Fifty Years in Oregon was written by Theodore T.
Geer, a grandson of Joseph Carey Geer and a shirttail ancestor of
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
By common consent, Thomas M.
Gatch stands at the head of the list of men who have devoted their lives to the
upbuilding of the cause of education in Oregon. This estimate of him will, I am
sure, be endorsed without exception by all his co-workers in this State during
the past half-century. He came here in 1860, after spending a short time in the
California mines and occupying the chair of mathematics in the University of the
Pacific at Santa Clara, to become professor of Greek and Latin in the Willamette
University. The next year he was chosen president of that institution to fill a
vacancy, and held that position until 1865, when he resigned to return to
California. A few years later, however, he returned to Oregon and served as
president of the Portland Academy until 1870, when he was again elected to the
presidency of “Old Willamette.” After another incumbency of nine years, he
resigned to accept a position at the State University at Eugene, after which he
was elected principal of the Wasco Academy at The Dalles. He subsequently moved
to Seattle, where he became president of the University of Washington, which
post he held for ten years.
In 1896, Professor Gatch was
elected president of the Oregon State Agricultural College at Corvallis, which
latter position he filled with marked ability until his advancing years
suggested that he permanently rest from his long service in the cause of
education, which had covered fifty years of his life and a field co-extensive
with the three Pacific Coast States.
Thomas M. Gatch was born in
Clermont County, Ohio on January 28, 1833. His grandfather, Philip Gatch, of
Prussian extraction, was one of the first three ministers ordained in America in
the Methodist Church. He was a chaplain in the Revolutionary War and served
under [George] Washington, afterwards moving to Ohio, where he became a member
of the first constitutional convention of that State.
The father of Professor Gatch
was a prominent man in Ohio, an officer in its militia, and had served several
terms in the State Legislature, which, it is sincerely hoped, was more of a
badge of respectability and honor than it has been in that State in recent
years, notably the present one.
One of the first men I met upon
entering the Institute was Professor Gatch, who kindly asked me my name and
where I had attended school before. I especially recall his kindly manner, for,
finding myself actually a pupil in the building toward which I had been
longingly gazing for a couple of years, while realizing how improbable it was
that my ambition to attend it would ever be attained, I felt some misgiving as
to the outcome of the wild adventure. I had the impression that all the other
boys and girls had always been pupils there, as they appeared to know one
another and to be engaged in lively banterings and greetings, while I was a lone
pilgrim without a friend or acquaintance. I am sure now, as I look back to that
first hour at the Institute, that I regretted I had not, after all, returned to
the old Central.
But this feeling did not last
long. I soon became impressed with the fact, or what appeared to be a fact, that
the superiority which had been generally conceded to the Institute students was
wholly imaginary, and that Tom and Fred and Charlie were not different in their
outward, or other, make-up from Bill and Jerome and Jo.
I had precisely the same
feeling after the first week that United States Senator Nesmith experienced upon
entering, as a member, the upper house of Congress. Nesmith was one of the
earliest of the Oregon pioneers, coming here in 1843, then a young man, from
Maine, where he had been born and reared. A man of great natural ability and
force, he took an active interest in affairs in the new country at once, and
being very companionable in his manner and the very best storyteller Oregon has
ever known, became a general favorite.
In 1860, after a protracted
contest in the State Legislature over the election of two United States
Senators, a compromise was effected between the Republican and Union Democratic
members by the election of Nesmith, a “war Democrat,” and Colonel Edward D.
Baker, a Republican. Nesmith had been several times a member of the territorial
Legislature, Superintendent of Indian Affairs and a colonel in the Indian wars,
but he was a large landowner in Polk County, and farming had always been his
vocation. His home was at “Pixie,” a country Post Office, but he was for much of
the time in the public service in some capacity. Upon the approach of the Civil
War, however, he broke with his political associates who sympathized with the
South and supported Breckinridge for President, and with most of the Douglas
Democrats openly supported the cause of the Union. In the Senatorial contest
referred to, the Breckinridge Democrats insisted upon the election of Delazon
Smith as one of the Senators, but the Douglas men would not accept him under any
circumstances, and finally made a combination with the Republicans which
resulted in the election of Nesmith and Colonel Baker.
Nesmith became a Senator March
4, 1861. Upon his return home the next fall, while entertaining a few old
friends in Salem with a narration of some of his experiences, in answer to an
inquiry how it felt to be a United States Senator, he said:
I must tell you.
After my election in October I had several months to think it over before going
to Washington, and I often wondered if I hadn’t overstepped myself in pushing my
ambition. I had always been a common clodhopper, as you all know, had slept in
my blankets all over the Northwest, lived for weeks on sowbelly and beans while
chasing Indians, worn buckskin trousers and gone barefooted, – and here I was,
elected to a seat in the United States Senate, the greatest lawmaking body in
the world! Often, when I was out looking after the cattle or harnessing the
horses, I would debate the situation with myself and wonder if, after all, I
hadn’t made a mistake, – whether it wouldn’t be better to resign, giving an
opportunity for the selection of some man who was competent to hold his own with
the big men whom a Senator is compelled to meet.
“I had a
mighty exalted idea as to the size of the United States Senators – of any United
States Senator – and many times in the night I would lie awake and almost
shudder at what my friends had done in putting me in such a position – knowing
as they did, my limitations. And when I was on my way to Washington, I got right
down to bedrock in my analysis of the situation and said: ‘Nesmith, how in the
d––––l did you ever get to be a United States Senator, anyway?’ But do you know
that after I had been with Sumner, Morrill, Wade, Bayard, Chase, and Cameron and
the rest of ‘em, and got to know them well, my wonder was how in they ever got
As I was saying, however,
Professor Gatch himself came to my rescue, and with his reassuring words, I
began to feel at home at the Institute and soon had a bunch of chums who were
original enough and mischievous enough to make life worth living. Many of these
I meet frequently in these days, so far removed from the joyous time when it
required a mighty solid obstacle to form a real shadow across our pathways.
Professor Gatch lived in an “L”
which projected to the south from the main Institute building, and which had
been occupied by former presidents of the school. He was universally liked,
though he seemed to be devoid of humor – due to the fact, probably, that his
time was so valuable and so completely taken up that he found his only
recreation in added application to his work.
In 1877, after having lived in
eastern Oregon for ten years, I returned to the Waldo Hills to resume my
permanent residence there, taking with me a certificate of membership in the
Cove Lodge I.O.O.F. I desired to transfer my membership to the Olive Lodge in
Salem and gave the certificate to Professor Gatch for presentation. I found he
had again become president of the University and was himself a member of Olive
Lodge. I shall never forget the warmth with which he greeted me. I had not seen
him since my school days, twelve years before, and he always regarded one of his
old pupils as a member of his family.
Professor Gatch undoubtedly
occupies an exalted place in the esteem of more people than any other man in the
Northwest, since his great work has covered so much territory. There are many
thousands of men and women on the Pacific Coast now who owe him a direct debt of
gratitude for his splendid example, his helpful advice, and his invariable
insistence up on having the right thing done. At the age of seventy-eight years,
he is resting from his labors and enjoying the fruits of a long life well spent
in the interest of his fellows.
Next Chapter -
The complete trail diary from Elizabeth Dixon Smith Geer who crossed the nation
along the Oregon Trail in 1847.
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
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: