Biography of Robert Wilson Morrison

ROBERT WILSON MORRISON. – This leading pioneer of the immigration of 1844 was born March 14, 1811, in Fleming County, Kentucky, of Scotch parentage. In 1822 he moved with his parents to Montgomery County, Missouri, living with them until his marriage in 1831, to Miss Nancy Irwin. Two years later a move was made to Clay County, and thence to Clinton County, on the border of the territory occupied by the Indians of the plains. Upon the consummation of the “Platte purchase,” he moved with his family into that frontier region, and for six years lived in Andrew County.

The excitement and interest in respect to Oregon was then, in 1843-44, reaching a high pitch among the people of the frontier; and in that particular neighborhood the Oregon fever was still further inflamed by letters from a man named Smith, formerly of that section, but then in Oregon, who was urging his people to come to the land by the Pacific Ocean. Indeed, all information obtainable was found to be favorable to Oregon; and, in time for the trip next season, Mr. Morrison was among the number who were armed, equipped and well prepared for the march across the plains. His wife and six children were of course to accompany him; and there were two young men taken into the family as fellow-travelers, – John Minto and Willard H. Rees, – who have since become eminent in our state.

Many of the incidents of that eventful season on the plains have been narrated elsewhere; and it will not therefore be necessary to give the details here. Upon the organization of the large company under Colonel Cornelius Gilliam, Mr. Morrison was chosen one of the captains; and, in point of fact, there afterwards devolved upon him the larger share of the management of the company. In the matter of the stampeding of cattle by the Indians of the agency, as described elsewhere, he took a prominent part in recovering scattered stock; and in the prompt action by which the cattle that had been slaughtered by the Indians were replaced by animals from the post, to be paid for out of the Indians’ annuities, he was a leading spirit.

At the Vermilion there was a delay of fourteen days, owing to heavy rains; and although a crossing was finally effected by means of a ferry, and by swimming the stock, a general feeling began to prevail that Colonel Gilliam was not fortunate in his movements; and the independent settlers, with their own families and teams, not being proper subjects of the military discipline of which the Colonel in the Florida war had become a master, were now beginning to manifest their dissatisfaction. He therefore, not caring to retain authority over the whole train, set out ahead with such as wished, from ability to travel rapidly, or from personal preference, to be with him; while the greater part of the company remained behind under the command of Morrison and Shaw.

The most exciting and difficult portion of the journey was on the stretch from the eastern slopes of the Blue Mountains to the Willamette valley. Even before entering those mountains, on the eastern borders of our state, provisions began to show signs of exhaustion; and, from the Burnt river hills to the waters of the Umatilla, snow or ice was experienced. From the Umatilla to The Dalles, there was great annoyance from the Indians. On one occasion an ox was stolen; and Mr. Morrison, captain of the train, made every effort to recover the animal for the owner. Finding the track, with a horse track on each side, he traced it into the hills, expecting the owner and others to follow. He was, however, left to make the pursuit alone, and after a time was joined by four Indians armed with bows and arrows; while his only weapon was a sheath knife in his belt.

The savages pretended to be interested in his search, urging him on, and insisting that he should go over the next hill. By this means his mind was diverted; and, coming near, they snatched his knife away and flourished it over his head threateningly. Without weapons of any kind, he was at their mercy, but nevertheless faced them calmly, looking them steadily in the eye, and, seeing no assistance coming, walked away deliberately, until he had passed out of their sight behind a bank, and then made the best of his way back to the train. There he found that the owner of the lost ox had started to accompany him, but had turned back upon seeing the Indians.

Sometime after this Captain Morrison lost a very valuable horse of his own, and was also obliged to follow its tracks for a long distance in the hills, being careful to provide himself this time with a rifle, but failing to discover his property. At the ford of the Des Chutes, while Captain Morrison was stopping behind to pay the Indian guide, Mrs. Morrison was driving. As she passed by a narrow spot in the road an ugly Indian appeared, who endeavored to run the team over the bank by whipping the lead oxen. The plucky lady, however, counteracted his efforts by striking him over the head with the butt of her ox-goad. Being much enraged at this, the Indian now thought to ride over her, urging the Cayuse upon which he was mounted towards her; but she rained down the blows so rapidly that he was soon ready to turn and flee. The same evening, after camp was made, Indians came in and showed their ill will by kicking out the fires. Their mischief was stopped by Rees and Morrison, who soon came in and made ready with their guns to abate the nuisance.

