Local author Jerry Sutherland to explain why Calvin Tibbets is 'Oregon's First Pioneer'
Local author Jerry Sutherland explores the early history of the Oregon Territory through the life of one pioneer in a talk at 2 p.m. March 11 at the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center.
His presentation will be drawn from Sutherland's recently published book, "Calvin Tibbets: Oregon's First Pioneer."
"Maybe he was not the most important [of the pioneers], but I claim he was the first. He was there to set the groundwork for when others arrived," Sutherland said.
He added that Tibbets "was never the dynamic leader, but he was the constant fellow who raised his hand and said 'I'll do that.'"
In his talk, Sutherland will focus on two things: Tibbets' journey to the Northwest and his subsequent connection to Oregon City.
Not much is known about Tibbets' life before setting out for the Oregon Territory, Sutherland said. However, he signed up to head west in 1832 with Hall J. Kelley, "who totally committed his life to the colonization of Oregon."
Kelley's agent, Nathanial Wyeth, charted a route west, across the Rockies and on to the Oregon Territory, an expedition that "helped construct the Oregon Trail, and other pioneers followed," Sutherland said.
Many of those traveling with Wyeth died on that journey or turned back, but Tibbets stayed and settled at Champoeg.
Later, in 1843, Tibbets took part in the historic vote at Champoeg that helped establish a provisional government in Oregon, and his name is on the plaque that commemorates that event.
Then "Tibbets moved to the Clatsop Plains and set up a farm between Warrenton and Seaside in 1840," Sutherland said.
By that time he had married, and with wife Louisa, an Indian from the Clatsop Tribe, had two children — Grace, born in 1845, and John, born in 1846.
In 1849, Tibbets and three of his neighbors built a ship, loaded it with farm produce, and sailed to California intending to make money by selling the produce to gold miners.
Tibbets contracted cholera, however, and died on the voyage back home. He was buried at sea; Louisa died shortly after that.
"When Calvin died, his children ended up without his provisional land claim and neighbors jumped his claim," Sutherland said.
However, one of Tibbets' friends, Robert Shortess, filed a suit on behalf of the children so that they could keep the 640 acres.
"They won the suit at the local court, but lost their claim when they appealed to the state Supreme Court," Sutherland said.
Although Grace and John didn't get the land, they did inherit an estate valued at $7,000, which was largely spent on caring for and educating them.
It is not known what happened to John, but it is through Grace that Tibbets is connected to Oregon City.
"Grace attended the Young Ladies Boarding School and Day School, run by the Sisters of Notre Dame De Namur in Oregon City, along with John McLoughlin's granddaughters," Sutherland said.
He further noted that this school was only for metis children, or children with mixed blood."
The school was located in what is now the parking lot between Leer Truck Accessories and the Union 76 gas station, between 13th and 14th streets on McLoughlin Boulevard, but it faced Main Street, Sutherland said.
Grace lived with Robert Caufield's family, attending the school from 1850 to 1853, when it closed.
"After the discovery of gold in California, a lot of people left Oregon City and went there, so the nuns went to where they saw another need — the gold miners. They set up school there, and the organization is still there to this day," Sutherland said.
In 1877 Grace married Richard Sorter, a black pioneer, and moved with him to Kalama, Washington.
"They raised a very large family. I've met and spoken with some of the descendants, who are now spread all over the United States," Sutherland said.
Fascination with family
Sutherland said his mother's maiden name was Tibbetts, spelled with two t's, unlike Calvin Tibbets, which is spelled with only one.
"My father got into family genealogy in 2005, trying to find out if we were related, but there is no evidence we are," Sutherland said.
His father became so interested in Tibbets' history that he continued researching, and then asked his son to go look at some materials at the Oregon Historical Society.
"That's where I got the bug," Sutherland said, adding he found that Tibbets "did a lot that nobody's ever heard of."
Nothing is named after him, largely because "there is nobody to stand up and remind everyone to keep his memory alive," Sutherland added.
"He set the stage" for statehood for Oregon, partly because "the person who is there first helps figure out how things work."
Tibbets also had the ability to get along with and bring together the variety of people who populated the territory at that time, including Native Americans, trappers and retirees from the Hudson's Bay Company, Sutherland said.
"Calvin Tibbets: Oregon's First Pioneer" originally was published as a two-part article in the fall 2014 and winter 2015 issues of Cumtux, the Clatsop County Historical quarterly journal. The self-published book is dedicated to Sutherland's father, Art Sutherland.
The original probate documents concerning Tibbets' provisional land claim are in the state archives, and Sutherland said they were key in his research process.
"There were a couple of documents that he signed, which was the final confirmation of how he spelled his name," he said. "It was wonderful to look at the documents that he actually handled."
On the trail
What: Jerry Sutherland, local author of "Calvin Tibbets: Oregon's First Pioneer," will sign and discuss his book
When: 2 p.m. Saturday,
Where: End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, 1726 Washington St., Oregon City