Oregon Social Life and Minorities After Statehood

Three Portland buildings
Details of three Portland buildings featured in a 1890 map of the city. Portland dominated the economic and cultural life of the state in the late 1800s. (Image courtesy Bancroft Library) Enlarge image.
Oregon's social and cultural life in the last decades of the 1800s depended largely on location. Portland, which grew rapidly after 1880, offered a range of social and cultural opportunities unrivaled elsewhere in the state. Small towns and rural areas, in contrast, often suffered from isolation, especially in the muddy winter months, yet they made the most of it with creativity and pluck. Women and minorities also had to make the most of it. Women were called on to play a supporting role in society, upholding morality and making good homes for their families. Minorities were expected to stay out of the way and not challenge the dominate white culture. If they did that, they would be tolerated in small numbers on the fringes of society.

Social and Cultural Life

The Geiser Grand Hotel in Baker City
The ornate Geiser Grand Hotel was built in 1889 during the glory days of Baker City. Many impressive buildings of the era still grace the downtown. (Oregon State Archives scenic image no. bakD0159) Enlarge image.
As Portland came to dominate the Oregon economy in the late 1800s, a thriving social and cultural life developed, both highbrow and low. Opera, symphony, ballet, visual art and theater were among the higher cultural offerings. Working class Portlanders frequented vaudeville theaters, pool halls, sports arenas and more "colorful" locales. On the whole, arbiters of culture based in New York, Boston, or San Francisco would have no problem identifying Portland's "provincial" deficiencies. Nonetheless, relative to other Oregon communities, it culturally dominated the state. However, this was tempered by the fact that many of its inhabitants worked such long hours in factories, offices, or shops that they had limited time to enjoy the cultural fare. Footnote 1

Smaller communities made the most of their resources in the late 1800s. Numerous local musical bands, orchestras and theatrical groups performed for appreciative audiences. Places such as Baker City, fueled by mining riches, boasted remarkable offerings for their size. Small towns often stirred local political and social debates with multiple newspapers that practiced a feisty, opinionated journalistic tradition. Schools, churches, granges and Chautauqua Societies brought some form of culture to more isolated communities of the state. Fraternal organizations and ladies' societies further strengthened the social fabric. Footnote 2

A horse drawn cook wagon
Isolation created cultural challenges for rural Oregonians. Above is a Klamath County horse drawn cook wagon. (Image courtesy Lake County Museum) Enlarge image.
Still, social and cultural life on the farm or in the small town could be frustratingly limited—especially for younger Oregonians. The question "how do you keep them down on the farm?" was not an academic one at the dawn of the 20th century. Distance, geography and weather conspired to keep most Oregon communities isolated. Roads were overwhelmingly made of dirt—producing sloppy troughs of mud in the winter and roiling clouds of dust in the summer. Year-round they were rutted. These realities naturally limited travel in a way that modern Oregonians would scarcely recognize. Footnote 3

Economic realities also conspired to socially and culturally limit rural Oregonians. Summers often demanded work from sunup to sundown in order to plant, tend and harvest the crops as well as complete the associated chores. Loggers, fishermen and others also saw long hours of work in summer. The coming of fall brought increasing preparations for "wintering in." Essentially, large numbers of Oregonians stocked up on firewood, home canned fruits and vegetables, cured meats and other necessities in anticipation of winter. Often rainy or snowy days of winter were largely spent "holed up" in and around farmhouses and cabins. Children would walk to small local schoolhouses and the family may travel to church or to the neighbor's farm, but the term "cabin fever" still had real meaning for many rural Oregonians. Footnote 4

Women and Minorities

A painting of a domestic family
The "cult of domesticity" defined women as the keepers of the home and the family's moral well-being. (Image no. 3b53018r courtesy Library of Congress) Enlarge image.
Significant differences existed between the lives of typical Oregon women living in the city and those residing in rural areas. Yet, in general, they lived in a male dominated society. By today's standards, Oregon women had few legal rights. But while women exercised limited legal and political power, they certainly held significant moral power in traditional society. Developing out of the rise of the middle class many decades earlier, the "cult of domesticity" saw women as the keepers of the home and the family's moral well-being. This societal ideal viewed the outside world where the husband worked as corrupt and full of temptations.

