A New Territory and the California Gold Rush

A portrait of Samuel Thurston
Samuel Thurston wrote the Donation Land Act. (Image courtesy Bancroft Library Collection)
Joseph Lane standing
Joseph Lane was the first governor of the Oregon Territory. (Image no. cph 3a02863 courtesy Library of Congress)
Waves of immigrants from the Midwest soon outnumbered the two groups that previously had dominated the white population in Oregon. Since the mid-1830s, people associated with the Hudson's Bay Company such as retired French-Canadian trappers and those associated with Jason Lee's Willamette Mission had spent several tense years co-existing in the Willamette Valley. The new Oregonians streamed in with their own attitudes and priorities, making moot many of the existing conflicts and jealousies. Just two years after the the 1846 Oregon Treaty finally solved the "Oregon question," two simultaneous events, one governmental and one economic, had profound impacts on the growing population.

The Oregon Territory

The governmental event came when the U.S. government, after several petitions from the Oregon provisional government, finally assumed a dominant role with the formation of the Oregon Territory in August 1848. On the heels of territorial status came the passage by Congress in 1850 of the Oregon Donation Land Act, written by Oregonian Samuel Thurston. The law recognized the validity of the provisional land claims and set up a process for any white male to claim 320 acres (640 acres with his wife) of land. By 1856, when the law expired, 7,437 claimants had registered for more than 2.5 million acres of land, mostly in the Willamette Valley, but also in the Umpqua and Rogue valleys. So complete was the process that by 1857 the surveyor-general of the territory concluded that "there is but little vacant good land west of the Cascade mountains." Footnote 1

Fort Yamhill
Fort Yamhill in Dayton was constructed in 1856. (Image no. HABS ORE,36-DAYT,1-1 courtesy Library of Congress)
Territorial status meant a steady stream of political patronage appointments from Washington D.C. The first was Joseph Lane, an Indiana legislator acclaimed as a hero of the Mexican War, who was appointed governor and inaugurated in March 1849. Other federal appointees included three judges, an attorney and a marshal. As in other territories, residents welcomed or reviled the appointees depending on their political leanings, but regardless of party politics often resented outsiders coming in to run what they saw as their affairs. Residents could elect a territorial legislature but Congress could veto any territorial laws. Oregonians also could elect a delegate to Congress, but that person had no vote and could only advocate for the territory.

Considerably more popular than the system of political patronage was the influx of federal money for projects in the territory. Money soon flowed in to pay for crews to survey the land so it could be distributed as part of the Donation Land Act. Likewise, a railroad survey was extended into Oregon and the coastline was surveyed, resulting in charts that marked depth readings and dangerous rocks to aid navigation. Federal courts and custom houses were established. Postal routes and offices helped to enhance communication across the territory. New military roads helped speed the movement of travelers and freight. Meanwhile, the Army constructed several forts in the 1850s, including Fort Orford, Fort Umpqua, Fort Yamhill and Fort Hoskins. All of these brought federal funds for construction and payrolls for soldiers. Footnote 2

The California Gold Rush 

An advertisement for a ship to California
Most Oregonians made it to the goldfields before the masses of "49ers" from the east coast. Transporting miners to California became a lucrative business in the early 1850s.
The most significant economic event came after the discovery of gold in California when Oregonians heard of the strike in August 1848. Hundreds of men dropped their work and departed for the goldfields. Oregon's first newspaper temporarily shut down because of gold fever, reappearing more than a month later with an apology: "The Spectator, after a temporary sickness, greets its patrons, and hopes to serve them faithfully, and as heretofore, regularly. That 'gold fever' which has swept about 3000 of her officers, lawyers, physicians, farmers, and mechanics of Oregon from the plains of Oregon into the mines of California, took away our printers." Footnote 3 Some of those left behind were anxious about Oregon's future but, for the most part, worries were unfounded. Oregon was well situated geographically to quickly take advantage of the discovery. While some of those who left for the goldfields stayed in California, a large number returned within a year or so—many considerably richer from their journey. They had their adventure, found plenty of gold and longed to return to their homes, families, and agrarian way of life.

A gold miner squats at a river with a tin plate.
The Oregon economy benefited from supplying California miners, like this man panning for gold, with products such as timber and wheat.
Oregon benefited from the gold rush in the longer term as well. The gold carried back by miners helped finance an economic expansion. More importantly, the tens of thousands of miners flowing into California helped create a growing market for Oregon products such as timber and wheat. As a result, timber crews, lumber mills, wheat farms, flour mills, and other market-based operations flourished during a period of prosperity for the territory. This activity attracted merchants from the northeastern states who helped form the nucleus of a business class. In contrast to the businessmen rushing to the entrepreneurial opportunities of San Francisco and other California cities, they were conservative and cautious. Their "cash on delivery" mentality fit well with the rural settlers in Oregon. Footnote 4

The gold rush also helped to separate people with a "get rich quick" attitude of wealth accumulation from those who valued the agrarian ideal centered on the agricultural land claim and a goal of self-sufficiency. A 19th century tale symbolized the difference by describing a fork in the road about halfway along the Oregon Trail at Pacific Springs in present-day Wyoming where "a pile of gold-bearing quartz marked the road to California; the other road had a sign bearing the words 'to Oregon.' Those who could read took the trail to Oregon." The story emphasized the belief that those who chose Oregon did so deliberately, thereby rejecting the allure of the California gold and, by extension, the values it represented. Footnote 5

Antique decoration


  1. David Alan Johnson, Founding the Far West: California, Oregon, and Nevada, 1840-1890 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) 44.
  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) 349-350.
  3. "The Impact of Gold Strikes on Oregon," End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center Web Site, viewed June 14, 2007. <http://www.endoftheoregontrail.org/road2oregon/sa30oregongold.html>.
  4. David Alan Johnson, Founding the Far West: California, Oregon, and Nevada, 1840-1890 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) 45-46.
  5. Ibid., 8.