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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



One morning in the spring of 1859, when our home was in Silverton, twelve miles east of Salem, as I was playing in a thicket of hazel bushes back of the barn in company with the Wolfard children — we were trying to locate the nest of some wrens which were flying about and filling the air with their musical chattering — we heard a cannon booming in the direction of Salem. Perhaps I should have said the cannon for I have understood since that there was but one in Salem at that time. At once I ran into the house and in an excited manner inquired of my mother why the cannon was being fired, for at other times we had heard it at Salem and had learned that it always meant the happening of some event out of the ordinary.

My mother replied that Oregon had been admitted to the Union, and that hereafter it would not be a territory but a state. As I remember it now, I understood what the difference was, in a vague sort of way, having been studying the matter in my geography lessons, but I do not recall that I had any knowledge of the effort to effect the change. I remember very well, however, that immediately I asked my mother what the new name of the Territory would be — seeming to have the notion that the transition of a territory into a state had something of a nature of a matrimonial affair, in which the bride comes through with an entirely new name. And I also recall distinctly the feeling of disappointment I felt when I was told that its name would not be changed at all. I resumed my quest for the nest of the elusive wrens in a decidedly despondent frame of mind — of temporary duration, however — over the evidence I had had that the birth of a state was an event without significance and entirely void of interest.

The Constitutional Convention had met in Salem on August 17, 1857, in accordance with the provisions of an act of the territorial Legislature, passed on the twelfth day of the preceding December, authorizing a convention to be held. It was a body of remarkable men — all in their intellectual and physical prime, full of laudable purposes and the determination to accomplish them. When the Convention was called to order, A. L. Lovejoy, one of the founders of Portland, was elected temporary president, on motion of Mathew P. Deady, who himself was afterwards made the permanent president.

Mr. Deady was afterwards appointed United States District Judge for the State of Oregon and for twenty years occupied that exalted and responsible position — until his death, indeed — acquiring a reputation for a profound knowledge of the law and distinguished by the upright discharge of the onerous duties resting upon him.

The next motion was made by Lafayette Grover for the choice of a secretary. Mr. Grover’s career, notable because of the many high positions he afterward held in the new State, has already been noticed in these pages.

The third motion was made by Hon. Reuben P. Boise, providing for the appointment of a credentials committee. Mr. Boise lived to be ninety years of age, serving the people of Oregon almost continuously for fifty years in either the Circuit or Supreme Court, and only retired when he was past eighty-five years of age, full of honors and bearing the esteem of all our people.

The fourth motion was made by Hon. George R. Williams, referring to the allotment of seats. Judge Williams afterwards served the people in the United States Senate, and for four years afterwards was Attorney General of the United States in the Cabinet of President Grant. He lived to be eighty-seven years of age and passed away in 1910. During the last twenty years of his life, he was universally known as “Oregon’s grand old man.”

The fifth motion was made by Hon. James K. Kelly, a lawyer of great learning, who afterward served a term in the United States Senate and lived to a ripe old age. He was at one time a member of the State Senate, declined an appointment as United States District Attorney, offered him by Attorney General Jeremiah S. Black, and was afterward Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court.

These five motions having been made and disposed of by the Convention, that body adjourned until the following morning. It was an official gathering of sixty men whose pioneer methods were in evidence at all stages of their proceedings. It was soon resolved that the daily sessions should begin at eight o’clock in the morning, and this resolution was carried out to the letter.

Before the first week had elapsed, the question of reporting the proceedings of the Convention came up for consideration. The expense of it was a stumbling-block, for, be it remembered, it was but ten years previous that the territorial Legislature had refused to appropriate money for the purpose of building a jail, for the reason that the “state of the finances would not permit it.”

A committee was appointed to confer with a competent reporter as to the expense of such work, which, by Hon. Delazon Smith, chairman, reported as follows:

Mr. Pearne proposed to your committee that he would report speeches and other proceedings of this body one-third of the time of its sittings for the period of thirty days for the sum of three hundred dollars. To the application of your committee, Mr. Malone returned the following answer in writing: Both Mr. Pearne and Mr. Malone, if employed by the Convention to report its proceedings, expect and agree to look for their compensation to the sources specified in the resolution under which your committee was appointed.

