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Last summer, when the Northwest Chapter of Oregon-California Trails Association put on a symposium in Pendleton, I was jolted back into a historical controversy I have been involved in since my college days.


T. T. (Theodore Thurston) Geer was born near Salem in 1851 to Oregon Trail pioneer parents. From 1899 to 1903 he was governor of Oregon, the first to be born in this state. His autobiography, “Fifty Years in Oregon” (1912) included a section on his friendship with Francis Xavier Matthieu of Butteville (near Champoeg). Matthieu claimed to be the last survivor of the historic 1843 Champoeg meetings and the vote that created the Provisional Government.

Geer devotes an entire chapter of his book to Matthieu’s recollection of the May 2, 1843, vote. Matthieu stated that when the vote was called 50 Canadians were opposed and 50 Americans were in favor of forming a government. Two men, himself and Etienne Lucier were wavering. Matthieu recalls the final vote was 52 to 50 when he and Lucier joined the Americans.

In the next chapter Geer told how the story (I would use the word myth) was perpetuated to this day. In December 1899, the newly organized Oregon State Historical Society (OHS) passed a resolution to locate the exact sites of significant Oregon events, including Champoeg, site of the vote. Geer was appointed to locate it.

On May 1, 1900, Geer rode his bicycle to Butteville to meet with Matthieu. The next day they were joined by George H. Himes, secretary of OHS, who brought along a photographer from Portland. They went to the Champoeg site, which Matthieu showed them and then told them the story of the 52-50 vote. Matthieu did all the talking.

Himes took the story back to OHS and lobbied the legislature for an appropriate marker at the spot. An obelisk was chosen and still stands at the spot today. It was dedicated May 2, 1901, the 58th anniversary of the vote. Harvey Scott gave an address and started an observance now called Founders Day, held the Saturday closest to May 2.

Champoeg Provisional Government Park was created in the 1920s as one of the first Oregon state parks. Today it is called Champoeg State Historical Park. It includes campsites, bike paths, an amphitheater and a museum which features a mural depicting the 52-50 vote. Much time and money was spent to tell the Champoeg story at the park, a myth that survives despite the knowledge that it is incorrect. Park rangers admit that the Matthieu story was self-serving at best, but the backing of Himes and OHS gave it credence.

Geer wrote that the records of 1843 describe the results of the day, but do not give details. Three men kept the minutes of the meeting. Geer used those minutes and added Matthieu’s recollection of the details. My own research concludes that Matthieu’s details are suspect and self-serving since, as he claimed, there was no one alive to contradict him. The minutes say three votes were taken that day. Matthieu only recalls the third. The first two were procedural, one to approve the meeting agenda and the other to approve the minutes of the previous meeting, [i.e.] the second Wolf Meeting. Having warned former HBC employees before the meeting, Dr. McLoughlin advised the Canadians to not let the Americans have their way. The first two votes failed by counts of 52 to 50 in favor of the Canadians, and left the status of the remainder of that day’s meeting in turmoil.

The third vote came out of the confusion generated at the start of the meeting. George LeBreton, one of the three recorders, called for a motion on “the purposes of this meeting,” the formation of a government. There was so much confusion that Joe Meek called for a “physical divide,” the caucus system of voting prevalent in the nineteenth century. All three recorders stated that because the final vote was so overwhelmingly in favor of forming a government, it was not necessary to count especially as many of the nays had started for home.

As Matthieu remembered it, there were two groups totaling 50 each, with himself and Lucier wavering. Historical sense and reasoning, however, says they would never have wavered. Both men hated the British and the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). Matthieu was an emigrant of 1842 and detested the HBC. Lucier was an Astorian who was abandoned and refused to join the NorthWest Company because he hated the British. They never would have considered McLoughlin’s advice to oppose an American style government.

In 1900, when George Himes steered the OHS towards including the monument to commemorate the vote, it was decided to inscribe the names of the 52 yea voters on an obelisk. The problem was collecting the names, so a committee was created to determine who those 52 people were. The committee came up with three similar, but not identical lists. The 52 names inscribed on the obelisk in 1900 was a compromise list. I say “was” because today there are 53 names on the obelisk (I tell my students to count them). A pioneer family later provided proof enough of their ancestor’s yea vote to have his name included. According to park rangers this inclusion came at a much later date. I assert that this addition would never have happened when Himes controlled OHS. It is also my assertion that far more names are eligible for inclusion.

In 1967, John A. Hussey, historian at Fort Vancouver and author of several histories of HBC forts, wrote “Champoeg: Place of Transition, A Disputed History,” published by OHS. In 1969 I was working under Dr. David Duniway, Oregon State Archivist on my senior thesis. He assigned me two books to read — Hussey’s “Champoeg” and his own “Oregon Archives,” which transcribed all of the records pertaining to the creation of the Oregon Provisional Government. I was shocked that Hussey’s book had inaccuracies about the May 2, 1843, vote. Dr. Duniway stated that it was because Hussey did not have access to all pertinent documents. I wrote an article and submitted it to the Oregonian’s Northwest Magazine. They sent my article to Hussey for comment. He had the article killed by claiming that was just a young graduate student still learning to research. To this day, the official history of what happened at Champoeg, portrayed by the Friends of Champoeg organization, is what is written in Hussey’s book.

Why does the Oregon State Parks system not tell both stories? The cost of the mural painted in the museum and the distorted movies made about the vote would probably be too great to explain. So the myth continues.

Beavercreek resident Jim Tompkins is past president of the Northwest Chapter of the Oregon-California Trails Association.

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