11/10/1845 – 6/14/1899
Samuel Leonidas Simpson (son of Benjamin and Nancy Simpson), was only 6 months old when his family crossed the Oregon Trail.
Oregon’s first Poet Laureate, graduated from Willamette University in law. Shy, he became a journalist and editor. Famous for the poem “Beautiful Willamette”. His collected poems are calledThe Gold-Gated West. Alcoholism ruined his life.
The preface to The Gold-Gated West is a concise biography of Samuel L. Simpson’s rather tragic life, and follows:
SAMUEL L. SIMPSON, the author of this collection of poems, was born in the State of Missouri on the 10th day of November, 1845, and was the second son of Hon. Ben Simpson and Nancy Cooper Simpson. In 1846 Ben Simpson organized and onducted an emigrant train across the plains to Oregon. The trials, hardships and triumphs of that great under-taking are most interestingly told in the poem en-titled ” The Campfires of the Pioneers.” Sam Simpson, as he was familiarly known, was taught the alphabet by his mother at the age of four years, from copies traced in the ashes on the hearth- stone of their pioneer home. He attended the country schools of the time and was reputed precocious in his earlier life. He has left one gem, a reminiscence of his school-days, ” The Lost Path.”
At the age of fifteen he was employed in the sutler’s store, owned by his father, on the Grande Ronde Indian Reservation, a military post at that time. Here the precocious boy met and became the flattered protege of Grant, Sheridan, and others of that post. General Sheridan presented him a copy of Byron’s poems, which he prized very highly andread with great interest.
He entered, at sixteen, the Willamette University,at Salem, Oregon, from which he was graduated in the class of ’65. He immediately took up the studyof the law, and passed the required examination for admission to practice in 1866, but, not being of the required age, he was not admitted until 1867.
His prospects in the practice were reasonably good, though his characteristic timidity qualified his deserved success. In 1870 he abandoned the practice of law, assumed the editorial charge of the “Corvalis Gazette,” and entered on a general journalistic career, which he pursued through the rest of his life.
In 1868 he married Miss Julia Humphrey, to whom these poems are dedicated. She was noted for her beauty and enrapturing voice in music—his “sweet-throated thrush,” of whom he writes: Lurlina, Heaven flies not From souls
it once has blessed;
First love may fade, but dies not,
Though wounded and distressed.
” Though after-days deride us
With Hymen’s broken rings,
We know that once beside us
An angel furled his wings.”
And, though after-days did deride him with Hymen’s broken rings, he never faltered or wavered in his devotion to his first and only love.
There were born to Mr. Simpson and wife two sons, Eugene H. and Claude L. Samuel L. Simpson died in the city of Portland on the 14th day of June, 1900, and was buried in Lonefir Cemetery.
Simpson has been classed by his Western admirers with Burns and Poe, and in many of his poems he portrays that keen appreciation of the grandeur and beauty of nature and that matchless rhythmic style which certainly render the comparison not uncomplimentary to those immortal bards. And he too, as they, labored within the
bonds of a habit that has no kindred seal of woe, and to this limitation was attributable the failures he so bitterly bemoans in the poems ” Quo Me, Bacche? “, ” Wreck,” and others of like sentiment.
The Angel of Silence has now brushed him with his wings and the pining is hushed. Life’s stormy seas have baffled and shipwrecked many a divine genius, who bravely faced the gale with little thought of anchor or the safe bestowal of his sail; to whom
the flag at the peak was more important than a strong hand at the helm. Such a sailor was Sam Simpson; but he has left us many a beautiful strain of music, caught from the song of wind and tide; many a picture glowing with the gold of sunset or
the rose of blossoming spring. We, who knew him best, know that he never reached the achievement that was possible to his talents. His poems breathe rather of pathos and shadow than of joy, for they take their tint from a mind oftentimes world weary.
And we who knew him will judge him gently, and prize the treasures he brought home from many voyages of fancy, in air and sea and sky.
W. T. BURNEY.
FROM: W. W. FIDLER
“Simpson’s subjects are always well chosen; they are subjects about which it is possible to write poetry, and every heading of the piece shows the man’s conception. It is not Mount Hood, but ‘Hood,’ without peer, self-contained, unrivaled, White despot of the wild Cascades!
“We know not if Simpson will ever be the fashion, but his pieces are always welcome at our camp.” And while I am making quotations I am tempted to use one more, to close with, that is as appropriate now as it was fifty years ago, when it was first uttered. Congressman Keitt, of South Carolina, in paying a most eloquent tribute to a deceased Senator, had this to say:
“The children of genius are bound together by household ties and the great of earth make but a single family. From earliest to latest of those who wear the glories of mind, there rolls a river of ancestral blood : it rolls through priest and warrior, through bard and king. through generations and empires and history, with all her wealth. There are kings of action as well as kings of thought, and both are emblazoned in the heraldry of this immortal descent.”
And is it not a source of supreme pride to the State of Oregon that it had, at so early a date, a man fit for such emblazonry, and whose “raptured lines” are apt to live so long as her mountains stand, and her rivers seek the sea?
NOTE, —Samuel Leonidas Simpson was born in Missouri November 10. 1845, and was the second son of Benjamin and Nancy Cooper Simpson. His father was born in Tennessee on March 29, 1818. of Scotch ancestry. His mother was a granddaughter of Col. Cooper, who was a companion of Daniel Boone in Kentucky. He crossed the plains to Oregon with his parents_in 1846. His mother taught him the alphabet when he was four years old by tracing letters in the ashes on the hearthstone of the primitive cabin in Marion county in which the family lived in the early days, and then taught him to read. The first poems he ever read. as he once informed the writer of this note, was a much worn volume of Robert Burns which was given to his mother at Oregon City by Dr. John McLoughin where the Simpson family spent the first winter. An occasional country school three months in the year afforded the only opportunity he had for education until he was fifteen years old. Then he was employed as a clerk in the sutler’s store of his father at Fort Yamhill, a military post near the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation. It was here that he became acquainted with Lieut. Philip H. Sheridan (afterwards General). an intimate friend of his father’s and here it was that he received a copy of Byron’s poems from Sheridan. When sixteen years old Mr. Simpson entered \\’illamette University at Salem, and was graduated in the class of 1865. Soon afterwards he became editor of the Oregon Statesman, in which his father had an interest at that time, and continued in that relation until the close of 1866. Meanwhile he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1867, and began practicing; but clients were few, besides the profession of law was not to his liking, hence he entered the journalistic field, that being more to his taste, and followed that the remainder of his life He was married to Miss Julia Humphrey, of Portland, in 1868, who bore him two sons He died in Portland June 14. 1900, and was buried in Lone Fir Cemetery—George H. Himes, Assistant Secretary, Oregon Historical Society.
Also from notes of W. W. Fidler:”… inebriate. Somebody has already described him in print as “the most drunken poet, and the most poeticaldrunkard that ever made the Muses smile of weep.”
From a writer on Bancroft's "History of the Pacific Coast":
"Prevailed on Sam to stop over ... and try to get out an addition
of his poems."
The following was copied from an article that appeared in the Albany Democrat (Albany, Oregon) in 1909.
SIMPSON’S VERSE LIVES
“BEAUTIFUL WILLAMETTE” WAS WRITTEN 41 YEARS AGO
Copy of Original Poem as First Set in Type Is Photographed From files of Albany Democrat.
Albany, Or., Sept. 18.—(Special)—A photograph was made this week of Sam L. Simpson’s famous poem. “Beautiful Willamette,” which is considered the finest poem ever written in this state, just as it was printed for the first time in the State Rights Democrat, in Albany, April 18, 1868.
During past years, scores of people have looked through the files of this paper, which is yet published in Albany, and viewed the wonderful poem as it was printed for the first time, but this is the first time it has ever been photographed.
At the time this famous poem was written, Simpson was practicing law in Albany, following his graduation from Willamette University. He came here in the Fall of 1867, and on December 28 of that year formed a partnership for the practice of law with J. Quinn Thornton, a prominent pioneer lawyer, who took a leading part in early-day affairs in this part of the state. This partnership existed until the next Spring, and during this time Simpson lived at Thornton’s home in Benton County, across the Willamette River from this city, and daily crossed the river on the old ferry to this city. The view up the Willamette from the old ferry here is superb, and it was this scene which inspired the beautiful poem.
On April 11, 1868, a notice appeared in the State Rights Democrat, dissolving the partnership between Thornton and Simpson and in the week following, in which Simpson was very melancholy, he wrote his greatest poem. It is believed by many Albany people who knew Simpson at that time and who remembered him well that not more than two days were consumed in its composition, and it is practically certain that it was written in the week between April 11 and April 18.
Simpson was a great friend of M. V. Brown, one of the most prominent men in Oregon politics and military affairs in early days, who was then one of the proprietors of the State Rights Democrat. He spent a great deal of time in the Democrat office with Brown and M. H. Abbott, who was Brown’s partner and also editor of the paper at that time. So, when he wrote the poem which was destined to live as the greatest piece of poetry ever written in this state, he handed it to Brown.
The poem was set up by ex-County Judge C. H. Stewart, then a compositor in the Democrat office, and who yet resides in this city. It was written clearly and legibly and, in fact, was splendid “copy” to set up. Judge Steward kept the original manuscript for many years, but lost it a few years ago.
The poem appeared in the issue of April 18, 1868, in a rather inconspicuous place on the third page of the paper (an inside page with advertisements on two sides of it. As will be noticed, it was then entitled “Ad Willamettam,” but later is was generally called “Beautiful Willamette.” Simpson merely signed his initials to the poem when it appeared for the first time.
From the notes of Lynn Beedle:
Hubert H. Bancroft, "Literary Industries", San Francisco,
History w. 1890, p274 C979 B21
"There was Samuel L. Simpson who came down from Oregon and
edited the Pacific Coast readers for the firm; a young man of rare ability,
though lacking somewhat in "steady application".
“The death of Sam L. Simpson leaves Oregon with no poet of merit or reputation,” wrote The Oregonian, in a front-page obituary. Simpson was Oregon’s first poet laureate. (Map)
Young Sam Simpson graduated from Willamette University in law but was too shy to practice. Ralph Friedman summarized Simpson’s brilliant but tragic career in Tracking Down Oregon. A feckless publisher, failed editor, journalist and drunk, he slipped and hit his head outside the St. Charles Hotel on Portland’s river front. Not far from the mast of the battleship Oregon which he christened.
A collection of his work, The Gold-Gated West, came out in 1910. Although criticized for being “over-edited”, it can be found in most Oregon libraries. Beautiful Willamette, endures as a Northwest epic and its refrain is chiseled on his tombstone. He is buried in Lone Fir Cemetery.
His life-long battle with alcohol is apparent in:
The Gorge of Avernus:
I have banished the spectre of sorrow,
And conquered the dragon of drink;
I have torn a blank leaf from the morrow,
And fled from the Stygian brink.
There is death in the dew of the roses
That bloom in the blushes of wine;
There is danger where pleasure reposes,
Though we call her a goddess divine.
One of his best known poems is the following:
From the Cascades’ frozen gorges,
Leaping like a child at play,
Softly calling to the sea,
Time, that scars us,
Maims and mars us,
Leaves no track or trace on thee.
Spring’s green witchery is weaving
Braid and border for thy side;
Grace forever haunts thy journey,
Beauty dimples on thy tide;
Through the purple gates of morning
Now thy roseate ripples dance,
Golden then, when day, departing,
On thy waters trails his lance.
Limpid, volatile, and free
To be buried
In the bitter, moon-mad sea.
In thy crystal deeps inverted
Swings a picture of the sky,
Like those wavering hopes of Aidenn,
Dimly in our dreams that lie;
Clouded often, drowned in turmoil,
Faint and lovely, far away –
Wreathing sunshine on the morrow,
Breathing fragrance round to-day.
Love would wander
Here and ponder.
Life’s old questions,
Whence and whither? throng thy stream.
On the roaring waste of ocean
Shall thy scattered waves be tossed,
‘Mid the surge’s rhythmic thunder
Shall thy silver tongues be lost.
O! thy glimmering rush of gladness
Mocks this turbid life of mine!
Racing to the wild Forever
Down the sloping paths of Time.
Softly calling to the sea;
Time that scars us,
Maims and mars us,
Leaves no track or trace on thee.
|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.
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)|