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
Table Of Contents
This book was originally published in 1912 by The
Neale Publishing Co. If you are interested in a copy, search at
Fifty Years in Oregon
EXPERIENCES, OBSERVATIONS, AND COMMENTARIES UPON MEN, MEASURES, AND CUSTOMS IN PIONEER DAYS AND LATER TIMES
BY T. T. Geer, formerly Governor of Oregon, and one of her native sons
To many people
no part of the story of a State is so interesting as that which pertains
to its early settlement. Not only is this true as to the pioneers
themselves those who actually endured the privations necessarily
connected with the reaching and subjugation of a region thousands of
miles removed from the nearest outposts of civilization but younger
people, those who are fond of history or even of romance, take a delight
in hearing of the incidents which constituted the experience of those
who "crossed the plains" and formed a part of the immigrant trains which
conquered the desert, met the savage Indians without fear, mocked at the
roadless mountains, swam the fordless rivers, used "buffalo chips" for
fuel, went hungry much of the time at the last end of the trip, and
finally reached the promised land destitute, most of them, many of them
sick, but all of them brave and hopeful.
For the weakling didn't start to Oregon in the '40s; or, if he
did, he soon lost his "grip" and returned to his former home. Many did this. But
the pioneers were all of the stuff out of which real men and women are made and
the historian doesn't need to draw upon his imagination in order to make his
narrative read like a composite story of the old martyrs. For instance, my own
mother was thirteen and a half years old when she started across the plains with
her parents in April, 1847, but she walked practically all the way from the
Missouri River to the Willamette valley. She was the oldest of six children, and
as there were some loose horses and cattle every day which would not follow the
train unless made to do so, she was required to "trail" behind them and see that
none was lost. To be sure, the distance made would not average more than ten or
twelve miles a day, but it necessitated walking in the dust caused by hundreds
of tramping oxen and horses, besides the duty of keeping the stubborn or
contrary or indifferent animals from lagging behind. And her duties were not
deemed particularly hard when compared with those assigned to every other member
of the train who was old enough to stand alone. Everybody, including "father,"
was required to work, and the slothful one was not permitted to lag very far
before he was made to feel an energetic prod which brought him up standing.
For the purpose of illustrating to the younger generation the
suffering experienced by thousands who came to Oregon in the early days, it is
deemed well to incorporate here a few pages of extracts from a diary kept by a
pioneer woman, Mrs. Elizabeth Smith, who crossed the plains in 1847, and who was
afterwards well known in the Willamette valley. She was the mother of Mrs. P. S.
Knight, of Salem, and of Judge Seneca Smith, a well-known attorney of Portland.
Each night, after her eight children were asleep, she would write her notes for
that day. She wrote it in letter form the next year and sent it to some friends
in Indiana, who, fifteen years later, sent it to Mrs. Knight. It is now the
property of the State Historical Society, where it will be kept permanently as a
valuable contribution to the history of Oregon as vividly portraying the
hardships endured by those who laid the foundation for one of the greatest
States in the Union. Her letter and diary, in part, follow:
LAFAYETTE, YAMHILL COUNTY, OREGON
May 25, 1848
MRS. PAULINE FOSTER AND MRS. CYNTHIA AMES LA PORTE, INDIANA:
By your request I have endeavored to keep a record
of our journey from "The States" to Oregon, though it is poorly done, owing to
my having a young babe and, besides, a large family to do for; and, worst of
all, my education is limited.
April 21, 1847
Commenced our journey from La Porte, Ind., to Oregon. Made fourteen miles.
April 22 Made twelve miles.
Rain all day.
April 23 Made nineteen
miles; traveled till dark. Ate a cold bite and went to bed chilly and cold,
which is very disagreeable, with a parcel of children.
April 25 Last night our
cattle ran off, consequently, we made only eleven miles.
April 26 Made sixteen
miles. Had a view of Mt. Juliett. It is one of the great works of nature. We
see a great many admirable works of nature and art as we pass through
April 29 Made sixteen miles
through a delightful country and camped on the Illinois River. Cold and
April 30 Made fourteen
miles. Passed through Peru. Traveled through a beautiful and fertile
country. Cold and rainy.
May 1 Made nineteen
miles. Passed through Princeton, Bureau County, Ill. Rich soil. Hundreds of
acres not owned nor cultivated by anyone.
May 2 Made twenty miles.
Exceedingly cold for the season.
May 3 Made twenty miles.
Cold and dry. All in good spirits.
May 4 Made twenty miles.
