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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



Oregon undoubtedly bears the distinction of being the only State in the Union whose people formed a provisional government in advance of territorial organization authorized by Act of Congress. The first settlers were in a country which was without a successful claimant, and for a few years were too few in numbers to need or maintain any kind of government. It was everybody for himself, indeed, but there was nothing in the land to steal; and the only “settlement” extended from the Columbia River to the California line and consisted of not more than a couple of hundred white people.

The first meeting of a public nature was held in February, 1841, for the purpose of determining on some means of protection against the depredations of wild animals, which were destroying the few hogs and calves with which the people were beginning to be blessed. Several such were called that year and the next, with this object in view ostensibly; but a feeling began to develop that it would be necessary for the Americans to take the initiative in organizing a local government whose scope would not be confined to the destruction of the wolves, but would include a movement toward the control of affairs and the counteracting of the hostile influence of the Hudson Bay Company. The company was opposed to any kind of government — preferring the unbroken wilderness, fur–bearing animals in increasing numbers if possible, and no legal restraint whatever. It was really a case where they did not need any government in their business.

But the Americans, coming from the centers of civilization, began to be clamorous for some regularly constituted authority to which they might appeal in case something should happen. Not only this, but the fair historian will be compelled to admit that at even that early date there was a well-defined feeling among the Americans that it was necessary to begin a movement whose ultimate results would be the acquisition of the entire country by the United States. For they were men whose attachment to Old Glory was firm as the foundations of the earth, and they were not willing to lose any tricks through unnecessary delay or apparent indifference. Many otherwise unimportant circumstances combined to awaken the suspicions of the settlers, who were men of pluck and determination.

A few thefts began to take place in the growing community and there was no lawful redress. Men of reckless character, and of no character, were by degrees drawn hither by reason of the anomalous situation, and the Indians were always to be closely watched. In the fall of 1842, the house of a minister living on Tualatin Plains was entered and provisions and clothing taken. This was a new experience and the neighbors took the matter in hand in an effort to detect the thief. A committee was formed, consisting of Rev. J. S. Griffin, Robert Newell, Joseph L. Meek and Caleb Wilkins, whose purpose was to ferret out the culprit, if possible, and to administer such punishment as the case seemed to require.

In a few days, an Indian came to the house of one of the members of this committee and seemed to be very anxious to ascertain whom the whites suspected. His unnatural interest in the affair arousing the suspicion of the committeeman, he pursued such a line of inquiry that it proved a veritable sweat-box — though it was not called by that name in those days.

The result was that he was detained, tried and adjudged guilty. He confessed, was tied up to an oak tree, treated to five lashes at the hands of each of the judges and dismissed. The affair caused a great deal of discussion and served to impress more forcibly upon the settlers that the prevailing conditions were not only unsatisfactory, but dangerous, for the Indians, especially, appeared to understand the disorganized state of the colony and translated it into license — a proceeding altogether in harmony with their desires.

At this time Dr. Elijah White drafted and promulgated a code of “laws” which was intended to govern the Indians in their relations with the settlers. It was called the “White Code,” consisted of eleven articles and was as follows:

Article 1. Whoever willfully takes a life shall be hung.

Art. 2. Whoever burns a dwelling house shall be hung.

Art. 3. Whoever burns an outbuilding shall be imprisoned six months, receive fifty lashes and pay all damages.

Art. 4. Whoever carelessly burns a house or any property shall pay damages.

Art. 5. If anyone enters a house without the permission of the owner, the chiefs shall punish him as they think proper. Public rooms are excepted.

Art. 6. If anyone steal, he shall pay back twofold. And if it be of the value of a beaver skin, or less, he shall receive twenty-five lashes; and if the value is over a beaver skin, he shall pay back twofold and receive fifty lashes.

Art. 7. If anyone take a horse and ride it without permission, or take any article and use it without liberty, he shall pay for the use of it and receive from twenty-five to fifty lashes, as the chiefs shall direct.

Art. 8. If anyone enter a field and injure the crops, or throw down the fence so that cattle or horses enter and do damage, he shall pay all damage and receive twenty-five lashes for every offense.

Art. 9. Those only may keep dogs who travel or live among game. If a dog kill a lamb, calf or any domestic animal, the owner shall pay the damage and kill the dog.

Art. 10. If any Indian raise a gun or other weapon against a white man, it shall be reported to the chiefs and they shall punish him. If a white man do the same to an Indian, it shall be reported to Dr. White and he shall punish or redress.

Art. 11. If an Indian break these laws he shall be punished by the chiefs, and if a white man break them he shall be reported to Dr. White and he shall punish or redress.

