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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



If left to the people of Oregon to decide by popular vote which of its citizens, past or present, stands first in the general esteem, because of the value of his public services and the impression he has made or left upon the commonwealth, I have no doubt that George H. Williams would receive the highest endorsement and James W. Nesmith would stand only second. Of these two great men I will speak more at length later, but will remark now that in my judgment Nesmith should outrank William – for one reason – that he came here ten years before Williams and that he came without friends or money, a rugged, ambitious young pioneer, embarking upon a hazardous journey to a distant land about which little was known, though that little was extremely favorable.

On the contrary, Williams, Oregon's "grand old man," of towering intellect and in disposition as gentle as a child, arrived here in 1853, when the country was fairly well occupied, with a commission from President Pierce as one of the associate judges for the new Territory.

I desire to refer to Nesmith here for the purpose of quoting briefly from an address he delivered before the Oregon Pioneer Association in 1876, in the course of which he graphically described the manner in which a company of immigrants came together from different parts of the country, organized by the election of a captain and other officers, and proceeded upon the great undertaking:


As early as the year 1840, being then art adventurous youth in what at that time was known as the "Far West," I had heard of Oregon as a "terra incognita" somewhere upon the western slope of the continent, as a country to which the United States had some kind of a claim, and

"Where rolls the Oregon and hears no sound
Save its own dashings."

During the winter of 1841-42, being in Jefferson County, Iowa, I incidentally heard that a company intended leaving Independence, Mo., in May or June, 1842, for Oregon under the leadership of Dr. Elijah White, who had formerly been in Oregon connected with the Methodist missions, and who was then about returning to the Territory in the service of the United States Government as sub-Indian agent. Thinking this a good opportunity to make the trip I had for some time contemplated, I mounted my horse and rode across western Iowa, then a wilderness, and arrived at Independence seventeen days after White and his party had left. I at first contemplated following them alone, but learning that I would be liable to encounter the murderous Pawnees determined not to attempt the dangerous experiment. I therefore abandoned the trip for the time and spent the most of the ensuing year in the employment of the Government as a carpenter in the construction of Fort Scott, in Kansas, about one hundred miles south of Independence.

During the winter of 1842-43, Dr. Marcus Whitman, then a missionary in the Walla Walla valley, visited Washington to intercede in behalf of the American interests on the coast.

Dr. Lewis F. Linn, who was then in the United States Senate from Missouri, took a great interest in the settlement of Oregon. The means for the transmission of news at that time was slow and meager upon the frontier, it being before the days of railroads, telegraphs and postage stamps. But the Oregon question, through the medium of Senators Linn and Benton and Dr. Whitman, did create a certain commotion in Washington, and enough of it found its way to the "Far West" to make some stir among the ever restless and adventurous frontiersman. Without any formal promulgation it became understood and was-so published in the few border papers then in existence-that our emigration party would rendezvous at Independence to start for Oregon as soon as the grass offered subsistence to the stock.

Without orders from any quarter, and without pre-concerted action, promptly as the grass started the emigrants began to assemble at Independence at a place called Fitzhugh's Mill. On May 17, 1843, notices were circulated through the different encampments that on the following day those contemplating emigrating to Oregon would meet at a designated point to organize.

