Oregon Historical Quarterly/Volume 4/In Memoriam of Willard H. Rees

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It is a labor of love to say that when the writer first met W. H. Rees in 1844, the latter was, for a man in his twenty-fifth year, in advance of his general surroundings. His intelligence and manner of telling what he knew on any subject drew men near his own age to him strongly. There were, I found on riper acquaintance, family reasons for part of this. His father (then a citizen of Hamilton County, Ohio), had been a member of the legislature of his native state of Delaware, and his mother had a place in the literati of her day. The father was of Welsh stock, and judging by the son, an active, ardent member of the Whig party at the time. Willard and I were thrown together in the tide of emigration setting out from Saint Louis towards the rendezvous of proposed emigrants to Oregon. The boat we were on landed at Weston, and from thence we hired a team belonging to other emigrants to haul our effects, and we walked to Saint Joseph. From thence Rees and I footed it ten miles higher up the Missouri to the camp of the emigrants under Gilliam's leadership. Learning there that a man living but three miles off needed two assistants to get his family and effects to Oregon, we were at his residence next morning as he rose from breakfast, and within five minutes were engaged to come to Oregon with him as his assistants. Within twenty-five minutes, mounted on a good horse, with gold coin to purchase breadstuffs for ten persons for three months' journey, Rees was on his way back to Saint Joe. He and I then began a year of such intimate relations to each other as leads me to say Capt. R. W. Morrison, our employer, made no mistake in trusting Mr. Rees with the most important acts in conducting his preparations for the journey to Oregon. When we effected a military organization for the trip, no mistake was made in the election of Rees as first sergeant, with the duties of adjutant. And when, after arrival in Oregon, fifteen of us near the same age were employed logging and running Hunt's saw mill, on the Lower Columbia, Rees was easily our leader. Leaving that in June, 1845, and coming to Oregon City to vote, he still, without effort on his part, was by common consent in the first place. There were at Oregon City two young men I might claim as his peers at that date—Charles E. Pickett and J. W. Nesmith. It was the former and Rees, I believe, who led to the formation of the first literary association. Mr. Pickett was at that time reader from the public news box. The contents were volunteer contributions, each writer choosing his subject, and of course extending from harmless fun to the most serious questions. This suggested the formation of the literary society, naturally.

J. W. Nesmith stood among the young men of 1843 immigration to Oregon as W. H. Rees stood among those of 1844. Both observers and helpers in the history being made, the former watching and participating personally in almost every forward movement, the latter wielding perhaps a greater personal influence, but manifesting no ambition for personal advancement. Mr. Rees worked as a carpenter at Oregon City from June, 1845, to June, 1846 (the exact dates are not remembered), but between these dates had purchased a claim in the northern portion of Champoeg, [Marion] County. At the finishing of Doctor McLoughlin's flouring mill he with other American mechanics celebrated the occasion with a ball, which was attended by most of the leading people of parties having interest in the Oregon Boundary Question. Lieut. Wm. Peel was there using his tongue, eyes and ears, we may suppose, to give reliable information in regard to Americans in Oregon to his father, then premier of the British Government. Lieutenant Peel was of the British navy, but not of the Modeste whose officers generally were in company with him when mingling with Americans as on this occasion. There was no dancing going on. It was a time of social relaxation. Doctor Newell, a Rocky Mountain doctor, and a man of sterling good sense, had been giving his opinion of some of Peel's social behavior as not such as was beyond criticism among Americans. Peel replied, "Well, Doctor, Americans believe in the rule of majorities, and I think the British are in a majority here." Mr. Newell thought not. A Britisher will settle any question by a bet, and Mr. Peel offered the bet of a bottle of wine that a majority of those then present were for the British side of the Oregon Boundary Question. Doctor Newell took the bet. A count was made and Mr. Newell won. Peel on this, looking at a man across the mill floor, offered another bottle on that particular man fighting for the British side in the contingency of war over Oregon. William Penland, an Englishman, put the question: "Sir, which flag would you support in the event of war over Oregon?" Rees replied, "I fight under the Stars and Stripes, sir." Mr. Rees, no matter what his garb, was always comparatively neat, and might well be taken for a middle class Welshman.

