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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



My parents were married at the home of my mother on Howell’s prairie, seven miles east of Salem, on October 14, 1848. My father was one month past twenty years of age and my mother lacked a month of being fifteen. But the reader should not be too free in his denunciation of such a proceeding, for, really, my mother was getting along in years — approaching the period of old maidhood, in fact — when compared with many of the girls who married in Oregon in those days.

It was not unusual for a girl to enter the married state at the age of twelve, and I recall one instance where the parents of a girl of ten years consented to her marriage to a man ten years her senior (!) and the ceremony was duly celebrated. Congress had passed the Donation Land Act in September, 1850, by the terms of which every man and his wife were permitted to “take up” a mile square of land — six hundred and forty acres — and it was this incentive which induced so many youthful marriages. In the case to which I have referred, an agreement was made by the groom to permit the wife to remain with her parents until she had arrived at the age of womanhood, say twelve years; but the fact was he took her home with him within a year after the marriage — and “they lived together happily ever afterward.” Indeed, many of their children were my schoolmates in after years..

Immediately after their marriage, my parents settled on a claim just across the Willamette River from Champoeg, where my father worked much of the time during the next two years at cutting logs and rafting them down the river to Oregon City. When the Donation Land Act was passed, however, he decided to take advantage of it. He at once went to the Waldo Hills, in Marion County, and located a claim two miles southeast of the homestead of Daniel Waldo, the first settler anywhere in that section, after whom that famous part of Oregon was named.

Here my father proceeded to build a small house, in which, four months afterward, my eyes first saw the light of day. Not in any region of the United States is there a more beautiful country than the Waldo Hills. Diversified with rolling, scattering groves of oak, ash, fir and other timber, with abundant streams of running water for every farm, fertile soil adapted to the production of nearly every article of food known to this zone, with the Cascade Mountains on the east and the Coast Range on the west forming the horizon in either direction, and the great peaks, Hood, Rainier, Adams and Jefferson always in view, “The Hills” never fail to charm the visitor and furnish a picture enchanting to those fortunate enough to reside there.

This is a good time and place to say a few words about Daniel Waldo, one of the best known of the very early Oregon pioneers, and a man of great force of character. He was born in Indiana, but when barely of age, moved down to Missouri, where he engaged in the sawmill business for a few years. There he married and soon afterward went to southwestern Missouri, to what was popularly known as the “Platte Purchase,’ where he engaged in stock raising and general farming.

He had left Indiana on account of the prevalence of the fever and ague, but he discovered, after acquiring a splendid tract of two thousand four hundred acres in the Platte Purchase, that the dread scourge flourished in that section with an effect equally deadly. After suffering from the debilitating ravages of this most relentless enemy of humankind, the winter of 1842 arrived, bringing with it an active discussion of the opportunities offered in far-away Oregon for rich lands and a more salubrious climate. The advisability of going to Oregon in the spring had been considered by the family and the decision made to join the company which was about to form for the great westward journey.

One day in January, 1843, Mr. Waldo, upon his return from the little store where the neighbors were accustomed to congregate occasionally, announced to his wife that he had about decided to abandon his intention of going to Oregon — that they had been discussing the matter at the store — that there were no roads out that way, no bridges, on which to cross the rivers, hostile Indians were on every hand, ready to murder them — in short, most of the boys had about decided to postpone the trip for a few years, at least, until the prospects were more encouraging, etc.

To all of this, Mrs. Waldo listened without offering any interruption, the while washing the supper dishes. When he had finished, and assumed that he had dismissed the case, his wife poured out the dishwater, and while she dried the pan with a cloth, using more speed and vigor than usual, she said:

“Well, Dan Waldo, if you want to stay here another summer and shake your liver out with the fever and ague, you can do it; but, in the spring, I am going to take the children and go to Oregon, Indians or no Indians. They can’t be any worse than the chills and fever!”

The result was that the matter of going to Oregon was “compromised” between husband and wife and the trip was pulled off according to schedule.

In the company of the Applegates, who were their neighbors in Missouri, the Waldos made the trip to the Willamette valley in the summer of 1843, being members of the first train that ever brought wagons across the Cascade Mountains. Upon his arrival, Mr. Waldo at once proceeded to the Mission below Salem, for in those days there was no other place to go. He had brought with him about one hundred head of cows — a fortune in itself at that time — and was in search of grazing and farming lands.

The Mission was on a river bottom, a location which suggested fever, chills and quinine to Mrs. Waldo, and, not understanding that the ague is not known in Oregon in any altitude, the thought of locating there was rejected at once. But it was a large country, with almost the earth to choose from. The next morning after his arrival Waldo, seeing through the smoky atmosphere a low range of hills off to the eastward, after his breakfast mounted a horse and rode in that direction. For the first three miles, he traveled over a level prairie, but after that he rode into the foothills, where a land which suggested the “flowing of milk and honey” was spread out before him. He rode on until, by a singular coincidence, near where the town of Aumsville now stands, he found a man named Burroughs whom he had known in Missouri, living in a tent and trapping beaver. After a little talk, Burroughs told Waldo that a few miles to the north there was a location in the midst of a natural amphitheatre, with a spring of water coming to the surface at the root of a huge fir tree, with mighty oaks near by, and thousands of acres of rolling land stretching in every direction, covered everywhere with native grass, knee high. And to this they went, Waldo de­ciding at once that it was the very place for which he had been searching since he was a boy.

