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Early Oregon Schools

By Prof. F. H. Grubbs, 1852.
reprinted from Oregon Pioneer Association Transactions

I have been requested to present today some reminiscences and social features of early life in Oregon, especially regarding the pioneer schools, planted here and there, where a little settlement took root and began to flourish beneath the kindly skies and genial air that wooed from their Eastern homes that sturdy stock whose advent brought Christianity and civilization, into a benighted wilderness. Our task is a pleasing duty, for we shall forsake the trodden and dusty highways of history for paths of wisdom, while we gather a posy fragment in memories of old walls, bright with pictures of companions of our youth, and of the gentle spirits who inspired our earliest aspirations and guided our first excursions into the domains of literature and art. “There is rosemary for remembrance, and there are pansies for thoughts.”

The conditions of school life reflected distinctly the characteristics of the pioneer home and of the community. The long and dangerous journey across deserts and mountain ranges, and now the vicissitudes of a sparsely settled region, begot independence of thought and action with a ready adaptation to meet emergencies. Men were knights for valor and women were saints, who in all that weary way were not “afraid for the terror by night nor the arrow that flyeth by day; nor for the pestilence that walketh in the darkness; no the destruction that wasteth at noonday.”

The girls of the family were modest and retiring in the presence of strangers, charming and simple in their home life, and cherished with a peculiar care, for they were few in the land, and coy as the wild doe of the mountains. Expert as their brothers in the saddle, a beau who would be company home must first catch his girl, and it is a well-authenticated fact that, on one occasion, the gallant trailed off far behind nor got within speaking distance of the fair fugitive.

The boys, confident and assertive, bestrode their gaily caparisoned ponies and ranged the prairies among the herds of cattle and horses; they affected the style and abandon of their neighbors, with whom they came in contact in the California mines, or met, with their pack trains, in the Oregon valleys. They wore a broad-brimmed Mexican sombrero, with a bright ribbon. The trousers were of buckskin, fringed at the seams, or of cloth slashed at the bottoms and revealing a row of bright buttons. A red sash about the waist was caught in a bow at the left side, from which a fringe or a tassel depended, while a negligee shirt completed the summer costume. The added winter garment was frequently a Mexican or Navajo serape, a heavy blanket, with an opening in the center, and which afforded ample protection, form the wildest storms. N. K. Sitton, familiarly known as “Dock” Sitton, of Panther Creek, Yamhill County, was a picturesque type of the old rancher; his daily costume was not completed until he tied on his buckskin leggings and buckled the long Mexican spurs to his boots, where they clattered at his heels all day, indoors and out. His pony stood from early dawn at the door, saddled and ready to carry him to the barn or corral or on a longer excursion, for the old Oregonian never walked. In the absence of public service the young man, in his Sunday best, rode off early on adventures. Arriving at a neighbor's, miles distant, he tied his pony to the fence or staked him out on the green sward, as a lariat and picket pin were an indispensable part of the outfit of the beau of pioneer days, and engaged the daughter of the house on the back porch. Another arrival tied up and sat down on the fence, unless there were two girls in the house. All belated swains perched on the rails, whittling, smoking and swapping yarns until the call to dinner, which was a general invitation.

Of such were the boys and girls who found their way to our early institutions of learning. Many of them remembered the breakfast of boiled wheat and jerked venison. Some of the young women were the survivors of Indian massacres on the plains. All were inured to the hardships of extreme pioneer life; and bound by ties of mutual dependence and common experiences, but there was an interchange of simple courtesies that have lost their flavor amid the conventionalities of a later civilization.

The fall of 1834 witnessed the first attempt to teach in Oregon, when Solomon H. Smith opened a school in the house of Joseph Gervais, of Wheatland, in Marion County, a short distance east of Wheatland. The pupils were Indian children and the offspring of returned French trappers and their native wives. Mr. Smith, who was from New Hampshire, came with Wyeth's first expedition to Oregon, in 1832. Immediately on his arrival he met and married Celiast, the second daugther of Yah-na-ka-sak Cobaway (Comowool, of Lewis and Clark), principal Chief of the Clatsops. The instruction must have been very elementary, for Celiast sometimes undertook the conduct of the school in the absence of her husband.

On the establishment of Jason Lee's Mission in the fall of 1834, Mrs. Smith assisted in opening the Mission school.

Of the early schools among the white settlers I speak today from personal knowledge, for I had the honor, in the early '50s, of presiding over one of these first colleges. The little temple itself, sheltered in a grove of oaks, from its heights looked out over a grassy plain, dotted with abundant herds. Toward the west ranges of hills rolled away to the blue ridges of the Coast Mountains. The older pupils sat at long desks on either side of the room, facing the narrow windows, placed in a space where one of the logs had been cut away. The younger swung their bare feet from benches ranged down the middle hall. You recognize the picture and your hearts warm again toward the old log schoolhouse.

These early schools were maintained by a rate levied on each pupil. There was little in the way of class work, for the textbooks were largely rescued from the scant literature that survived the trip overland and were as diverse as the localities were widely separated from which they started on their journey. To relieve this peculiar situation in some measure, W. P. Hudson, who was engaged on the Oregon Spectator as printer, published an abridgement of Webster's Elementary Speller, which was the first English book printed in the Oregon Country. The date of the book was February 1, 1847.

In 1845 Rev. J. L. Parrish opened the first school on Clatsop Plains in the old Methodist Mission house. Among the patrons were Captain R. W. Morrison and Solomon H. Smith, who had now located on a fine tract of land, at present the site of Warrenton and Flavel. Solomon H. Smith's house was a large double dwelling occupied by his own family of seven children and the family of Captain Morrison. Here W. W. Raymond, during the winter of 1846-1847, conducted a school that was largely attended, for Clatsop had become an important settlement. After one term Mr. Raymond was succeeded by Miss Elmira Phillips, who was probably the young teacher that rejected the ardent suit of Samuel Hall. Hopeless Hall went to California, but he did not forget the lovely teacher and her charming school in far-off Oregon, for when he died he left all his property to the district in which he had so ardently and fatally loved. During the winter of 1849-50 W. H. Gray organized a boarding school at the old Methodist Mission. This institution became quite widely known, and was patronized by a number of families from Astoria. The teacher was Rev. Lewis Thompson, who in 1846 organized the first Presbyterian church in Oregon.

In 1848 the early settlers of Yamhill began to agitate the question of a subscription school. They were unanimous as to the need, but no progress could be made, as each one wanted the building on his own land. Ahio S. Watt, then a mere youth, consented to teach if they could come to an agreement. At his suggestion the neighbors met and selected a central location, which was fixed on his father's donation claim, from which center some of the patrons were eight miles distant. The logs which had been cut a year were soon hauled to the spot, and the little house, with its wide chimney and rough seats, was speedily finished.

Early in 1849 the school was opened, with Ahio S. Watt as teacher. He named it Amity, in commemoration of the amicable adjustment of their differences. The building stood about a mile from the present town of Amity. Roxanna Watt, Ahio's thirteen-year-old sister, conducted the reading exercises, under the spreading oaks, the single McGuffey's Reader being passed from hand to hand. There were few textbooks, and as late as 1853, when Levi Ankeney and Harvey W. Scott were in attendance at Amity, the instruction was largely oral. A number of men, noted in Oregon affairs, began their careers in this little log schoolhouse. Following Watt as teachers were Matthew P. Deady, John E. Lyle, Rev. E. R. Geary and Wyatt Harris.

The McBride school on Panther Creek was another Yamhill institution. The originators were Dr. James McBride and W. L. Adams, the latter of whom arrived in Oregon overland in 1848 with ten cents in his pocket, a team, consisting of one cow an done ox, a wife and two babies, still living. One of these babies became the wife of J. W. Johnson, first president of the University of Oregon, the other the wife of W. W. Parker, prominent in pioneer affairs of California and Oregon. Mr. Adams, being a college-bred man, concluded to try teaching as a means of subsistence during the winter. Dr. McBride's log house contained three large rooms, with a loft above. The back room was vacated for a school, and Mr. Adams became the first teacher. In the spring of 1849 Mr. Adams joined the gold hunters, while his wife opened a new term in a little log house that had been erected for her use. On the return of Mr. Adams in the fall of 1849, he again assumed charge. The reputation of the school attracted pupils from a distance, so that a number boarded in the community. As at Amity, the sessions were frequently conducted beneath the open sky. From this little hive went forth some men who made their mark in the history of the Pacific Coast. Of these were J. R. McBride, congressman from Oregon; George W. McBride, United States senator from Oregon; Judge. Thomas A. McBride; George L. Woods, who was elected governor of Oregon in 1866; Drs. Thomas and James Shelton and Dr. Levi L. Rowland, superintendent of public instruction in 1874-1878, and superintendent of the Oregon Insane asylum in 18 . . .

In June 1846, Elijah Bristow, E. F. Skinner, Wm. Dodson and Capt. Felix Scott journeyed south through the Willamette Valley, spying out the land. The whole region lay unoccupied before them, and they traversed the foothills of the Coast Mountains, a panorama of surpassing loveliness unfolded day by day. They were standing on the summit of a low hill, between the coast and middle forks of the Willamette, near a crystal spring and under a grove of oaks, when Mr. Bristow, baring his head, exclaimed: “This is my claim; here I will live and here will I be buried.” Around his cabin speedily grew a community, the Dodson's, Gilfry's, Hendricks' and Callison's, who immediately began to provide a school for the growing generation. Near the original Bristow, cabin rough longs soon assumed the proportions of a building under the supervision of Elijah Bristow himself, aided by his stalwart sons and sons-in-law, Robert Callison and James Hendricks. Even the grandsons were conscripted, among them Hon. T. G. Hendricks, of Eugene. Early in the spring of 1850 the Pleasant Hill school opened in due form, with W. W. Bristow as teacher of the first school in Lane County.
Willamette and Pacific Universities.

The history of two of our institutions of learning runs coeval with American settlement and civilization on the Pacific. Go where you will upon the Coast you will find their alumni prominent among the leaders of thought and in the first ranks of every enterprise, while their families will hold equal rank with any on the continent.

These pioneer schools, Willamette University and Pacific University, deserve the very best at the hands of Oregonians for all time, in view of the place they occupied and the work they accomplished when our state was little more than a wilderness.

Willamette University

The germ of Willamette University was planted when Jason Lee opened his Indian Mission School in November, 1834. But a broader growth was conceived when the first American colony to Oregon assembled in the cabin of the Lausanne, the Mayflower of the Pacific, to celebrated the centenary of Methodism, November 23, 1839, at sea, latitude 35 degrees 44 minutes north and longitude 65 degrees 15 minutes west.

On that occasion Rev. Jason Lee suggested the propriety of a subscription looking toward the establishment of a seat of learning on the Pacific Coast. The practical thought met with universal approbation. The contribution amounted to $650, and was the cornerstone of the old Oregon Institute, whose foundations were laid in 1842. The first board of trustees were Rev. Jason Lee, president; Rev. David Leslie, Rev. Gustavus Hines, Rev. J. L. Parrish, Rev. L. H. Judson, Messrs. Geo. Abernethy, Alanson Beers, Hamilton Campbell and Dr. Ira L. Babcock. A subscription amounting to about $4,000 insured the success of the enterprise. Some of the subscribers contributed from one-fourth to one-third of all their possessions. There was no cash in the country, so these sums were paid in barter, or orders on the mission store at Oregon City, or on the Hudson's Bay Company at Vancouver. When the Methodist missions were discontinued the trustees of the Oregon Institute purchased the property of the Indian Manual Labor School a Chemeketa, and proceeded to lay out a townsite, which they called Salem, now the capital of Oregon. Rev. Jason Lee had already built, for his mission, mills and several dwellings, so that emigrants rapidly settled the adjacent country, in view of the social and educational privileges afforded.

The Oregon Institute opened its doors for white children in 1844, with Mrs. Chloe A. Willson as teacher; afterward Rev. Nehemiah Doane took charge, and in 1850 Rev. Francis S. Hoyt arrived from the East, and became principal with his wife as assistant.

By an act of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Oregon, 1853, the Willamette University was incorporated. Dr. Hoyt was elected to the presidency and acted in that capacity until 1860, when he resigned to accept the chair of Theology in the Ohio Wesleyan University. Subsequently he became editor of the Western Christian Advocate, Cincinnati, Ohio, and only in 1908, at the age of 87 years, closed his long and successful active career, when he served his connection with Baldwin University, Ohio. Dr. Hoyt was a thorough, classical scholar, was a successful educator, and has left an impress on the Pacific Coast that will never be effaced.