This report was adopted, when David Logan, afterward three times the Republican candidate for Congress, but on each occasion defeated by a very small margin, offered this substitute:

Resolved, That it is inexpedient to have the proceedings of this Convention reported at the expense of either the Territory or the State.

Resolved, That a committee of three be appointed to employ competent persons to report the proceedings and debates of this Convention;

Provided , Said reporters shall receive no compensation except such as may be paid by the Federal Government or by the individual members of the Convention;

And provided further , That in case such expense is paid by the members of the Convention, each member shall pay in proportion to the amount or bulk reported for him, to be estimated by the reporter and approved by the Convention.

Mr. Smith then withdrew his motion and Mr. Logan his proposed substitute; but it should be said of this last proposition by Mr. Logan that, if adopted and enforced in some Oregon Legislatures I have known, many members would have emerged from their experience hopelessly bankrupt — no matter what the condition of their personal exchequers.

How the question was settled is not given in the proceedings. It has always been a matter of deep regret that the debates in that distinguished body were not reported, if not in full, at least in some measure, for in after years matters of far-reaching importance have been the source of disturbing differences between the people and of vexation in the courts because of the lack of any definite information as to the intention of the framers of the Constitution concerning them.

For instance, the question of salaries of State officers has caused discussion, since the Constitution plainly says that the Governor “shall have a salary of one thousand five hundred dollars per annum”; but for the past twenty years that officer has been allowed more than twice that sum by indirection, the method pursued being to allow him additional amounts for his services as a member of different boards, whose duties are plainly a part of his constitutional obligations as the chief executive officer of the State.

Most of the other State officers, including the members of the Supreme Court, were subject to this provision, but the amount was so glaringly insufficient that an easy construction of the clause has been to the effect that it meant the Governor should have at least one thousand five hundred dollars a year. He should have that much, said the Constitution and, by inference, as much more as the Legislature might see proper to allow.

Recently, however, the entire matter of salaries has been adjusted by the enactment of a “Flat Salary Law,” by the terms of which the question has finally been placed beyond the pale of cavil.

Taken as a whole, however, the Constitution formed by the Fathers of Oregon in 1857 has stood the test well. There has never been a constitutional convention held since, and it was not amended in any particular for more than forty years, though several attempts to do so were made. Until recent years, the people have shown a sort of reverence for the old instrument that in some instances has been quite remarkable. Even today, it contains a clause which prohibits free negroes living in the State, and this requirement was so palpably absurd since the Civil War amendments to the Federal Constitution were adopted, that a proposition was made about ten years ago to rescind this survival of the days of slavery; but the people refused by an overwhelming majority to abolish the free negro clause. It stands today, notwithstanding the broad scope of the “Oregon System” in the matter of “doing things” to the Constitution of the State.

The only record of the proceedings of the Oregon Constitutional Convention in existence, or which was every made, consists of a small pamphlet of one hundred pages, containing but a bare recital of the motions made and their purport. The opinions of the men who were its framers are seldom given, even in brief. It is recorded, however, that when the Convention tried for several days, without success, to settle satisfactorily the matter of salaries, Mr. Watkins, of Josephine County, offered this resolution:

Resolved, That in the opinion of this Convention, twelve dollars and fifty cents is an ample salary for the Governor, provided that after the good old schoolmaster fashion, he boards around, and that the committee of the whole be instructed so to report.

But the effort of Mr. Watkins in the interest of public economy was defeated and the question was submitted for further consideration.

The Convention adjourned sine die on the afternoon of September 18, having been in session just thirty days. The delegates constituted a body of especially able and level-headed men, many of them lacking education, but endowed with a remarkable sense of justice and moved by a sincere desire to give their posterity an organic law which should successfully stand whatever strain might be put upon it in years to come.

After the lapse of nearly fifty-four years, as these lines are written — May 31, 1911 — William H. Packwood, a member of that body from Curry County, now a resident of Baker City, alone survives.


Next Chapter - Daniel Waldo, a member of the Oregon Provisional Legislature, was one of the original settlers in the Salem area.


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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