Pioneer Profiles – November 2017

In the mid-1800s, the promise of gold and free land lured fortune seekers, settlers, and merchants to the newly formed Oregon Territory. Carolyn Kingsnorth has stepped aside from our pioneer tales this month so that you can hear from an actual pioneer. A big thank you to historian Ben Truwe for discovering this letter from a 25-year-old lawyer named Orange Jacobs who arrived in Oregon from Michigan in 1852. Jacobs settled in Jacksonville a year later and opened a law practice. On October 17, 1854, he wrote the following letter to the Philadelphia Public Ledger from Sterlingville, now a ghost town but originally located about 6 miles south of Jacksonville. The Ledger published it on its front page on December 28, 1854. ~Carolyn Kingsnorth

Messrs. Editors:

As the tide of immigration is flowing towards this country, and many are leaving the good old Keystone to seek a home in the Far West, a voice from Oregon might not be uninteresting to your numerous readers—the world, I might say—for through your columns, correspondents are heard throughout the globe.

This country has been misrepresented in many respects in the States, as all new countries ever will be; the bright side over displayed, the success of the few trumpeted forth in glowing colors; the toil, the hardships and sufferings that thousands daily endure, with the vain hope to amass a fortune, and after years of perseverance and suffering in body and mind are unable to save enough to carry them to their once-happy homes, is never spoken of.

Yet this country is not all bad, but very different from what the mass that come here expect to find it. The greater part of the Territory is very mountainous, this part particularly, though the Rogue River Valley is but a few miles from this place. It is a beautiful valley, about twenty miles long, and from one to five wide, and good farming land, but suffers much for want of water. On one side of this valley is the much talked-of Table Rock, from which Indian Sam was heard the distance of six miles giving orders to his men last summer, during the war.

The land claims in this valley are all taken up, as indeed are most of the farmable lands in Oregon. The Willamette and Umpqua, the principal valleys in Oregon, are much larger and yield large crops of grain. Though all those beautiful valleys are taken up, not more than one quarter of it is under cultivation, owing to the fact that, under the old law, settlers were allowed such large claims that now they have so much more land than they can use and will not let anyone else have it. Many will come to this country expecting to get good farms by settling on them, who will be sadly disappointed, and their only resort will be to the mines.

There they will find that speculators hold all the claims and the only way to get into them will be to buy at an exorbitant price, and seldom take out more than the claim costs. A great deal of gold is found in this part of Oregon, but it is what the miners call “spotted,” so that but few make their pile, whilst thousands make but little more than board, but work on them day to day, in the hope that they will yet make it “big.” Provisions and everything for sale in the mines are high; common brown sugar sells for 37½ cents; coffee the same; bacon, 37½ to 40; tobacco, $1.17 per lb.; salt, $5 for 20-lb. sack, and all other goods in like proportion.

In all mining districts there is a grocery for every twenty or thirty men, and every grocery has a bar attached, where the commonest kind of liquor is sold at 25 cents per glass. The gaming table found in all groceries is seldom unoccupied; in fact, it seems as though men in this country had lost all self-respect, have no ambition, and are perfectly reckless of what their future fate may be.

No respect whatever is paid to the Sabbath—all stores are open and all gaming tables full, barkeepers busy at work—gambling and drinking going on as if God had no claim on the inhabitants of this country.

Women are scarce here (in the mines). It may be that their gentle influence might have some effect in arresting vice, and restoring morality, if it could be felt among men who once regarded them as “God’s best gift to man.”

This country, now, is quite thickly settled, and the immigration from the States seems to be on the increase. Some few have arrived from across the plains, and many more are on the way. This season great trouble is apprehended from the Indians, and several companies have gone out to meet the immigration from this and other parts of Oregon. Scarcely had they left when news came by express that eight men were killed and four women and children taken prisoners by the Snake Indians, about six hundred miles from this place, and the next express brought the news that they had also killed the women and children—the particulars of which you will no doubt have in the paper as soon as you will receive this.

The Indians here are peaceable, now, towards the whites, though they frequently have disturbances among themselves, caused by killing one another, but they generally settle such difficulties by paying the friends of the Indian killed a horse or the gun or squaw, according to the value set upon the Indian killed. Such is the Indian idea of justice in this country.

Well, I suppose there is many a white murderer gets off in the States with less cost.

Some two months ago we had reason to prepare for war with them, caused by a white man, on Galice Creek, shooting an Indian who figured conspicuously last summer in the war. He was one of a party who killed eight white men whose hair can yet be seen amongst the brush on the banks of Galice Creek, at the sight of which every white man swears vengeance against every Indian accused of the murder. The same Indian who was killed helped to rob and then shot at a man from Philadelphia (since returned). The ball struck a tree but a few inches from his left breast.

Few persons in the States, except returned Californians or Oregonians, can form any idea of a life in the mines in the summer season. The trading posts are the only houses, and some of them only tents. The miners cook for themselves (no women)—cooking utensils consist of camp kettle and frying pan, which together with pick, shovel and gold pan form a miner’s outfit—sleep on the ground, with only a blanket for bed and bedding. In the rainy season they build up log houses to cook and sleep in, and work out in the rain and mud more than half the winter.

The goods are packed to this place, about one hundred miles, on mules, about three hundred [pounds] to a mule, and from twenty to one hundred in a train, which are never tied up and fed, but turned loose at night to hunt their own food.

The Indians here are very lazy, but few of them will work. They go from camp to camp with their children tied to a board and hung on the squaw’s back, every day, begging for food. There are many different tribes in Oregon, and nearly all speak a different language.

The Chinook jargon, a language said to be introduced amongst them by the Hudson Bay Company, is understood by most of them. The whites soon learn it, and so can readily converse with the natives, but few of them learn our language.

They are now holding a council amongst themselves concerning one of their tribe, who has been killed by one of another tribe. An old Indian has been speaking nearly two hours, in sight of where I now write. His speech was one that might astonish some of our best orators. It was no studied speech for effect; there is no cultivation there, yet the argument was good and delivered with a feeling that could not be assumed; it was nature itself. He has just closed, and so must I.

Perhaps I have already written more than will interest your numerous readers, if this should ever grace the pages of that sheet I once so loved to read, but now so seldom see.

Respectfully yours,

O. J. E. (Orange Jacobs, Esquire)

Orange Jacobs became one of Jacksonville’s most prominent attorneys and the editor and publisher of The Jacksonville Sentinel. Sometime after 1860 he moved to the Washington Territory where he became Chief Justice of the Territory’s Supreme Court, represented the Territory in the U.S. Congress for two terms, and served as Mayor of Seattle.