A pretty place is Champoeg, Marion County,
Oregon. It is located on the east bank of the Willamette River, about thirty
miles above Portland, or rather the spot is where Champoeg was in 1843 and where
it continued to be until it was washed away in the great flood in the Willamette
River in December, 1861. The magnificent French Prairie, which begins a few
miles north of Salem, some twenty miles away, narrows in an irregular way as one
travels toward the north until, as the Willamette is approached, the timber
closes in occasionally only to give away again for a smaller opening of fertile
land. Champoeg was located where the last of these small prairies touches the
river, where the bank is at least forty feet above the water when at its average
For the reason that the Indians who inhabited
the Willamette Valley naturally followed the open land as they journeyed to the
river on their annual and other fishing trips, they made their Great Camp at the
point where this route led them. It was for this reason that the Hudson Bay
Company established a trading post at that point in the spring of 1843. Prior to
that time, however, it had built a small warehouse there for the purpose of
receiving wheat, which was raised in small quantities on the French Prairie. Dr.
McLoughlin had discovered that the Russian traders toward the north were fond of
wheat and were quite willing to give furs in exchange for it. The Doctor, being
certain that wheat would grow to great perfection in the Willamette valley, as
early as 1836 had induced Joseph Gervais to locate on the French Prairie and
engage in that business. Others in a small way followed his example and a
warehouse was erected at Champoeg — “The Place of the Camp” — to receive the new
product, which was transported to Vancouver and to Oregon City for the purpose
F. X. Matthieu, who came to the French Prairie
in September, 1842, and who is still living, assisted by another Frenchman,
built an addition to this warehouse in the early spring of 1843, in which Dr.
McLoughlin placed a small stock of goods. His company was thus enabled to take
advantage of the disposition of the Indians to barter furs for bright colored
articles of apparel. After that, Mr. and Mrs. No-Shirt, coming from the vicinity
of Salem or Scio, could return home arrayed in all the hues of the rainbow and
excite the envy, if not the admiration, of their copper-colored fellows in all
the region ‘round about.
As the early settlers in the Willamette Valley
by common consent regarded Champoeg as the most centrally located point for
their occasional meetings, naturally it was chosen as the place where they
should assemble to decide the momentous question whether or not an attempt
should be made to effect a civil organization. It was, indeed, a day and an
occasion fraught with wonderful consequences, as we look backward and consider
the situation and the courage of the men who were directly behind it.
At the appointed hour, one hundred and two men
had assembled at Champoeg — May 1843 — in accordance with the call of
the Committee of Twelve. As may be supposed, the atmosphere was charged with
apprehension, uncertainty and a decided, though somewhat suppressed, feeling of
bitterness; for the Hudson Bay men had come in force to vote against any sort of
an organization. The Americans, on their part, had summoned every man from
California to British Columbia! And, all told, there were one hundred and two
men there to engage in a contest which probably would decide — and which
actually did decide — whether a country half as large as the best portion of
Europe should ultimately belong to the United States or to Great Britain.
It was a great day for millions yet unborn.
The importance of it was fully appreciated by the Americans, for they were
striving in the interest of the nation they loved, and while it must be admitted
that their opponents were equally in earnest, their underlying motive was merely
a desire to keep the country in the condition most favorable for the business of
The various records of that great meeting at
Champoeg do not give its details. The records merely recite the results,
together with the manner of taking the vote. F. X. Matthieu is now the only
survivor of that gathering: singularly enough, it was his action and influence
alone which decided the vote in favor of the Americans. Many times I have
visited the old patriarch at his home on his magnificent farm, located near
Champoeg, and listened with increasing interest to his narration of that
incident and many others of surpassing historical value.
The fact is, many more people participated in
the meeting than its promoters dared hope. Some men were compelled to travel
more than a hundred miles on horseback or on foot, and though the meeting had
been extensively advertised, and the interest was unbounded, it was not thought
that even a hundred people would undertake the difficult journey. Mr. Matthieu
says, however, it was hardly possible after adjournment to recall the name of an
American settler who had neglected to respond to the call of duty on that day.
