The following recollection by Honorable Ralph C. Geer concerning his emigration to Oregon in 1847 was published in the following source: Oregon Pioneer Association (1880), “Occasional Address for the Year 1847,” Transactions of the Ninth Annual Re-union of the Oregon Pioneer Association; for 1879, Salem, Oregon: E. M. Waite, Steam Printer and Bookbinder. pp. 32-42.
In addition, this site also holds Calvin Geer's (Ralph Geer's son) version of their 1847 travel on the Oregon Trail as well as the Oregon Trail diary of Elizabeth Dixon Smith Geer (Ralph Geer's stepmother).
OCCASIONAL ADDRESS FOR THE YEAR 1847
BY HON. RALPH C. GEER
MR. PRESIDENT, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN OF THE PIONEER ASSOCIATION OF OREGON:
Surrounded as I am to-day with old pioneers who crossed the plains long ago before I did, and unaccustomed to public speaking as I am, it will not be expected of me that I shall be able to instruct to any great extent those who may listen to me on this occasion.
I propose to occupy but little time, as there are others to speak who can edify you better than I.
The emigration of 1847, like all former emigrations, was composed of men and women that were willing to brave all manner of hardships for the purpose of finding a better country to live in; some, and not a few either, were willing to undergo the toilsome and tedious trips for the sake of finding a healthy country. For that reason alone I sold my farm in Knox County, Illinois, bid farewell to civilization, as everybody thought at that time, and started to cross the “great American desert.” Others were influenced by the inducements held out by the general government in the shape of a large land grant to all actual settlers, and the accounts given by writers from here and elsewhere, and also by the lectures of reliable men who had seen this beautiful, and to me, unequaled country. Like all the preceding emigrations, the starting points were on the Missouri River at all points and crossings below Lexington to Council Bluffs, and all wended their way to the main road leading up the Platte Valley.
To describe the trip in all its details would be tedious and uninteresting to an intelligent audience of Oregon pioneers such as I now have the honor of addressing.
The emigration got a good start that year. We had considerable rain the first month, but after that we had fine weather, until we arrived at the Cascade Mountains.
We left the Missouri River the 6th of June, and when we got to Wolf creek we organized by electing Joel Palmer captain, and the usual officers that belong to such organizations.
When we organized, we had about 85 wagons, and in the Nemaha country, we overtook what was called the Chicago Company, headed by Uncle Thomas Cox, which increased our company to 99 wagons. The morning after we were joined by that company, Captain Palmer took a company of men and went ahead of the wagons, and worked the road at the crossing of Big Nemaha, as well as they could, until the wagons came up, but still we had to let the wagons down the grade by ropes, with from two to four men standing on the off wheels of each wagon; and still we made the usual day’s travel that day. We departed from the usual rule adopted by the emigrations in former years. Instead of forming a corral with our wagons for the stock, we camped in such a way that we could yoke the cattle and hitch on to the wagons without danger of running over the women and children. Our corral was for the people, both great and small, not for the cattle and horses; and those that had camped the usual way considered this a better mode.
When I left Knox County, Illinois, the Democratic Central Committee had a small wrought-iron cannon, made by a Whig to celebrate the election of Henry Clay, in 1844, and when he was beaten, gave it to the Democrats, and they named it the Young Democrat; and they gave it to me to bring to Oregon. It was a real screamer to talk – it could be heard 15 or 20 miles, and old mountaineers said that if were fired that every night after we camped, Indians would not trouble us. And I think it was true, for we adopted that plan and no stealing only when we neglected to let her bark.
Some thought our company too large, but we still made good travel every day.