May 5 Made sixteen
miles. Passed through Hendersonville and Galesburg, Knox County, Ill. Good
roads. Fine weather.
May 7 Made twelve miles.
Rainy weather .
May 8 Crossed the
Mississippi River on a ferry. Delayed in Burlington. Made seven miles. In
Burlington I saw Percy Mitchell's first wife.
May 9 Passed Augusta, a
small village. Ferried Skunk River.
May 10 Fine weather. Laid
by to wash.
May 11 Laid by for rain.
May 14 Forded the Des
Moines River. Made eighteen miles.
May 15 Fell in with
several Oregon wagons. Made eighteen miles.
May 16 Made fifteen
miles. Rained all day.
May 17 Laid by for rain.
May 19 Last night one of
our cows went back one day's journey to see her calf that we had given away
May 20 Made eighteen
miles. Rainy weather, bad roads.
May 21 Made seven miles.
Water-bound by a branch of Grand River. Hilly and bad roads.
May 22 Water-bound by a
creek called the Muddy.
May 23 Crossed Weldon
River, Missouri State. Made seven miles.
May 24 Made twelve miles.
Rain all day. Encamped in a marsh. Shoe-mouth deep in water. The men peeled
bark, made a floor, built a fire on it to dry themselves and get supper by.
May 25 Made two miles.
May 27 Made fourteen
miles. Crossed Big Creek. It has on it one sawmill and one gristmill.
May 28 Made twenty-eight
miles. Crossed Samson Creek. Encamped without food or water on a large
prairie. Ate a cold bite and went to bed.
May 30 Rained this
morning until late. Made eight miles. Crossed a river called Hundred and Two
on a dangerous bridge and encamped.
May 31 Laid by to wash.
June 1 Lying by.
June 3 Passed through St.
Joseph on the Missouri River. Laid in our flour, cheese, crackers and
medicine, for no one should travel this road without medicine, for they are
almost sure to have the summer complaint. Each family should have a box of
physicing pills, a quart of castor oil, a quart of the best rum and a large
vial of peppermint essence.
June 4 Crossed the
Missouri River. Doubled teams with difficulty .Ascended a hill or mountain.
Traveled three miles and encamped. We are now in Indian Territory.
June 6 Made eighteen
miles. Passed seventy Oregon wagons as they were encamped.
June 8 Made twenty miles;
crossed one creek. Very high and steep banks. Where I know the names of
streams I give them.
June 11 Made eighteen
miles. Crossed the Blue Earth River. One wagon turned over just at the
water, but happily nobody was hurt.
June 14 Made eighteen
miles. We are continually finding elks' horns, buffaloes' skulls and
June 16 Made seventeen
miles. Saw one grave day before yesterday and one to-day by the lonely
wayside. Made this spring.
June 17 Made twelve miles.
Fell in with eighteen wagons. Broke an axle-tree. Laid by and made a new
one. Stood guard all night in the rain.
June 18 Finished the
broken axle. Made five miles. Encamped in a circle as is our custom. Put out
guards and retired to rest.
June 19 Made twenty miles.
Every night when we encamp we make quite a village, but take it up the next
day. We have plenty of music with a flute and violin and some dancing.
June 20 Made ten miles.
Encamped on the Platte. The ground here is covered with a white surface.
Something between salt and salts. The cattle are fond of it.
June 21 Made eighteen
miles. Last night had two more horses stolen. One belonged to the same man
who lost one of the first ones. It was a fine horse and his last one. Our
road along the Platte is beautiful and level. The river is a mile wide or
more, and very rily and shallow.
June 22 Made fifteen
miles. See antelope every day.
June 23 Made eighteen
miles. At present there are one hundred and forty persons in our company. We
see thousands of buffaloes, and have to use their dung for fuel. A man will
gather a bushel in a minute. Three bushels make a good fire. We call the
stuff "buffalo chips."
June 24 Made ten miles.
Stopped to kill a buffalo, but did not succeed. Saw hundreds of prairie dogs
barking about. They are about as large as a gray gopher. Saw another grave.
June 26 Made ten miles.
Killed three buffaloes. Their flesh is generally coarser and drier than
beef, but a fat buffalo heifer is as good meat as I would wish to taste.
June 28 Made eighteen
miles. Saw thousands of buffaloes. Caught two of their calves. One ran away
the other day. The other they drove along with the loose cattle several
miles. It finally left them. Nine wagons overtook us.
June 27 Made fifteen
miles. Killed four buffaloes. At the least calculation we saw three thousand
buffaloes to-day. A buffalo rolls and gallops like a horse.
