day.

June 23  Made eighteen miles. At present there are one hundred and forty persons in our company. We see thousands of buffaloes, and have to use their dung for fuel. A man will gather a bushel in a minute. Three bushels make a good fire. We call the stuff "buffalo chips."

June 24  Made ten miles. Stopped to kill a buffalo, but did not succeed. Saw hundreds of prairie dogs barking about. They are about as large as a gray gopher. Saw another grave.

June 26  Made ten miles. Killed three buffaloes. Their flesh is generally coarser and drier than beef, but a fat buffalo heifer is as good meat as I would wish to taste.

June 28  Made eighteen miles. Saw thousands of buffaloes. Caught two of their calves. One ran away the other day. The other they drove along with the loose cattle several miles. It finally left them. Nine wagons overtook us.

June 27  Made fifteen miles. Killed four buffaloes. At the least calculation we saw three thousand buffaloes to-day. A buffalo rolls and gallops like a horse.

June 29  This morning eight of our largest and best work oxen were missing, besides two yoke of Welch's, three yoke of Adam Polk's, and about thirty-nine head belonging to the company – all work oxen, right out of our company. Here we are, thousands of miles from any inhabitants, and thus deprived of teams – an appalling situation. We had only one yoke left. We hunted in every direction without success.

June 30  Hunted all day. Our cattle hunters, my husband among them, were so far from camp, some thirty miles, that they staid away all night.

July 1  To-day when our hunters came in they brought one dead man; he had shot himself accidentally. He left a wife and six small children. The distress of his wife I cannot describe. He was an excellent man and very much missed. His name was Smith Dunlap, from .Chicago, Ill. The hunters found no cattle.

July 2  A trying time. So many of us having to get teams, had to hire, borrow, buy, just as we could. Had to take cows, raw cattle, or anything we could get. Some had to apply to other companies for help. At last we moved off. Made fifteen miles.

July 6  Made eighteen miles. Our cattle are lame. It is plain to my mind what makes their feet wear out. It is the alkaline nature of the ground.

July 7  This country is full of curiosities. Hundreds of acres seem to have been bursted and thrown open by volcanic eruptions. The earth along here is strong with lye. After a shower, if the little ponds were not rily, one could wash linen without soap.

July 8  Made twelve miles. Saw Chimney Rock. It is a curiosity, indeed. A rock, or rather a hard clay, standing alone, towering in the air perhaps three hundred feet. All of the lofty rocks along here are composed of that same material. Some of them resemble old demolished villages, half-sunk in the ground, with the stovepipes sticking out of the ground. To-day we had the most dreadful hail-storm I ever witnessed, in which a young woman and I came near being caught as we went out to the famous Chimney Rock. Fortunately we reached one of the foremost wagons just as the hail began to pelt us. It tore some of the wagon covers off, broke some bows and made the oxen run away – making bad work. They say that about here it is subject to tornadoes.

July 9  To-day we saw by the wayside about two acres of fine white stone, all cut up comparatively in pieces about ten feet square and two feet thick. I ran barefooted to get on them, but got my feet full of stickers and was glad to get back to my wagon. All the herbs in this region are briery and prickly. The sage is dreadful on one's clothes. It grows from one to six feet high and has a stalk like our tame sage or sedge. The leaves are smaller and very narrow. It has a sage taste, but is very bitter, besides. We travel through a shrub called greasewood – generally not so large as the sage. It is very thorny. We have to use it sometimes for fuel. Then there is the prickly pear – step on it any and everywhere. Look out for bare feet. Encamped at Scott's Bluff. Here is starvation. No feed and little water after traveling twenty miles. We chained up our oxen to the wagon wheels and started next morning by sunrise.

July 10  Made twelve miles through a barren, desolate region. Encamped on a creek and found feed and willows.

July 12  Made ten miles. Encamped at a French and Indian residence. As soon as we had corralled, the Indians flocked in and spread their blankets and begged for presents. We gave them meat, flour and beans, for which we afterward suffered.

