Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission

Sam Simpson    (1846-1899)
"Sweet Singer of Oregon's Beauty"

By Lee Lau, © 1999

     "In 1950, The Oregonian ran a series headed "100 MEN of The Oregonian CENTURY." These small boxed features were the briefest of biographical rundowns, with a small "mug" of the man in the upper, left-hand corner -- each designating one of the most important male Oregonians of the previous century.

     One was labeled "Sweet Singer of Oregon's Beauty, Newspaper Editor." Simpson's "bio" ended with the short, simple sentence: "Oregon has always loved him."

     Oregon has always loved Sam Simpson...well, except for some of the people, some of the time.

     Oregon's 19th century poet laureate was brought here as an infant. Sam's father, Ben Simpson, was the elected master of the wagon train he led over the Barlow Road the first year it opened: 1846. From that winter in Oregon City where Dr. McLoughlin presented Sam's mother -- the shy Nancy Simpson who wrote verse -- with a copy of Burn's poems, Sam's father had a hard-driving and entrepreneurial agenda which made him a prominent early Oregonian and a highly successful, self-made 19th century figure.

     Ben Simpson built sawmills on several rivers and sent a cargo of lumber to San Francisco during the gold rush. Taking time off to go to the Cayuse Indian War, he still managed to own mercantile stores in several towns; and he built a warehouse on the Willamette River.

     Sam Simpson's father went to the Oregon Legislature four times from four different Oregon counties. He was the Indian Agent with the longest tenure at the Siletz Reservation, during which time he built a sawmill on Yaquina Bay servicing the San Francisco trade. He opened a store there and a post office was granted to the site which the Simpson family named Oneatta. During that period Ben Simpson obtained, and fulfilled, contracts to build a military road over the Cascade Mountains and the lighthouse on the north side of the entrance to Yaquina Bay -- using Indian labor. He was Oregon's Surveyor General for four years, a federal ship inspector for a period, and Oregon's Postal Inspector for two years.

     Ben Simpson's much-admired success was achieved by a combination of high energy, shrewd intelligence, and a talent for playing the political game. In the search for the man who was Sam Simpson, it seems that -- while Sam was often a servant to his father's interests -- his life as a whole is a study in contrast to Ben Simpson.

     In 1856, the Simpson family moved to Grand Ronde where Ben Simpson built yet another sawmill and bought the sutler's store at Fort Yamhill. His 15-year-old Sam was put to work as a bartender in the store where the officers spent their evenings. Here Lieutenant Phil Sheridan gave the precocious and likable young Sam a copy of Byron's poems. And it was here that Sam Simpson learned to feel most at home in a company made up exclusively of men who were drinking.

     Although he is remembered today only as a poet, Sam Simpson's prose is a rich literary source of Oregon history. One of his better stories provides a vivid description of Fort Yamhill in 1860 and memorable characterizations of the blustering Captain Russell, the dashing Lieutenant Sheridan, and the venerable Chief Sam of the Rogue River Indians.

     When Sam was 16, he and his oldest brother Sylvester -- the family called them "Syl and Sam" -- went to Salem to attend Willamette University. The classical education Sam received there enriched his personal outlook on life and was the source of many allusions in his writing.

     Syl Simpson was as capable a writer as his brother Sam, and -- when Ben Simpson owned the Salem Oregon Statesman for a short period in 1866, hoping to influence the outcome of an election in Oregon -- he made the brothers co-editors.

     Four years later Sam wrote: "Once, in an evil hour, we drank of the bittersweet of journalistic life, and never knew perfect peace again..." It is as a journalist that his first biographer finds him the most interesting.

     For a period of two years, Sam worked ineffectually at being a lawyer. Between his law-practicing stints in Albany and Corvallis, he composed his famous poem "Beautiful Willamette" and married a classmate from Willamette: the elegant and much-admired Julia Humphrey. When Julia left him after seven years of marriage, Sam wrote:

You went your way serenely,
     And I went mine with blame.
Your face was cool and queenly,
     And mine was red with shame.

     A journalist from 1870 until his death 29 years later, Sam took up his career in newspapers once more, and again with political goals. When he was handed the editorship of the Corvallis Gazette, the Republican Party had purchased the paper to push for the election of their candidates in Benton County that year. Working as a reporter for the Oregon Statesman two years later, Sam Simpson was also a clerk in the House of Representatives while he covered the session in which his father was a representative from Benton County. When he became editor of the Eugene City Oregon State Journal, he was working for a man whose Republican agenda was that of Sam's politically active father.

     Between his years in Salem and those in Eugene City, Sam Simpson was in San Francisco, writing Readers Four and Five for Bancroft's Pacific Coast Series. Brother Syl Simpson, who was Oregon's first Superintendent of Schools, got the series of readers adopted as Oregon's first state mandated textbooks. Notwithstanding the excellent quality of Sam's readers, there was such a furor over the suspected impropriety of their adoption that their use was discontinued.