We traveled that way until we crossed Big Blue River. There William Graham’s son was so sick we concluded to lay by a day or two. The camp was the finest camp of pioneers I ever saw. It contained 99 wagons, about 400 men, women and children, from six days to 60 years of age; representing nearly all the professions, trades and occupations. I think that camp was a good average of the pioneers of 1847. We had preachers with their bibles and psalm books, doctors with their medicine chests, lawyers with their law books, school teachers, anxious to teach the young idea how to shoot, merchants with their goods, nurserymen with their trees and seeds, stockmen with their fine horses and cattle, millers, millmen, millwrights, wheelwrights, carpenters, cabinet makers with their chest of tools, blacksmiths with anvils, bellows, hammers and tongs ready and willing to do all kinds of repairing at any time and place, gunsmiths and silversmiths with their fine tools, tailors with their gooses or geese (which is it?) shoemakers with the lasts, awls, hammers and bristles, saddlers with their tools, dressmakers and milliners with their needles, thimbles and patterns, a lumberman with his heavy log wagon, and last, though not least, farmers with and without families. The men all well armed and plenty of ammunition; all determined to go to Oregon and develop its resources.
The child getting no better the second day after we stopped, 50 wagons drove on and left. Capt. Palmer said he would not leave a fellow-traveler on the way whose child was unable to travel and would probably die in a few days.
Capt. Palmer had brought a box of cultivated fruit trees from Indiana to St. Joseph, and was so heavily laden that he could not bring them, and I had undertaken to take them for him, and did not feel right in leaving him, and after traveling two days I prevailed upon my father to stop at Little Blue and await the balance of the train, which they did, and Alva Post and myself went back to meet the train. The boy had died, and the train started on the morning we started back. When father and his little band of seven wagons stopped, forty-three wagons went on and we never overtook them.
When we (the forty-nine wagons and out seven) all got together again, we were as happy a company of pioneers as ever crossed the plains, and we stayed together nearly all the way to Oregon City.
One evening, on Little Blue, the Captain called the men together and told us as we drew near the buffalo country our teams would become restless, our horses would take fright at every little noise, and that the men and women even would become restive and would not like to be controlled; he said he did not know why it was thus, but such was the case, and that we must be on our guard all the time to prevent “stampedes” or quarrels in the camp or train, but in spite of all his and our caution, we had a grand stampede as we were going into camp for the last time on Little Blue. I did not see it, but those who did said it was terrible. No person hurt; one of my wagons went into camp on three wheels and one of S. Coffin’s oxen on three legs. I was out on my last wild turkey hunt and missed the exciting time. We were delayed one day by the “stampede.”
We struck the Platte River on the first day of June. We saw the first buffalo the day we passed Grand Island. They were on the north side of main Platte. Some of them were lying down, others were apparently feeding, and others traveling about. I was raised near the Darby Plains in Ohio, where they had immense herds of cattle, but I never saw so large a herd as that was; it extended for miles and covered sections, and when some of the hunters from the company just ahead of us rode wildly into the drove and fired a volley at them, they fairly made the earth tremble in their endeavor to escape. (The tremble part I have from the hunters, as I was too far away to feel it.) After we crossed South Platte, we took a turn at buffalo chasing and found it agreeable and profitable.
At Ash Hollow, on the North Platte, we stopped a day for washing, there being plenty of wood and water. Our oxen and cows began to get footsore and we had to leave some of them on the way, which were generally killed and eaten by the wolves. I, with several others, visited the grand towers, from the tops of which we could see the emigrant road from Ash Hollow to Scott’s Bluff, and I think it was the finest sight I ever saw. The long trains of covered wagons one after another just as far as the eye could reach each way, with their loads of brave pioneers silently wending their way towards the setting sun; it appeared to me that there were 1,000 wagons in sight.
We reached Fort Laramie just as the Indians had returned from a successful raid on the Pawnees, and were encamped at the mouth of Laramie River on both sides of both rivers. The officers at the Fort told me that this camp contained 1,500 lodges. We stopped one day at Laramie to set wagon tires and trade our lame stock for sound ones, giving two and sometimes three for one. There our lumberman left his log wagon, which he was advised to leave at St. Joe. At Box Elder Creek we saw the graves of several of the Woodside family, who, it was said, were poisoned by eating fruit that had been cooked and allowed to stand in brass kettles.
We crossed the Platte on the last day of June on a raft, and Captain Palmer swan his horses hitched to his hack across the river after sunset.
From the best data that I can get, we were at this place about the middle of the emigration. We passed Independence Rock, on Sweetwater, on the 4th day of July, and hoisted the Stars and Stripes and fired the cannon on top of said rock at 12 o’clock that day; met the first company returning from Oregon that night; heard good news from Oregon, and also heard that the emigrants in front were getting along finely, which cheered the despairing ones, if any, in our company.