June 29 This morning eight
of our largest and best work oxen were missing, besides two yoke of Welch's,
three yoke of Adam Polk's, and about thirty-nine head belonging to the
company all work oxen, right out of our company. Here we are, thousands of
miles from any inhabitants, and thus deprived of teams an appalling
situation. We had only one yoke left. We hunted in every direction without
June 30 Hunted all day.
Our cattle hunters, my husband among them, were so far from camp, some
thirty miles, that they staid away all night.
July 1 To-day when our
hunters came in they brought one dead man; he had shot himself accidentally.
He left a wife and six small children. The distress of his wife I cannot
describe. He was an excellent man and very much missed. His name was Smith
Dunlap, from .Chicago, Ill. The hunters found no cattle.
July 2 A trying time. So
many of us having to get teams, had to hire, borrow, buy, just as we could.
Had to take cows, raw cattle, or anything we could get. Some had to apply to
other companies for help. At last we moved off. Made fifteen miles.
July 6 Made eighteen
miles. Our cattle are lame. It is plain to my mind what makes their feet
wear out. It is the alkaline nature of the ground.
July 7 This country is
full of curiosities. Hundreds of acres seem to have been bursted and thrown
open by volcanic eruptions. The earth along here is strong with lye. After a
shower, if the little ponds were not rily, one could wash linen without
July 8 Made twelve miles.
Saw Chimney Rock. It is a curiosity, indeed. A rock, or rather a hard clay,
standing alone, towering in the air perhaps three hundred feet. All of the
lofty rocks along here are composed of that same material. Some of them
resemble old demolished villages, half-sunk in the ground, with the
stovepipes sticking out of the ground. To-day we had the most dreadful
hail-storm I ever witnessed, in which a young woman and I came near being
caught as we went out to the famous Chimney Rock. Fortunately we reached one
of the foremost wagons just as the hail began to pelt us. It tore some of
the wagon covers off, broke some bows and made the oxen run away making
bad work. They say that about here it is subject to tornadoes.
July 9 To-day we saw by
the wayside about two acres of fine white stone, all cut up comparatively in
pieces about ten feet square and two feet thick. I ran barefooted to get on
them, but got my feet full of stickers and was glad to get back to my wagon.
All the herbs in this region are briery and prickly. The sage is dreadful on
one's clothes. It grows from one to six feet high and has a stalk like our
tame sage or sedge. The leaves are smaller and very narrow. It has a sage
taste, but is very bitter, besides. We travel through a shrub called
greasewood generally not so large as the sage. It is very thorny. We have
to use it sometimes for fuel. Then there is the prickly pear step on it
any and everywhere. Look out for bare feet. Encamped at Scott's Bluff. Here
is starvation. No feed and little water after traveling twenty miles. We
chained up our oxen to the wagon wheels and started next morning by sunrise.
July 10 Made twelve miles
through a barren, desolate region. Encamped on a creek and found feed and
July 12 Made ten miles.
Encamped at a French and Indian residence. As soon as we had corralled, the
Indians flocked in and spread their blankets and begged for presents. We
gave them meat, flour and beans, for which we afterward suffered.
July 13 This morning five
of our work cattle were missing. The. men hunted and hired Indians to hunt,
but found no cattle. Emptied one wagon and went on. Passed Fort Laramie.
Made five miles and encamped. The Indians came as before and sat down in a
circle and spread a blanket in their midst and begged for presents. We gave
them provisions and they dispersed.
July 14 Laid by. Found the
cattle. Paid the Indians fifteen dollars for hunting, although our men found
July 15 Made twenty miles
through a barren desert. Found wood and water but no feed. Rain to-night. I
intend to state all the rain we have.
Poor woman! She little knew when she wrote that sentence how she
and her children were going to suffer by reason of the excessive amount of rain
during the latter part of their journey. As this diary is a faithful
kaleidoscopic presentation of the average experience of those who "pioneered" to
Oregon in the early days, I will make a larger requisition upon its contents
than was at first intended, since it tells briefly the whole heroic story. It is
a volume in a few pages, graphically portraying the increasing dangers which
beset the pioneers and the growing necessity on their part for patience and
By the middle of July the train in which Mrs. Smith ,and
husband were traveling had reached the Black Hills -- a region made famous by its mines. On July
25, Mrs. Smith made this record:
July 25 Encamped at Willow
Springs, a handsome place of grass and willows. To-day we crossed a little
muddy branch. Along the sides of it we could have gathered pails of clean
saltpeter. Many of our cattle are sick and dying.
July 27 We, on rising this
morning, baked a lot of light bread and moved on. Passed Independence Rock.
July 29 Made eighteen
miles. I could write a great deal more if I had the opportunity. Sometimes I
do not get a chance to write anything for two or three days, and then have
to rise in the night when my babe and all hands are asleep, light a candle
July 31 Encamped at the
foot of South Pass. Here we found some gooseberries; they were as smooth as
currants and taste much like fox grapes. All the gooseberries this side of
the Missouri are smooth. Still we have sage to cook with. I do not know
which is best to cook with it or "buffalo chips." Just step out and pull a
lot of sage out of your garden and build a fire in the wind, and bake, boil
and fry by it, and then you will guess how we do.
August 1 Passed over the
Rocky Mountains, the backbone of America. It is all rocks on top and they
are all split up and turned up edgeways. Oh, that I had time to describe
this curious country. We wound over the mountains along a very crooked road.
Had rain and hail to-day, which made it very disagreeable.
August 3 Encamped on the
Little Sandy. Are two days' journey into the Oregon territory and have found
no timber except on the streams since we left the Missouri.
August 6 Crossed Green
River, a large and beautiful stream, bordered with considerable timber
August 7 Encamped on
Black's Fork, a small river bordered with willows. This large waste of
country, in my opinion, has once been a sea. My husband found on top of a
mountain seashells petrified into stone. The crevices in the rocks show the
different stages of the water.
9 Encamped at Fort
Bridger. One of the superintendents traveled with us from Fort Laramie to
this place. He is a good and intelligent man. He has a white wife. Long will
he remember the captain of our company, Cornelius Smith. They were great
August 12 Still at Fort
Bridger. Here we have a good time for washing, which we women deem a great
August 15 Passed over one
high mountain. Made twenty miles and encamped without food, water or fuel.
August 16 Started without
breakfast. Made nine miles and encamped on Bear River.
August 22 Saw some of
nature's curious works. Here are mounds perhaps forty feet in diameter and
ten feet high, composed of shelly stone. In the middle of the mound stands a
I know not what to call it it looks like a stump about three feet high.
It has a hole in the top full of boiling water and running over all the
time. It is the water that makes the mounds. The water is blood warm and has
a little of the soda taste. A mile or so from here are the Soda Springs.
They are not so good as represented. Only one or two of the company like it.
It tastes like vinegar with a little saleratus in it. They are generally ten
feet across and look like hog wallows more than springs, though I saw one
that was clear. About two hundred yards from the Soda Springs is a boiling
spring which boils over and foams and runs over thirty barrels in a day. It
boils out of the stone. The hole is about as large as a large dinner pot.
Every few minutes the water will bounce up three or four feet.
August 23 Made sixteen
miles. Encamped with nothing but green sage to cook with. Good feed. This
sage is larger than the tame sage, but much like it in appearance. It
sometimes grows six feet high.
August 28 Passed Fort Hall.
Captain Grant, of the Hudson Bay Company, is not that charitable gentleman
we expected to see, but a boasting, burlesquing, unfeeling man.
August 29 Made sixteen
miles. You in "the States" know nothing of dust. It will fly so that you can
hardly see the horns of the tongue-yoke of oxen. It often seems that the
cattle must die for want of breath, and then in our wagons, such a spectacle
beds, clothes, victuals and children all completely covered.
September 4 Made fourteen
miles. Camped without feed. Had cedar to burn.
September 7 Nooned at Snake
River. Watered our cattle and moved on two miles and camped. Two men were
left behind, which was always the case with them, they had such heavy loads.
They came up afterwards, and while watering, some of their cattle swam over
the river. One of the men swam after them, and before he got across sank to
rise no more. He left a wife and three small children. The other came
running up to camp to let us know. Some went back and staid with them. By
this time another company had overtaken them. Next morning my husband took a
horse and went back to swim a horse over after the cattle. The man that
owned the cattle took the horse and swam after the cattle, and while coming
back by some means got off the horse and sank and was seen no more. He left
a wife and six helpless children. My husband stood watching him. It is
supposed that there is a whirlpool at the bottom of the river .
September 8 We moved on, for
we had neither feed nor water. Camped on Snake River. My husband came up at
ten o'clock and told us the shocking news.
September 12 One of our oxen
died. The Indians along Snake River go naked except an old rag tied around
their hips. They have few horses, no blankets. The immigrants trade them old
clothes for fish which were dead, no doubt, when they were caught.
September 14 Blocked up our
wagon beds and forded Snake River, which was wide, deep and swift. Camped at
a spring with good grass.