July 13  This morning five of our work cattle were missing. The. men hunted and hired Indians to hunt, but found no cattle. Emptied one wagon and went on. Passed Fort Laramie. Made five miles and encamped. The Indians came as before and sat down in a circle and spread a blanket in their midst and begged for presents. We gave them provisions and they dispersed.

July 14  Laid by. Found the cattle. Paid the Indians fifteen dollars for hunting, although our men found them.

July 15  Made twenty miles through a barren desert. Found wood and water but no feed. Rain to-night. I intend to state all the rain we have.

Poor woman! She little knew when she wrote that sentence how she and her children were going to suffer by reason of the excessive amount of rain during the latter part of their journey. As this diary is a faithful kaleidoscopic presentation of the average experience of those who "pioneered" to Oregon in the early days, I will make a larger requisition upon its contents than was at first intended, since it tells briefly the whole heroic story. It is a volume in a few pages, graphically portraying the increasing dangers which beset the pioneers and the growing necessity on their part for patience and courage.



By the middle of July the train in which Mrs. Smith ,and husband were traveling had reached the Black Hills -- a region made famous by its mines. On July 25, Mrs. Smith made this record:

July 25  Encamped at Willow Springs, a handsome place of grass and willows. To-day we crossed a little muddy branch. Along the sides of it we could have gathered pails of clean saltpeter. Many of our cattle are sick and dying.

July 27  We, on rising this morning, baked a lot of light bread and moved on. Passed Independence Rock.

July 29  Made eighteen miles. I could write a great deal more if I had the opportunity. Sometimes I do not get a chance to write anything for two or three days, and then have to rise in the night when my babe and all hands are asleep, light a candle and write.

July 31  Encamped at the foot of South Pass. Here we found some gooseberries; they were as smooth as currants and taste much like fox grapes. All the gooseberries this side of the Missouri are smooth. Still we have sage to cook with. I do not know which is best to cook with – it or "buffalo chips." Just step out and pull a lot of sage out of your garden and build a fire in the wind, and bake, boil and fry by it, and then you will guess how we do.

August 1  Passed over the Rocky Mountains, the backbone of America. It is all rocks on top and they are all split up and turned up edgeways. Oh, that I had time to describe this curious country. We wound over the mountains along a very crooked road. Had rain and hail to-day, which made it very disagreeable.

August 3  Encamped on the Little Sandy. Are two days' journey into the Oregon territory and have found no timber except on the streams since we left the Missouri.

August 6  Crossed Green River, a large and beautiful stream, bordered with considerable timber – quaking asp.

August 7  Encamped on Black's Fork, a small river bordered with willows. This large waste of country, in my opinion, has once been a sea. My husband found on top of a mountain seashells petrified into stone. The crevices in the rocks show the different stages of the water.

August 9  Encamped at Fort Bridger. One of the superintendents traveled with us from Fort Laramie to this place. He is a good and intelligent man. He has a white wife. Long will he remember the captain of our company, Cornelius Smith. They were great friends.

August 12  Still at Fort Bridger. Here we have a good time for washing, which we women deem a great privilege.

August 15  Passed over one high mountain. Made twenty miles and encamped without food, water or fuel.

August 16  Started without breakfast. Made nine miles and encamped on Bear River.

August 22  Saw some of nature's curious works. Here are mounds perhaps forty feet in diameter and ten feet high, composed of shelly stone. In the middle of the mound stands a – I know not what to call it – it looks like a stump about three feet high. It has a hole in the top full of boiling water and running over all the time. It is the water that makes the mounds. The water is blood warm and has a little of the soda taste. A mile or so from here are the Soda Springs. They are not so good as represented. Only one or two of the company like it. It tastes like vinegar with a little saleratus in it. They are generally ten feet across and look like hog wallows more than springs, though I saw one that was clear. About two hundred yards from the Soda Springs is a boiling spring which boils over and foams and runs over thirty barrels in a day. It boils out of the stone. The hole is about as large as a large dinner pot. Every few minutes the water will bounce up three or four feet.

