Strawberry Fields Forev- Well, For a Long Time, Anyway

Hear this edition of Canby Then in all of its audio glory on episode 28 of the Canby Now Podcast.

It all began with berries. The land we now call Canby, situated atop a grassy plateau above the Willamette and Molalla rivers, was already open and practically clear of trees when white settlers first started to arrive in the mid-1800s.

They called it a “prairie,” Baker Prairie to be exact, probably named after James Baker, who settled north of town in 1838, although it may also have been Micajah Baker, a trapper who frequented the area in 1813 and 1814. Little else is known about him.

Vast forests of trees surrounded Baker Prairie, but in this clear and fertile plain grew abundant bounties of strawberries and other wild fruits. Historians would later come to believe that the land had been a garden of the local tribes of American Indians, who had long before cleared the land, burned the trees and allowed the berries to grow.

The Clackamas tribes, who numbered some 2,000 souls when Lewis and Clark made their 1806 expedition, were nomadic and treated the area like a giant store, going to wherever the plants were flourishing best. It’s said that what is now Canby was a favorite location, and an annual meeting spot, because of the strawberries.

James Baker was one of the first white men to live in Oregon. He found his way here with a herd of cattle in tow, which he’d driven all the way from California. He married a woman from the Kalapuya tribe, and they operated a huge farm in what is now north Canby.

Contact with the early pioneers was catastrophic for the native people, as diseases brought to the area by white settlers ravaged their numbers. Others died of starvation and malnutrition, brought on by the loss of hunting grounds and competition — as the settlers and their livestock ate the plants and crops upon which the natives had once survived.

By 1855, the 88 remaining Clackamas Natives were relocated to Grand Ronde, where they blended into the general populations. Their descendants today belong to the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

Soon after Baker came Philander and Anna Green Lee, who crossed the Oregon Trail in 1847, part of a mass family migration of Lees and Greens. They left New York in 1846 and wintered in Iowa before completing the trip.

The Oregon Trail was, well, it was exactly like the game The Oregon Trail. It was marked by sickness, accidents, death, difficult river crossings (“The wagon tipped over while floating”), camps without fuel or water, hostile Natives, snowy mountain passes and dangerous storms.

Philander, who was 45 when he braved the Trail, and Anna, who was 40, began and ended the journey with seven children, but not the same seven. Their son, Jason, died in Iowa, and another, Albert, was born along the way.

As the Lees wagon train passed the summit of the Blue Mountains, they received a note from two missionaries near Walla Walla Washington, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, asking for flour. When they met the Whitmans later, the missionaries told the Lees that the American Indians of the Cayuse tribe, to whom they were attempting to minister, were “becoming unfriendly.”

Four weeks later, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and 11 others were killed by the Cayuse in an infamous episode history would remember as the Whitman massacre.

The Cayuse accused Marcus Whitman, a physician, of poisoning some 200 members of their tribe, when in actuality, they were probably suffering from measles the doctor had simply been unable to cure. The incident led directly to the founding of the Oregon Territory in 1848 and the outbreak of the Cayuse War, which would last until 1855.

But the Lees would be spared those hardships. They took boats downriver from The Dalles and wintered in Linnton. They grew vegetables on Sauvie’s Island to sell in a small village called Portland.

In the fall of 1848, the Lees finally arrived in Canby, though it would be decades before anyone called it that. They bought squatters’ rights to some land beside a spring-fed stream that is now known as Highway 99E.

The next year, Philander, his brother Philester, and his oldest son, Philedwin — oh, wait, I’m sorry, Edwin, just Edwin, that’s his name —caught gold fever and joined the Gold Rush of 1849. They didn’t strike it rich, but they actually made enough to return to Oregon and buy some apple trees. The Lees planted the trees and began growing apples that they would ship back to the gold miners in California.

To ship the apples to the gold fields, Lee hauled them by wagon and ox team on the tortuous, six hour journey to the closest steamboat landing in Oregon City.

In 1850, the Lees gained title to their 647 acres through the Donation Land Claim Act which brought many more settlers over the Oregon Trail to Baker Prairie and surrounding area.

When the Oregon & California Railroad began to push through the Willamette Valley in 1870, Lee seized the opportunity to sell 111 acres of his claim to the railroad for a 24-block city. Lee received $2,960. So, Canbyites, if you ever wondered who designed a city with a railroad that runs right through downtown, now you know who to blame.

At least we do have Philander to thank for his forethought in giving us the spacious downtown streets we now enjoy. Unhappy with the narrow thoroughfares he had to traverse on his market trips at Oregon City, he made wide streets a condition of his sale. They were platted at 80 feet wide, which they verified by by maneuvering an ox team and wagon throughout the 24-block grid.

Philander Lee died in 1887 at the age of 84. The couple had been married for 60 years.  Philander Lee Elementary School is named after the pioneer, and his neatly combed hair and glorious whiskers are well-known to anyone familiar with the murals that adorn the walls of the old police building downtown. (That’s him.)

Anna died in 1900 at 92. She was the oldest resident in the area at the time, leaving behind three children, 16 grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren and 2 great-great-grandchildren.

Both Philander and Anna Lee are buried in Baker Prairie Cemetery.

We have many more stories of the Lee family, and the many other early pioneers and residents who influenced the town Canby was to become, but it will have to wait till next time on Canby Then.

Photo courtesy the Canby Historical Society.

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