Promptly at the appointed hour the motley group assembled. It consisted of people from all the States and Territories, embracing all nationalities. Most of them, however, were from Missouri, Iowa, Illinois and Arkansas-all strangers to one another, but deeply impressed with the imperative necessity for mutual protection against the hostile Indians inhabiting the great unknown wilderness, stretching away to the shores of the Pacific, which they were about to traverse with their wives, children, household goods and all their earthly possessions. Many of the emigrants were from the western tier of counties in Missouri known as the Platte Purchase, and among them was Peter H. Burnett, a former merchant, who had abandoned the yardstick and become a lawyer of some celebrity, being noted for his ability as a smooth-tongued advocate. He subsequently emigrated to the Golden State and became its first Governor, was afterward its Chief Justice, and is still an honored citizen of that State. Mr. Burnett, or, as he was familiarly called, "Pete," was called on for a speech. Mounting a log, the glib-tongued orator delivered a florid, glowing address. He commenced by showing his audience that the then western tier of States and Territories was overcrowded; that the population had not sufficient elbow-room for the expansion of their genius and enterprise, and that it was a duty they owed to themselves and their posterity to strike out in search of a wider field and a more genial climate, where the soil yielded the richest return for the smallest amount of cultivation, where the trees were loaded with perennial fruit and where a good substitute for bread, called "lacamash," grew in the ground, salmon and other fish crowded the streams, and where the principal labor of the settler would be keeping his gardens free from the inroads of elk, buffalo, deer and wild turkeys. He appealed to our patriotism by picturing forth the glorious empire we would establish on the shores of the Pacific; how, with our trusty rifles, we would drive out the British usurpers who claimed the soil and defend the country from the avarice and pretensions of the British lion, and how posterity would honor us for placing the fairest portion of our land under the dominion of the Stars and Stripes. He concluded with a slight allusion to the trials and hardships incident to the trip and the dangers to be encountered from hostile Indians on the way, and also those inhabiting the country whither we were bound. He furthermore indicated a desire to look upon the tribe of noble "red men" that the valiant and well-armed crowd around him could not vanquish in a single encounter . Other speeches were made, full of glowing descriptions of the fair land of promise, far-away Oregon, which no one in the assemblage had ever seen and of which not more than half a dozen had ever read any account. After the election of officers, Mr. Burnett being selected captain, the meeting, as primitive and motley a one as ever assembled, adjourned with three cheers for Captain Burnett and Oregon.

On May 20, 1843, after a pretty thorough military organization, we took up our line of march with Captain John Gannt, an old army officer who combined the character of trapper and mountaineer, as our guide. Gannt had been as far in his wanderings as Green River and assured us of the practicability of the wagon road that far. Green River, the boundary of our guide's knowledge in that direction, was not halfway to the Willamette valley, at that time the only inhabited portion of Oregon. We went forth trusting to the future and would doubtless have encountered more difficulties than we did had not Dr. Whitman overtaken us before we reached Green River. He was familiar with the whole route and was confident that wagons could pass through the canyons and gorges of Snake River and over the Blue Mountains, which the mountaineers in the vicinity of Fort Hall declared to be a physical impossibility .

Describing his experience upon his arrival in Oregon, Colonel Nesmith says:

With three comrades I left the emigration on the Umatilla River, at a point near the present agency, and after a variety of adventures we arrived in a canoe at Fort Vancouver on the evening of October 23, 1843. We encamped on the bank of the river about where the Government wharf now stands. The greater part of our means was spent in the purchase of provisions and hickory shirts, consigning those that had done such long and continuous service, with their inhabitants, to the Columbia. On the morning of the 24th we started for what was known as the "Willamette" settlement at the Falls.

Dr. McLoughlin had told us that at a distance of seven miles below the fort we would encounter the waters of the Willamette entering the Columbia from the south. At about the distance indicated by the Doctor we reached what we supposed was the mouth of the river, and after paddling up it until noon, looked across, and to our astonishment saw Fort Vancouver . It then flashed on our minds that we had circumnavigated the island opposite the fort. We retraced our way and that evening discovered the mouth of the Willamette and encamped on its banks. The next evening we encamped on the prairie opposite Portland upon what is now the town site of East Portland, owned by James Stephens, Esq. The present site of Portland was a solitude surrounded by a dense forest of fir trees.

The following amusing incident which illustrates the troubles of the early settlers in endeavoring to understand the language and gestures of the Indians, is related in this same address. It well illustrates the clumsy effort of the Indian to convey his meaning to one who does not understand his language, and the humorous manner of telling it is characteristic of Nesmith.