Our Captain told us we might expect sickness in our camp on Sweetwater, and we did have it, but no one died, although many were sick and some nigh unto death. At the snow bank we met J. G. Campbell, of Oregon City, and William and Samuel Campbell, who were going back east for their father and family. At the last crossing of Sweetwater, we met a man by the name of Grant, with his whole family on his way back to Missouri. When asked what his objections to Oregon were, he said:
In going from Pacific Springs to Bear River, half the company went by Fort Bridges, and half by the desert, but the half that went by the cut off had the worst of it. Three days travel before we got to the Soda Springs, we passed the grave of Elias Brown, who died June 17th, 1847, of Mountain Fever, father of J. Henry Brown, our efficient Secretary, the first grave of the company that left on Little Blue that we had seen, and the only one we did see.
At the Soda Springs all the sick were healed; and on the first day of August we camped on Snake River. At what was called Bluff camp, a few miles below the great falls of Snake River, part of the cattle swam across Snake River, and in the morning the Captain and Hi. Simpkins swam over and tried to make them swim back, but all their efforts were in vain. The boys finding it impossible to force them into the water called for help, Judge Grim, J. Whitney and Wallace Foster swam over and helped them. John Whitney caught hold of an ox’s tail and was ferried back, and the others swam back. The Captain and Simpkins had been in the hot sun under the bluff so long trying to make the cattle take water, that they were perfectly sunburnt, and the next day they were two as sick men as I ever saw. They both shed their skin like snakes.
At Salmon Falls, we laid in such a supply of salmon that we had to throw away two-thirds of it before we traveled far. We crossed Snake River at the Three Islands. We rested our teams on day before crossing, and on that day we lost a fine young man by the name of Elijah Weeks. He and others went into the river to bathe, and, although an excellent swimmer, was caught in a whirlpool and drawn in and did not come out while we stayed, but came out and was picked up by a company who knew him and was buried three days after we left.
After leaving the river and traveling about six miles, we struck a bee line for the Hot Springs, and about half way between where we left the road and the Springs, we camped at what we called Palmer’s encampment, on Palmer’s cutoff, at a fine spring and as fine grass and clover as I ever saw. We had three horses stolen at that camp, and the boys said it was because I did not fire the cannon that night.
We saw a notice on a tree one day’s travel this side of Barrel creek, informing us that a man had been shot at that camp a day or two before, and for all emigrants to be on the lookout for the red devils. I fired that “Young Democrat” twice that night, loaded to the muzzle. We saw no Indians that night.
We saw Hiram Buffum’s grave at Goose creek. He was a brother of William Buffum of Yamhill County. We left Snake River the 1st day of September.
On Powder River, James Harpole’s wife died, and in digging her grave they found a great deal of mica, and in 1848, after gold had been found in California and brought to Oregon, the boys that dug the grave said that they knew there was millions of ounces of just exactly such stuff on Powder River, where they buried Mrs. Harpole; and a company went from near Butteville in the winter of 1848-9 to make their fortunes; but they were bitterly disappointed when they found only worthless mica or isinglass. It turned very cold and one young man by the name of Asa Martin, who drove a team across the plains for John W. Grim in 1847, was so frozen that he died soon after returning or on his way home, I have forgotten which.
At Umatilla, some of the emigrants concluded to go to Dr. Whitman’s on the Walla Walla River and stay all winter, and their sad history was written in blood, and is familiar as household words to all Oregon Pioneers. At the first crossing of Umatilla, we met F. W. Geer of Butteville, who told us how it had rained in the Cascade Mountains and what we had to encounter, but we did not realize the situation then, but we did afterwards.
