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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



About the middle of December, 1899, the Oregon State Historical Society held its annual meeting in Portland and in the course of its proceedings passed a resolution deciding to appoint several committees of one each to locate exactly the different points of interest connected with the early history of the commonwealth — such as the precise spot where Lewis and Clark wintered near the mouth of the Columbia (Astoria) during their great exploration nearly a hundred years before, the spot where the Astor Fort was erected, and the particular place where the famous Champoeg meeting was held in May, 1843. This latter duty was assigned to me, since I was a native of Marion County and had spent most of my life there.

Accordingly, on the morning of May 1, 1900, I mounted my bicycle — bicycle riding was a very popular fad at that time — and proceeded toward Champoeg, some thirty miles away. I had previously made an appointment with Hon. F. X. Matthieu, who lived but three miles from Champoeg and who even then was the only man living who had participated in that meeting in ‘43. The arrangement was for me to go to his home, remain overnight, and in the morning, on the anniversary of the day the event took place, go over with him to the quiet little town and mark the spot where history was made by a lot of earnest men. Hon. George H. Himes, the secretary of the Oregon Historical Society, had also promised to be present.

I shall never forget that beautiful ride from Salem to Champoeg. It was a perfect day, with a firm north breeze, not a cloud in the sky; the roads were in good condition, the, crops were growing splendidly, birds were singing everywhere, seemingly to be in harmony with Nature’s glad mood — it was, in short, just that sort of a day which is known in all its wealth of joy, beauty, and inspiration only in the Willamette valley in the spring and summer months.

I passed through the town of Gervais, where Joseph Gervais settled in the early ‘30s. At his home, one of the meetings was held preliminary to the actual organization at Champoeg. The little city rests upon the bosom of the great French Prairie, now teeming with prosperous farmers whose land is worth more per acre now than a section was in the time of Gervais, and the main street is where the old barnyard was located in the days of Jason Lee.

Woodburn, the “metropolis of French Prairie,” railroad junction and all-round pushing town, twenty miles away, was passed in the early forenoon, and Hubbard, four miles farther on, soon afterward. At this place a detour to the west was necessary to strike the old “Champoeg road” on which Father Matthieu lived.

Upon arriving at the celebrated old homestead I found that Himes, with a Portland photographer, was already there, but Mr. Matthieu was in Portland on business and had, in fact, forgotten his appointment with us. A long distance telephone was brought into action and he replied that he would take the evening train for home. A team was sent to Aurora, the nearest station, and he arrived in time for supper.

To while away the afternoon, Himes and I took a long walk through the old woods, which encroach well upon the house on the west — a grove of tall firs which even today preserve much of their original beauty, and which are full of unspoken reminiscences reaching back to the days when Jo Meek, “Bob” Newell, Abernethy and their confreres passed through them clad in buckskin, following Indian trails.

Upon our return to the barnyard Himes proposed that we engage in a game of “horseshoes,” the raw material for the process hanging on a long peg on the wall of the oats bin. This was agreed to, with the declaration on the part of each that he hadn’t pitched a horseshoe for more than twenty years; but I soon afterward had reason to suspect that the versatile secretary of the Oregon Historical Society had forgotten his dates, and that a careful inspection of his premises at home would disclose a fully-equipped, up-to-date outfit for the game of quoits not to be surpassed at any cross-roads blacksmith’s shop in the entire State! In fact, the game was so outrageously one-sided that, after a two-hours’ siege, I called the contest (?) off and adjourned to the house, where I discovered that the beautiful lawn in front of the pioneer’s home needed some attention. I intimated as much to the women folk, who were enjoying the ideal afternoon on the broad front porch, from which one of the best views of Mt. Hood to be found anywhere in western Oregon is afforded. I was at once informed that a very good lawn-mower was in the woodshed! Game to the last, I expressed my undying fondness for pushing a lawn-mower — that in fact it was one of my particular pleasures in life; and to prove my sincerity, I mowed something like a half-acre of heavy blue-grass during the next hour and a half, much to the enjoyment of the demon Himes, who thought he saw an expression of regret on my face that I had been so needlessly gallant.

