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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



The phrase “owning the earth” applied with almost no exaggeration to those who came to Oregon in the 1840s. Not only were there no owners of the land individually nor of the country as a whole, but there were no boundaries, real or imaginary. Mexico was on the south and Canada on the north. To the east, there was no legal obstacle until you passed over the Rocky Mountains, even then the farthest stretches of the Louisiana Purchase were indefinite.

The first duty, therefore, which loomed large before the Legislative Committee was to stake out a claim. Any old boundary would answer the purpose and unquestionably would meet with no opposition. The first section of the organic law adopted by the people at Champoeg July 5, 1843, was as follows:

For the purpose of temporary government, the Territory shall be divided into not less than three nor more than five districts, subject to be extended to a greater number when the population shall require it.

The law finally adopted provided as follows:

First District, to be called the Tualitan District, comprising all the country south of the northern boundary of the United States, west of the Willamette or Multnomah River, north of the Yamhill River and east of the Pacific Ocean.

Second District, to be called the Yamhill District, embracing all the country west of the Willamette or Multnomah River, and a supposed line running north and south from said river, south of the Yamhill River, to the parallel of forty-two degrees north latitude, or the boundary line of the United States and California and east of the Pacific Ocean.

Third District, to be called the Clackamas District, comprehending all territory not included in the other three districts.

Fourth District, to be called the Champoeg District, and bounded on the north by a supposed line drawn from the mouth of the Haunchauke River, and a supposed line running due east to the Rocky Mountains, east of the Willamette or Multnomah River, and a supposed line running due south from said river to the parallel of forty-two degrees north latitude, south by the boundary line of the United States and California, and east by the summit of the Rocky Mountains.

The above districts to be designated by the name of Oregon Territory.

It is interesting to know that, in order to keep within their “jurisdiction,” if they had any, and in order, also, that they might not contract any entangling alliances with foreign nations, the following oath was prescribed and taken by the members of the Legislative Committee and other officers: “I do solemnly swear that I will support the organic laws of the provisional government of Oregon, so far as the said organic laws are consistent with my duties as a citizen of the United States or as a subject of Great Britain, and faithfully to demean myself in office, so help me God.” On June 5, 1845, under the requirements of the amended organic law, George Abernathy was chosen the first Governor of Oregon and was elected in June, 1847, serving until the territorial government was established by Act of Congress and Oregon and became a part of the United States.

It is worth observing, in passing, that the organic law adopted July 5, 1843, at Champoeg was passed upon by “the people of the Willamette valley in mass convention,” ; inaugurating the “Oregon System” of the initiative and referendum, as it is known to-day in all parts of the country, at “the first rattle out of the box.” Considering that we had a pure democracy here at the very beginning, it is not difficult to understand how easily we accept the principle of “direct legislation” whenever it is presented to us for consideration.

The first session of the Legislature under the provisional government was held in the house of Theopholis McGruder, and convened December 2, 1845. Robert Newell was chosen speaker, J. E. Long, clerk and the owner of the house was elected sergeant-at-arms. The provisional Legislature consisted of but one House.

No matter what may be alleged of the extravagance of modern Oregon Legislatures, it must be admitted that the earliest of their predecessors was thoroughly imbued with the spirit of economy. For instance, on December 19, 1845, Governor Abernethy approved a law which contained this section:

Section 2. The Governor of Oregon is hereby authorized to give public notice throughout Oregon, either by publishing the same in the newspaper or otherwise, that he will receive sealed proposals from all who may desire to give donations to the govern­ment for the purpose of erecting public buildings and locating the seat of government — said proposals to state the amount to be given and the kind of property in which it is to be paid.

Even two years later, on December 7, 1847, when the Legislature met at Oregon City, the record says that Mr. Hembree, from the committee appointed to procure a room, reported that “the room now occupied by Mr. Stephen Meek could be procured for one dollar and twenty-five cents a day, which report was adopted.”

But the record for the next day says that “upon the motion of Mr. Nesmith, the report was rejected.”