September 15 Laid by. This
morning our company moved on, except one family. The woman got mad and
wouldn't budge nor let the children go. He had the cattle hitched on for
three hours and coaxed her to go, but she wouldn't stir. I told my husband
the circumstance and he and Adam Polk and Mr. Kimball went and each one took
a young one and crammed them in the wagon and the husband drove off and left
her sitting. She got up, took the back track and traveled out of sight. Cut
across and overtook her husband. Meantime he sent his boy back to camp after
a horse he had left, and when she came up her husband said, "Did you meet
John?" "Yes," was the reply, "and I picked up a stone and knocked out his
brains." Her husband went back to ascertain the truth and while he was gone
she set fire to one of the wagons that was loaded with store goods. The
cover burnt off with some valuable articles. He saw the flames and came
running and put it out, and then mustered up spunk enough to give her a good
September 19 Made nineteen
miles over mountains and dust. Camped on Boise River. Good feed.
September 23 Forded Snake River
just before dark. It was waist deep and very cold. It is a large and
September 24 Mr. Kimball's
oldest son died last night of typhus fever.
September 25 Buried the corpse.
Camped on Burnt River.
September 28 Crossed Burnt
River six times. We are all the time either on a hill or in a hollow.
September 29 Made eleven miles.
Winding in and between mountains all day.
Qctober 1 A woman of our
company died as we were traveling along.
October 4 Camped on north
branch of Powder River. Middling feed.
October 5 Camped on head
waters of Grand Ronde. Plenty of feed and pine to burn.
October 6 Passed over one
difficult and stony mountain. If Grand Ronde was west of the Cascade
Mountains, how soon it would be taken up. It is level and covered with grass
and watered with brooks and springs. It has a river flowing through it.
October 9 Doubled teams up
another mountain. Camped at Pine Creek. To some wagons they put nine yoke of
oxen. My husband and I are both sick with summer complaint.
October11 Made twelve miles.
Camped near a branch of the Utilla (Umatilla) River.
October 12 Went three miles.
Here our company separated. Some went to Whitman's Mission to winter, and
they were murdered in the general massacre, of which I suppose you have
already heard. Here my husband bought a beef of the Indians. It was eighteen
months old and weighed four hundred and eighty pounds. He paid them with a
cow and calf and a new shirt.
October 17 Cold and windy. We
made a fire of a little wood that we carried all day yesterday. Made a bite
to eat. Our cattle ran off in search of water, which hindered us until late.
Camped without wood except a small shrub called greasewood. It burns like
greased weeds. I used to wonder why it was said that men must be dressed in
buckskin to come to this country, but now I know. Everything we travel
through is thorny and rough. There is no chance to save your clothes. Here
we found a great hole of water twelve or fifteen feet across. Had to water
one hundred and fifty head of cattle with pails. Had to stand out all night
in the rain to keep the cattle from drowning each other after water in
October 21 Camped on John
Day's River. Here we put out a guard for fear of Indians, which we have not
done before for three months.
October 22 Traveled up a
long, steep ascent between two mountains. The road was so narrow that a
wagon could scarcely squeeze along, and very rough at that.
October 23 Camped on the
Columbia River. Scarce feed. No wood or shrubs. We had to burn little green
October 24 Crossed Falls or
Shutes River. It was high, rapid and dangerous. The water came clear to the
tops of the wagon beds. My children and I, with as many more women and
children as could be stowed into a canoe, were taken over by two Indians,
which cost a good many shirts. The Indians are thick as hops here and not
very friendly. Anybody in preparing to come to this country should make up
some calico shirts to trade to the Indians in case of necessity. You will
have to hire them to pilot you across the rivers. When we got here my folks
were about stripped of shirts, trousers, jackets and "wamusses."
October 26 Made ten miles
over a mountain all the way. Saw oak trees for the first time in Oregon.
Camped on the Columbia.
October 27 Passed what is
called the Dalles Mission, where two white families live with the Jndians.
It looks like starvation.
October 28 Here are a great
many immigrants camped. Some making rafts, others going down in boats which
have been sent up by speculators.
October 29 Rained most all
day. Cold weather .
October 30 Rainy day. Men
making rafts. Women cooking and washing and babies crying. Indians bartering
potatoes for shirts. They must have a good shirt for a peck of potatoes.
October 31 Snow close by on
the mountains. We should have gone over the mountains with our wagons, but
they are covered with snow and we must go down by water and drive our cattle
over the mountains.