In the summer of 1844, Mr. Waldo built the log house which served as his home until 1853, when he built the substantial frame structure which is a well-preserved farmhouse today. This log house, however, still stands just as it was built sixty-seven years ago. Not long since I stood within its sacred walls and, with uncovered head, listened in imagination to the voices of the past. Around the hospitable fireplace — of which the generous aperture in the logs still remains as a mute reminder — Smith and Applegate, Minto and Burnett, and scores of others had often gathered for the discussion of the problems of an incipient civil government.

Like many another pioneer of the early 1840s, the old log house is settling to the earth; but with the true loyalty of a native son, Judge John B. Waldo several years ago placed under its eaves strong fir posts, eight inches in diameter, so that after two generations of faithful duty the venerable fir logs, taken from the forest sixty-seven years ago, are literally going on crutches, supported by a younger generation of their own kind.

Standing on the dirt floor, leaning wearily against one of the walls, is the old front door, which has not seen active duty for over fifty-eight years, but whose latchstring was always found hanging on the outside. The nails used in its construction were hand-made, and their huge, battered heads still bear the marks of the son of Vulcan who forged them. He fully earned his wages, no matter what his charge.

The old house, protected from the winter storms by a separate roof and sides, is now used for an implement shed. When I was there last, lying on the ground at the feet, so to speak, of the latest improved twine-binder, was an old wooden-axle wagon-hub, with broken spokes of different lengths projecting in every direction, which had rolled its weary way, two thousand miles, from Missouri to Oregon, in 1843. There it rests, with its “lynch-pin” attachment, a helpless, discarded outcast, jeered at by a gorgeous array of steel binders, rotary pulverizers and gang-plows — an eloquent reminder to the younger generation of the world’s rapid progress.

In the summer of 1845, a log schoolhouse was built near the Waldo home and school was taught in it during the following winter by a man named Vernon, who soon afterward went to California and was never heard of in Oregon again. This was probably the first public school ever taught in Oregon and was composed chiefly of the children of Daniel Waldo and William Taylor.

Even in those early days, the customs of civilization were becoming well established in the young community. A man whose sons are today well-known citizens of Marion County lodged a complaint against a neighbor, charging him with acquiring possession of a mutton, yet alive, without the knowledge or consent of its rightful owner. The case was tried before Dan Waldo. who was by common consent, the acting squire for the neighborhood, his jurisdiction extending from the Pacific Ocean to the Rocky Mountains — and then some, if desired — and the opposing attorneys were James W. Nesmith and Peter H. Burnett. My informant was a boy then, but he remembers seeing the jury retire behind the house, in the absence of a room in which to assemble, and, while seated on some logs by the woodpile, each whittled a formidable heap of shavings while the merits of the case were discussed according to “the law and the evidence.”

Dan Waldo was a member of the last Legislative Committee which met before the organization of the provisional government. It held its sessions “at the house of Mr. Hathaway,” in Oregon City, in June, and again in December, 1844. Among his seven colleagues were numbered Peter H. Burnett, M. M. McCarver, A. L. Lovejoy and Robert Newell — all men of sterling character, in whose integrity no man failed to place the fullest confidence, and fitted by nature as well as by experience to accomplish great things.

Mr. Waldo at an early day engaged in many branches of business which had for their object not only his own financial gain, but the development of the country. Chief among them was the Willamette Woolen Mills Company which, established at Salem in 1857, was the first business of its kind in the Northwest. The last few years of his life were spent in Salem, where he died about 1880, after a painful and lingering illness. He lives in the memory of Oregonians as one of the best and most enterprising of her early pioneers a splendid type of the frontiersman. His youngest son, John B. Waldo, served one term of six years as a member of the Oregon Supreme Court and two years as its Chief Justice. Another son, William, still lives in Salem, a bachelor, is eighty years of age and has served the people as president of the State Senate and as Judge of Marion County. He was a boy of twelve years when his father crossed the plains, and well remembers that when the family started with their teams and cattle from the Old Mission to the Hills on that October morning in 1843, the little prairie now known as Willson Avenue, extending from the magnificent Marion County courthouse to the State Capitol, was a field of oats, yet uncut, while its owner, L. H. Judson, whose house stood where Reed’s Opera House was afterward built, was “tramping” out wheat with cattle in a pen made for that purpose.

The Waldo wagon was the first that ever “rolled a wheel” anywhere in Oregon east of Salem, and one of the first that ever came to the Willamette valley. The Waldo homestead, consisting of a thousand acres, is now the property of the daughter and only child of Judge John B. Waldo, whose death occurred three years ago. With the passing of William, the family name will become extinct in Oregon, save as it is imperishably linked with the beautiful chain of hills in whose bosom Daniel Waldo settled when his nearest neighbor was eight miles distant and there was no public schoolhouse nearer than the Missouri River!


Next Chapter - Childhood memories and T. T. Geer's first trip to Portland.


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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