The meeting was called to order and Dr. I. L.
Babcock chosen as presiding officer. Three secretaries were selected, Gray,
Willson and LeBreton. Amid suppressed excitement, and some threats from both
sides as to what would be the result if so and so should happen, the Committee
of Twelve submitted a plan for the organization of a government which included a
supreme judge, with probate powers, a clerk of his court who should be a
recorder also, a sheriff, three magistrates, three constables, a treasurer, a
major and three captains. It also provided for “the appointment of nine persons
who should draft a code of laws to be submitted to a public meeting to be held
at Champoeg on July 5, next.”
After the report was read, or, in other words,
after the red flag had been waved in the face of the English lion, the storm
burst with great fury and all forms of parliamentary procedure were abandoned.
One man got the floor and began “a few remarks,” but soon discovered that there
were several groups in the room engaged in a warm discussion “on the side.” The
noise, and the confusion which it necessarily precipitated, soon rendered the
chairman powerless to preserve order or further direct the meeting. At this
juncture, he put the question on the motion to accept, which was about to be
declared lost, when LeBreton demanded a division. This was seconded by William
H. Gray, and as the room was too small to hold so large a gathering — a part of
the men never having been able to get inside the door everybody rushed for the
outside, where it seemed for a moment that all would end in a dispersion without
further results. Excited men were standing in groups gesticulating frantically,
after the manner of Frenchmen, and talking vociferously in English and French,
with a suggestion here and there of Spanish. LeBreton’s motion was still “in the
air,” when that bold mountaineer and trapper — he of giant frame and courage
unquestioned, Jo Meek — seeing the drift of things and the danger which
confronted the Americans of losing all, suddenly shouted, “Who’s for a divide?
All in favor of organization, follow me!”
The effect of Meek’s impetuosity and
characteristic “go,” acted like magic upon the partially disconcerted and
puzzled Americans. At once he strode to one side of the little prairie, the
dimensions of which were a half–acre, and the Americans followed him to a man.
Those opposed to organization remained in a group. A count disclosed the fact
that there were fifty men with Meek and fifty opposed, with two men half-way
between the opposing forces, not yet taking sides and engaged in a very earnest
conversation. These men were F. X. Matthieu and Etienne Lucier — both Frenchmen.
The suspense lasted but a few moments,
however, for the two belated debators suddenly turned and took their places with
the Americans, who, having already “taken the count,” knew the result. With hats
flying in the air and handshaking going on with the utmost enthusiasm, they took
possession of the “meeting,” while the defeated participants mounted their
horses and rode away.
It was a small contest, comparatively, waged
three thousand miles and more from the capital of the United States by fifty-two
men who were Americans either by birth or in sentiment, but in that hour a
question was decided which without doubt resulted in the final acquisition of
all the Northwest Territory by our beloved Uncle Sam. Benton, Linn and their
associates did valiant work for many years in behalf of this very consummation,
but the most important link in the great chain which finally bound this country
to the United States was welded on that day at Champoeg by that little band of
determined and patriotic men. Chief among these — shall it not be said? — were
Meek, Matthieu and Lucier. And the chief of this triumvirate was Matthieu, who,
it was discovered immediately after the meeting was adjourned, had been in favor
of an organization all the time; but finding Lucier undecided, and about to
follow his fellow Frenchmen against the Americans, Matthieu arrested him en
route to their camp and persuaded him to accompany him. It was, indeed, what
would be called in modern slang “a close shave.” Etienne Lucier at that time had
a farm on French Prairie, but had previously been employed by the Hudson Bay
Company. He had a home and family and Matthieu, not yet married, was living with
him. The influence of the latter was sufficient to secure his support and the
day was carried.