November 1 We are lying by
waiting for the wind to blow down stream in order that we may embark with
November 2 We took off our
wagon wheels, laid them on the raft, placed the wagon beds on them and
started. There are three families of us, Adam Polk, Russell Welch and
ourselves, on twelve logs eighteen inches through and forty feet long. The
water runs three inches over our raft.
November 3 Still lying by
waiting for calm. Cold and disagreeable weather.
November 4 Rain all day. Laid
by for the water to become calm. We clambered up a steep hillside among the
rocks and built a fire and tried to cook and warm ourselves and children,
while the wind blew and the waves rolled beneath.
November 5 Still lying by
waiting for calm weather. Mr. Polk is very sick.
November 7 Put out in rough
water. Moved a few miles. The water became so rough that we were forced to
land. No one to man the raft but my husband and my oldest boy, sixteen years
old. Russell Welch and our youngest boys are driving our cattle over the
mountains. Here we are lying, smoking our eyes, burning our clothes and
trying to keep warm. We have plenty of wood, but the wind takes away the
November 8 We are still lying
at anchor, waiting for the wind to fall. We have but one days provisions
ahead of us here. We can see snow on the tops of the mountains whose rocky
heights reach to the clouds at times. A few Indians call on us and steal
something from us but we are not afraid of them. Cold weather my hands are
so cold I can hardly write.
November 9 Finds us still in
trouble. Waves dashing over our raft and we already stinting ourselves in
provisions. My husband started this morning to hunt provisions. Left no man
with us except our oldest boy. It is very cold. The icicles are hanging from
our wagon beds to the water. To-night about dusk Adam Polk expired. No one
with him but his wife and myself. We sat up all night with him while the
waves were dashing below.
November 10 Finds us still
waiting for calm weather. My husband returned at two o'clock. Brought fifty
pounds of beef on his back twelve miles, which he bought from another
company. By this time the water had become calm and we started once more,
but the wind soon began to blow and we were forced to land. My husband and
boy were an hour and a half after dark getting the raft landed and made fast
while the water ran knee-deep over our raft, the wind blew and it was
freezing cold. We women and children didn't attempt to get out of the wagons
Laid by most all
day. Started this evening. Ran about three miles and landed after dark. Here
we found Welch and our cattle, for they could not be driven farther on this
side of the mountain. Here was a ferry for the purpose of ferrying
November 12 Ferried our cattle
across the Columbia and buried Mr. Polk. Rained all day. We are living
entirely on beef.
November 13 We got the
ferrymen to shift our load onto their boat and take us down to the falls,
where we found quite a town of people waiting for their cattle to pull them
around the falls. Rain all day.
November 18 My husband is
sick. It rains and snows. We start around the falls this morning with our
wagons. We have five miles to go. I carry my babe and lead, or rather carry
another, through snow, mud, and water almost to my 'knees. It is the worst
road a team could possibly travel. I went ahead with my children and I was
afraid to look behind me for fear of seeing the wagons overturn into the mud
and water with everything in them. My children gave out with cold and
fatigue and could not travel, and the boys had to unhitch the oxen and bring
them and carry the children on to camp. I was so cold and numb that I could
not tell by the feeling that I had any feet. We started this morning at
sunrise and did not camp until after dark, and there was not one dry thread
on one of us not even on the babe. I had carried my babe and I was so
fatigued that I could scarcely speak or step. When I got here I found my
husband lying in Welch's wagon very sick. He had brought Mrs. Polk down the
day before and was taken sick. We had to stay up all night for our wagons
were left halfway back. I have not told half we suffered. I am not adequate
to the task. Here were some hundreds camped, waiting for some boats to come
and take them down to Vancouver , Portland or Oregon City.
November 19 My husband is sick
and can have but little care. Rain all day.
November 20 Rain all day. It
is almost an impossibility to cook, and quite so to keep warm or dry. I
froze or chilled my feet so that I cannot wear a shoe, so I have to go
around in the cold water in my bare feet.
November 27 Embarked once more
on the Columbia on a flatboat. Ran all day, though the waves threatened hard
to sink us. Passed Fort Vancouver in the night. Landed a mile below. My
husband has never left his bed since he was taken sick.
November 29 Landed at Portland
on the Willamette, twelve miles above its mouth, at eleven o'clock at night.
November 30 Raining. This
morning I ran about trying to get a house to get into with my sick husband.
At last I found a small, leaky concern with two families already in it. Mrs.