August 23  Made sixteen miles. Encamped with nothing but green sage to cook with. Good feed. This sage is larger than the tame sage, but much like it in appearance. It sometimes grows six feet high.

August 28  Passed Fort Hall. Captain Grant, of the Hudson Bay Company, is not that charitable gentleman we expected to see, but a boasting, burlesquing, unfeeling man.

August 29  Made sixteen miles. You in "the States" know nothing of dust. It will fly so that you can hardly see the horns of the tongue-yoke of oxen. It often seems that the cattle must die for want of breath, and then in our wagons, such a spectacle – beds, clothes, victuals and children all completely covered.

September 4  Made fourteen miles. Camped without feed. Had cedar to burn.

September 7  Nooned at Snake River. Watered our cattle and moved on two miles and camped. Two men were left behind, which was always the case with them, they had such heavy loads. They came up afterwards, and while watering, some of their cattle swam over the river. One of the men swam after them, and before he got across sank to rise no more. He left a wife and three small children. The other came running up to camp to let us know. Some went back and staid with them. By this time another company had overtaken them. Next morning my husband took a horse and went back to swim a horse over after the cattle. The man that owned the cattle took the horse and swam after the cattle, and while coming back by some means got off the horse and sank and was seen no more. He left a wife and six helpless children. My husband stood watching him. It is supposed that there is a whirlpool at the bottom of the river .

September 8  We moved on, for we had neither feed nor water. Camped on Snake River. My husband came up at ten o'clock and told us the shocking news.

September 12  One of our oxen died. The Indians along Snake River go naked except an old rag tied around their hips. They have few horses, no blankets. The immigrants trade them old clothes for fish which were dead, no doubt, when they were caught.

September 14  Blocked up our wagon beds and forded Snake River, which was wide, deep and swift. Camped at a spring with good grass.

September 15  Laid by. This morning our company moved on, except one family. The woman got mad and wouldn't budge nor let the children go. He had the cattle hitched on for three hours and coaxed her to go, but she wouldn't stir. I told my husband the circumstance and he and Adam Polk and Mr. Kimball went and each one took a young one and crammed them in the wagon and the husband drove off and left her sitting. She got up, took the back track and traveled out of sight. Cut across and overtook her husband. Meantime he sent his boy back to camp after a horse he had left, and when she came up her husband said, "Did you meet John?" "Yes," was the reply, "and I picked up a stone and knocked out his brains." Her husband went back to ascertain the truth and while he was gone she set fire to one of the wagons that was loaded with store goods. The cover burnt off with some valuable articles. He saw the flames and came running and put it out, and then mustered up spunk enough to give her a good flogging.

September 19  Made nineteen miles over mountains and dust. Camped on Boise River. Good feed.

September 23  Forded Snake River just before dark. It was waist deep and very cold. It is a large and swift-running river.

September 24  Mr. Kimball's oldest son died last night of typhus fever.

September 25  Buried the corpse. Camped on Burnt River.

September 28  Crossed Burnt River six times. We are all the time either on a hill or in a hollow.

September 29  Made eleven miles. Winding in and between mountains all day.

Qctober 1  A woman of our company died as we were traveling along.

October 4  Camped on north branch of Powder River. Middling feed.

October 5  Camped on head waters of Grand Ronde. Plenty of feed and pine to burn.

October 6  Passed over one difficult and stony mountain. If Grand Ronde was west of the Cascade Mountains, how soon it would be taken up. It is level and covered with grass and watered with brooks and springs. It has a river flowing through it.

October 9  Doubled teams up another mountain. Camped at Pine Creek. To some wagons they put nine yoke of oxen. My husband and I are both sick with summer complaint.

October11  Made twelve miles. Camped near a branch of the Utilla (Umatilla) River.