The meeting at once proceeded to elect
officers in accordance with the plan adopted and chose A. E. Wilson, supreme
judge; George W. LeBreton, clerk, and Joseph L. Meek, sheriff. The first
Legislative Committee was composed of Robert Shortess, David Hill, Alanson
Beers, William H. Gray, Thomas J. Hubbard, James O’Neil, Robert Moore, Robert
Newell and William Doughty.
Before adjournment a resolution of instruction
to the Legislative Committee was passed which read as follows:
The sessions of the said
Legislative Committee shall not last longer than six days; no tax shall be
levied; the office of Governor shall not be created; the compensation of the
members of the Legislative Committee shall be one dollar and twenty-five cents
per day and the revenues of the territory shall be secured by voluntary
Oh, for another condition like that! — where
there shall be no taxes levied, no revenues except voluntary contributions,
legislators serving for a dollar and a quarter a day and — no Governors!
The first meeting of the Legislative
Committee, the first of its kind, or of any kind, west of the Rocky Mountains in
any part of the territory now constituting the United States, was held at the
Methodist Mission ten miles below Salem. The building used was known as the
“Granary,” a story-and-a-half building, sixteen by thirty feet, with a square
room in front. After having been successively used for a school and church and
finally turned into a granary by the missionaries, it now became the Capitol of
the “Oregon Country” about whose acquisition statesmen of national renown had
wrangled with varying degrees of eloquence for more than twenty years.
The members appear to have appreciated the
importance of the step they were taking and were as frugal in their
disbursements as the “proletariat” could have wished. Alanson Beers and Dr.
Babcock contributed enough to the public treasury to defray the entire expense
of the first session and each of the members gave a sum equal to the amount of
his pay. This session convened May 6 and adjourned four days later to re-convene
June 27, which latter session was completed June 28.
The chief work of these two sessions was the
preparation of an organic law which was submitted to the people at a
mass-meeting held at Champoeg July 5 and ratified practically without
opposition, the only note of discord arising from the proposition to create the
office of Governor, in violation of the instructions of the meeting of May 2.
Rev. Gustavus Hines, who presided, made a vigorous speech against the report in
this particular, denouncing it as “the proposed triple executive, a hydra-headed
monster — a repetition of the Roman Triumvirate.” But the office was created as
a sort of trinity, a three-in-one Governor, whose responsibility could not be
Accordingly, Alanson Beers, Joseph Gale and
David Hill were chosen as the Executive Committee to serve until a general
election should be held in May, 1844.
In talking with F. X. Matthieu not long ago
about that Champoeg meeting, prompted by curiosity, I asked him what kind of
weather it was on that day. After thinking a moment, he said the sun was
shining, he believed, as he remembered that the men were there in their shirt
sleeves. But, he added, that fact would not necessarily indicate the kind of
weather which was prevailing, since few of the men had any coats to wear,
His friend Lucier had been made to believe by
his fellow Frenchmen that if a government was organized the few things they
possessed would be so heavily taxed that it would be ruinous. Lucier had been
told that if the Americans carried the day the tax on a single window-glass
would be twenty-five cents, and Matthieu was laboring with him to disprove such
an absurdity while the fifty impatient Americans were waiting to see where they
would take their places.
“Besides,” said Matthieu to
him, “you know you have no window-glass in your house anyway, and won’t,
perhaps, for a long time. What difference will that make? It isn’t so, anyway.”
So Lucier went with him, and Oregon was “saved.”
Matthieu, who was then
living with Lucier, says his only windows consisted of openings in the logs,
which were covered with panther skins, carefully scraped so thin that they
served the purpose very well.
“But you couldn’t see out,”
I suggested to Mr. Matthieu.
“No,” he replied quickly, “but nobody could look in, either!”
At intervals, for many years after Mr.
Matthieu settled on his splendid farm on French Prairie, he shot deer from his
front porch, but a few hundred yards from where the electric cars running from
Portland to Salem now pass every hour at the rate of forty miles an hour!
Next Chapter - F. X. Matthieu, who helped break the 50-50 tie in the
vote, reminisced about the early part of the century, including his time with
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
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: