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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 Republicans carried Oregon in 1896 for McKinley by a majority slightly above two thousand and had elected a Republican Legislature in June of that year. This body was to choose a successor to John H. Mitchell in the United States Senate and at the time it was chosen it was deemed safely in favor of his re-election, but his decision to support McKinley and, tacitly at least, to desert the cause of free silver, cost him the support of a large number of his former friends. The leader of this defection was Jonathan Bourne, at present a United State Senator from Oregon, who openly supported Bryan for President; though claiming to be “as good a Republican as anybody.”

The fact was that at the time of his nomination there “as an understanding that in return for his support of Mitchell for re-election, if he should be successful at the polls, Mitchell would lend his aid toward Bourne’s election as Speaker of the House. When the time came to “deliver the goods” Mitchell found Bourne was a Bryan man and that it was impossible to carry out his agreement. This, together with his abandonment of the free silver propaganda, was the cause of a decision on the part of some of his former friends to defeat him for re-election at any cost. It was known that if the Legislature should organize, Mitchell’s election was certain to follow; therefore, the desperate alternative to prevent an organization was deliberately planned. The course pursued was to refuse attendance, to prevent a quorum being present at any time. This scheme, revolutionary in its essence, was adopted until the constitutional limit of an Oregon Legislative session had been reached, when the members went home without any kind of legislative business having been transacted. The Senate was organized but was powerless to proceed with its work.

The leading assistant of Jonathan Bourne in this bold expedient for “getting even” was W. S. U’Ren, then a Populist member from Clackamas County, and at present the leading advocate of the single tax proposition in Oregon. Mr. Bourne was a very wealthy man and spent his money freely in his effort to “teach Mitchell a lesson.” He maintained magnificent quarters and entertained lavishly, holding his organization together with a degree of success that marked him a master in the art of political manipulation.

From an impartial standpoint, there was no justification whatever for this move. It was plainly revolutionary; there was no reason offered at any time except the bold decision to prevent the re-election of Senator Mitchell, and the fair man will admit that this was no reason at all. And yet what shall the ultimate verdict be when it is recalled that within nine years from that time Jonathan Bourne was himself elected United States Senator by the Legislature, the people of Oregon having voted in his favor against several other prominent Republicans at the primary nominating election and afterward against one of the most popular Democrats in the State?

In the meantime Mr. Bourne had done nothing in politics to atone in any way for his course, if, indeed, any atonement were necessary, and, in view of his popular endorsement, it seemed not to be required.

The failure to organize the Legislature, and the consequent lack of appropriations with which to carry on the State government, cost the people many thousands of dollars; but, as another illustration of the wayward course of politics, the men who were responsible for it have since been regarded as the especial friends of the people and have been particularly honored by them.

The three men who were chosen McKinley’s electors in 1896 besides myself were Hon. John F. Caples, Hon. E. L. Smith and Hon. S. M. Yoran. They were all good speakers and took a prominent part in the campaign which brought success to our ticket. Having “won out,” I was quite anxious to be chosen messenger to carry the vote to Washington — principally for the reason that I had never been in the National Capital — and I made my aspiration known to my associates soon after the election. Mr. Caples had once before been an elector from Oregon and had been chosen as messenger, so he was willing’ to keep out of the contest. Mr. Yoran, it developed at once, was as desirous to act in that capacity as I was and was an active candidate for the trip.

According to law, we met in the State Capitol on January 11, and, after organizing, cast our votes for McKinley and Hobart for President and Vice President, respectively, of the United States.

Having attended to this little affair, which was of secondary importance, for there seemed a general impression that it would turn out that way even before we met, the more interesting business of choosing a messenger was taken up. Judge Caples was the chairman, and we proceeded to cast our votes by putting in his silk tile three slips of paper, on each of which was the name of one of the three contestants, Smith, Yoran and myself. After giving the hat a thorough shaking the Judge placed his hand within it and took hold of one of the pieces of paper. He hesitated for a moment to take it out, making one of his familiar grimaces, but finally brought it to light, and it bore the name of E. L. Smith.

Then something out of the ordinary happened. Mr. Smith arose and said:

“Mr. Chairman, I would like to make this trip to Washington and have fairly won the opportunity, but my two colleagues want to go so much more than I do, if I may judge by the look of disappointment on their faces, that I will forego the advantage I have gained. I propose that this vote be taken over, in order that one of them may have a chance to win. I would rather there would be one funeral over this matter than two.

Mr. Yoran and I protested against Mr. Smith’s generous offer, but he insisted upon another vote; so, rather than appear rude, we surrendered. After another shakeup, a paper was drawn out and I was the successful contestant. I tried hard to follow Mr. Smith’s example, but some way it didn’t work; besides, after studying Mr. Yoran’s countenance for a moment, I became satisfied that he would survive the disappointment. Subsequent events have justified my conclusion, since he is to-day one of the active business men of Eugene and in the best of health.

On my way to Washington, I stopped off at Canton to pay my respects to Mr. McKinley, arriving there January 23. I found him very busy, of course, and several men waiting for an interview. One of these, a man from Kentucky, was visibly abashed when, his turn having come, McKinley took his hand and said by his expression that he was glad to see him — but what was it?

The pilgrim from the blue-grass section stammered that he was an applicant for an appointment and proceeded to give his reasons for expecting his request to be granted. Mr. McKinley replied in his gracious manner that he could not yet make any promise; that he desired to favor his friends where it was possible without crippling the public service; that he had a special love for Kentuckians, anyway, and that later he would be glad to hear further from his visitor. By this time they were near the door and the man was bowed out, carrying away a very favorable impression of the President-elect, I have no doubt. He probably went home to his neighbors with a story that he had McKinley’s promise for his appointment.

From him the Major came at once to where I was seated and looked at me inquiringly. I arose and said that I had no business, that I did not want any appointment — not then, at least — but that I was the messenger from Oregon bearing to Washington the electoral vote of that State for him.

At this he asked me to sit down, and added: “Now, if you had gone to Washington, passing through Canton, and had not called to see me, an apology would have been in order.” He said he recalled that at the Minneapolis Convention in 1892, of which he was chairman, the Oregon delegation wanted to make him President before he was ready. He then commented upon the fact that Oregon was the only State west of the Rocky Mountains that had given him its electoral vote, all the others being for Bryan except California, which was divided. He was perfectly familiar with the details of the campaign we had waged in Oregon and desired, through me, to thank its people for their support.

After the inauguration of President McKinley on March 4, there was, naturally enough, an active movement among the Oregon Republicans toward the Federal appointments which would follow a change of administration. In fact, this movement began without any unnecessary delay after the result of the November election was known. As I could truthfully claim to have traveled over a greater portion of the State in the ‘96 campaign and to have made more addresses than any other speaker, it was generally conceded that my ambition to be appointed collector of customs at Portland should be gratified. A monster petition to the President for my appointment was secured and forwarded to the delegation in Congress, consisting of Senator Geo. W. McBride and Representatives W. R. Ellis and Thomas H. Tongue. Of all the persons in the State to whom this petition was presented, there was but one man who did not append his signature willingly. Indeed, there was no opposition from any quarter and I felt as sure of receiving the appointment as I was that McKinley had been inaugurated. I was fully aware that there are many slips in politics, but in this case there was no doubt. It was a sure thing!

But when the petition was forwarded it met with no response from the delegation. After waiting a month, I sent a letter of inquiry and was informed that the petition had been received, but that it had not yet been read, since it was the intention of the President to recognize the “gold” Democrats, where possible, and that as the then incumbent of the office of collector of customs was a “gold” Democrat, it was not likely there would be any change in that position in the near future. There was such a coldness, such an air of indifference with regard to the whole matter, that much speculation was aroused among my friends as to what it all meant. Many insisted that there must be some understanding, some obligation on the part of the delegation to dispose of this appointment in some other way, and it was freely predicted that subsequent events would prove it. It may be said at this late day, and without the slightest remnant of bitterness toward anybody, that the days of prophecy have not yet passed altogether.

This question of the appointment of collector of customs assumed great importance and was taken up by my friends all over the State — by them more than by myself. There was such pressure brought to bear upon the hesitating delegation that it was finally announced by them that upon their return to Portland in August the matter would be fully considered. On the twenty-seventh of that month, therefore, I went to Portland and had a conference with them, but the explanations presented seemed to explain nothing. I returned home with the information only that it was evidently the purpose of the President to retain the Democratic incumbent indefinitely, the most discouraging feature of it, however, being that there was no promise that I should receive their endorsement for the position when, in the course of human events, the change would be made.

On September 4, I went to Portland again, to look further into the situation, and learned on the streets, before reaching my hotel, that the delegation had that morning recommended to the President my appointment as register of the United States Land Office at Oregon City — an appointment which no member of it had ever consulted me about and for which I had not been a candidate. This utter disregard of the petition of the Oregon Republicans, more especially since it appeared to justify the general suspicion that there was a prior political trade which interfered with its recognition, created a wave of indignation throughout the State. Within a week I received more than one hundred letters urging me not to accept the Oregon City appointment, if made. These letters were from prominent and influential Republicans in the various counties, all promising me their support for the nomination for Governor or Congress the next year, unless in the meantime their request that I be appointed collector of customs, or a promise of the recommendation of the Congressional delegation, be granted.

My own impulse was to decline the appointment and take my chances with the people for a vindication, since I was occupying a more prominent place in politics than I had hoped for; but, on the other hand, to reject the recommendation was a bold move, which I hesitated to make — and yet no bolder than that which had been “handed to me.”

However, I finally decided, yielding both to my own preference and to the persistent demands of friends in all parts of the State, to notify the delegation that I would not accept the appointment for the Land Office. Accordingly I wrote the following letter to the delegation and sent a copy to the Oregonian, in which it was published the next day:

MACLEAY, OR., September 17, 1897.


Gentlemen, — Regarding your recommendation for my appointment as register of the Oregon City Land Office, I beg leave to say that extended reflection has only served to confirm my first conclusion not to accept the appointment, if made.

There are two controlling reasons which impel me to this decision, the first of which is that I have never been a candidate, in any sense, for the position for which I was recommended, as an examination of my personal letters and petitions in my behalf will surely show; and for the further reason that several months ago I joined in recommending a personal friend for the Oregon City office — a bar to my acceptance which I cannot persuade myself to overlook.

I dislike very much to be considered a “miscellaneous candidate” for any position on the political chessboard that may be parceled out to me by those having the “placing” of the men. I had, and still have, what I regard as a laudable ambition to be collector of customs for this district, but if in your judgment the best interests of the public service and of the Republican party (and, of course, in cases like this we are not influenced by other considerations) demand that this request of myself and friends be denied, then I bow as gracefully as possible to your decision, but must insist upon my privilege of declining to be a candidate for any other appointment.

It goes without saying, gentlemen, that my attachment to the Republican party is supported by undiminished ardor, for, in my judgment, there has been no time in its history when it was more nearly right on all public questions than now; and the years to come will, I’m sure, find us, as heretofore, battling side by side for the success of the principles we love so well.

With kind regards, I am, etc.

This letter, “if it is me as says it,” created a great sensation in Oregon politics and at once changed the trend of affairs in the Republican party of the State. I received hundreds of letters from every section congratulating me upon the stand I had taken and the letter was copied in practically every paper of the State. My decision was very generally commended, though there were a few who predicted that it was a fatal mistake for me politically and that it would prove the end of my connection with Oregon politics. The phrase “miscellaneous candidate” was taken up as being especially “catchy,” and for many months was a popular slogan in the discussion of events and prospects in our rapidly changing political maneuvers.

At once there was a general movement among my friends to secure my nomination for Governor and the proposition appeared to grow in favor as the months went by. My only competitor was Governor Lord himself, whose term was drawing to a close and for whose election I had canvassed the State four years before. His home was in Marion County, as was mine, and he had the county, as well as the Salem city government in his favor; naturally, he had also the support of the different State institutions. The combination made it a very hotly contested primary campaign, for it was understood that if either lost Marion County he would be out of the race.

The result was that I carried every precinct in the county but the one in which Governor Lord lived, though the vote was so close that many of the large ones were carried by my friends by a margin of only two or three votes.

With Governor Lord declining to carry the contest any further, I had no opposition in the State Convention, which met in Astoria in April, and was nominated there by acclamation — the only instance of the kind in the history of the Republican party of Oregon.

I did not attend the Astoria Convention — indeed, it will no doubt surprise many of my most intimate friends to be told that I never attended a State convention in my life as a delegate, and but once as a spectator, in 1894, when Judge Lord was nominated over Charles W. Fulton. On that occasion I was an onlooker for an hour. When the Astoria Convention was in session, I was at home on my farm. It was the season of the year for “working the roads” and, together with a dozen of the neighbors, I was manipulating the business end of a long-handled shovel about five o’clock in the afternoon when a group of children, returning from school at MacLeay, saw me in the distance and began to shout the news that had reached there before they left.

How I first heard of my nomination for Governor got into the papers, in some way, and the opposition took it up as a “fairy story, put forth for political effect,” etc. ; but this is the true account of it — not at all remarkable when the circumstances leading up to it are recalled.

In a book of this character, I could not do less than to give this abbreviated account of an incident in Oregon politics of which I happened to be a central figure, and which occasioned as much feeling and excitement as any other minor event in our history. By degrees, I had been drawn into a prominence which I had not courted, and the great McKinley-Bryan campaign had, without any desire on my part, thrust me somewhat to the fore in the State campaign. It had been a hard contest and the triumph was won by a very small margin. I had not wanted to be a Presidential elector, and realizing that I was nominated largely as a salve to the wound I received at the District Convention, when I failed to receive the nomination for Congress, I thought seriously at first of declining the honor.

The Oregon City Land Office affair created a great furor at the time and the delegation in Congress was denounced with much harshness on account of it; but the unpleasant features of it soon passed away and its members and myself were afterwards the same friends we had been for years before. Thomas H. Tongue remained in Congress until his death, in December, 1902, grew in popularity both at home and with his colleagues at Washington, and his demise was a great loss to Oregon. He was a man of especial ability, of untiring industry and a very forceful speaker.

Senator George W. McBride retired from the Senate at the expiration of his term in 1901 and was at once appointed by President McKinley as one of the Government Commissioners at the St. Louis Exposition, which position he held for four years. For twenty years he suffered from a distressing physical ailment, but through it all was a marvel of fortitude and optimism. Much of the time during his eight years’ service as Secretary of State he was bedfast but supervised his work without cessation. During his six years’ term in the Senate he was also a constant victim of bodily infirmities. After a remarkable career, he passed away at his home in Portland during the present summer, in the month of June.

William R. Ellis was defeated for renomination at the Astoria Convention, after serving in Congress for six years, but was at once elected judge of his district in eastern Oregon. At the end of his six-year term, he declined a renomination and sought an endorsement for his former place in Congress under the direct primary law which had been adopted. In this he was successful, but after serving two terms was defeated for a third one in April of this year — 1911. In the case of Mr. Ellis it may be said that he had the satisfaction of defeating me for the Congressional nomination at the primary election in April, 1908 — if it was any satisfaction, which is doubtful, since he probably cherishes no more resentful feeling than I do over that affair way back in ‘97, when we were all playing the game of politics in deadly earnest.

For the first time within the memory of any Oregonian of middle age, W. R. Ellis is in private life; but nobody in his sane senses would wager a sixpence that he will not be holding a remunerative public position before another biennial period rolls around.


Next Chapter - In Geer's gubernatorial campaign in 1898, he visited every county in Oregon, starting in the western half.


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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