October 12  Went three miles. Here our company separated. Some went to Whitman's Mission to winter, and they were murdered in the general massacre, of which I suppose you have already heard. Here my husband bought a beef of the Indians. It was eighteen months old and weighed four hundred and eighty pounds. He paid them with a cow and calf and a new shirt.

October 17  Cold and windy. We made a fire of a little wood that we carried all day yesterday. Made a bite to eat. Our cattle ran off in search of water, which hindered us until late. Camped without wood except a small shrub called greasewood. It burns like greased weeds. I used to wonder why it was said that men must be dressed in buckskin to come to this country, but now I know. Everything we travel through is thorny and rough. There is no chance to save your clothes. Here we found a great hole of water twelve or fifteen feet across. Had to water one hundred and fifty head of cattle with pails. Had to stand out all night in the rain to keep the cattle from drowning each other – after water in this hole.

October 21  Camped on John Day's River. Here we put out a guard for fear of Indians, which we have not done before for three months.

October 22  Traveled up a long, steep ascent between two mountains. The road was so narrow that a wagon could scarcely squeeze along, and very rough at that.

October 23  Camped on the Columbia River. Scarce feed. No wood or shrubs. We had to burn little green weeds.

October 24  Crossed Falls or Shutes River. It was high, rapid and dangerous. The water came clear to the tops of the wagon beds. My children and I, with as many more women and children as could be stowed into a canoe, were taken over by two Indians, which cost a good many shirts. The Indians are thick as hops here and not very friendly. Anybody in preparing to come to this country should make up some calico shirts to trade to the Indians in case of necessity. You will have to hire them to pilot you across the rivers. When we got here my folks were about stripped of shirts, trousers, jackets and "wamusses."

October 26  Made ten miles over a mountain all the way. Saw oak trees for the first time in Oregon. Camped on the Columbia.

October 27  Passed what is called the Dalles Mission, where two white families live with the Jndians. It looks like starvation.

October 28  Here are a great many immigrants camped. Some making rafts, others going down in boats which have been sent up by speculators.

October 29  Rained most all day. Cold weather .

October 30  Rainy day. Men making rafts. Women cooking and washing and babies crying. Indians bartering potatoes for shirts. They must have a good shirt for a peck of potatoes.

October 31  Snow close by on the mountains. We should have gone over the mountains with our wagons, but they are covered with snow and we must go down by water and drive our cattle over the mountains.

November 1  We are lying by waiting for the wind to blow down stream in order that we may embark with our raft.

November 2  We took off our wagon wheels, laid them on the raft, placed the wagon beds on them and started. There are three families of us, Adam Polk, Russell Welch and ourselves, on twelve logs eighteen inches through and forty feet long. The water runs three inches over our raft.

November 3  Still lying by waiting for calm. Cold and disagreeable weather.

November 4  Rain all day. Laid by for the water to become calm. We clambered up a steep hillside among the rocks and built a fire and tried to cook and warm ourselves and children, while the wind blew and the waves rolled beneath.

November 5  Still lying by waiting for calm weather. Mr. Polk is very sick.

November 7  Put out in rough water. Moved a few miles. The water became so rough that we were forced to land. No one to man the raft but my husband and my oldest boy, sixteen years old. Russell Welch and our youngest boys are driving our cattle over the mountains. Here we are lying, smoking our eyes, burning our clothes and trying to keep warm. We have plenty of wood, but the wind takes away the warmth.

November 8  We are still lying at anchor, waiting for the wind to fall. We have but one day’s provisions ahead of us here. We can see snow on the tops of the mountains whose rocky heights reach to the clouds at times. A few Indians call on us and steal something from us but we are not afraid of them. Cold weather – my hands are so cold I can hardly write.

November 9  Finds us still in trouble. Waves dashing over our raft and we already stinting ourselves in provisions. My husband started this morning to hunt provisions. Left no man with us except our oldest boy. It is very cold. The icicles are hanging from our wagon beds to the water. To-night about dusk Adam Polk expired. No one with him but his wife and myself. We sat up all night with him while the waves were dashing below.

