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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 of the very pleasant experiences of my life in eastern Oregon was a trip to the Wallowa valley and to the wonderfully beautiful lake of the same name, in August, 1875. That was several years before Wallowa County was created by slicing off the northern half of Union. At that time there were not more than a dozen settlers in all that territory which is now included in Wallowa County, and they had gone there in search of range, it not being considered at that time suitable for any other purpose. The fact is, at the beginning of its settlement it was thought that only those went to Wallowa who cared little for the advantages of civilization and were willing to bid farewell to their friends, if they had any, and embrace the life of a hermit.

But marvelous tales were borne to the Grand Ronde valley of the opportunities it offered for hunting big game-deer, elk and bear – while some of the fish stories told by Sam Van Order and his father, who had made the trip two or three times on packhorses, were accepted as “figments of the imagination,” intended only to excite envy. But samples of the famous red fish, which they said abounded in the lake in almost incredible numbers, were brought out, and since “seeing is believing” they created an irresistible longing on the part of many of us to hie ourselves away to the land which produced such wonders.

Accordingly, a party consisting of S. G. French, O. P. Jaycox, Robert Eakin, Dr. J. W. Givens, Girard Cochran, Alex Cochran, Lee Vincent and myself, with Mrs. James Hendershott and Misses Allie Cochran, Ella Cochran, Josie Cochran and Nellie Condon – thirteen in number – left the Cove on the morning of August 16, 1871, bent on a two weeks’ outing, the objective point being Wallowa Lake.

In the wagon we placed an old skiff – where it was obtained I never knew – and in this, as well as around it, was piled all the paraphernalia needed in a camping outfit for such a crowd. Six of the party took riding horses, and these were used, in turn, by all of us. The second day, at noon, we reached the Wallowa River at its junction with the Minem, where a toll bridge had just been completed by A. C. Smith, of the Cove. The second night we camped in the lower end of what is known as the “lower” Wallowa valley in a meadow owned by Mr. Bramlette, the first settler in that whole region. His hay had been cut and was in the cock – that is, it was in the latter condition when we arrived, but the next morning, alas, as we broke camp and drove away, about an acre of his meadow looked as though a cyclone had passed that way. We learned afterwards that the Wallowa valley is subject to violent winds and that haying time is no exception.

The third day we reached the lower end of Wallowa Lake and made our camp among a grove of magnificent cottonwoods. The location is not surpassed for beauty anywhere in the United States. Although thousands of our people go abroad each year and spend millions of dollars in their quest for the scenic wonders of the world, the results are dwarfed in comparison with the lavish displays of Nature throughout the great Northwest.

In approaching Wallowa Lake, one gets no hint that such a body of water, or indeed any body of water, is within a thousand miles until the road reaches the summit of a small ridge, not a hundred yards from the edge of this little inland gem. It is four miles in length and one mile wide, surrounded on three sides by heavily timbered mountains and modest foothills, which at that time were covered with a magnificent growth of eastern Oregon’s famous bunch grass. The lake is fed by a dozen small streams which rush from the adjacent mountains in the greatest apparent glee in the enjoyment of their new-found liberty, only to be lost in the calm waters of the lake, whose depth in some places is known to be eight hundred feet.

The only outlet of this surpassingly beautiful body of water is at its extreme northwestern side and is known as the Wallowa River, which flows with great rapidity, but with gradual fall, through the entire length of the Wallowa valley, thirty miles in distance, only at that point to plunge into a narrow canyon, which it follows for ten miles. It then receives the waters of the Minem, which heads in the mountains immediately back of the Cove. Some ten miles below this junction the Wallowa is received into the Grand Ronde.

Our camp was located near the point where the river leaves the lake, or, rather, where the river is formed. As the tents were pitched and everything arranged by four o’clock in the afternoon, Mr. French and Girard Cochran insisted that we should launch our skiff and proceed to the upper end of the lake, four miles away, and ascertain the particular percentage of truth there might be in the fish stories we had heard. The boat was, of course, a leaky tub, but we waited until the absorption of water by the dry boards had expanded the timber and reduced the cracks to their minimum size, and reached our destination without any mishap; but it required the ceaseless activity of Girard, bailing out the water with a milk pan as fast as it ran in, to keep us afloat.

Such astonishing results rewarded our efforts that from that day I have believed every fish story that has been told me. As we had no way to fasten the boat when we arrived, I proposed to sit in it to prevent its drifting away while my two companions started on a tour of investigation. None of the streams which feed the lake is deeper than one foot in August, and at that time of the day the fish were all in these streams. We had been told that no tackle was needed to catch them but only a club – that they were so thick in the water one could almost pick them up by wading in where it was little more than shoe-mouth deep. As my companions approached the bank of the stream, after landing, I saw them jump into the water and begin striking right and left. I had told them that I would not get my feet wet for all the fish we might catch, and this was my real reason for remaining in the boat.

