1843-1866 were the busiest years for pioneers moving to the Eugene area. In 1852 Jacob Gillespie arrived with his wife Lenora Gillespie and their seven children as captain of his wagon train at Oregon City. It was his custom while on the trail to scout ahead for a good place to make camp. In the unknown wilds of trackless prairies and rugged mountains his steady presence must have been a comfort, and Gillespie did keep his group safe from danger. Cal Young, son of Charles Walker with his wife Molly (Brandon) Young was born shortly after the wagon train’s arrival to Oregon later commented in a letter that Jacob had “good judgment on the camp location.” In looking back on the difficulties that made pioneers stronger, Lonora Gillespie, explained “it eased some of the company to bring long breaths”. The number of miles traveled each way is the steady theme of journal entries along with road blocks and deaths along the way.
After enduring harsh frontier conditions, these early pioneering families found their way to the Willamette Valley and proceeded to shape our community in important ways. The industrious disposition that allowed them to bind logs together in order to float from the Columbia River to the Willamette River in search of a home later led to civic leadership and profitable farming and business ventures as well as the establishment of Eugene’s first church and what would become a cemetery holding 604 graves, many of them founding citizens who were pioneers—the Gillespie Cemetery. Two years after the wagon stopped Jacob Gillespie represented the county in the Territorial Assembly. In 1857 he was elected county commissioner. Gillespie’s home was located behind what is now Willagillespie Elementary School.
Cal Young’s father, Charles, borrowed 50 cents from Jacob to pay the ferryman, leaving him with just 15 cents to his name. Yet who in Eugene has not heard the name Cal Young? These families leave us a heritage of people who made success out of very little, people who were prominent and active community members full of a community spirit of building good things for all. The Gillespie Cemetery holds graves named for many streets, schools, and parks in Eugene, familiar family names in the community such as: Gilham, Harlow, Armitage, Goodpasture, Ayres, Young, Gilham and Gillespie. These founding families wove together a community, and they worked together to accomplish much that we still enjoy today. Jacob Gillespie also held interest in education and founded Columbia College (1856-59) on what would later be called College Hill. As a leading citizen he did much to create a community where education was considered of prime importance.
In one of the most comprehensive accounts of the history of Gillespie Butte, a local author describes the top of the butte as having “an illusory quality to this site that is precious.” The cemetery honoring our hardy pioneers and the land of Gillespie Butte are connected. Our local author frames it this way, “the top of the butte is rounded and grassy with scattered oak trees and panoramic views. It is permeated with mystery. If the cemetery speaks of its pioneer past, the butte whispers mostly of a time before the settlers came to the valley.” Gillespie Butte is honorably named, and those who choose to build on Gillespie Butte will have the honor of looking out over the city with respect to all that this land represents to the community past and present. A distinctive, new community is being made on the butte. You are invited to imagine, shape and create all this neighborhood can be.
The namesake of this cemetery, Rev. Jacob E. Gillespie donated the land for it. The first Presbyterian minister in the Oregon territory, he was an 1852 Lane County pioneer. Rev. Gillespie was the father of 6 daughters and 1 son. He was also the founder of Columbia College (1856-59), which was the precursor to the University of Oregon. In 1853, he founded the Cumberland (now Central) Presbyterian Church of Eugene. He was an elected a Lane county commissioner and also served as a representative from Lane County in the state legislature.