November 10  Finds us still waiting for calm weather. My husband returned at two o'clock. Brought fifty pounds of beef on his back twelve miles, which he bought from another company. By this time the water had become calm and we started once more, but the wind soon began to blow and we were forced to land. My husband and boy were an hour and a half after dark getting the raft landed and made fast while the water ran knee-deep over our raft, the wind blew and it was freezing cold. We women and children didn't attempt to get out of the wagons to-night.

November 11   Laid by most all day. Started this evening. Ran about three miles and landed after dark. Here we found Welch and our cattle, for they could not be driven farther on this side of the mountain. Here was a ferry for the purpose of ferrying immigrants' cattle.

November 12  Ferried our cattle across the Columbia and buried Mr. Polk. Rained all day. We are living entirely on beef.

November 13  We got the ferrymen to shift our load onto their boat and take us down to the falls, where we found quite a town of people waiting for their cattle to pull them around the falls. Rain all day.

November 18  My husband is sick. It rains and snows. We start around the falls this morning with our wagons. We have five miles to go. I carry my babe and lead, or rather carry another, through snow, mud, and water almost to my 'knees. It is the worst road a team could possibly travel. I went ahead with my children and I was afraid to look behind me for fear of seeing the wagons overturn into the mud and water with everything in them. My children gave out with cold and fatigue and could not travel, and the boys had to unhitch the oxen and bring them and carry the children on to camp. I was so cold and numb that I could not tell by the feeling that I had any feet. We started this morning at sunrise and did not camp until after dark, and there was not one dry thread on one of us – not even on the babe. I had carried my babe and I was so fatigued that I could scarcely speak or step. When I got here I found my husband lying in Welch's wagon very sick. He had brought Mrs. Polk down the day before and was taken sick. We had to stay up all night for our wagons were left halfway back. I have not told half we suffered. I am not adequate to the task. Here were some hundreds camped, waiting for some boats to come and take them down to Vancouver , Portland or Oregon City.

November 19  My husband is sick and can have but little care. Rain all day.

November 20  Rain all day. It is almost an impossibility to cook, and quite so to keep warm or dry. I froze or chilled my feet so that I cannot wear a shoe, so I have to go around in the cold water in my bare feet.

November 27  Embarked once more on the Columbia on a flatboat. Ran all day, though the waves threatened hard to sink us. Passed Fort Vancouver in the night. Landed a mile below. My husband has never left his bed since he was taken sick.

November 29  Landed at Portland on the Willamette, twelve miles above its mouth, at eleven o'clock at night.

November 30  Raining. This morning I ran about trying to get a house to get into with my sick husband. At last I found a small, leaky concern with two families already in it. Mrs. Polk had got down before us. She and another widow were in this house. My family and Welch’s went in with them and you could have stirred us with a stick. Welch and my oldest boy were driving our cattle around. My children and I carried up a bed. The distance was nearly a quarter of a mile. Made it down on the floor in the mud. I got some men to carry my husband up through the rain and lay him on it, and he was never out of that shed until he was carried out in his coffin. Here lay five of us bedfast at one time, and we had no money and what few things we had left that would bring money I had to sell. I had to give ten cents a pound for fresh pork, seventy-five cents a bushel for potatoes and four cents a pound for fish. There are so many of us sick that I cannot write any more at present. I have not time to write much, but I thought it would be interesting to know what kind of weather we have in the winter.

January 15, 1848  My husband is still alive, but very sick. There is no medicine here except at Fort Vancouver , and the people there will not sell one bit – not even a bottle of wine.

January 16  We are still living in the old leaky shed in Portland. It is six miles below Vancouver and up the Willamette twelve miles. Portland has two white houses and one brick and three wood-colored frame buildings and a few log cabins.