No reason is assigned for this apparently disrespectful treatment of Mr. Meek’s clever and patriotic offer, but the House “adjourned to meet at the Methodist Church in twenty minutes.” The inference from this is that the Methodist Church could be had for nothing, and as there were no revenues except the money accumulating from voluntary contributions, the matter of saving one dollar and twenty-five cents a day for the rent of a Capitol was not to be lightly rejected.

It will be noticed that the call for sealed proposals for donations for a Capitol were to be published in “the newspaper.” The truth of the matter was that at that precise date there was no newspaper published in this entire territory, but the prospectus for the Oregon Spectator had been issued and it was understood that there would be a newspaper in the near future. In fact, the first number of the Spectator was issued on Thurs­day, February 5, 1846.

At the beginning of the session of 1846, Mr. Meek made the following statement: “Mr. Speaker, the committee appointed to procure a room for the Legislature beg to report that they have discharged their duty by examining a room proposed by Mr. Knighton at two dollars a day and one by Mr. Card at _____ a day. Taking everything into consideration, we recommend the former.”

At the opening of the session of 1848, Mr. Crawford, of Marion County, announced: “Mr. Speaker, your committee, to whom was referred the procuring of a house in which to hold the present session of the Legislature, beg leave to report that they have examined several houses and have decided in favor of the one owned by G. W. Rice, which, together with the wood for the session, may be had for five dollars a day in scrip.”

At least it may be said that here was a sign of progress, since the lawmaking body was willing to pay five dollars a day for the use of a Capitol — the wood in those days amounting to very little for one room — and Mr. Card was willing to accept the paper of the government in liquidation of his bill. The government was on the upgrade!

On July 20, 1849, though the territorial government was fully inaugurated, the resolution was introduced:

“That a committee of two be appointed by the House, to act in conjunction with a like committee to be appointed by the Council, to inquire into the expediency of the two Houses adjourning until after harvest.” The resolution was adopted, adjournment was had on the 28th and the two Houses re-convened August 20. It is presumed that in the meantime the crops had been safely harvested.

The journal for the session of the Legislative Committee, held on May 9, 1843, recites that “the House adjourned by uniting in prayer” — a precedent that should by all means be followed in these later days, in many cases, accompanied by fasting, assuming always, of course, that the efficacy of prayer is no longer a doubtful proposition.

On June 30, 1845, Mr. Gray presented a communication from Rev. H. Clark, “resigning his position as chaplain of the House,” and on the following day Mr. Garrison reported that “your committee appointed to secure a chaplain have been unable to find any person to perform the duties of that office.”

The appropriation bill for the year 1845 amounted to $1,035, — $500 of it going to the payment of the members, $40 to the clerk of the House and $20 to the engrossing clerk. Incidentally, it may be remarked the sums expended for clerk hire during the recent sessions of the Oregon Legislature have, in the main, somewhat exceeded this amount.

The annual session of the Legislative Committee met at the house of J. E. Long, in Oregon City, December 16, 1844, when the territorial treasurer reported the following state of finances: “Received from the collector of taxes, $3,313.31; for license, two ferries, $40; one fine, $5. Total receipts, $3,358.31. Expended for stationery, $20.38; Judge Babcock’s salary, $60; services of secretary in House, $20. Total, $115.38.”

Marion County, the home of Salem, the State capital, was called Champoeg County until the territorial Legislature changed it to Marion by a special act September 3, 1849. On August 28, the same year, it was resolved that “the county seat of Champoeg County be, and the name is, hereby located at the town of Salem, in said county.” In the early records, the word is spelled “Champoeg,” “Champoore,” and “Champooick.”

It is a matter to be regretted that the name of that county was ever changed. It is an Indian name and fully as euphonious as Multnomah, Clatsop, Clackamas or Tillamook, and should have been preserved with them as a link perpetually binding the State and its landmarks with the early efforts and associations of our fathers. Of course, the word has a permanent place in Oregon history, not only by reason of the location where the first organization for a local government was held, but because the little town of Champoeg will grow with the expansion of the State’s population and will be with us always.