On the Columbia River the Indians had become very saucy and insolent; would drive off stock and then demand pay for returning it; and some of the boys gave them the end of the whip lash, and I gave one the end of my right arm quicker than he wanted it. My wife had brought a very large turkey wing across the plains, and an Indian saw it and wanted it for Big Medicine, and caught hold of one end of it and tried to take it away from her, but failed; and I suppose thought he would scare her by pretending he would cut her hand with a knife that he had drawn from his belt. I told her to hold on, for he dare not hurt her and that I would attend to him as soon as I got the cow yoked, as I was then putting the yoke on the cow; and she held on of course, but before I got the cow yoked, he let go and was trying to make it up with her by saying the she was a close kloochman, and other words. But the drawing of his knife and making motions with it that he had, had got my blood all warmed up, and the closer I got to him, the warmer I got, and when in reach of him I gave him an under handed lift that raised him about two feet, and he came down badly demoralized. The old chief was in the camp with several of his braves, and he blustered around terribly, and wanted me to give him a shirt or blanket. I felt I was “Big Injun” then, and picked up a tent pole and went for them, and told them that if they did not leave I would sweep them from the face of the earth; or course they left.
The next Sunday evening Dr. Whitman preached to our company on Willow Creek, and complimented us and the young man that gave the Indian the whiplash, by saying if more men would do likewise, instead of giving them presents for their impudence and theft, it would be better for all concerned.
At Rock Creek, we had several head of cattle drowned in a short time after we stopped and we called that creek Drowning Creek.
We crossed the Des Chutes River on two wagon beds lashed together, and arrived at Barlow’s Gate on September 29th, and on the last day of October, we started to cross the Cascade mountains, and right here our trouble began. Capt. Bowman’s company had got to the gate just one month ahead of us, and before any rain had fallen, and as the road was new or comparatively so, having been opened in 1846, and newly worked and but one track for the wagon, Bowman’s and other trains immediately following him rendered it very dusty, and the rains of September had washed the dust all off the hills and worked it into mortar on the levels and rolling ground, which was followed by a few days of pleasant weather, which dried the hills and stiffened the mud in other places so that it would bear a wagon, and when it had rained two days, the 2d and 3d of October, the road was just horrible, a description of it is impossible by me, at least at this time.
When we started into the mountains there had been a continual string of wagons and loose stock passing for one month, and consequently had eaten what little grass there was near the road. On account of the horrible condition of the road and continual rain from the time we started into the mountains, we were thirteen days in reaching the valley, but we all got through with good appetites and found plenty of good substantial food to satisfy any reasonable man, woman or child.
The Pioneers of 1847 found plenty of bread, meat and potatoes and pea-coffee, and certainly had no reasonable right to complain of the prices, and all found work for a reasonable price. For the best information for I am able to obtain, I think the emigration of 1847 numbered 5,000 souls. Gov. Abernethy says in his message, between four and five thousand souls. The emigrants were scattered, and not very thinly scattered either, over at least 500 miles of road, which satisfies me that there were at least 5,000 souls crossed the plains that year.
Squire Shively arrived at Oregon City with the United States mail, drawn by horses, September 7th, and Capt. Nat. Bowman’s company was the first to the gate and arrived at Oregon City a day or two after Shively. But few started into the mountains after the 5th of October, then turned to the Dalles and went down the river.
The emigrants of 1847 nearly if not quite doubled the white population of Oregon, for I find the whole population in 1850 to be but 13,080, after receiving the emigrations of 1848 and 1849, besides large accessions from California during these years, and also the natural increase which was considerable. This doubling the population, enabled the people not only the defend themselves, but to send an army east of the mountains and chastise the murders of Dr. Whitman, and compel the Indians to give up the murderers, who were tried, condemned and executed at Oregon City, thus showing the Indians that we were masters of the situation.
The Pioneers of 1847 spread all over this valley and Umpqua, thereby enabling the people to establish schools all over the land. The stock interests were advanced by the introduction of fine horses, cattle and sheep, by enterprising Pioneers of that year, a few of whom I will speak. Uncle Johnny Wilson, as we used to call him, of Linn County, brought a drove of Durhams from Henry Clay’s herd at Blue Grass Grove, Illinois, which vastly improved the stock of Oregon, for he sold breeding animals all over the State. A great difference was perceptible wherever they ranged. He also brought as fine mares as could be bought in Illinois. Uncle Johnny came near losing his whole band of horses on the Platte. The horses took a stampede and ran off wit a herd of buffalos, but he followed them all one day and finally got them. He was out one or two nights, I forget which. My wife thinks it was two or three nights; at all events he brought them back all right.
