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Two Years in Oregon By Wallis Nash Characters: 13887

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Personal reasons for coming to Oregon-?Plans of colonizing-?Who came-?Who have returned-?Who remain-?Bowie-knives and revolvers-?A sheriff in danger-?No tragedy-?Our landing at Corvallis-?Frail houses-?Pleasant welcome-?The barber's shop-?Its customers-?Given names-?New acquaintances-?Bright dresses-?Religious denominations.

After visiting Oregon in the year 1877, and traveling with three or four companions through its length and breadth, I ventured to publish in England on my return a short account of our seeings and doings.

While the reception of this book by the reviews generally was only too kind and flattering, one paper, the "Athen?um," distinguished me by a long notice, the whole point of which lay in the observation that it would be interesting to know if I, who had been recommending Oregon to others, were prepared to take my own prescription, and emigrate there myself.

Now, although it would not perhaps be fair to make all physicians swallow their own medicines, regardless whether or not they were sick, and although I certainly was not in any position rendering emigration necessary, or in the opinion of any of my friends and acquaintances even desirable, yet I did not like it to be possible to be accused rightly of recommending a course so serious as a change of dwelling-place and even of nationality, without being willing to prove by my own acts the genuineness of the advice I had given.

And this, among other motives and inducements, had a strong influence in overcoming the crowd of hesitations and difficulties which spring up when so great a change begins to be contemplated as possible.

And it is no more than natural that now, having had two years' experience in Oregon, I should desire to have it known if it be necessary to recall the general advice given in the former book, advocating, as undoubtedly I then did advocate, Oregon as a desirable residence.

But, as this involves my putting into some kind of literary shape our experiences for the past two years in this far Western land, it is better to begin by some general relation of our plans.

When I undertook to come out with my wife and children and see to the settlement and disposal of the tract of land we had purchased, as one result of my visit in 1877, I was applied to by a good many fathers to take some superintendence of their sons, who desired to emigrate to Oregon. Next, one or two married couples expressed a wish to join us. Then several acquaintances, who were practical mechanics, had heard a good report of Oregon, and desired to accompany us. And I was busy in answering letters about the place and people to the very moment of sailing.

I was not at all willing to have the company indefinitely numerous, not having graduated in Mr. Cook's school for tourists, and knowing something of the embarrassments likely to attend a crowd of travelers. We found our party of twenty-six fully large enough for comfort. We were kindly and liberally treated by the Allan Steamship Company, the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada, and the Chicago and Northwestern Railway; but our lines did not fall to us in pleasant places when we experienced the tender mercies of the Union and Central Pacific. Our party was broken up into different cars, and our strongest portmanteaus were shattered by the most atrocious handling.

PLANS OF COLONIZING. It was a serious question if we should try to found an English colony here, in the usual sense of the word. That would have involved a separate life from the American residents; it would have fostered jealousy here, and we should have committed numberless mistakes and absurdities. We should have had to buy all our experience, amid the covert ridicule of our neighbors. And I was confident that many members of our party would have played at emigrating, and treated the whole business as picnicking on a large scale. Moreover, I was not sure that, even if we succeeded in transplanting English manners, customs, and institutions, they would take hold in this new soil. The fact was always before my eyes that the country was only thirty years old, in a civilized sense, and I doubted the wisdom of trying to transport thither a little piece of the old country.

I believed the wiser course to be to plant ourselves quietly among the Oregonians with as little parade and fuss as possible, and to let our own experience dictate to others whether to join us or not.

It has been our practice throughout to answer freely, and as fully as possible, the many letters of inquiry as to place and people that we have had, but to offer no advice; leaving those who were thinking of coming out to take the responsibility on themselves of deciding to come or to stay away.

Under this system our numbers have grown to upward of a hundred, and now rarely a month passes without additions. Of course, a process of natural selection goes on all the time. Not every one who comes remains; but we have every reason to be satisfied with the representatives of the mother-country who are making Oregon their permanent home, and the same feeling is shared, as I am confident, by the original residents.

Shall I try to describe what sort of people we live among here, a hundred miles from Portland, the chief city in the State?

Corvallis, 1880.

What the notions of some of our party were you will understand when I mention that all I could say could not prevent the young men of the party from arming themselves, as for a campaign in the hostile Indian country, so that each man stepped ashore from the boat that brought us up the Willamette with a revolver in each pocket, and the hugest and most uncompromising knives that either London, New York, or San Francisco could furnish.

OUR LANDING AT CORVALLIS. As ill luck would have it, just as we arrived, the sheriff had returned to town with an escaped prisoner, and had been set upon by the brother, and a pistol had been actually presented at him. I should say in a whisper that the sheriff, worthy man, had proposed to return the assault in kind, but had failed to get his six-shooter out in time from the depths of a capacious pocket, where the deadly weapon lay in harmless neighborhood, with a long piece of string, a handful or so of seed-wheat, a large chunk of tobacco, a leather strap and buckle, and a big red pocket-handkerchief. So I fancy he had not much idea of shooting when he started out.

But the incident was enough to give a blood-color to all our first letters home, and I dare say caused a good many shiverings and shudders at the thought of the wild men of the woods we had come to neighbor with.