Newell and he already neighbors, from this time forward had a potent influence among the French-Canadian farmers. Both were admirers of Doctor McLoughlin, and Rees' influence was greatly enhanced by his taking the finishing of the Catholic Church at Saint Louis, and by writing brief tributes to their lives as they passed to the other side. From his genial social nature it was easy for Mr. Rees to give these retired engagees of the Hudson Bay Company information as to what these newly formed relations to the United States Government required of them, in which he was aided by neighbors and friends—Doctor Newell and F. X. Mathieu. It was his pleasure and pastime to learn of the later life, death and burial in the French settlement of two of the gallant band, Philip Degrett and Francis Rivet, [The authoritative lists of the Lewis and Clark Company does not contain these two names.—Ed.] who followed the lead of Lewis and Clark from the sources of the Columbia to the ocean in 1805, and to give to the historian a transcript of the first Catholic parish registry, including the names and ages of Gervais, Lucier, Cannon, Labonte, and Dubruil, who came with Hunt in 1811.

In 1847 Mr. Rees was elected as a colleague of his friend Dr. Newell. Wm. H. Rector, A. Chamberlain and Anderson Cox being the other members representing Champoeg County in the lower house of the Oregon legislature. From the foregoing causes and his steady patriotism Mr. Rees became a potent influence in sending young men from the French settlement to the fighting field in the Cayuse country on the Whitman massacre, himself going as regimental commissary agent.

As the troops were retiring from the Cayuse country, gold was discovered in California and many of the soldiers were amongst the first to go to the mines, Willard H. Rees of the number. A larger proportion of the French half-breeds never returned than of the Americans, and from 1849 the Canadian settlement began to disintegrate. As the pioneer settlement died, Rees's ready pen gave them kindly notice. In the period between 1850 and 1860 he was watchful and active, but never for himself; being of Whig antecedents it was natural for him to help in the formation of the Union party, and that he did; also, being a leader in the formation of the Pioneer Association, the pages of its annual publications will furnish the future historical gleaner many valuable points there inserted by the pen of Willard H. Rees.

The death of his body at 83 years is not reasonable cause of mourning; his nearest friends have had cause for sadness in the slow and gradual mental decay which was perceptible to them for many years before the final end. A change, slight and unperceived by ordinary observers, was noted by his intimate friends as far back as 1879, when a few lines in the annual address to the pioneers prepared by him but which he was unable to attend and deliver, and were well read by F. M. Bewley, seemed unlike the Rees of 1859. Yet in that address he characteristically goes to the very beginning of social free and easy interchange of personal views on the life of the times of 1845-6. This early social life expressed itself through an organization called the Pioneer Lyceum and Literary Club, and he thus speaks of it: "The following are the names Charlie Pickett had on the membership roll. They were at times widely scattered and are designated upon the roll as regular and visiting members:

"John H. Couch, F. W. Pettygrove, J. M. Woir, A. L. Lovejoy, J. Applegate, S. W. Moss, Robert Newell, J. W. Nesmith, Ed Otie, H. A. G. Lee, F. Prigg, C. E. Pickett, Wm. C. Dement, Medorum Crawford, Hiram Strait, J. Wambaugh, Wm. Cushing, Philip Foster, Ransom Clark, H. H. Hide (Hyde?), John G. Campbell, Top McGruder, W. H. Rees, Mark Ford, Henry Saffren, Noyes Smith, Daniel Waldo, P. G. Stewart, Isaac W. Smith, Joseph Watt, Frank Ematinger, A. E. Wilson, Jacob Hoover, S. M. Holderness, John Minto, Barton Lee, General Husted, and John P. Brooks.

"Perhaps a more congenial, easy-going, self-satisfying club has never since congregated in the old capital city and under changed condition of affairs, especially in fashions so strikingly different from the unique and richly colored costumes of that day, never will the good people of our spray-bedewed old city rest upon the like again." The names are given as history, the last quotation as a sample of Mr. Rees's quiet humor.

Now an end of life by natural law is not a proper subject of mourning. Willard H. Rees did not so regard it, when his generous kindness led him to collect the most praiseworthy incidents of very earliest and most unlettered of the pioneers from those coming with Lewis and Clark and Astor's enterprise to those better informed who came after he himself was here. The contributions of Willard H. Rees, J. W. Nesmith, and M. P. Deady to the Oregon Pioneer Association publication would alone constitute no mean volume of the history of Oregon, beginning with retired Canadian hunters and trappers who by cultivating the soil of Oregon and creating a magazine of supplies to the American homebuilders unawares were cultivating the seeds of civilization aided and foreseen by the Applegates, Burnetts, Waldos, Nesmiths, Rees, and others who managed a bloodless victory over the pro-British occupation of Oregon.