In contrast, the wife oversaw a domestic world focused on piety, purity and submissiveness. She was expected to maintain a cheerful and peaceful home that would keep her husband away from the evils of the larger world and would provide her children with a sound moral upbringing. Homes and families across Oregon, particularly middle-class Portland homes, adhered to this ideal well into the 20th century. But in the last decades of the 1800s, pioneers such as Abigail Scott Duniway fought tirelessly for an expansion of women's rights. Women's suffrage, or the right to vote, formed the centerpiece of the effort, which finally passed a state vote in 1912. Footnote 5

A salmon trademark label
Many Chinese laborers worked in salmon canneries such as the one advertised on this 1885 Astoria trademark label. They also worked mining areas abandoned by whites. (Oregon State Archives trademark image no. 190) Enlarge image.

Minorities saw few of the gains registered by women in the late 1800s. Indians, those who survived decimating diseases, were relegated to bleak reservations, the borders of which started shrinking almost immediately. The federal government began allowing white settlement on the Siletz Indian Reservation in 1865, leaving only a fraction of the original land by 1900. Meanwhile, the Dawes Act of 1887 broke up many reservations into individual allotments that were rarely economically viable. Not surprisingly, the law led to disastrous consequences as fraud artists and speculators robbed many Indians of their land, leaving them homeless and destitute. Footnote 6

With the discovery of gold, Chinese miners moved to eastern Oregon in the early 1860s, resulting in more than 1,600 Chinese living in Baker and Grant counties combined by 1870. Many worked over previously mined areas that were ignored by white miners. Over time, they labored on railroad construction crews and in the salmon canneries of Astoria. 

A shoeshine boy
White society tried to limit blacks and other minorities to unskilled jobs. Even so, small numbers of minorities eventually made inroads into professions, especially in Portland. (Image courtesy antiquebottles.com)
Racism periodically escalated into violence, fueled by ignorance of Chinese customs and resentment over labor competition. This became pronounced in the mid-1880s when rioters drove Chinese out of Oregon City, Salem and other communities. Violence reached its peak in an 1887 Wallowa County incident in which a gang of whites robbed, tortured and murdered 31 Chinese miners. Reflecting the common attitude, one observer later commented that "I guess if they had killed 31 white men, something would have been done about it, but none of the jury knew the Chinamen or cared much about it, so they turned the men loose." Footnote 7

Blacks were openly unwanted by the overwhelmingly white population of settlers to Oregon as witnessed by the nearly nine to one vote in 1857 against free blacks in Oregon. Out of over 52,000 state residents in the 1860 census, a mere 124 were blacks or mulattoes. Over the decades, those few blacks who quietly managed to make a living in Oregon routinely lived as second-class citizens, both in the eyes of the law and the minds of most Oregonians. They commonly were refused housing as well as access to many businesses such as hotels and cafes.

In time, the dominant white society saw only certain jobs as acceptable for blacks. These generally included menial labor such as cleaning stables and some types of service work such as shining shoes. In spite of the hurdles, by the early 1900s small numbers of blacks were making inroads as doctors, lawyers and businessmen. Others, particularly in Portland, opened restaurants, barber shops and stores serving a growing, and culturally rich, inner city black community. Still, in 1900 barely over 1,000 blacks lived in the entire state. They continued to be as unwanted in 1900 as they were in 1857. Footnote 8

Antique decoration


  1. "Oregon at War: World War I and the Oregon Experience," Oregon State Archives Web Site, viewed July 18, 2007. http://sos.oregon.gov/archives/exhibits/ww1/Pages/before-interact.aspx
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., http://sos.oregon.gov/archives/exhibits/ww1/Pages/before-striving.aspx
  6. David Peterson Del Mar, Oregon's Promise: An Interpretive History (Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press, 2003) 112.
  7. Ibid., 108-109.
  8. "Oregon at War: World War I and the Oregon Experience," Oregon State Archives Web Site, viewed July 18, 2007.  http://sos.oregon.gov/archives/exhibits/ww1/Pages/before-striving.aspx
  9. "Notable Oregonians: Abigail Scott Duniway," Oregon Blue Book Web Site, viewed July 18, 2007. http://sos.oregon.gov/blue-book/Pages/explore/notable/duniway.aspx