But Himes was mistaken. I am very fond of running a lawn-mower, and compared with it, as a pleasant pastime, pitching horseshoes is a dull, profitless, thankless, uninspiring and altogether foolish way of spending one’s time! Anybody can pitch horseshoes, but it takes a positive genius to push a lawn-mower successfully and look pleasant about it.

The next morning Mr. Matthieu, Mr. Himes, the photographer and I climbed into the carriage of our host and drove over to Champoeg along the road that had been familiar to Matthieu for all the sixty preceding years. As has been stated before, for many years after the pioneers met at Champoeg the town remained on the banks of the Willamette River and was quite a shipping point for all French Prairie, but it was completely washed away in December, 1861, after which it was rebuilt a half-mile back from the river on a bench, though the warehouse for the receipt of freight was replaced. With the advent of the railroad in 1870, however, this was abandoned, and now boats seldom touch at the historic old landing save for a passenger bound for some down-river point.

Arriving at the river’s bank, it was a poem and song combined to see Mr. Matthieu as he stood taking in the situation, the grounds and directions. The point where the meeting was held had changed but little in the intervening time. It was then a small prairie, some fifty yards across, and had remained so, save that here and there was an oak “grub” which had managed to escape the interference of the settler’s axe or the successful tramp of wandering stock. To our host who had not visited the spot for several years, the association appeared to recall the “days of auld lang syne.” He was standing on the very spot where John McLoughlin had come in the early days to locate another trading post — McLoughlin who for thirty years was the Governor and dictator of all the Northwestern territory; Jo Meek had stalked across this little glade with all the impetuosity of a Roosevelt and in a dramatic manner had decided the fate of an empire; Lucier, the old friend of Matthieu, had here stood irresolute, puzzled as he listened to the call of his countrymen and his former associations on the one side, and to the admonitions of a new duty and the appeals of his strong-minded young friend on the other — and these, with all the other fifty-one men, had long years before passed through the Valley of Death!

For several minutes the old hero neither spoke nor gave answer to our questions; he seemed utterly indifferent to his surroundings. He was living in another age — a former generation which had passed away was receiving his attention and he was listening to other voices. It was a moment when neither Himes nor I felt disposed to talk. We let the old gentleman complete his communion, knowing well that we formed no part of the audience which was the background of the picture created by Matthieu out of the boundless field of memory.

Finally, turning around, he cast his eyes across the river and looked admiringly at the beautiful hills, just beyond which many of the first settlers had located and over which they had ridden on horseback to attend the meeting of May 2, 1843. By degrees he came to himself, and turning to us said:

“Pretty place, isn’t it?” Glad that he had completed his reverie, I asked him where the meeting was held — the exact spot. He quickly replied: “Well, sir, it was held all around here. We didn’t hold it in a house where everybody had a chair and a desk. We began it in a little room which the clerk of the store had, but it was too small, so we went outdoors and had it pretty much all over this prairie. But the storehouse was about there” — pointing — “and Jo Meek walked about there” — pointing again –“and we lined up with him all around here” — stepping away a few feet. “Why, sir, I can see him now, and almost hear him as he said: ‘Who’s in favor of a divide — follow me!’“ Mr. Matthieu added that there could be no mistake whatever about the location being correct, for it was one that time would not change; and, besides, he had seen it every year or so since 1843 — sometimes oftener.

At the time of our visit, there was a small shack on almost the precise spot where the Hudson Bay Company’s old store stood, occupied by the family of a man who was engaged in butchering cattle for the supply of the surrounding country. Of the woman in charge, I borrowed an ax. With this I felled an oak tree about six inches in diameter and, with four feet of its body, made a stake. I then asked Mr. Matthieu to locate as best he could the exact spot where Meek stood during that exciting hour. After surveying the field for a minute, he said: “Well, drive it here.” So, while I held it in an upright position for him, Mr. Matthieu took the ax and struck the first blow. After we had all taken our turn at it, the stake was firmly driven where the monument now stands.