Dr. Thomas M. Gatch succeeded Dr. Hoyt. Of his eminent services as president of Willamette University, the University of Washington and the Oregon Agricultural College, it is not necessary here to speak. He is too well known to require eulogy at my hands; but many loving hearts of old pupils turn to him when he seeks in his Seattle home a well-earned respite.

The first graduate of Willamette University well deserves the honor. Her father, Rev. John W. York, was the host at St. Louis of those Flathead Indians who sought of General Clark the “White man's Book of God,” and whose advent first turned the eye of civilization towards the Pacific Coast. In 1859 Emily J. York, having completed the ladies' course of study, received the first diploma granted by a literary institution west of the rocky Mountains. Miss Addie B. Locey received the same honors in 1862. The first class was graduated on July 14, 1863. In the full classical course were Thomas H. Rawford, J. C. Grubbs and F. H. Grubbs; in the scientific course, John B. Waldo, Alva McWhorter, and Colin T. Finlayson. In the ladies' course were Emily N. Belt, Margarette Grubbs, Lucy A. M. Lee, Mary Jane McGhee, Angeline Robb and Nellie Stipp.

At the close of the collegiate year, 1867, the honorary degree of LL. D. Was conferred upon Hon. Geo. H. Williams, U. S. senator; Hon. Matthew P. Deady, U. S. district judge, and Hon. Addison C. Gibbs, ex-governor of Oregon.

Pacific University

At 66, an age when most women begin to haunt the fireside and amuse themselves with the prattle of their grandchildren, Mrs. Tabitha Brown yoked her ox team and joined the caravan of 1846 that crossed the plains to Oregon. I quote from a letter written by her to friends in the East:
“At Fort Hall three or four trains were decoyed off by a rascally fellow, who came out from the settlements in Oregon. Our sufferings from that time no tongue can tell. We were carried hundreds of miles south of Oregon, lost nearly all our cattle, and passed the Umpqua Mountains, nearly twelve miles through. I rode through in three days at the risk of my life on horseback, having lost my wagon and all that I had but the horse was on. The canyon (Cow Creek) was strewn with dead cattle, broken wagon beds, clothing and everything but provisions, of which latter we were nearly destitute. Some were in the canyon two or three weeks before they got through; some died from fatigue and starvation, while others ate the flesh of cattle that were lying dead by the wayside.”

One night's experience is thus described. She was trying to overtake some of the advance teams in company of an invalid brother-in-law, Captain Brown.

“His senses were gone; covering him up as well as I could with the blankets, I seated myself on the ground behind him, expecting he would be a corpse before morning. Worse than alone in a savage wilderness, without food, without fire, cold and shivering, wolves fighting and howling all around me, dark clouds hid the stars. All was solitary as death. But that same Providence that I had always known was watching over me still.”

On Christmas day, at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, Mrs. Brown entered the house of a Methodist minister in Salem, “the first house I had set my feet in for nine months. For two or three weeks of my journey down the Willamette I had felt something in the end of my glove finger which I supposed to be a button. On examination at my new home in Salem I found it to be a six-and-a-quarter-cent piece. This was my whole cash capital to commence business with in Oregon. With it I purchased three needles; I traded off some of my old clothes to the squaws for buckskins, worked them into gloves for the Oregon ladies and gentlemen, which cleared me upwards of thirty dollars.” Later Mrs. Brown accepted an invitation from Rev. Harvey Clark and wife to spend the winter with them on Tualatin Plains, where Forest Grove now is. Arriving there, she saw the necessity for some sort of school for the poor children in the community, and at once proposed to use the log meeting house for school purposes. She offered to perform the work without special compensation for herself, only the expenses were to be met by the patrons. Parents who were able paid one dollar per week for board, tuition, washing and all; Mrs. Brown agreed to labor one year for nothing.