Polk had got down before us. She and another widow were in this house. My
family and Welchs went in with them and you could have stirred us with a
stick. Welch and my oldest boy were driving our cattle around. My children
and I carried up a bed. The distance was nearly a quarter of a mile. Made it
down on the floor in the mud. I got some men to carry my husband up through
the rain and lay him on it, and he was never out of that shed until he was
carried out in his coffin. Here lay five of us bedfast at one time, and we
had no money and what few things we had left that would bring money I had to
sell. I had to give ten cents a pound for fresh pork, seventy-five cents a
bushel for potatoes and four cents a pound for fish. There are so many of us
sick that I cannot write any more at present. I have not time to write much,
but I thought it would be interesting to know what kind of weather we have
in the winter.
January 15, 1848 My husband is
still alive, but very sick. There is no medicine here except at Fort
Vancouver , and the people there will not sell one bit not even a bottle
January 16 We are still
living in the old leaky shed in Portland. It is six miles below Vancouver
and up the Willamette twelve miles. Portland has two white houses and one
brick and three wood-colored frame buildings and a few log cabins.
January 20 Cool and dry.
Soldiers are collecting here from every part of Oregon to go and fight the
Indians in middle Oregon in consequence of the massacre at Whitman's
Mission. I think there were seventeen men killed at the massacre, but no
women or children, except Whitman's wife. They killed every white man there
except one, and he was an Englishman. They took all the young women for
wives. Robbed them of their clothing and everything. The Oregon government
bought the prisoners at a dear rate, and then gave the Indians fight. But
one white man, I believe, was killed in the war and not many Indians. The
January 21 Warm and dry.
January 24 Dry in daytime but
rain at night.
January 31 Rain all day. If I
could tell you how we suffer you would not believe it. Our house, or rather
a shed joined to a house, leaks allover .The roof descends in such a manner
that the rain runs right down into the fire. I have dipped as much as six
pails of water off our dirt hearth in one night. Here I sit up night after
night with my poor sick husband, all alone, and expecting him every day to
die. I neglected to tell you that Welch moved away and left us all alone.
Mr. Smith has not been moved off his bed for six weeks, only by lifting him
by each corner of the sheet, and I had hard work to get help enough for
that, let alone to get watchers. I have not undressed to lie down for six
weeks. Besides our sickness I had a cross little babe to take care of.
Indeed, I cannot tell you half.
February 1 Rain all day. This
day my dear husband, my last remaining friend, died.
February 2 To-day we buried
my earthly companion. Now I know what none but widows know: that is, how
comfortless is a widow's life; especially when left in a strange land
without money or friends, and the care of seven children.
February 9 Clear and cool.
Perhaps you will want to know how cool. We have lived all winter in a shed
constructed by setting up studs five feet high on the lowest side. The other
side joins the cabin. It is boarded up with clapboards and several of them
are torn off in places, and there is no shutter to our door; but if it was
not for the rain putting out the fire and leaking all over the house we
would be comfortable.
February 21 Clear and cool.
You will wonder that we do not leave this starved place. The reason is this
the road from here to the country is impassable in winter, the distance
being twelve miles, and because our cattle are yet very weak.
February 24 Clear and warm.
To-day we left Portland at sunrise. Having no one to assist us, we had to
leave one wagon and a part of our things for want of teams. We traveled four
or five miles, all the way up hill and through the thickest woods I ever saw
all fir, from two to six feet through, with now and then a scattering
cedar, and an intolerably bad road. We all had to walk. Sometimes I had to
put my babe on the ground arid help to keep the wagon from turning over.
When we got to the top of the mountain we descended through mud up to the
wagonhubs and over logs two feet through, and log bridges torn to pieces in
the mud. Sometimes I would be behind, out of sight of the wagon, tugging and
carrying my little ones along. Sometimes the boys would stop the teams and
come back after us. Made nine miles. Camped in thick woods. Found some
grass. Unhitched the oxen; let them feed two hours and chained them to
trees. These woods are infested with wildcats, panthers, bears and wolves. A
man told me he had killed six tigers but they are a species of wolf. We
made us a fire and made a bed down on the wet grass and laid down as happy
as circumstances would admit. Glad to think we had escaped from Portland
such a game place.
This was the last record of Mrs. Smith's diary a story of
deprivation, hardships, hunger, danger, destitution and even death perhaps
more harrowing in its details than that of the average family who made the
two-thousand-mile trip to Oregon in the 1840s. And yet there were thousands who
brought upon themselves the same awful difficulties leaving their lifelong
friends, abandoning their native country where plenty abounded and where there
were millions of acres of vacant land yet to be had all for the love of
adventure. This accounts for the fact, accepted by everybody who understands
early conditions here, that the Oregon pioneers, men and women, were of the
stuff which develops into a sturdy citizenship.