The photographer took several pictures of the location and surrounding country, one of which, representing Himes, Matthieu and myself sitting on a point overlooking the river, will be found in these pages.

In the following January, the Legislature appropriated a substantial sum for the purpose of erecting a granite shaft at Champoeg to mark the historic spot, and it was put in place in April. It has engraved on the four sides the names of the fifty-two men who voted for organization, together with a brief description of the great event it commemorates. It was dedicated on the second day of the following May, by appropriate exercises, in the presence of two thousand people, among whom were numbered many prominent men and women from all parts of the State. Addresses were made by Hon. H. W. Scott, editor of the Morning Oregonian, Hon. John Minto, and several others who had assisted in the claiming of the Oregon Country.

Each recurring May 2 since 1901, large assemblages have gathered in an old-fashioned picnic style to listen to the interesting story rehearsed by the old pioneers, who greatly enjoy the reunions.



From many points of view, Francis Xavier Matthieu is one of the most remarkable men now living in Oregon. Although April 2 of this year he reached the great age of ninety-three years, his mental powers are still entirely unimpaired, and barring his failing eyesight, he is in good form physically. He attended the celebration at Champoeg on May 2, as usual — he has never failed to be present — and was, of course, the guest of honor. His memory is faultless as to dates and incidents in the early life of the Oregon Country and especially is he free from the tendency to forget the names of his former associates, so noticeable in most people of advanced years.

Mr. Matthieu was born in Canada, near Montreal, on April 2, 1818, his parents being of French ancestry though themselves born in Canada. When twenty years old, he took an active part in the Canadian rebellion, for which, upon its suppression, he was sought by the authorities. Not desiring an interview with them at the time, he hied himself away to an uncle’s home, about sixty miles distant, where he remained a few months, or until his part in the unpleasantness was partially forgotten and the local government was in search of larger game.

When he felt comparatively safe, he had a call from Albany, New York, which he answered by making the journey, mostly during the hours between sundown and sunrise — to avoid the heat. He secured employment as a carpenter at Albany for a few months, then drifted out to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, remaining a few days at Fort Dearborn, the site where Chicago, with its more than two millions of inhabitants, now stands. In 1840, it was nothing but a frontier post with a small garrison. From there, he went to St. Louis where he secured employment with the American Fur Company, his particular duty being to sell whisky for furs to the Sioux Indians in the Dakotas. He frequently sold one gallon of whisky for fifteen buffalo skins — which in these days would be likened to “taking candy from a baby.” That was a memorable trip, traveling from St. Louis with twenty wagons, drawn by forty mules, carrying two barrels of whisky to the wagon.

Mr. Matthieu remained with the Indians during one winter and it is surpassingly interesting to listen to his narration of his experiences. As a matter of personal safety, he lived with the Indians much as they lived, for by following this course he avoided all trouble. He told me once that the only experience he had that even threatened to cause any difficulty was on the occasion of a feast of some sort which they observed with much pomp and attention to detail.

“They had prepared a dish of boiled dog,” said Mr. Matthieu. “In fact, it was the only dish they had, and all hands sat around a kind of table while the fragments of dog meat, floating in a soup which was furnished in most liberal quantities, were served in huge bowls, most of which had been carved out of soft stone.

“Of course this was not a very appetizing meal for me, especially as I was perfectly familiar with the kind of dogs they raised and had seen their repulsive and lousy bodies around the camp for months. I had found I could do, in a sort of way, almost everything the Indians had required of me without a great deal of difficulty and thus had retained their good will; but I had to balk at this dog feast. And yet they were so im­pressed with the solemnity and importance of this particular ceremony that a refusal to partake with every show of appreciation would have been a plain affront.