Mrs. Brown continues: “The time fixed for beginning the school was the first of March, 1848, when I found everything prepared for me to go into the old meeting house and check my chickens. The neighbors had collected what broken knives and forks, tin pans and dishes they could spare for the Oregon pioneer to commence housekeeping. I had a well-educated lady from the East, a missionary's wife, to assist me, and my family grew rapidly. In the summer they put me up in a boarding house. I now had thirty boarders of both sexes and all ages, from four to twenty-one. I managed them and did all my own work except washing; that was done by the scholars.

This was the woman laid the foundation and these were the conditions from which sprang the Tualatin Academy and ultimately Pacific University. Before this name we all do reverence. Hail, St. Tabitha, patron of orphans, mother of the motherless, prophetess of Pacific University; thou hast fought a good fight; thou hast finished thy course; thou hast kept the faith. “Henceforth, there is laid on for thee a crown of life which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give thee at that day.”

Intimately associated with Mrs. Brown to her charitable work was Rev. Harvey Clark, whose munificence supplemented her pioneer efforts and assured their successful, realization. Mr. Clark donated over 200 acres of his land claim which was laid out in town lots, the proceeds of whose sale went exclusively to the benefit of a permanent institution of learning. This is the genesis of Pacific University and the City of Forest Grove. The friendship and co-operation of such men as Rev. Geo. H. Atkinson and Peter H. Hatch gave vigor to the new enterprise, while the long presidency of twenty-five years of Dr. S. H. Marsh built a small and struggling academy into a sturdy and prosperous college.

Tualatin Academy was organized September 21, 1848, with the following trustees: Rev. Harvey Clark, Hiram Clark, Peter H. Hatch, Rev. Lewis Thompson, William H. Gray, Alvin T. Smith, Rev. Geo. H. Atkinson, James Moore and Osborne Russell.

Pacific University was incorporated in January, 1854.

In 1863 the first diploma awarded by Pacific University was conferred upon Harvey W. Scott, who has ever since been in a distinguished class by himself.

In 1866 degrees were conferred upon Geo. H. Durham, Myron Ee'ls and Edward B. Watson.

In those early days of Oregon schools the study of science in its varied branches was present without the aid of illustration or demonstration. The text-book alone afforded instruction, with such added knowledge as our more fortunate teachers could supply.

In 1861 a small but quite complete philosophical apparatus arrived from New York for Willamette University, and a holiday was granted to see the new wonder of science brought forth. The antics of the youngsters and the intense attitude of the older students as piece after piece of glass and polished brass was fitted to its appropriate part, and the awe with which they viewed the whole complete was the prophecy of a new era. But years afterwards, as I stood amid the grandeur of Harvard's equipment, I realized how small are the beginning of empires. The great achievement of our electrical machine was to produce some feeble sparks. It was merely a curiosity, as were all the other pieces. How far away from the great dynamos of today, with their products of light, power and heat! How absolute the wisdom of that old century! Its very recommendation has been supplanted. Science has advanced not by evolution, but by revolution and “has now to begin all over again right at the alphabet.”


The intercourse between teacher and pupils was unconventional. The titles “Professor” and “Doctor” were seldom used, and were entirely unnecessary to maintain the dignity of the instructor's office.

A native sense of propriety precluded any necessity for hard and fast rules, and the old teachers were sparing of discipline. But at Willamette some new importations from the East began to introduce conventional rules of conduct, society, etiquette and propriety. These trammels were like monocles to the unsophisticated girls of Yamhill and the cowboys of Umpqua, and the situation became strained when an order was promulgated requiring young ladies and gentlemen meeting on the street to greet with merely a formal bow, and that on their way to and from school they should not approach nearer than ten feet and hold no intercourse. Unwarranted assumption, unheard-of interference, to be totally ignored! It was the first insubordination. But Bob Bybee's wit saved the situation. A neat pole, measured to just ten feet, gave the interval to be observed, and the most critical could detect no fault in the procession ten feet apart, tandem, and the ladies carrying their own parcels. Of course, there was no clasping of hands and no whispered confidences, but there remained the ecstatic thrill of holding on to the same pole.

Portland Schools.

In the fall of 1847 Dr. Ralph Wilcox opened the first school of any kind in Portland in a log house located on Front and Taylor streets and built by Job McNamee. Dr. Wilcox was a pioneer of 1845 and was the first physician to practice in Portland. He was born in East Bloomfield, N. Y., July 9, 1818, graduated at Geneva Medical College August 7, 1839, came to Oregon in 1845; died in Portland April 18, 1877.