But on February 2, 1842, a meeting was held at the Institute, in Salem, for the purpose of “taking into consideration the propriety of adopting some measures the protection of our herds,” etc. This is known in Oregon history as the “Wolf Meeting,” and was presided over by Dr. I. L. Babcock, the secretary being W. H. Willson. After considering the purposes of the meeting, it appointed a committee consisting of William H. Gray, Alanson Beers, Joseph Gervais, William H. Willson, G. W. Bellamy and Etienne Lucier, who were instructed to make arrangements for an adjourned meeting to be held on March 4 at the house of Joseph Gervais, on French Prairie. Mr. Gervais was practically the first white settler in that part of the Willamette Valley, having been induced to locate there by Dr. McLoughlin, to raise wheat for the Russian trade.

At this meeting the committee appointed on February, 2 made the following report, which will give the student of early Oregon history a clear insight into the primitive condition of affairs and what the people were compelled to accept as an unavoidable duty. The report, which was in reality the germ that produced the succeeding governments, provisional, territorial and State, was as follows:

It being admitted by all that bears, panthers, wolves, etc., are destructive to useful animals owned by the settlers of this colony, your committee would respectfully submit the following resolutions as the sense of this meeting, by which the community may be governed in carrying on a defensive and destructive war against all such animals. Resolved,

1. That we deem it expedient for this community to take immediate measures for the destruction of all bears, wolves, panthers and such other animals as are known to be destructive to horses, cattle, hogs and sheep.

2. That a treasurer shall be appointed who shall receive and disburse all funds in accordance with drafts drawn on him by the committee appointed to receive the evidences of the destruction of all such animals, and that he report the state of the treasury by posting up public notices once every three months in the vicinity of each of the committee.

3. That a standing committee of eight be appointed whose duty it shall be, together with the treasurer, to receive the proofs of the evidences of the animals for which bounties are claimed having been killed in the Willamette valley.

4. That a bounty of fifty cents be paid for the destruction of a small wolf; three dollars for a large wolf; one dollar and fifty cents for a lynx; two dollars for a bear and five dollars for a panther.

5. That no bounty be paid unless the individual claiming such bounty gives satisfactory evidence, or by presenting the skin of the head, with the ears, of all animals for which he claims a bounty.

6. That the committee and treasurer form a board of advice to call public meetings when deemed necessary to promote and encourage all persons to use their vigilance in destroying all the animals named in the fourth resolution.

7. That the bounties named in the fourth resolution be confined to whites and their descendants.

On motion, it was

Resolved, That no one receive a bounty (except Indians) unless he pay a subscription of five dollars.

It was moved and seconded that the Indians receive one-half as much as the whites.

It was moved and seconded that all claims for bounties be presented within ten days from the time of becoming entitled to such bounties, and if there should be any doubt, the individual claiming such bounty shall give his oath as to the various circumstances.

In the meantime, however, it was becoming apparent to the settlers that the protection of their own rights — and lives — as well as their herds, could not be longer safely postponed, and as the result of this growing conviction, the committee of twelve, which had been authorized to call meetings relative to the protection of the herds against the marauding panthers and wolves, issued a call for another meeting to be held at Champoeg on May 2, in the following year (1843), to “consider the propriety of taking measures for the civil and military protection of the colony.”

This was, indeed, a bold step; literally “coming out from under cover,” for it was well understood that any attempt to organize any kind of government would meet with the bitter hostility of the Hudson Bay Company, whose control of the country for thirty years had been undisputed.

But changing conditions were pressing for action. Civilization was calling for recognition, and men and women who were accustomed to law and order were not to be balked in their purposes. There was a deep dissatisfaction with the unsettled conditions which manifested itself constantly, and in the light of ensuing events, which followed one another in rapid succession, there is no difficulty in understanding the impossibility of stilling the demand for the installation of a dependable government.

During all these manifestations of an unmistakable drift toward an emancipation from existing conditions, there was one man who was placed in a very awkward and unenviable situation — Dr. John McLoughlin, Chief Factor of the Hudson Bay Company and absolute Governor of the Northwest Territory. Indeed, he was virtually its dictator, and had been for thirty years. The London stockholders of the company had given him a free rein and all the report they cared for was that which yielded enormous quantities of furs.

But, fortunately for the early American immigrants, the Doctor, himself a giant physically, was as big of heart as of stature. In the situation by which he was confronted, his sympathies outran his subserviency to the company which was paying him a princely salary, and when he saw an American immigrant and his family in need of either food or clothing, he contributed liberally from his stores. He thus indirectly aided in the colonization of the Oregon Country by the Americans, which meant the ruin of his own business, the extend and value of which can never be properly estimated, For this, he was never reimbursed in any sense of the word.


Next Chapter - Ewing Young, through his death, unwittingly funded the early stages of the Oregon Provisional Legislature.


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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