Oregon Historical Quarterly/Volume 1/Glimpses of Life in Early Oregon


As we travel through the Willamette Valley with the dispatch and comfort of a well-equipped railway service, we are quickly forgetting how our fathers and grandfathers journeyed. Pioneer experiences and hardships are memories of long ago; another century is dawning, and we say that "the new is better than the old."

In the early days of the settlement of this state the horse was the only means of travel, unless one's course lay along the Willamette, and then it was the canoe with paddles that carried trappers, explorers, and occasional Hudson's Bay officials on their journeys. The native grasses were luxuriant and abundant, the climate mild, and every settler's door stood hospitably ajar. Journeying was by easy stages and not irksome. It is pleasant to remember that there was a time when one had time to be leisurely and greet one's friends in a kindly, simple fashion. Civilization was gathered within the four walls of Fort Vancouver, on the Columbia River. Our greatest friend, John McLoughlin, was the chief factor of all the Hudson's Bay Company's establishments west of the Rocky Mountains, and children who have been born in the original Oregon Territory may well "rise up and call him blessed."

The good "old doctor," as he was respectfully and affectionately called, cheered the hearts of thousands of immigrants by his deeds of gracious humanity. With a generous hand he furnished provisions, clothing, cattle, grain, and farming implements, taking in return the immigrant's word that he would ever be repaid; the159 word was sometimes kept and oftentimes broken. Doctor McLoughlin conducted life at Fort Vancouver as feudal lords of old, and that, too, with strict military discipline; the coming and going regulated by the ringing of the great bell. The members of this large household breakfasted and supped by their own firesides, but dinner was served in the hall for gentlemen and visitors. All stood while the doctor said grace, and men of humble birth "sat below the salt." Distinguished men gathered at this board. Foremost among them we reckon Douglas, the botanist, to whom the doctor furnished escort and transportation. As he took his way through the Willamette Valley, and on to the Rogue River, it became a journey of months. His investigations covered a wide stretch—the lowly flower by the trail, the myriads of brilliant blooms on the breeze-swept prairies, the shrubs and vines of hillside and canyon, and towering evergreens on lofty mountain heights. In order to study plant life he watched it from the bursting bud in April showers, through sunny summer weather, to the autumn maturing of the seed. Be it remembered that Douglas first made the world acquainted with the three kingliest products of our forests—the giant spruce of the Oregon wilderness, the solemn fir of the cloud-drift region, and the sugar pine of the Sierras. This clever man met with a tragic death in the Sandwich Islands, for he fell into a pit dug for wild cattle and was gored to death by a bull.

Geologists searching the distant field, and titled gentlemen traveling for pleasure, shared the doctor's hospitality, and were given escort through the beautiful pastoral country. With the ingress of the Americans Oregon City became the place of importance next to Fort Vancouver, and when Doctor McLoughlin was called there on business, he set out in a bateau, manned by French-Canadian voyageurs, who, clad in their gay national dress, sang gay Canadian boating songs to the rhythm of the paddles. The doctor sat aloft in the stern, erect and dignified, dressed in a long blue-cloth coat, with brass buttons, buff waistcoat and dark trousers, and a gray beaver hat. The garments were fashioned in London, and the making of beaver hats has been a lost art these many years. When the doctor reached Oregon City he clambered up the rocky path and paced the single street, carrying a gold-headed cane, and with his brilliant blue eyes and flowing white locks, his was a face and figure never to be forgotten. This great-hearted man and friend of the pioneers lies by the side of his wife in consecrated ground, within sound of the Falls of the Willamette.

We can understand what a sore deprivation the absence of books and papers was to the pioneers of the "forties." One man in the Yoncalla Valley, who had accumulated several hundred dollars, called his children about him and asked if he should build a house to replace the log cabin, or buy "Harper's Complete Library," consisting of many volumes bound in "12mo." Be it to their lasting credit, the books were purchased, carefully read and remembered, and preserved for succeeding generations.

Another man, troubled lest his children be cut off from civilizing influences in their frontier life, built and furnished a house at great expense and in a style that was not equaled for many years nor within many miles. He lived to see his lands and house swept from him, through the dishonesty of another, but not before the attractive home surroundings had served their purpose. This brave man spent the declining years of trouble and sorrow on the mountain-side overlooking the fair valley, where once lay his own broad acres, and no man had ever been turned from his door. The letters written through all the years of this man's life in Oregon are marvels of style and composition, and greatly treasured by their fortunate owners. Especially so are those of his later years, when riper experience and a keener insight into men and events lent greater force to his pen, so that a man of great culture and polish once said: "They sound as if written from a baronial castle, whereas they come from a log cabin."