     With an established reputation as a newspaperman who was brilliant but alcoholic and undependable, Sam Simpson -- after 1875 -- was a member of Grub Street. A Portland-based writer for hire, he wrote in several genres; and his work was always admired. He completed and edited a novel written by a woman who died. In spite of its Victorian conventions, What Came of It is a rattling good story. Ironically, Sam Simpson took over from author Mrs. H.V. Stitzel, a woman who had played a prominent role in the 1874 temperance march on Portland's Webfoot Saloon.

     He sold poems and short stories; in the mid-eighties The Oregonian published much of his poetry and fiction. He put in several brief stints as an editor of newspapers which had brief lives. (Between 1880 and 1890, 15 newspapers in Portland were started only to disappear after a short time.) He even ran a literary bureau for a while.

     Sometimes he left Portland to bum around the countryside from one small newspaper to another. He spent the winter of 1879 on the Williams Creek homestead of an ex-Oregon legislator who admired his poetry. Sam stayed sober all that winter and turned out a stack of poems, most of which were not printed until after he died. He visited the southern Oregon gold fields.

     In the early 1890s, Sam did editorial work on the Astoria Daily Budget, and during that time he wrote the poem "Launching of the Battleship Oregon" which was in fact read at the San Francisco launching by (another irony) a state-wide temperance lecturer, Astoria's Narcissa White Kinney.

     Near the end of his life, Sam Simpson put in some time as editor of The Ilwaco Journal, but he was back in Portland in time to die on June 14, 1899.

     After his death there was a great rush to print and reprint Sam Simpson's stories and poems. People who knew him wrote to newspapers and for magazines, with great pride claiming knowledge of -- and friendship with -- him. Almost immediately, people were calling for a collection of his poems in a book and for the building of a monument to memorialize him. This enthusiasm for Sam Simpson and his poems continued for decades. In the late 1920s, school-children were still memorizing "Beautiful Willamette."

     All this adulation would have surprised Sam Simpson. The last 24 years of his life, he had been persona non grata in many quarters. Although most people loved his poems, his reputation as an alcoholic overrode his fame as a poet. Rarely was he asked to dine.

     A member of a prominent, over-achieving family, the shy and diffident Sam kept in the background. His family really did not know what to do about him -- or with him. Companionable with journalists and (some) lawyers, his social life took place in bars. This was an embarrassment to his family, many of whom belonged to temperance organizations. After he died, it was easy to be a friend of Sam Simpson. And for 30 years at least, Oregonians cherished his poetry.

     Looking at Simpson today, it is seen that his story is the story of the last half of the 19th century. An account of his life cannot be separated from what was happening in the territory, and the new state, of Oregon. From the opening of the Barlow Road in 1846 to the bustle of Portland's waterfront in 1899, Sam Simpson was there.

Selected Bibliography of Sam Simpson

  • Simpson, Samuel L., The Gold-Gated West -- Songs and Poems, J.B. Lippincott Co., Philadelphia, 1910

  • Chamberlin, Ellen, Reminiscences, June 3, 1914, archives: Yamhill County Historical Society, Lafayette, Oregon

  • Clark, Jr., Malcolm, editor, Pharisee among Philistines, The Diary of Judge Matthew P. Deady, Oregon Historical Society, Portland, 1975

  • Fidler, W.W., Personal Reminiscences of Samuel L. Simpson, Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 15, December 1914, pp 264-275

  • Friedman, Ralph, "High Tide for Sam Simpson," Tracking Down Oregon, Caxton Printers. Ltd., Caldwell, Idaho, 1978, pp 58-70

  • Gatke, Robert, Chronicles of Willamette, Binford and Mort, Portland, 1943

  • Horner, John B., Oregon Literature, J.K. Gill, Portland, 1902

  • Lockley, Fred, Impressions and Observations of the Journal Man, Special Collections, Knight Library, University of Oregon, undated Oregon, End of the Trail, American Guide Series, Binfords and Mort, Portland, 1940 (see index)

  • Powers, Alfred, History of Oregon Literature, Metropolitan Press, Portland, 1935

  • Turnbull, George, History of Oregon Newspapers, Binfords and Mort, Portland, 1939

  • Songs from a Strange Land , Class Project: Writing 235, Oregon State University, 1965, Elizabeth Artis Henley, Instructor

  • Microfilm, Knight Library, University of Oregon
  • Astoria Daily Budget, 1893-'94
  • Corvallis Gazette, 1870-'71
  • The Oregonian, 1870-'99
  • Oregon Statesman, 1865-'99
  • Nancy (Cooper) & Benjamin Simpson, Sam's parents (OHS Negs # 95796 & 95798)