January 20  Cool and dry. Soldiers are collecting here from every part of Oregon to go and fight the Indians in middle Oregon in consequence of the massacre at Whitman's Mission. I think there were seventeen men killed at the massacre, but no women or children, except Whitman's wife. They killed every white man there except one, and he was an Englishman. They took all the young women for wives. Robbed them of their clothing and everything. The Oregon government bought the prisoners at a dear rate, and then gave the Indians fight. But one white man, I believe, was killed in the war and not many Indians. The murderers escaped.

January 21  Warm and dry.

January 24  Dry in daytime but rain at night.

January 31  Rain all day. If I could tell you how we suffer you would not believe it. Our house, or rather a shed joined to a house, leaks allover .The roof descends in such a manner that the rain runs right down into the fire. I have dipped as much as six pails of water off our dirt hearth in one night. Here I sit up night after night with my poor sick husband, all alone, and expecting him every day to die. I neglected to tell you that Welch moved away and left us all alone. Mr. Smith has not been moved off his bed for six weeks, only by lifting him by each corner of the sheet, and I had hard work to get help enough for that, let alone to get watchers. I have not undressed to lie down for six weeks. Besides our sickness I had a cross little babe to take care of. Indeed, I cannot tell you half.

February 1  Rain all day. This day my dear husband, my last remaining friend, died.

February 2  To-day we buried my earthly companion. Now I know what none but widows know: that is, how comfortless is a widow's life; especially when left in a strange land without money or friends, and the care of seven children.

February 9  Clear and cool. Perhaps you will want to know how cool. We have lived all winter in a shed constructed by setting up studs five feet high on the lowest side. The other side joins the cabin. It is boarded up with clapboards and several of them are torn off in places, and there is no shutter to our door; but if it was not for the rain putting out the fire and leaking all over the house we would be comfortable.

February 21  Clear and cool. You will wonder that we do not leave this starved place. The reason is this – the road from here to the country is impassable in winter, the distance being twelve miles, and because our cattle are yet very weak.

February 24  Clear and warm. To-day we left Portland at sunrise. Having no one to assist us, we had to leave one wagon and a part of our things for want of teams. We traveled four or five miles, all the way up hill and through the thickest woods I ever saw – all fir, from two to six feet through, with now and then a scattering cedar, and an intolerably bad road. We all had to walk. Sometimes I had to put my babe on the ground arid help to keep the wagon from turning over. When we got to the top of the mountain we descended through mud up to the wagonhubs and over logs two feet through, and log bridges torn to pieces in the mud. Sometimes I would be behind, out of sight of the wagon, tugging and carrying my little ones along. Sometimes the boys would stop the teams and come back after us. Made nine miles. Camped in thick woods. Found some grass. Unhitched the oxen; let them feed two hours and chained them to trees. These woods are infested with wildcats, panthers, bears and wolves. A man told me he had killed six tigers – but they are a species of wolf. We made us a fire and made a bed down on the wet grass and laid down as happy as circumstances would admit. Glad to think we had escaped from Portland – such a game place.

This was the last record of Mrs. Smith's diary – a story of deprivation, hardships, hunger, danger, destitution and even death – perhaps more harrowing in its details than that of the average family who made the two-thousand-mile trip to Oregon in the 1840’s. And yet there were thousands who brought upon themselves the same awful difficulties – leaving their lifelong friends, abandoning their native country where plenty abounded and where there were millions of acres of vacant land yet to be had – all for the love of adventure. This accounts for the fact, accepted by everybody who understands early conditions here, that the Oregon pioneers, men and women, were of the stuff which develops into a sturdy citizenship.

