Notable Oregonians: George Kirby Gay - Pioneer
George Kirby Gay was born in Gloucestershire, England on August 15, 1810. During his youth, he traveled the world as a sailor and in the process came to the United States. Gay's last voyage as a sailor was on the whaler Kitty, which he left in Monterey, California. From there, he joined up with fur trapper and trader Ewing Young in 1832.
In 1835, Gay set out for the Oregon Country with a party of eight trappers led by John Turner. A large group of Rogue River Indians attacked the men at Point of Rocks on the Rogue River, killing two and wounding several others. The survivors suffered further attacks by other Native Americans on their desperate escape north to the Willamette Valley. Only four of the men survived and all of the horses, baggage, and equipment were abandoned in the flight. Gay, wounded, nearly naked, and starving, traveled alone for hundreds of miles through the foothills until he finally reached a trading post on the Columbia River.
Two years later he volunteered to return to California to obtain cattle for settlements in the Oregon Country. A member of the newly-formed Willamette Cattle Company, Gay served under Ewing Young as they sailed to California, purchased cattle, and drove them overland north to the Willamette Valley. Not long after the drive crossed the Shasta River on the return trip, Gay shot a Native American boy in what was considered to be revenge for the attacks on his previous trip through the area. In subsequent skirmishes north to the Umpqua River, Native Americans harassed the group, with Gay sustaining an arrow wound to the back. The drivers finished the journey in October, 1837 with three men killed and about 630 head of cattle remaining out of the original 729 head purchased.
Gay settled on a land claim next to the Willamette River near Wheatland where he built the first brick house west of the Rocky Mountains, completed in 1842 with bricks molded and fired on site. The house would become a popular gathering place for government officials and visitors to the area.
The next year Gay was selected to serve on a committee at the First Wolf Meeting, which was part of the series of Champoeg Meetings that led to the creation of a provisional government in the Oregon Country. One of the events that triggered the call for government was the 1841 death of Gay's former boss, Ewing Young, who died with a wealth of property and no will or known heirs. Gay voted in favor of forming a government at the last of the Champoeg Meetings on May 2, 1843.
He traveled once again to California in 1848, this time in search of gold not long after the initial discovery at Sutter's Mill. Beating the masses of "forty-niners" to the gold fields, Gay soon returned to Oregon, where he was generally seen as one of the wealthiest people in the territory. Over the years, he married four women and fathered eight children. Gay later lost his fortune and died on October 7, 1882. He was buried on his property near Wheatland.
A granite and bronze marker on the line between Polk and Yamhill counties along Oregon Highway 221 commemorates the location of Gay's home and gravesite as well as his involvement in the Champoeg Meetings.