The population of Portland in 1847 was less than 100, and the town consisted of twenty dwellings (log cabins) in a dense forest, so it is not surprising that the attendance was only about a dozen pupils, and that the session continued only one term.

The spring of 1848 found Miss Julia Carter (Mrs. Joseph S. Smith) teaching in a small log cabin on the corner of Second and Stark streets. Only one term was taught, and the pupils were mostly those of Dr. Wilcox's school. In 1846 James Terwilliger built a blacksmith shop at the northwest corner of Second and Morrison streets. In the fall of 1848 this little cabin was vacant. The family of Col. William M. King lived in the same block. It occurred to Marian the eldest daughter of Colonel King, then nine years old, to ask the use of the old shop for a school. Permission being obtained, she, with several other girls of her own age, renovated the place, while the young men of the neighborhood sawed out one of the logs for a window and Capt. Nathaniel Crosby furnished some long panes of glass. Home-made benches and a table constituted the furniture, and the school was promptly opened. The autumn proved unusually severe. The fire in the open fireplace did not afford much warmth, and the pupils studied enveloped in heir wraps. So it appears that the school adjourned to the cooper shop, a one-story frame building on the west side of First Street, between Morrison and Yamhill and in the midst of the thicket and fallen trees.

The cooper shop was only public hall in Portland for a year or more. In this building Aaron J. Hyde conducted the school during the winter of 1848-49. Mr. Hyde was a soldier of the Mexican war. He afterward settled on a donation claim near Lebanon, Linn county, where he died in 1859.

In 1849 Portland was a hamlet of about 250 inhabitants. As yet there was no building for church or school purposes, but about this date Colonel King erected a frame structure on the west side of First Street, near Oak, known for some years as the “School House.” Rev. Horace Lyman opened a school in the “School House” in the winter of 1849-50. He taught three months, had about forty pupils and was paid by rate bills.

Col. Cyrus A. Reed succeeded Mr. Lyman with a three months' term, commencing in April, 1850. The attendance was about sixty.

In August, 1850, Delos Jefferson opened a term in the “School House” of three months with about forty pupils, who paid a rate bill of ten dollars each. Rev. Nehemiah Doane followed Delos Jefferson with a term of nine months, taught in the “School House,” beginning about December 1, 1850. His pupils numbered between fifty and sixty. Dr. Doane ventured to advance the previous curricula of study by organizing a fine class in “Barritt's Geography of the Heavens.”


Seventy and six years my feet have trod a “cool, sequestered vale.” I stand today on the shore and wait for the bark that shall bring my soul to.

“Where his islands lift

Their fronded palms in air.”

Lingering here I speed fond memory back across the flight of half a century. The years flee apace. A door opens and I am within the familiar room of the old Oregon Institute. Around the walls flit phantoms of the past, dusky forms and faces of Indian children dimly crowd the misty space. A missionary leads the devotions; all join in song, with voices weird and strange. A bell breaks on the startled air-the door again is pushed ajar, and, crowding in, come the scions of another race. Attend to roll-call! Mr. Speaker of the House, “here.” Governor of Oregon, “here.” Mr. Banker, “here.” Justice of the Supreme Court, “here.” Explorer of Arctic Wilds, “here.” Lady Dean of a great University, “present.” Mothers of Men, “present.”

But fancy flies too fast and far. I see before me a class of boys and girls in waiting attitude. Will Miss Sweetbrier conjugate and translate the present tense of the verb Amo? Slowly at the head of the class arises with graceful dignity a maidenly form. She stands in her place: “Amo, I love.” Rosy lights blush from cheek to brow; and at the foot of the class Charley Bluberry's heart beats pitty-pat. “Amas, you love.” Charley's heart replies, “Who loves?” “Amat, he loves.” Nor does Charley deny the soft impeachment. “Amamas, we love.” Then, and there is signed and sealed the compact “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, until death do us part.”

In this wild fancy? Nay, before me now sit the principals and the witnesses. And so they covered life's lessons in those early days. Soon the glamour of time and romance will fold them in-those days far and far away in a past century.


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