The reading of the diary of Mrs. Smith, penned as she wended her way to Oregon in the summer of 1847, cannot fail to impress the average reader with the striking contrast between the manner of journeying from the Mississippi Valley to Oregon then and now. The man who makes the trip now is usually a tourist. He buys a sleeper at Chicago, and within three days is in Portland, a city of over two hundred thousand inhabitants, where Mrs. Smith found upon her arrival one brick building, two white houses and a few log cabins. Instead of living on beef alone for several days, the tourist is supplied three times a day on a "diner" with the best the land affords, while a colored waiter bows and smiles – providecl on some previous occasion he has not failed to tip him generously – and for this he pays at least a whole dollar in the coin of the realm. There is no opportunity for him to trade his shirt for a peck of potatoes. After his meal is served, he returns to his upholstered seat and resumes the reading of his favorite book. While enjoying his steak and coffee he travels as far, in the utmost comfort, as Mrs. Smith did in any of the days at the end of which she recorded "made eighteen miles" in suffocating dust, and much of the time with insufficient food. At a station, the train stops for a few minutes. The traveler drops his book, steps out on the platform and, with a yawn, says to his companion: "What a tedious trip! Let us take a turn or two and stretch our legs. And they say we will get into Portland two hours late. Blast these railroads, anyway!"

On September 2, 1850, two years and a half after the last entry in her diary, which I have quoted, Mrs. Smith wrote a letter to the same two women friends in Indiana, in the course of which occurs this paragraph:

My three boys started to the California gold mines and it was doubtful to me if I ever should see them again. Perhaps you will think it strange that I let such young boys go so far, but I was willing and I helped them off in as good style as I could. Well, after the boys were gone, it is true I had plenty of cows and hogs, and plenty of wheat to feed them on and to make my bread. Indeed, I was well off, if I had only known it, but I lived in a remote place where my strength was of little use to me. I could get nothing to do, and you know I could not live without work. I employed myself in teaching my children; yet that did not fully occupy my mind. I became as poor as a snake, yet I was in good health and was never so nimble since I was a child. I could run half a mile without stopping to breathe. Well, I thought I would try my fortune again, so on the 24th of June, 1849, I was married to Mr. Joseph Geer, a man fourteen years older than myself, though young enough for me. He is the father of ten children. They are all married but two boys and two girls. He is a Yankee from Connecticut, and he is a Yankee in every sense of the word, as I told you he would be if it ever proved my lot to marry again. I did not marry rich, but my husband is industrious and is as kind to me as I can ask. Indeed, he sometimes provokes me in trying to humor me so much. He is a stout, healthy man for one of his age.

Since the "Yankee husband" referred to was my grandfather, before mentioned in these pages, it will be appropriate to close this chapter by quoting a part of the postscript to the above letter, which was written by him:


As Mrs. Geer has introduced me to you as her "old Yankee husband," I will add a few words in hopes of becoming better acquainted hereafter. She so often speaks of you that you seem like old neighbors. She has neglected to tell you that she was once the wife of Cornelius Smith. She has told you how poor she became while a widow but has not said one word about how fat she has become since she has been living with her Yankee husband. This is perhaps reserved for her next epistle so I will say nothing about it.

Of her I will say she makes me a first-rate wife, industrious and kind almost to a fault to me, a fault, however, that I can cheerfully overlook, you know.

We are not rich, but independent, and live agreeably together, which is enough. We are located on the west bank of the Willamette River, about twenty miles from Oregon City, about forty yards from the water – a very pleasant situation. I intend putting out a large orchard as soon as I can prepare the ground; have about ten thousand apple trees and two hundred pear trees on hand. Apple trees worth one dollar and pears one dollar and fifty cents apiece. I have not room to give you a description of this, the best country in the world, so I will not attempt it, but if you will answer this I will give you a more particular account next time.

Yours respectfully,



Next Chapter - Notes from James W. Nesmith from the text of an address delivered in 1876 to the Oregon Pioneer Association on traveling along the Oregon Trail.


If you enjoyed this diary, many similar diaries have been collected into books. The most comprehensive series is titled Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1849 is edited by Kenneth L. Holmes. Elizabeth Dixon Smith's diary is in the first volume listed above. Other diaries have been grouped into years as listed below:

1850, 1851, 1852 (The Oregon Trail), 1852 (The California Trail), 1853-1854, 1854-1860, 1862-1865, 1864-1868, 1875-1883, and 1879 - 1903.

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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