Politics in the New State of Oregon

A Confederate soldier and flag
During the Civil War, southern sympathizers in Jacksonville, Oregon raised the Confederate flag before thinking better of it. (Image courtesy gwest.org)
The long gathering political storm between the North and the South finally burst over the nation in 1861. Wars often serve as catalysts for change and in Oregon the Civil War helped to complete the political realignment from the formerly dominant Democratic Party to the young Republican Party. The Republicans would use the familiar patronage system as well as the increasingly important distribution of public lands to control politics in Oregon for decades. In the process, powerful timber, ranching, mining and railroad magnates bought off politicians to do their bidding. Feeling victimized by the process, farmers, miners, and others banded together to fight for reform.

Oregon During the Civil War

Oregon was far removed geographically from the battlefields of the Civil War, but felt some effects nonetheless. As the war progressed, the Army began moving regular soldiers stationed in Oregon to more critical areas. But the state still had Indian reservations to guard as well as an increasing number of gold miners to protect in eastern Oregon. To fill the void, federal and state officials found replacements in the form of volunteers from California, Washington Territory and Oregon to man the forts around the state and maintain a military presence. Oregon's volunteers included the six companies known as the First Oregon Cavalry, which served until 1865. Some of the soldiers vainly chased after Indian raiders in eastern Oregon, but most of them experienced little more than boredom and hangovers. Footnote 1

A portrait of Philip Mulkey
Philip Mulkey sparked the Long Tom Rebellion and was nearly lynched. (Image courtesy ncbible.org)
Despite the distance from the battles, some southern sympathizers took provocative actions in Oregon. Partisans in Jacksonville, briefly raised the Confederate flag before backing down in the face of opposition. And, members of an anti-Union group called the Knights of the Golden Circle allegedly plotted to seize military headquarters at Fort Vancouver, but took no action. Just after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Philip Henry Mulkey sparked what came to be known as the Long Tom Rebellion by walking the streets of Eugene yelling "Hurrah for Jeff Davis [Confederate President], and damn the man that won't!" Arrested and jailed, Mulkey was nearly lynched by a pro-Union mob that broke down the jail door. Meanwhile, his pro-Confederate friends from the nearby Long Tom area were ready to fight but the Oregon infantry diffused the situation by spiriting Mulkey 130 miles away to Fort Vancouver for a three month stay in jail. Footnote 2

Money and Power

The political realignment that began with the collapse of the once dominant Democratic Party in Oregon continued during the Civil War and well beyond. The newly ascendant Republican Party consolidated its gains as its opposition mired in the political chaos. The patronage system that served the Democrats so well in the 1850s worked equally well for Republicans in later decades. Over the years, it was augmented by an increasingly more valuable tool: the distribution of public lands. Firmly in control of the levers of power, Republicans won every presidential election in the state from 1872 to 1908. Moreover, they usually controlled the legislature and the governor's office. Footnote 3

Portrait proofs of John Mitchell
Oregon's Republican U.S. Senator John Mitchell used his power in Washington D.C. to do the bidding of corporate interests in the state for decades in the late 1800s before reform efforts finally made progress. (Image no. 04276v courtesy Library of Congress)
The intersection of money and power was well traveled in the late 1800s politics of Oregon. For many during the Gilded Age, the lofty ideals that were so eloquently expressed at the 1857 constitutional convention lost their meaning. Historian Gordon Dodds described the attitude of Republican Gold Beach businessman, R.D. Hume who looked at his time in the legislature as "neither service to the state nor desire for personal glory, but a business expense requiring careful investment of time and money." In order to succeed in the political system, many of Oregon's legislators, congressmen and leaders shared his decidedly businesslike approach, often bought and sold by the state's most powerful economic interests. Footnote 4

The stakes were high with the legislature writing laws that favored railroad magnates and cattle barons as well as large timber and mining interests. For example, Oregon officials facilitated notorious abuses by speculators in vast areas of "swamp lands." While it was billed as a way to promote the reclamation of otherwise unproductive land, the Swamp Land Act became a playground for speculators. Over time, those with connections exploited loopholes in the law and insider information to gain ownership of valuable land. Meanwhile, Ben Holladay convinced a compliant legislature to give away four million acres of public land for the construction of the Oregon & California Rail Road.

A Patrons of Husbandry poster
A poster from the Patrons of Husbandry, also known as the Grange, shows various American occupations but places the farmer at the center of the society in importance. (Image courtesy Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi) Enlarge image.

While he never completed the railroad line, Holladay did use his control over lawmakers to rebuff reform efforts designed to lower freight rates and curb what farmers and others saw as outrageous railroad excesses. Footnote 5

Reform Efforts

Predictably, the blatant corruption triggered protests and eventually a movement for reform. Local farmers meetings, first called simply to share advice on the more efficient agricultural techniques, eventually turned to protesting the widespread economic abuse and political corruption they saw as a direct threat to their viability. Soon their efforts dovetailed with larger organizations such as the Patrons of Husbandry—known as the Grange—and the Northwestern Alliance. Together, they fought to end monopolies, regulate freight rates and reduce corruption. Many farmers joined the People's Party, also known as the Populist Party, which designed its 1892 agenda to cater to agrarian goals. The new party called for a secret ballot, direct election of senators, limits on immigration, free coinage of silver to stimulate western mining and government ownership of railroads and other utilities such as the telegraph and telephone. Other groups, such as miners, organized as well, joining unions including the Knights of Labor and the Western Federation of Miners in an effort to secure safer working conditions and better pay. Footnote 6

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  1. Oregon Secretary of State, Oregon Blue Book 2007-2008, Oregon History Section by Prof. Stephen Dow Beckham (Salem, Oregon, Oregon Secretary of State, 2007) 354.
  2. Ibid.
  3. David Peterson Del Mar, Oregon's Promise: An Interpretive History (Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press, 2003) 117.
  4. Ibid., 116.
  5. Ibid, 116-117; Oregon Secretary of State, Oregon Blue Book 2007-2008, Oregon History Section by Prof. Stephen Dow Beckham (Salem, Oregon, Oregon Secretary of State, 2007) 362.
  6. Oregon Secretary of State, Oregon Blue Book 2007-2008, Oregon History Section by Prof. Stephen Dow Beckham (Salem, Oregon, Oregon Secretary of State, 2007) 361-362.