But after two or three plunges one of the men made a grab under the water and threw upon the bank a speckled beauty at least twenty inches in length and as red as a well-matured beet. The next thing I knew – the next thing anybody knew – I was “in the midst” of my two companions, striking at the red fish with an oar which I had unconsciously taken as a weapon. After landing two or three in as many minutes, I looked for my associate anglers, only to see them sitting on the bank roaring with laughter as they recalled my insistence upon being permitted to sit in the boat while they waded into the water. They soon recovered sufficiently, however, to call my attention to the boat, which was slowly drifting away, and I was compelled to rush into the water nearly shoulder deep in order to rescue our craft.

The real truth is that at that time it is likely no body of water in the world of its size had such a large supply of fish of equal quality as had Wallowa Lake. The red fish has never been seen anywhere else and has for several years been entirely extinct. Its average length was about eighteen inches and it had the general appearance and flavor of the famous Chinook salmon of the Columbia River. This lake had been the favorite fishing resort for the Nez Perce Indians from time immemorial, and it was to retain possession of it and the valley surrounding it, that Chief Joseph made his stand against the white settlers in 1878.

The following days were spent in the enjoyment of the unequaled facilities which the place afforded for a happy camp life-hunting, fishing, boat-riding, reading, story-telling, attempts at singing, cooking and exploring the surrounding country. It was a most delightful week.

The second day after making our camp the entire party went to the head of the lake, some by water, the others taking the horses. There was a fair Indian trail around the eastern side, generally maintaining a grade some twenty feet above the edge of the water. When a half-mile away from the upper end of the lake, the surface of the water for several hundred feet from the mouths of the small supplying creeks toward the deeper water gave out a well-defined reddish cast, so many tens of thousands of these fish were there, swaying in schools, evidently feeding upon the deposits coming from the mountains. Of course this sounds incredible, but considering the nature of the story and the subject with which it deals I trust it will be accepted as the unvarnished truth – which it is.

The wonderful abundance of the fish and the ease with which they could be caught naturally suggested taking home with us a supply large enough, at least to corroborate our stories.

But, having been skeptics ourselves before making this trip, we had disregarded the advice of those who had been there ahead of us to provide barrels for packing, so we were at a loss how to proceed. A detachment of our party finally visited the home of a settler a few miles away and succeeded in securing two sugar barrels, which, as is generally known, are not made either for durability or for holding liquids.

But they were barrels, and with these and a small quantity of salt the entire party went to the head of the lake again, on the day before we intended to start home, on our last fishing trip. This was the process of catching them: Since all the small streams were filled with the desired game – if fish may be called game – two men would enter the water at a given point; two others were stationed fifty feet away, armed with sticks large enough to stun a fish, and as they approached each other the battle would rage fast and furiously, the net result usually being at least a dozen victims within five minutes, or even less time. We had with us a long-handled pitchfork, and as fast as the men would throw the fish ashore, two others would string them on this fork handle by running the end through one of their gills – pushing them close together until there were at least a dozen, leaving six inches of space at the end of the handle to rest on a man’s shoulder. With the fork itself on the shoulder of the other man, the two would carry the load to the temporary camp under some cottonwood trees fifty yards away. When the end of the handle was dropped to the ground the fish would slip off in a second – and in a huge pile – presenting a beautiful prospect for the women folks, who, assisted by a man or two, were dressing and packing the fruits of the exciting raids.

Within less than two hours we had both barrels filled to the brim. We were only sorry we had not more, for the sport, while seemingly somewhat brutal, nevertheless was such as one would never find elsewhere; and as far as we knew then the results could not be accomplished by any other means. Besides, as there were many dead fish here and there along the banks we decided that we were only anticipating the ordinary course of Nature anyway. In fact, many of those we caught were in the condition of a spawning salmon and were discarded.

However, on one of the creeks we discovered a method of catching these fish which had been employed by some one who had preceded us, perhaps by some Indians. Where the stream had been inclined to spread out over a rocky bar this inclination had been encouraged by the construction of a dam made by placing small logs cross-wise of the current, the water being less than a foot deep, thus forcing it around the light obstruction and into the small boulders, which under the circumstances remained mostly uncovered. In other words, the stream was made so wide that there was not sufficient water in anyone place to cover a red fish. With the creek so arranged, a couple of men would go fifty yards above this contrivance had cut off a lot of fish which had reached the stream by means of another, which separated from it above and took its own course to the lake. With the fish thus frightened, they would dash down the stream with lightning rapidity and, coming to this shallow water where it disappeared among the round and well-washed boulders, would “scoot” out on the shore, where all the angler had to do was to stoop over and pick them up.

Just to try our hands at this sort of fishing, we scared two “herds” of fish down onto this rocky bar and secured a dozen each time, putting them back in the water, however, to prevent needless waste of life.

