Oregon Politics and Government in the 1840s

A mural of John McLoughlin
John McLoughlin (center with white hair) welcomes the first white women to cross the continent overland in 1836. He was instructed by the Hudson's Bay Company to discourage American settlers in the Oregon Country but he commonly provided assistance. He did, however, resist efforts to form a government. This image is from a mural in the rotunda of the Oregon State Capitol. (Oregon State Archives Scenic Image No. DSC107-15)

Oregon politics were in a state of flux during the 1840s. The region went from having no government, other than the de facto civil authority exercised by the Hudson's Bay Company, to territorial status on a path to statehood. Along the way, Oregonians saw the creation of a provisional government in 1843 and the end of the British claim to sovereignty in 1846. Local political squabbles between Americans and an alliance of French-Canadians and the Hudson's Bay Company provided much of the early heat but politics in Washington, driven by the call "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!," added to the rising temperature on the subject of what to do with the Oregon Country.

Ewing Young's Estate

A handwritten document
This 1837 Willamette Cattle Company agreement sent Ewing Young and others to California to acquire cattle. In 1841 he died without a will and no heir, leading to calls for the formation of a government. (Oregon State Archives image) Enlarge image.
Until the early 1840s, most people saw no need to organize politically or form a government. Indians already had tribal customs and laws developed over the centuries. Active and retired Hudson's Bay Company employees fell under the jurisdiction of that company's charter. And, while American fur traders, missionaries and arriving immigrants had no government, their numbers were small enough that the question didn't seem pressing. Philosophical differences as well as internal dissension reduced the chance for political agreement between the American and French-Canadian factions. Moreover, the Hudson's Bay Company had an ongoing interest in stalling the formation of any government that would reduce its clout and increase the influence of the American settlers. Over the years, no event had come along in the small community to trigger serious discussion of the subject.

The Oregon provisional government seal
Colorized version of the Oregon provisional government seal. (Oregon State Archives image)
The event finally came when American Ewing Young died in 1841 without a will. Young, by far the wealthiest independent settler in the Oregon Country, owned a large herd of cattle in addition to promissory notes from his neighbors for large debts. Since he had no known heirs, the subject arose at his funeral of what to do with his property in the absence of any sort of governmental probate procedure. In response, the settlers selected Ira Babcock as supreme judge with probate powers. They also agreed to form a committee, chaired by Father Blanchet, to draft a constitution and code of laws. But it was clear that trust between the Americans and the French-Canadians was low. Blanchet's ongoing argument with a Methodist missionary over who had the right to preach to the Clackamas Indians only intensified the acrimony as the squabble devolved into "threats, blandishments, and bribes." Blanchet resigned as committee chair without ever calling a meeting. Ultimately, disagreements over the type and power of the proposed government proved too strong. Footnote 1

Provisional Government

A painting of Joe Meek
Colorful and outspoken pioneer Joe Meek led the call at Champoeg for a new provisional government for the Oregon Country. (Image courtesy U.S. Marshal Service)
Yet, political debate continued into 1843 and eventually resulted in the formation of a provisional government. Some settlers argued for the creation of an independent country while most favored waiting for the United States to step in and take ownership. Meanwhile, the increasing population added to the pressure to find a political solution as more Americans and retired fur traders flowed into the Willamette Valley. The influx of settlers increased the chance of land claim disputes for which there was no clear settlement mechanism. The ostensible reason for compromise came with the growing number of attacks on livestock by wolves, bears and cougars. Two "Wolf Meetings" were called in early 1843 in which a bounty system was devised for killing the predators. Residents were to contribute to a general fund from which the bounties would be paid. An executive committee was chosen to collect and distribute the money—effectively establishing Oregon's first tax.

A political cartoon about Oregon
Two Irish men in New York debate the controversy over Oregon in 1846. (Image no. cph 3g05745 courtesy Library of Congress) Enlarge image.
During the last organizational meeting, held at Champoeg on May 2, 1843, settlers voted on whether to create a provisional government after Joe Meek yelled out, "Who's for a divide? All for the report of the committee and organization follow me." The close vote of about 52 to 50 favored formation of a government. Nearly all of the French-Canadians voted against it. Footnote 2 A legislative committee met in May and June to draft a constitution. The resulting product, called the Organic Act, was adopted July 5, 1843, officially marking the birth of the provisional government.

Oregon Treaty

Just a year after Oregonians managed to form a provisional government, the political rhetoric was rising in Washington D.C., leading to a standoff between the United States and Great Britain. Attempting to appeal to expansionist sentiment in the 1844 election, the U.S. Democratic Party maintained that America had a valid claim to all of the Oregon Country. Democratic presidential candidate James K. Polk, an expansionist, won the 1844 election, but then softened the tone by seeking to establish the same boundary proposed by previous U.S. administrations, a compromise boundary along the 49th parallel. Tensions grew when subsequent negotiations between the U.S. and Great Britain broke down and many politicians demanded that Polk annex the entire Oregon Country up to latitude 54°40'N (hundreds of miles north of the 49th parallel). The resulting turmoil gave rise to nationalistic American slogans such as "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!" Brinkmanship by Polk and domestic distractions in Great Britain finally helped lead to the signing of the Oregon Treaty in 1846, thus setting the boundary at the current 49th parallel and giving sole possession of the Oregon Country south of there to the United States.

Oregon Territory

Oregon Territorial Seal
The territorial seal on display at the Oregon State Capitol. (Oregon State Archives image)
After the Oregon Treaty was signed, formation of a new territory met delays while Congress grappled with the distractions of the Mexican War and the slavery issue. By late 1847, an anxious Oregon provisional legislature drafted a petition to Congress calling for a territory and cited pressing concerns in need of federal attention such as the Indian attack at the Whitman Mission, uncertainty about land claims and the need for revenue laws. Joseph Meek and nine others carried the petition to Washington D.C. in the spring of 1848 and President Polk signed the Organic Act creating the Oregon Territory on August 14. Joseph Lane, appointed to be the first governor of the new territory, traveled overland to the new capital of Oregon City and was inaugurated March 3, 1849. His new job was to govern an area that included all of the present-day states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho as well as significant portions of present-day Montana and Wyoming. A new and very different period of Oregon politics was about to begin.

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Notes

  1. Malcolm Clark, Jr., Eden Seekers: The Settlement of Oregon, 1818-1862 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981) 142.
  2. Oregon Secretary of State, Oregon Blue Book 2007-2008, Oregon History Section by Prof. Stephen Dow Beckham (Salem, Oregon, Oregon Secretary of State, 2007) 346-347.