The worst of it was, that it was the only approach to a tragedy, and that we have had no adventures worth speaking of. "Story, God bless you! I have none to tell, sir." Still we did know ourselves to be in a new world when we stepped ashore from the large, white-painted, three-storied structure on t

he water that they called a stern-wheel river-boat, and in which we had spent two days coming up the great river from Portland. It was the 17th of May, just a month from leaving Liverpool, that we landed. The white houses of the little city of Corvallis were nestled cozily in the bright spring green of the alders and willows and oaks that fringed the river, and the morning sun flashed on the metal cupola of the court-house, and lighted up the deep-blue clear-cut mountains that rose on the right of us but a few miles off.

When we got into the main street the long, low, broken line of booth-like, wooden, one-storied stores and houses, all looking as if one strong man could push them down, and one strong team carry them off, grated a little, I could see, on the feelings of some of the party. The redeeming feature was the trees, lining the street at long intervals, darkening the houses a little, but clothing the town, and giving it an air of age and respectability that was lacking in many of the bare rows of shanties, dignified with the title of town, that we had passed in coming here across the continent.

The New England Hotel invited us in. A pretty plane-tree in front overshadowed the door; and a bright, cheery hostess stood in the doorway to welcome us, shaking hands, and greeting our large party of twenty-six in a fashion of freedom to which we had not been used, but which sounded pleasantly in our travel-worn ears. The house was tumble-down and shabby, and needed the new coat of paint it received soon after-but in the corner of the sitting-room stood a good parlor-organ. The dining-room adjoining had red cloths on the tables, and gave a full view into the kitchen; but the "beefsteak, mutton-chop, pork-chop, and hash" were good and well cooked, and contrasted with, rather than reminded us of, the fare described by Charles Dickens as offered him in the Eastern States when he visited America thirty-nine years ago.

The bedrooms, opening all on to the long passage upstairs, with meager furniture and patchwork quilts, the whole wooden house shaking as we trotted from room to room, were not so interesting, and tempted no long delay in bed after the early breakfast-gong had been sounded soon after six. Breakfast at half-past six, dinner at noon, and supper at half-past five, only set the clock of our lives a couple of hours faster than we had been used to; and bed at nine was soon no novelty to us.

The street in front was a wide sea of slushy mud when we arrived, with an occasional planked crossing, needing a sober head and a good conscience to navigate safely after dark; for, when evening had closed in, the only street-lighting came from the open doors, and through the filled and dressed windows of the stores.

THE BARBER'S SHOP.Saloons were forbidden by solemn agreement to all of us, but the barber's shop was the very pleasant substitute. Two or three big easy-chairs in a row, with a stool in front of each. Generally filled they were by the grave and reverend seigniors of the city-each man reposing calmly, draped in white, while he enjoyed the luxury, under the skillful hands of the barber or his man, of a clean shave. At the far end of the shop stood the round iron stove, with a circle of wooden chairs and an old sofa. And here we enjoyed the parliament of free talk. The circle was a frequently changing one, but the types were constant.

The door opened and in came a man from the country: such a hat on his head! a brim wide enough for an umbrella, the color a dirty white; a scarlet, collarless flannel shirt, the only bit of positive color about him; a coat and trousers of well-worn brown, canvas overall (or, as sometimes spelled, "overhaul"), the trousers tucked into knee-high boots, worn six months and never blacked. His hands were always in his pockets, except when used to feed his mouth with the constant "chaw."-"Hello, Tom," he says slowly, as he makes his way to the back, by the stove. "Hello, Jerry," is the instant response. "How's your health?" "Well; and how do you make it?" "So-so." "Any news out with you?" "Wall, no; things pretty quiet." And he finds a seat and sinks into it as if he intended growing there till next harvest.

We all know each other by our "given" names. I asked one of our politicians how he prepared himself for a canvass in a county where I knew he was a stranger this last summer. "Well, I just learned up all the boys' given names, so I could call them when I met them," was the answer. "I guess knowing 'em was as good as a hundred votes to me in the end." It was a little startling at first to see a rough Oregonian ride up to our house, dismount, hitch his horse to the paling, and stroll casually in, with "Where's Herbert?" as his first and only greeting. But we soon got used to it.

But the barber's shop was, and is, useful to us, as well as amusing. The values and productiveness of farms for sale, the worth and characters of horses, the prices of cattle, the best and most likely and accessible places for fishing, and deer-shooting, and duck-hunting-all such matters, and a hundred other things useful for us to know, we picked up here, or "sitting around" the stoves in one or other of the stores in the town.

Another good gained was, that thus our new neighbors and we got acquainted: they found we were not all the "lords" they set us down for at first, with the exclusiveness and pride they attributed to that maligned race in advance; while we on our side found a vast amount of self-respect, of native and acquired shrewdness, of legitimate pride in country, State, and county, and a fund of kindly wishes to see us prosper, among our roughly dressed but really courteous neighbors.

There was a good deal of feminine curiosity displayed on either side, by the natives and the new-comers. When we went to church the first Sunday after our arrival, there were a good many curious worshipers, more intent on the hats and bonnets of the strangers than on the service in which we united. We heard afterward how disappointed they were that the stranger ladies were so quietly and cheaply dressed. We could not say the same when callers came, which they speedily did after we were settled in our new home-such tight kid gloves, and bright bonnets, and silk mantles! It was a constant wonder to our women-folk how their friends managed to show as such gay butterflies, two thousand miles on the western side of everywhere.

RELIGIOUS DENOMINATIONS.We found here, in a little town of eleven hundred inhabitants, all kinds of religious denominations represented-Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Methodists North, and Methodists South, Evangelicals, and Baptists-but very little rivalry and no rancor. I shall have something more to say about the religious life later on, but I think I will reserve the description of our home, and of those of some of our neighbors, for a fresh chapter.

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