Watch the Video for a Deep Dive into George Gibbs!

Photo of George Gibbs taken from his passport dated 1917.

GEORGE GIBBS (IV.), the eldest, was born in “Sunswick,” Astoria, N. Y.  He was educated at the Round Hill School at Northampton, Mass., then in charge of George Bancroft, the historian, and Joseph S. Cogswell, who was afterward librarian of the Astor Library. He graduated in law at Harvard in 1838 and practiced his profession in the office of Prescott Hall in New York City. But literary and scientific tastes led him in other directions. He acted as librarian of the New York Historical Society from I 842 to I 848. In 1848 he accompanied the Mounted Rifles in their march across the continent. Resident at Olympia, Washington Territory, he was appointed in I 854 Collector of the Port of Astoria by President Fillmore and was also attached as a geologist to the United States Boundary Commission. In connection with this assignment, he was engaged, under Capt. George B. McClellan, Commanding the Western Division of the “Northern Pacific Railroad Expedition,” to make a geological survey of the Cascade Mountains and the Olympian peninsular country. In 1 857 he was appointed a member of the Boundary Commission. While in the Far West he studied intensively the Indian dialects and manners and was considered an outstanding authority in these subjects; his reports and papers are now in the Smithsonian Institution.

He returned to the East to become Secretary to the Hudson Bay Commission at Washington. Civil War broke out in I 86I and he helped to defend the national capital and to suppress the draft riots in New York. He aided the Smithsonian Institution in arranging manuscript reports on the ethnology and philology of the Indian tribes, largely made up of his own contributions to the Institution. Receiving from his mother the custody of the papers of Oliver Wolcott, he wrote the Memoirs of the “Administrations of Washington and Adams,” edited from the papers of his grandfather, Oliver Wolcott ( I 846). Among his other published papers are “Instructions for Research Relative to the Ethnology and Philology of America” (1863); “A Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon or Trade Language of Oregon” ( 1 863); “Comparative Vocabularies” (1863); and “Suggestions Relative to Objects of Scientific Investigation in Russian America” ( 1867). He was married late in life (in 1871) to Mary Kane Gibbs, his cousin, daughter of Governor William Channing Gibbs and Mary Kane. After his death in New Haven, Conn., in 1873, our Cousin Mary married the Rev. Mr. Brewster, of New Haven. She had possessed many fine old Gibbs and Wolcott family relics furniture, silverware, books, etc. These she left at her death in 1 876 to Mr. Brewster, but after his death, his children returned the heirlooms to our family.

The following gives additional facts of interest regarding George G~bbs’s (IV.) life and is abstracted from a paper by John Austin Stevens, read before the New York Historical Society, October 7, 1_873.In the account Stevens gives, will be noticed some amplified statements of facts already briefly set down in this Record, but the historical value of his paper, and its interest, remain.

“George Gibbs, so long familiar to the members of this Society as its unwavering and faithful friend, and for many years its Librarian and Custodian, has passed from the scenes of his busy and useful life.

“The son of Colonel George Gibbs, of the Newport, R. I., a family of that name, and of Laura Wolcott, he was born on the l 7th of July, 1815, at Sunswick, Long Island, near the village of Hallett’s Cove, now known as Astoria. His father was a man of singular culture and talent. Brilliant in conversation, polished in manners, and of large and various experience of men and life, Colonel Gibbs was one of the marked men of his day, and his large mansion at Sunswick was the seat of broad and elegant hospitality rarely to be met within this country at that time. As an instance of the extent of this hospitality, it may be stated that during the cholera summer of 1832, several families found refuge here an~ at the lodge during the whole time of the pestilence. The beautiful mansion, with its front upon the East River at one of its most picturesque points, and its rear opening upon a broad inward landscape of fertile farm fields, was then one of the landmarks of the river. And its stone descent from the terrace to the shore still marks the old house, which is now occupied by the Convent of the Sacred Heart. In Colonel Gibbs’s day, fine horses and dogs were always to be found about a gentleman’s residence. Passionately fond of .field sports, he was constantly at the south side of Long Island, where deer and small game were then the certain rewards of the day’s hunt, and his son was often his companion. For access to the city he had for years a small yacht which he styled the ‘Laura.’ His gardens were celebrated for the character and abundance of their splendid crops. To these, as to all that he touched, Colonel Gibbs brought the resources of his well-stored mind. Within was his .fine library, abounding in the works of the best authors, and in many tongues. These incidents in the life of the father are alluded to here as having a direct bearing on the career of the son.

“The mother of George Gibbs was Laura Wolcott, daughter of Oliver Wolcott, the Secretary of the Treasury under Washington, and the elder Adams, one of the fathers of the country. It is not needful in this city, where her true, brave character, her well-stored and independent mind is still fresh in remembrance, to dwell upon the influence of such training upon her rising family. The original purpose of Col. Gibbs was to give his son a West Point education and to fit him for an army career; this and the navy were at that time considered the only true occupations for the sons of gentlemen. As a preliminary step he was sent to the Round Hill school, at Northampton, Massachusetts, then kept by Mr. George Bancroft, the historian, and Mr. Cogswell, the late learned and distinguished Superintendent of the Astor Library. At seventeen, it having been found impossible to secure for the youth an appointment to the Military Academy-political favor then, as now, being indispensable to the success he was taken to Europe by his maiden aunt, Miss Sarah Gibbs, and for two years enjoyed the advantage of foreign travel.