At The Dalles the wagons had to be left; and, after sending off young Rees with the cattle on the trail down the river, Mr. Morrison with his family took passage some days later on the river for Vancouver. At a point some eighteen or twenty miles below The Dalles, a light was discovered on shore; and, it was thought to be that of white men, the strangers were hailed. A satisfactory reply being received, the boat was urged into shore. Much to Mr. Morrison’s surprise, he found the Rees party there, and discovered that the cattle had been abandoned in the mountains, having become unmanageable in a snowstorm, in which the drivers had become bewildered and lost. Having Rees take his place in the boat to look after his family, Mr. Morrison stopped off on shore to hunt up the cattle. Soon securing all but those that had died from eating poisonous plants, he set out on the return to The Dalles. At Hood river, then unnamed, they ate a dog belonging to Mr. Gerrish, preferring its flesh to that of animals that had been poisoned; and hence the name Dog river, by which that stream used to be known.

At The Dalles he left the cattle in charge of George Bush and David Kindred; and, as the winter proved favorable, the animals came through fat in the spring. At that time he also made the acquaintance of Reverend A.F. Waller, who extended to him the most cordial hospitality, and afforded him entertainment and all comforts obtainable, until he could find passage down the river to join his family, whom he supposed to be safe at Vancouver. At the Cascades, however, he was horrified to find his family still exposed to the winter storms, camping in a rotten tent, and almost wholly destitute of provisions. Indeed for twelve days they had been subsisting upon bacon-rinds that Mrs. Morrison had economically stowed away on the trip to use for soap grease when she should reach once more a stationary abode. Rees was below looking for a boat, but returned about this time with one that he met on the way; and, under the guidance of Colonel Ford, the whole party reached the fort in safety.

They were housed and fed by Doctor McLoughlin, who also allowed a credit of six dollars to each at the company’s store. Taking his family on to Linnton, a point somewhat below Portland, he left them in camp, while he himself went on to the Clatsop Plains, on the ocean shore near the mouth of the Columbia, and selected as a claim the place upon which he now resides, and from which he has never been absent a Christmas day since 1844. His wife and children spent the time until January, 1845, at a point a little above Vancouver, whence they went to Clatsop.

There a home was made in the face of many difficulties. Mr. Morrison was a pioneer in raising grain on the plains, and also erected a grist and saw mill. He served during the Cayuse war, and was the officer in charge of the fort at The Dalles. He was also elected and served as a member of the first legislature of the State of Oregon. He has for many years been engaged in the stock and dairy business on Clatsop Plains, and has a fine tract of land of dune, prairie, meadow and hillside, which now in the era of railroad construction from Astoria southward is rapidly rising in value.

Nancy Irwin, for almost sixty years the wife of R.W. Morrison, was born April 27, 1809, in Fleming county, Kentucky, and removed in 1815 with her parents to Missouri, where she was married in 1831. It was much against her wishes and judgment that the Oregon trip was undertaken; but, once on the way, there was no woman more heroic nor enthusiastic in the performance of the duties which fell to the lot of a wife and mother during that great journey. Her chastisement of the ugly Indian has already been mentioned; and upon another occasion she cleared the corral of Indians who were trying to make off wit her cow. With all her frontier strength and vigor, she has been, as at present, a woman of great delicacy and refinement of character, a devoted Christian, and a possessor of the winning qualities of the true lady. Of her nine children, all but one, who died at the age of eighteen, have reached a vigorous mature life, and now occupy honorable positions, all living upon this coast.



History of the Pacific Northwest Oregon and Washington. 2 v. Portland, Oregon: North Pacific History Company. 1889.

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