Author shares legacy of Oregon pioneer

Author Jerry Sutherland giving a presentation on Oregon's first pioneer Calvin Tibbets who built the first gristmill in Clatsop County.

Portland author Jerry Sutherland’s research and discovery into pioneer Calvin Tibbets is a work in progress.

He first became fascinated with Tibbets when his father, Art Sutherland, saw the name in a historical article and decided to do a little genealogy research given that Jerry’s mother’s maiden name was Tibbetts. No relationship was found, but Sutherland continued the research into Tibbets as a man who traveled to Oregon with a specific goal: to settle here permanently and make it part of the emerging United States landscape.

Sutherland, who spoke at the History and Hops speaker series at the Seaside Brewing Co. Thursday, Feb. 23, explained how sometimes the research was challenging due to the many ways the name is spelled — most commonly, he said, is T-i-b-b-e-t-t-s and T-i-b-b-i-t-s. “It wasn’t until I found documents signed by him that I knew what the correct spelling was.”

When Tibbets traveled to Oregon in 1832, the area was still contested between Great Britain and the United States. Hudson’s Bay Co. had practical control over the entire region and its French-Canadian employees were preparing to develop farms along the Willamette River upon their retirement. “The only Americans in Oregon before Tibbets were sailors, fur trappers, explorers and scientists,” he said.

His book “Calvin Tibbets: Oregon’s First Pioneer” begins with Nathaniel Wyeth and 11 American men meeting Hudson’s Bay Co. chief factor John McLoughlin, who realized he had competition for the region, if as he suspected, Wyeth along with Hall Kelley would succeed in their plans to build a colony in Oregon, a subject of dispute with the British. “Many early settlers came to Oregon to get free land and they weren’t going to get it if Britain took over because at that point in time it was all mutually owned between Great Britain and the United States,” said Sutherland.

Wyeth and Kelley would fail in their ventures, but Tibbets, being one of the men they brought to Oregon, would become an Oregonpioneer by forging good relationships with his Canadian neighbors and native tribes, even living on a Native American diet in order to pave the way for other Americans to follow.

Sutherland said the more he learns about Tibbets, the more fascinated he becomes, delving into the many layers of the man. He discovered that Tibbets was part of a team to build a gristmill in Clatsop County.

Ewing Young and Solomon Smith had established a gristmill at Chehalem Creek around 1838. After moving back to Clatsop Plains, it was “so obvious they wanted that here,” said Sutherland, adding the need was confirmed by documented evidence of early pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail had used coffee mills and spring poles to grind their grains. So, the need for a gristmill on the Clatsop Plains was great in the eyes of Young, Smith and Tibbets.

In 1845, Thomas Owens, Edward Williams, Elbridge Trask, William Perry and Tibbets, who had formed the Wahoni Milling Co., built the mill at the south end of Clatsop Plains near the mouth of the Neawanna. The mill operated for only a couple of years. According to Sutherland, the gristmill failed because “Clatsop Plains wasn’t suitable to grow crops,” adding it was then converted to a lumber mill.

Finding the mill’s whereabouts also proved to be a challenge for Sutherland, given that the landscape had drastically changed and landmarks, not survey tools, were used to measure property boundaries as he pointed out showing a land survey from 1856. For example, the area known as the Necanicum Estuary, Necanicum River, Neawanna Creek and Neacoxie Creek were all known then as Neacoxie; the former being referred to as branches of the Neacoxie.

Sutherland noted there had been a dozen or more names associated with the mills, and upon further searching, had discovered a connection between the Tibbets gristmill and the Gearhart family. Phillip Gearhart built a home and farm for his family near the gristmill by Mill Creek, in an area north and east of the estuary. Gearhart’s daughter Sarah married Frank Byrd, who later built a mill at what is now known as Thompson Falls.

Tibbets died of cholera in 1849. From his book, Sutherland wrote, “Tibbets would have had no impact on Oregon history if he had not first been captivated by Kelly’s vision of colonizing Oregon … He endured hunger, illness and other physical and emotional hardships of life in the wild.” Once his fellow settlers came in sufficient numbers, they were able to “wrest control of Oregon from Great Britain.”

If any American were to be named Oregon’s first pioneer, Sutherland strongly believes Tibbets deserves that honor.

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