At Fort Hall we fell in with some Cayuse and Nez Perce Indians returning from the buffalo country, and as it was necessary for Dr. Whitman to precede us to Walla Walla, he recommended to us a guide in the person of an old Cayuse Indian called "Sticcus." He was a faithful old fellow, perfectly familiar with all the trails and topography of the country from Fort Hall to The Dalles, and although he could not speak a word of English, and no one in our party a word of Cayuse, he succeeded by pantomime in leading us successfully over the roughest wagon road I ever saw. Sticcus was a member of Dr. Whitman's church, and the only Indian I ever saw that I thought had any conception of the Christian religion or practiced it. I met him afterward in the Cayuse war. He did not participate in the murder of Dr. Whitman and his family, and remained neutral in the war between his tribe and the whites which grew out of the massacre.

I once dined with Sticcus in his camp on what I supposed was elk meat. I had arrived at that conclusion because, when I looked at the cooked meat interrogatively, the Indian held up his hands in a manner that indicated elk horns; but after dinner, seeing the ears, tail and hoofs of a mule near camp I became satisfied that what he meant to convey with his pantomime was “ears,” not “horns.” But digestion waited on appetite and after dinner it did not make much difference about the appendages of the animal that furnished it.

Still another "film" in the great moving picture which was presented to an astonished world by the Oregon pioneers between 1840 and 1852 was introduced by J. Quinn Thornton in an address before the State Association in 1878, when he described three events which occurred in the same camp on June 14 of that year, on the Platte River. He says:

Three companies camped near each other on June 14, which was Sabbath, and as if by previous arrangement determined to spend the day together. All the members of one of these companies had, without much ceremony, been invited to attend a wedding at the tent of a Mr. Lard in the evening. Rev. J. E. Cornwell, acting as the officiating minister, proceeded at once to unite Miss Lard and a Mr. Mootry in the holy bonds of wedlock. The bride was arrayed very decently but rather gaily. The groom had on his best. Some of the young women present were dressed with a tolerable degree of taste and with even some degree of elegance. Among the men there were no long beards, dirty hands, begrimed faces, soiled linen or torn garments. Indeed, at that time and place there were four others who expected to be married in a few days. I cannot say that I approved this marrying on the road. It looked as though the women, at least, were making a sort of hop, skip and jump into matrimony, without knowing what their feet would come down upon or whether they might not be bruised and wounded.

During that afternoon a boy's leg was amputated by one not a surgeon, the instruments employed being a butcher knife and an old dull hand-saw. He bore his sufferings with the most wonderful fortitude and heroism. He seemed scarcely to move a muscle. A deathlike paleness would sometimes cover his face, but instead of groaning he would use some word of encouragement to the almost shrinking operator, or some expression of comfort to his afflicted friends. The limb was at length severed, the arteries gathered and the flap brought down in an hour and forty-five minutes after making the first incision. An emigrant who had been frequently compelled to retire from the afflicting spectacle, but who at the time the operation was completed held the boy's hands in his, observing that he appeared much exhausted, tenderly inquired if he suffered much pain. The boy withdrew his hands, clasped them together, and partially raising them, exclaimed: "Oh, yes, I am suffering! I am suffering so much!" His hands fell on his breast, his white lips quivered a few moments, his eyeballs rolled back, and his spirit went to God. He was buried in the night, and the sad and silent procession, by the light of the torches to the lonely grave so hastily dug in the solitude and almost unbroken silence of that far-away wilderness, contrasted strangely with the wedding festivities at the neighboring tent.

Strange as it may seem, that same evening another interesting event transpired – the birth of a child on the same plain – so that the three great epochs of life, birth, marriage and death, were all represented at nearly the same time and place.


Next Chapter - In 1841, the first organization meetings for the Oregon Territory were held and the first "laws" were put in place by the early settlers.


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:

Links To Other Oregon Trail Diaries and Information


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