The spelling of the word has since settled down to plain “Champoeg,” but the different ways of pronouncing and printing it in the early days may be easily accounted for. The fact is, the proper spelling of an Indian word can never be determined, for the reason that it belongs to a language that is spoken only. To attempt to express such a word in the letters of the English language that must be caught by the ear is futile. A “buck’ Indian with his blankets drawn about him, the upper rim held on a level with his mouth, expressing his thoughts in guttural sounds, is not an inspiration — or would not be — to the short-hand reporter who wanted to make an accurate transcript of the orator’s deliverance.

On the Pacific Coast, there are thousands of Indian words which have been Americanized by their permanent adoption as the names of places, but their spelling has been settled by common usage only. Indeed, language that has no written expression is but a degree superior in its intelligence to that of animals, and an) extended discussion of the question is wholly profitless

By way of a slight digression, it may be here remarked that the gibberish employed by many of our most noted actors and singers is little more intelligible than the grunts and “huh” of the blanketed Indians. Much complaint is heard of the small audiences which, in the United States, usually greet operatic companies that “perform” in foreign languages, rendering beautiful and famous compositions in German, French and Italian, when the average man has a very natural desire to understand the accompanying words and to get at least some idea of the meaning of the production. In order to appreciate intelligently the effort of the artist, it is necessary that an audience should have some inkling as to whether the emotion portrayed by the singer is the result of unrequited love, the death of a near relative, or, mayhap, the excessive demonstration of joy over a wedding, prospective or otherwise.

But all this is left to mere conjecture when the words employed are Greek to the listeners, who are wondering why it was not all avoided in the first place, since it has caused so much difficulty and misunderstanding. It leaves the astonished auditor to speculate as to whether the singer is controlled by fear, joy or rage, and obliges those of the assemblage who are Americans to watch their neighbors of foreign extraction to get the cue before they can summon the proper emotion for the occasion.

But while this is true, did you ever consider that we are practically in the same dilemma when we attend church and attempt to follow the choir in the rendition of the words accompanying the songs? As a rule, not one word in a dozen can be distinguished, and as to “following” the sentiment which it is assumed they are conveying, it is out of the question. We do not mean to say that the singing by our church choirs is not highly appreciated, for, with due deference to the productions of our able and eloquent pastors, the singing is one of the very best features of the average church service, but it leaves much to the imagination — except of course, the splendid harmonies, the rich crescendoes and diminuendoes, the high C’s and pretty hats, which happily do not succeed in fully eclipsing the faces of the female singers, beautiful and otherwise. But as for the song itself, it might as well be rendered in Italian, since the congregation must rely altogether upon the trusted singers to execute that only which it is proper for churchgoers to hear.

The truth is that we accept many things in this life on faith, after all. The frenzied actor who, rushing out on the stage, pours forth a torrent of incoherent words at the rate of seven hundred a minute, simply stupefies his audience; and the situation is not a whit relieved by the assurance that he is raving in English for a fit thrown in French would probably be more appropriate, and certainly as intelligible.

This tendency toward the use of gibberish, with the assumption that it fully gratifies the desires of an expectant public, is apparently one of the settled features of our civilization. The brakeman pokes his head into the rear door of his car and shouts to the passengers that the next station will be “Scat-Zip,” and the average person has no more idea what the next station will really be than if the said brakeman were an Alaskan totem pole. And an interesting phase of the brakeman’s stunt is that he appears to be satisfied that he has performed a duty imposed upon him by his superiors, and the question whether or not the passengers have received any information seems to be a side issue wholly unworthy of consideration.

So it does not matter so much, after all, whether we sing in German, French or Italian, or whether we understand it at all, or spell it Champoeg or Champooick since most of the things done and attempted in this life leave us with a guess coming anyway.


Next Chapter - General Joseph Lane became the first Governor of the new Territory of Oregon by Presidential appointment in 1848.


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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