Captain Benser brought a herd of fine cattle and improved the herds of the Columbia bottoms vastly. J. C. Geer, Sr., brought a fine cow of Henry Clay’s favorite stock. She was a very large, well proportioned cow, and worked all the way across the plains, missing only two or three days the whole trip, walking down two large steers; her descendants are to be seen at this time in the Waldo Hills and are prized.
Mr. M. L. Savage brought old George that year. Mr. Savage stayed over one year for the purpose of getting him to bring to Oregon, believing him to be the best race horse in the United States at that time. Old George made a record for himself that any owner might be proud of and I presume Mr. Savage is satisfied he brought the horse to Oregon.
Sheep husbandry received a big lift that year. Mr. Fields brought a flock of fine sheep from Missouri and stopped with them near Uncle Dan Waldo’s. Fields and his wife both died under a large fir tree with measles. The sheep were sold at auction in small flocks; they proved to be superior sheep to say the least. I got a small flock of them in 1850, and in 1853 I sold a lot of fat sheep to the butcher Fields or Portland for $16 a head. The wool was fine and long, the carcasses heavy. I have inquiry for the Fields sheep often yet. I believe they made for themselves a wider and better name than any sheep that ever have or ever will be brought to Oregon.
Uncle Headrick, William Turpin and Johnson Mulkey, brought a fine flock, Priest Fackler drove them all the way as far as they traveled with us. Turpin’s were Saxony, and Uncle Headrick gave him $25 for a half-blooded buck at Foster’s which was certainly a big price, for dollars were larger then than now.
This stock of sheep is still on the Howell Prairie and they speak for themselves. R. Patton brought a large flock and took them to Yamhill County, but I do not know their history.
This emigration brought everything nearly, from a paper of pins to a 4-foot burr. Mr. Haun, of Haun’s mill notoriety in Missouri, brought a pair of mill burr-stones. I do not know, but suppose they were French burrs.
Uncle Thomas Cox, and William his son, brought a respectable store across the plains and opened out at Salem the first store south of Champoeg. William also brought some peach pits and planted them, and originated the celebrated Cox cling peach, the boss peach of California, of at least was in 1870.
Uncle A. R. Dimick, the originator of the Dimick potato, brought the seeds of the Early of Shaker Blue potato from Michigan with him in 1847, and planted them on his farm in the north part of Marion County, and from these seeds sprang the famous Dimick potato.
But the greatest undertaking, and one that was crowned with success, and one that contributed the most to the name and fame of Oregon, was the “Traveling Nursery,” brought across the plains by the late Henderson Luelling, in 1847. If a man is a benefactor to his race who makes two spears of grass grow where only one grew before, what is he to his State, who makes luscious pears, cherries, plums and apples grow, where only poor seedlings or none, grew before. Mr. Henderson Luelling by bringing that splendid assortment of apples, pears, plums, cherries, quinces, grapes, berries and flowers in his “Traveling Nursery” to Oregon in 1847, gave to Oregon the name of “God’s country, or the Land of Big Red Apples,” a name that every Pioneer of Oregon feels proud of. I never thought Mr. Luelling received the reward that his enterprise merited. I have dealt with him to the extent of thousands of dollars, from one dollar to two thousand dollar transactions, and always found him honest. Being honest himself he trusted too much and consequently was victimized to a fearful extent. The conception and carrying out of that enterprise was not the sudden conviction as to the importance of the fruit business, but was the result of a train of circumstances, the most controlling of which was his long and successful engagement in the nursery business.