The next day after this interesting and exciting episode we broke camp and started for home, the entire trip being declared by unanimous vote a gratifying success from every point of view. We left the old skiff in the lake, and since it was longer than the wagon bed, – I mean the boat, not the lake – we had taken no “end gate” with us. When we started home, after loading our other goods and chattels, we placed the two barrels of fish, each weighing nearly a hundred pounds, in the extreme back of the wagon bed and secured them by tying a piece of baling rope across from side to side. We were somewhat afraid of this improvised “end gate,” but as there was nothing else available we trusted to luck.

It has already been observed that at the time there were no roads in that section and the team was traveling across country, taking the general course of the compass for a guide. Robert Eakin and I were following the wagon on horseback at a distance of fifty yards, and had proceeded about six miles when, just as we were discussing the durability of that baling rope substitute, we saw both barrels fall to the ground as the wagon was crossing a shallow gulch. We at once hurried forward and the sight that met our gaze was one never to be forgotten. Those sugar barrels, with their slight hoops, had collapsed completely, and every vestige of them was buried beneath what appeared to be a ton of fish. Being exceedingly slippery, the contents of the barrels had spread over at least a square rod of ground – and were still spreading. By vigorous shouting we managed to call those back who were ahead, and with the entire crowd assembled around the crimson-colored mass there was a full half-hour spent in roars of unceasing laughter. We tried to save a few of the fish to take home, but each time we picked one up, the disturbed pile would extend its boundaries in every direction until, when we finally resumed our journey, it covered the greater part of a half-acre of virgin prairie. This happened about where the town of Enterprise, the county seat of Wallowa County, stands to-day. We arrived at the Cove with about a dozen fish, which we presented to our friends as the strongest kind of evidence – having no brine and it being August – that we had actually been to the famous fishing grounds at Wallowa Lake.

I have felt some hesitation in relating this fishing experience in Wallowa County in the early days, since for some reason any description one may give in connection with this sort of pleasure is usually accepted as a product of the imagination, though, also, one is usually easily forgiven for his departure from the truth while telling a fish story. And, speaking of fishing experiences, I am reminded of a story related once upon a time by Justice Frank A. Moore, of the Oregon Supreme Court, to a small crowd of us in the corridor of the State Capitol. I am not certain whether he said he knew the man or not, but at any rate this was the story:

“An old fellow,” said Judge Moore, “of a kindly disposition and with plenty of both money and time on his hands, came into possession of a beautiful live trout about a foot long, and while admiring it happened to recall that he had never heard of anybody trying to teach a fish tricks of any kind. He decided, therefore, that he would experiment with this unusually attractive and lively specimen.

“So he prepared a small vessel about a foot high and two feet across the top. This he filled with water and put his fish in it. It would swim around and around and the man would stand by and talk to it in a reassuring manner. It did not appear especially wild, and within three or four days it became quite gentle and would stick its head out of the water for food which he held in his hand.

“One day, while circling around the tub at a great rate, he gave an extra flop and fell out on the floor. The man, frightened, hurriedly picked him up and replaced him in the water. Discovering that he could escape in this manner, he did it again within a few minutes. This antic was repeated several times, until the man concluded he would leave him out of the water long enough for him to appreciate the necessity of being in it.

“To his surprise, however, the fish seemed rather to like his new surroundings and his natural disposition to wriggle soon taught him how to make progress across the floor, much as a snake would. At this demonstration of the apparent success of his experiment the man rejoiced. He was making a valuable discovery. In a few days the fish could get around the house with great ease, and as the doorstep was but little above the ground he soon learned to get out in the grass and took great pleasure in wriggling around through it while catching worms and bugs.

“One day, while he was thus enjoying his new sort of life, the man saw a cow come into his garden, which was just beyond a small stream that ran through the yard in front of the house. Hurrying across a footlog which spanned the creek, he was in the act of picking up a stone to throw at the cow when, to his surprise, he saw the fish following him, wriggling along the log. Fearful lest he should lose his pet, he rushed back to the log, ‘but,’ said the owner of the piscatorial freak, in telling of the strange incident, ‘do you know that before I could reach him, he had fallen into the water, and, before I could rescue him, I’ll be d–––ed if that fish didn’t drown before my very eyes! Why, I wouldn’t have taken a thousand dollars for the derned cuss.’“

Notwithstanding all that has been ascertained as to the habits of fish by scientific investigation, it is plain that much is yet to be learned about them – as well as about the men who say they catch them!

Of the thirteen persons making that trip to the Wallowa country thirty-five years ago, all are living to-day with the exception of S. G. French and Girard Cochran. The girls have all married. Mrs. Hendershott is now past eighty years of age and in good health; Eakin is on the Supreme Bench of the State; Dr. Givens has for fifteen years been superintendent of the Idaho Insane Asylum; Jaycox is a prominent merchant in Walla Walla; Alex Cochran is a blacksmith in Union; Vincent, I have heard, is in the Philippines, and this writer is engaged in the pleasant pastime of telling how it all happened.


Next Chapter - T. T. Geer continues to grow up in Forest Cove.


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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