“On his return to New York he entered the law office of the late Prescott Hall, and by degrees attached himself to his profession and engaged in such practice as he could obtain. With this agreeable and genial gentleman, he continued the most friendly and intimate relations until his death. A great part of his time, however, he passed in the country. His early taste for an outdoor life always clung to him.

Shooting and fishing were his favorite amusements, diversified with practical and useful attention to geology and natural history.

“He loved politics also. Ardent in all that he engaged in, he soon found himself occupied in a history of the times of Washington and Adams, and a vindication of the policy of his grandfather as Secretary of the Treasury and a member of the cabinet of John Adams. The hot feud between the Federalists and the Republicans had not died out, and the young polemic took up the ‘burning brand,’ which in those days was indeed passed on from sire to son as thoroughly as ever by Scottish partisan in Scottish feud. To use his own words, Mr. Gibbs ‘felt himself not only the vindicator but in some sort the avenger of a bygone party and a buried race.’
“This work occupied a great part of his time. He embraced in it the correspondence of Oliver Wolcott, and it stands today as the textbook of the history of the day as an unquestioned authority upon the personages and the politics of that stirring period. It is written in a strong nervous style, with great clearness and simplicity. This publication, under the title of ‘The Memoirs of the Administration of Washington and Adams, edited from the papers of Oliver Wolcott, Secretary of the Treasury,’ was printed in l 846, in two volumes octavo.

“In 1848 an event occurred which strangely affected the minds of all those restless spirits who chafed under the confinement of city life and yearned for the freedom of nature. Goldfields were discovered in California. Dissatisfied with the dull routine of a sluggish practice, and urged on by his unwearied taste for practical scientific research, Mr. Gibbs took advantage of an occasion which the march of the Mounted Rifles overland from St. Louis to California afforded him and accompanied them to Oregon, where he established himself at Columbia.

“When Mr. Fillmore succeeded to the Presidency of the United States, Mr. Gibbs received, in 1854, the appointment of Collector of the Port of Astoria, which he held during his administration. Later he was removed from Oregon to Washington Territory, and settled upon a ranch a few miles from Fort Steilacoom, at a small settlement called the same name. Here he had his headquarters· for several years, devoting himself to the study of the Indian languages, and to the collection of vocabularies and traditions of the north-western tribes. During a great part of the time, he was attached to the United States Government Commission in laying the boundary as the geologist or botanist of the expedition. Each Commission in turn sought eagerly for the aid of his practical experience, his varied and extensive acquirements, and the comfort of his brave, cheerful, genial nature. He was especially attached as a geologist to the survey of a railroad route to the Pacific under Major, afterward General Stevens. His associates on this expedition were Drs. George Suckley and S. G. Cooper, as naturalists, to whose reports Mr. Gibbs made large contributions.


“In I 857 he was appointed to the northwest boundary survey, under Mr. Archibald Campbell as commissioner, with General J. G. Parke, as chief engineer, and after the close of the survey prepared an elaborate report on the geology and natural history of the country.

“In I 860 Mr. Gibbs returned to New York, not intending to remain permanently. The outbreak of the war, however, brought with it other occupations and other duties. Too uncertain in health for continuous service, and even then laboring under the painful disease which finally brought him down, he threw himself with his strong character, his great perseverance, and his abundant energy, into the service of the Union in another form. He was an early and active member of the Loyal National League, which did so much to crystalize public opinion in the second year of the war, and also of the Loyal Publication Society, which distributed masses of tracts and healthy patriotic literature over the whole country. Of great personal bravery, he was always ready to expose life in defense of principle. In Washington, during the dark hours of March and April, I 86I, he took his musket and went upon duty to guard the Capitol at the first sign of danger. And in the New York riots, he sought the place of greatest peril, and volunteered for the defense of the house of General Fremont, when a night attack was threatened.

“Later he resided in Washington and was mainly employed in the Hudson Bay Claims Commission, to which he was secretary. He was also engaged in the arrangement of a large mass of manuscripts bearing upon the ethnology and philology of the American Indians. His services were availed of by the Smithsonian Institution to superintend its labors in this field, and to his energy and complete knowledge of the subject, it greatly owes its success to this branch of service.

“He published, some years since, a series of the vocabularies of the Clammal, and Lummi and Chinook languages, and of the Chinook jargon, besides other tracts of a similar kind; and at the time of his death was engaged in superintending the printing for the Smithsonian Institution of a quarto volume of American Indian vocabularies, and had fortunately arranged and carefully criticized many hundred series before his death. His large collection of papers on the Indian languages, of translations of many and curious legends, all of incalculable value to science, has been bequeathed to the Smithsonian Institute; his numerous maps and charts to the Geographical Society, and such of his books as were suitable for the purpose to this Society.


“To whatever work Mr. Gibbs was engaged he devoted his whole heart and every energy he possessed. This Historical Society owes its present prosperity as much to his aid as to that of any person. Its revival, in I 840, was largely owing to his determined efforts,its Librarian for six years, from I 842 to I 848, and long a leading member of the Executive Committee and Library Committee, he never wearied in his efforts to promote its prosperity.”

RESEARCH NOTE:  You can read letters from George Gibbs captured in the article  “Pacific Northwest Letters of George Gibbs” published in the  Oregon Historical Quarterly , Sep., 1953, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Sep., 1953), pp. 190-239 and downloaded from the Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/20612106

I have not yet extracted the contents of these stories, however, for those who finder this page before I have had a chance to extract and contextualise  the contents, you can read for yourself the fascinating adventures of Alfred’s brother!

George Gibbs' Account of his time out west with the Mounted Riffles. I have linked the book to Amazon if you wish to purchase it.