In the fall of 1845, he began to prepare to start to Oregon, but could not dispose of his land in time to start until it would be quite late, so he concluded to wait another year and bring the “Traveling Nursery.” He planted his nursery thus: He made two boxes 12 inches deep, and just wide and long enough to fill the wagon bed, and filled them with a compost consisting principally of charcoal and earth, into which he planted about 700 trees and shrubs, from 20 inches to 4 feet high, and protected them from the stock by a light though strong frame fastened to the wagon box. He left Missouri River the 17th of May. On the Platte, Mr. Luelling took charge of the nursery wagon and team to bring it through in his own way and time, for it was already pronounced by some of his friends a very hazardous undertaking to draw such a heavy load all the way over the Rocky mountains; but every discouraging proposition, he invariably answered, that as so long as he could take it without endangering the safety of his family, he would stick to it. The last time that any one tried to discourage him about the nursery wagon was on the North Platte. Rev. Mr. White suggested that it would be better to leave it, as the cattle were becoming weary and foot sore, and that owing to the continued weight of that load, it would kill all his cattle and prevent his getting through; but his answer was such an emphatic “no” that he was allowed to follow his own course after that without remonstrance.
The nursery reached The Dalles about the 1st of October, and the trees were there taken out of the boxes and securely wrapped in cloths to protect them from frosty nights and the various handlings that they had to undergo in the transit down the Columbia. That load of trees contained health, wealth and comfort, for the Old Pioneers of Oregon. It was the mother of all our early nurseries and orchards, and gave Oregon a name and fame that she never would have had without it. That load of living trees and shrubs brought more wealth to Oregon that any ship that ever entered the Columbia River. Then, I say, hail, all hail to the traveling nursery that crossed the plains in 1847.
Excuse me, when I tell you that I brought one bushel of apple, and one-half bushel of pear seeds, which went far towards supplying this coast with trees, especially pear trees, for I furnished Luelling with stock and he furnished me with buds from his traveling nursery, which enabled both of us to furnish cultivated trees in great numbers at an early day, and certainly that traveling nursery was a God-send to me and mine.
One good effect of the emigration of 1847, as I have already stated, was to swell the white population of Oregon to such an extent that there were men enough to go east of the Cascade mountains and conquer the hostile Indians and bring the murderers of Dr. Whitman and others to justice, and so overawe all the Indians in the country that it was perfectly safe to travel any where in the country in small parties.
And when the gold mines “broke out,” thousands of men could and did leave Oregon for the gold fields, and left their families perfectly safe at their homes, thus enabling the Oregonians to skim the gold fields of California and return to Oregon and spend the cream in developing the country. To mention all the good results of that large emigration would exceed my limits, but I could not do less than hint at some of them.
The emigration of 1847 gave us many of our prominent men; it gave us Samuel R. Thurston, our first Delegate to Congress, who, by his indefatigable energy and perseverance, obtained what all old Oregon Pioneers had long prayed for in vain, the passage of the bill donating lands to the Pioneers of Oregon. But Samuel R. Thurston needs no eulogy from me; his deeds live in the hearts of all old Pioneers, and his name is a household word among many families in the land for which he toiled.
Note: Ralph's son, Calvin Geer, also documented his recollections of their trip to Oregon in 1847. Additional background on the family's move westward can be found in TT Geer's Autobiography: Fifty Years In Oregon. Specifically:
I have also found some information on the Palmer wagon train including a full list of the pioneers in his company. Captain Joel Palmer went to Oregon first in 1845 on his own with a company from Independence. He kept a journal of his travels then and during his return to the East in 1846, at which time he had it published. Few of the copies ordered were completed by the time he was ready to set out for Oregon again in 1847, but it later became widely used. Palmer recruited a large number of people to join his company in 1847. These included the Ralph C. Geer family, the John W. Grim family, the Graham and Collard families and Christopher Taylor. Robert Crouch Kinney and his brother Samuel also stated in later years that they came with the Palmer Company, although Robert Kinney's name is also listed among those in the train of Capt. Jordan Sawyer.
A number of Geers - including spouses and children - made the journey in 1847 as shown in the table below:
I am interested in your perspective on what you found to be interesting within these recollections. If you could please send me feedback, I would be grateful. Thank you.
For those who are interested in this book, it can often be located in used bookstores through Alibris which consolidates availability across hundreds of used book stores across the United States. There are many other excellent books that are of general interest about the Oregon Trail. The ones listed here are only a few of the best:
Other interesting books on the Oregon Trail from Amazon.com include:
Links To Other Oregon Trail Diaries and Information