“The fact was I was ‘up against it’ — I simply couldn’t eat the dog meat or drink the soup, though the Indians were gulping it down with the same relish with which I would drink a cold lemonade on a warm day. And this fact proved my salvation. I pretended to be busy eating the floating delicacy, but in reality had not swallowed anything. The happy thought occurred to me to propose to the Indian by my side that if he would eat my bowl of soup, I would give him a whole plug of tobacco. As an Indian is always hungry, he very eagerly accepted my offer and within a very short time he had surrounded both rations and still looked and acted hungry. I slipped him his plug of tobacco, and though it was worth two dollars in gold, if there had been any there, I thought it was the best trade I had ever made.”

In the summer of 1842, being at Fort Laramie, Mr. Matthieu joined a company of people who were on their way to Oregon, making the trip with a few other young men on horseback. Arriving where the Dalles is now, about a dozen of them started for the Willamette Valley over the Indian trail which passed along the north side of the base of Mt. Hood. On the evening of September 23, they camped near the snow line. During the night it turned bitterly cold and a light snow fell, and when morning arrived they discovered that several of their horses had died from the exposure and their gradual loss of vitality.

Mr. Matthieu’s horse, however, had survived and in company with three or four others he pushed on to Oregon City, arriving on the afternoon of September 25. Even at that early date, there was quite a settlement at Oregon City. Among those who had homes was Rev A. F. Waller, of the immigration of 1840. True to the spirit of Western hospitality, Mr. Waller insisted that the new arrivals should have supper at his house, and although they endeavored to persuade him that they wert too ragged and untidy generally to go into a home, would take no refusal. They went to his house, the kitchen and sitting-room being one, and sat by a huge open fire while Mrs. Waller prepared the meal.

In relating this experience, Mr. Matthieu said: “Of course I was interested in Mr. Waller’s description of the new country we were in and of its prospects but I noticed that Mrs. Waller was cooking some very large potatoes — the first I had seen for two years. And when their aroma arose and filled the room, I forgot all about Waller’s story as to what the Willamette valley offered to newcomers and was only interested in the perfection which potatoes appeared to reach in its apparently marvelous soil.

“Finally, supper was ready and we took our places around the table, in the midst of which was a large dish filled and piled up with the finest potatoes I had ever seen, with their skins on and their white sides exposed it a way that was tempting beyond endurance.

“But the experience of the next few minutes was the hardest to bear. We were ready for the fray, or at least I was — when, to my disgust, I am ashamed to say — Mr. Waller leaned forward and began to ‘say grace.’ This I had not expected, and while it did not, perhaps, last longer than fifteen minutes it appeared to me that he prayed for everything from Adam to the missionaries at Salem. I know it seemed the longest ‘grace’ I ever heard, and the meal that followed was one to be remembered for many a day.”

Mr. Matthieu, who made many trips from Vancouver to Champoeg by water, relates that in those days the river banks where Portland now stands were lined with such a dense growth of firs, willows, alder, vine maple, and thorn, much of it overhanging the water, that it was impossible to land a canoe anywhere between Guild Lake and the old White House.

He was one of the first justices of the peace for Champoeg County when its boundaries extended from the Willamette River to the “United States,” wherever that mystical dividing line was, and he says that, since there was no appeal from his findings, he feels that he should have the pay allowed retired members of the Supreme Court of the United States, though he does not intend to test the matter through any sort of litigation. He has served as county commissioner of Marion County, two terms in the State Legislature and for many years was the agent of Dr. McLoughlin for the purchase and shipping of wheat from the French Prairie country to Oregon City. He still owns his beautiful farm, on which he settled in 1846, soon after his marriage, but in recent years has spent his winters with a son who lives in Portland. He is the father of fifteen children, seven whom are living.

F. X. Matthieu has occupied a very important place in the history of Oregon, his motives always being patriotic and his judgment of the best. He is as good an American as though native-born and is now, in his ninety-fourth year, as keenly interested in current events as ever. He is entirely free from the tendency to become childish, accepts the infirmities of age with surprising philosophy and, in fact, has the best wishes of every man and woman in the State, of which he may justly be called a founder.


Next Chapter - The first meetings of the Oregon Provisional Legislature from 1843-1847 gave some structure to the territory.


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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