On the western slope of the Willamette there was another where all books and papers were most carefully preserved, so that the third generation of descendants is now able to read a file of the Oregon Spectator, published in 1846 and 1847. The paper was placed over a string stretched across the cabin, until they were all carefully laid by. An English gentleman, accompanied by a guide and traveling in pursuit of game and pleasure, once craved food and shelter at the cabin door. He was cheerfully bidden to enter and partake of the unvarying fare of boiled wheat and possibly beef, and the earthen floor and a buffalo robe served as a bed. The gentleman met his host and hostess in Washington afterward, and when the latter spoke of the meager entertainment in Oregon, he said: "Ha, but you gave me the best you had; the Prince of Wales could do no better." A roomy, comfortable house replaced the log cabin, and its door, too, stood ajar, and all were welcomed to the kind and simple hospitality. Young officers from West Point, on first frontier duty, passing to remote mountain garrisons and out again for brief glimpses of civilization, had cordial greeting. Some of these died like brave soldiers on the battle-fields of the civil war. Others attained rank and distinction in the service, and two at least won the highest honors ever conferred by an appreciative country.

Every governor and senator of Oregon has claimed the welcome extended, unless it be the present incumbents, and though the master and his gentle wife have passed out for the last time, those, too, would be kindly greeted beneath the old roof. Preacher and circuit-rider, humbly following in the footsteps of their divine Lord, students and distinguished statesmen gathered about this fireside. Best of all were the times when the earliest pioneers honored it with their presence, and the quaint telling of tales of adventure, privation and Indian warfare lasted far into the night, and the logs burned low on the hearth.

The lack of schools was deeply deplored by many of these hardy pioneers, men and women, though some were more fortunate. Many remember with affection and respect one who came from her New England home and most conscientiously taught the fortunate children entrusted to her care. School days under her wise and kind guidance, and ofttimes in most picturesque spots, are bright and happy memories of many men and women today. One family spent years of happiness and contentment on a lonely sea shore, and were taught by a governess, while the play-time was spent among the beautiful groves and watching the waves so full of interest and mystery. A peaceful happy life, but in their longing for companionship they fed sugar to two house flies on the window-sill in stormy weather,—for house flies were not then a pest.

Sometimes the housewife was of another nationality, and claimed a prior right to this beautiful valley. A judge once traveling across Tualatin Plains in the winter was belated by a storm and asked shelter at a trapper's door. He was given a place by the blazing hearth, and the dusky housewife, busy about the evening meal, placed before them potatoes, deliciously roasted in the ashes, venison, bread, butter, milk and tea, while the host interestingly told of having known Captain Bonneville and his party on the plains, as well as members of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. In his journeys he knew the watershed of the Columbia and Missouri by heart, and in one night had set traps in both rivers.

One of Oregon's most polished and charming of her earlier pioneers, was entertained at a frugal board, and in graceful acknowledgment sent the hostess some soup plates from the Hudson's Bay store, and a daughter of the house exhibited them to him forty years afterward. Although he returned to New England to spend many of the last years of his life, his interest in Oregon never waned, and during his visits here his reminiscences of early days were a delight to those who were so fortunate as to hear them.

The first school opened in the original Oregon country for American children was by Doctor Whitman at the Waiilatpu Mission, on the Walla Walla River. The school was attended by the children of missionaries, those who were left orphans, and the children of immigrants who were belated by winter storms and kept from entering the Willamette Valley.

Eliza Spalding was born at Lapwai Mission in 1837, and at ten years of age was sent to Whitman's station in charge of a trusty Nez Perce woman. These two journeyed alone on horseback three days, and camped as many nights by the trail. The air was cold on the table land adjacent to the Snake River, but the child was tenderly cared for by this faithful woman. Eliza was interpreter, owing to her thorough knowledge of Nez Perce, but her school-time at the mission was brief. Fifty years afterward she told of the awful tragedy that ended the life-work of a great and good man and his wife, and those others who shared their fate. Half a century had not obliterated the traces and impression of the horrible crime from the sensitive mind of her who was a child at the time of the massacre.

A little school established in Polk County, early in the forties laid claim to the ambitious title of institute. Whether in the spirit of true democracy, or as a deserving tribute to the great mind that conceived the possibilities of this western land, and with marvelous foresight planned the Lewis and Clark expedition, this little log school house bore the name of the Jefferson Institute. The man who presided there remembered the lore of earlier years, and equally well had he treasured the books of that more fortunate time.

Men and women are living who owe a debt of gratitude to John E. Lyle, and remember with deep affection and respect that he first pointed out the narrow path that led far afield in the great world of study and literature of today.

The theme is endless, when we begin to recall the men and events of other days; much has been written and preserved, and much lost to the world because the demands of later times were great, and those who might have recorded faithfully and well went out into the great beyond without having benefited Oregon's story by handing down such a record.