The reading of the diary of Mrs. Smith, penned as she wended her
way to Oregon in the summer of 1847, cannot fail to impress the average reader
with the striking contrast between the manner of journeying from the Mississippi
Valley to Oregon then and now. The man who makes the trip now is usually a
tourist. He buys a sleeper at Chicago, and within three days is in Portland, a
city of over two hundred thousand inhabitants, where Mrs. Smith found upon her
arrival one brick building, two white houses and a few log cabins. Instead of
living on beef alone for several days, the tourist is supplied three times a day
on a "diner" with the best the land affords, while a colored waiter bows and
smiles providecl on some previous occasion he has not failed to tip him
generously and for this he pays at least a whole dollar in the coin of the
realm. There is no opportunity for him to trade his shirt for a peck of
potatoes. After his meal is served, he returns to his upholstered seat and
resumes the reading of his favorite book. While enjoying his steak and coffee he
travels as far, in the utmost comfort, as Mrs. Smith did in any of the days at
the end of which she recorded "made eighteen miles" in suffocating dust, and
much of the time with insufficient food. At a station, the train stops for a few
minutes. The traveler drops his book, steps out on the platform and, with a
yawn, says to his companion: "What a tedious trip! Let us take a turn or two and
stretch our legs. And they say we will get into Portland two hours late. Blast
these railroads, anyway!"
On September 2, 1850, two years and a half after the last entry
in her diary, which I have quoted, Mrs. Smith wrote a letter to the same two
women friends in Indiana, in the course of which occurs this paragraph:
My three boys started
to the California gold mines and it was doubtful to me if I ever should see them
again. Perhaps you will think it strange that I let such young boys go so far,
but I was willing and I helped them off in as good style as I could. Well, after
the boys were gone, it is true I had plenty of cows and hogs, and plenty of
wheat to feed them on and to make my bread. Indeed, I was well off, if I had
only known it, but I lived in a remote place where my strength was of little use
to me. I could get nothing to do, and you know I could not live without work. I
employed myself in teaching my children; yet that did not fully occupy my mind.
I became as poor as a snake, yet I was in good health and was never so nimble
since I was a child. I could run half a mile without stopping to breathe. Well,
I thought I would try my fortune again, so on the 24th of June, 1849, I was
married to Mr. Joseph Geer, a man fourteen years older than myself, though young
enough for me. He is the father of ten children. They are all married but two
boys and two girls. He is a Yankee from Connecticut, and he is a Yankee in every
sense of the word, as I told you he would be if it ever proved my lot to marry
again. I did not marry rich, but my husband is industrious and is as kind to me
as I can ask. Indeed, he sometimes provokes me in trying to humor me so much. He
is a stout, healthy man for one of his age.
Since the "Yankee husband" referred to was my grandfather, before
mentioned in these pages, it will be appropriate to close this chapter by
quoting a part of the postscript to the above letter, which was written by him:
As Mrs. Geer has
introduced me to you as her "old Yankee husband," I will add a few words in
hopes of becoming better acquainted hereafter. She so often speaks of you that
you seem like old neighbors. She has neglected to tell you that she was once the
wife of Cornelius Smith. She has told you how poor she became while a widow but
has not said one word about how fat she has become since she has been living
with her Yankee husband. This is perhaps reserved for her next epistle so I will
say nothing about it.
Of her I will say she
makes me a first-rate wife, industrious and kind almost to a fault to me, a
fault, however, that I can cheerfully overlook, you know.
We are not rich, but
independent, and live agreeably together, which is enough. We are located on the
west bank of the Willamette River, about twenty miles from Oregon City, about
forty yards from the water a very pleasant situation. I intend putting out a
large orchard as soon as I can prepare the ground; have about ten thousand apple
trees and two hundred pear trees on hand. Apple trees worth one dollar and pears
one dollar and fifty cents apiece. I have not room to give you a description of
this, the best country in the world, so I will not attempt it, but if you will
answer this I will give you a more particular account next time.
JOSEPH C. GEER, Sen.
Next Chapter -
Notes from James W. Nesmith from
the text of an address delivered in 1876 to the Oregon Pioneer
Association on traveling along the Oregon Trail.
If you enjoyed this diary, many similar diaries have been
collected into books. The most comprehensive series is titled
Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1849 is
edited by Kenneth L. Holmes. Elizabeth Dixon Smith's diary is in the first volume
listed above. Other diaries have been grouped into years as listed below:
1852 (The Oregon Trail),
1852 (The California Trail),
1879 - 1903.
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: