Boundaries, a Capital and Education

A map of The Dalles
The Dalles stood to gain if Oregon set its eastern boundary at the Cascade Mountains. (Image courtesy Online Archive of California) Enlarge image.
In addition to setting up the framework of the three branches of government, delegates answered other questions related to forming a new state. Of course, they needed to define the geographic boundaries of Oregon. They also sought to bring clarity to the oft-debated question of where to locate the capital. And, they moved to provide a solid foundation for public education in the state. Through these and other efforts, such as limiting government debt, the delegates further refined their vision of the role of government in Oregon.

Setting the State Boundaries

By 1857, Oregon Territory west of the Cascade Mountains had developed into counties with boundaries similar to those of today (with the significant exceptions of Umpqua County, which was absorbed by Douglas County in 1862 and Lincoln County, which was formed in 1893 from the western portions of Benton and Polk counties). But east of the Cascades, Wasco County covered all of the rest of the territory, a geographic expanse totaling about twice the size of the other counties combined. The small city of The Dalles was incorporated that year, but until gold discoveries a few years later, only scattered tiny settlements of whites existed elsewhere. The county largely consisted of unsurveyed Indian territory. At the convention, the boundaries committee proposed state borders similar to those of modern Oregon, with the notable exception of considerable land to be taken from Washington Territory south of the bend in the Snake River to its confluence with the Columbia River.

Oregon Territory map
The added yellow shading on this early map of the Oregon Territory shows the State of Oregon as Charles Meigs envisioned it at the convention. His vision was not well received. (Image courtesy Cartography Associates) Enlarge image.
But Oregon could have looked very different if Charles Meigs had gotten his way. Meigs represented Wasco County at the convention. He sought to have the eastern boundary of the new state end at the Cascade Mountains, thereby leaving Wasco County free to form a new territory. Meigs said it was a "fixed fact in political science, that great natural boundaries are to be observed." In support of this argument, he optimistically cited high elevations for Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson, "varying from 12,000 to 16,000 feet in height." He also creatively described nearby Mount St. Helens as "the highest mountain in North America" before asking "if this is not a great natural boundary where such mountains as these rise?" Meigs claimed he knew the only route through the mountains "and that one trail is impassable—entirely impassable—for probably eight months of the year...." Fearing domination by the more heavily populated western part of the state, he argued that people in his county would rather be vassals to the United States than to the new state of Oregon. Besides, he mockingly assured the delegates, Wasco County could do quite well without Oregon "hanging over us like an incubus [a nightmare demon]": "Our bordering upon Indians; danger hangs over us, but we shall try to take care of ourselves." Footnote 1

Mt. Hood and Timothy Lake
Mt. Hood, shown here over Timothy Lake, was part of the "great natural boundary" Charles Meigs said should form the eastern boundary of Oregon. (Oregon State Archives scenic image no. clacD0023) Enlarge image.
Despite his assurances of self-reliance, Meigs was badly outnumbered in this debate by those who wanted the land for the new state of Oregon. Thomas Dryer characteristically aimed straight at what he saw to be the political motivations of the Meigs proposal, saying it would benefit "a few gentlemen living at or near The Dalles, who may have high hopes of becoming governors, judges, and all that sort of thing [in a new territory]." Delazon Smith worried about the ability of a much smaller Oregon to compete with other states since it wouldn't have room to grow: "If we are hemmed in between these ranges of mountains here, with every acre of available lands appropriated [via the Donation Land Act], what avails it, sir? Nothing! We are left to struggle as best we may." He claimed that Wasco County contained inexhaustible timber and was mostly covered "with a luxuriant growth of grass." With these advantages, and "with no country more healthy[,] why not take it? What hinders us? Congress surely has no objection." Footnote 2 The writing was on the wall and when the voice vote came asking who was in favor of setting the eastern boundary at the Cascades, only one voice responded.

A map of the Snake River area
Delegates sought to take back the area south of the bend in the Snake River (shown in added yellow) from Washington Territory. (Image courtesy Cartography Associates) Enlarge image.
The other significant debate relating to boundaries centered on the committee's proposal to take the land between the Columbia and Snake rivers from Washington Territory and add it to the state of Oregon. Thomas Dryer, never at a loss for words, spoke in favor of the annexation: "By some hocus pocus we had been robbed of a portion of our territory, and the little one-horse territory of Washington was created [in 1853]." Others worried that Congress might reject statehood based the convention's insistence that the disputed land be part of Oregon. They favored an amendment allowing Congress to decide the issue and the convention agreed. Thus, when Congress passed the act of admission for Oregon in 1859, it chose to exclude the land from the new state and keep the existing boundary with Washington Territory. Footnote 3

Choosing a State Capital

The sticky political question of how to decide the location of the seat of government drew a number of proposals. One early question in the debate revolved around when the final decision should be made. Matthew Deady argued that "the country had just begun to settle. We proposed to take in a large scope of territory on the east, and no man can now tell where the center is to be." Deady preferred waiting ten years to settle the issue. In the interim, "let us provide temporary accommodations until that time. The expense would be but a trifle." George Williams agreed and appealed to the frugal by arguing for postponing construction of a statehouse until at least 1870. Williams predicted that "for the first years of our state government the expense of it would be heavy...and it would be much cheaper to rent temporary buildings." Footnote 4

A painting of the Oregon Territorial Capitol
This 1855 Oregon Territorial Capitol in Salem was destroyed by fire soon after it was occupied. Convention delegates banned any spending on a new capitol until 1865 so the question of locating the state capital could be settled. A new capitol wasn't built until 1867. (Image courtesy Salem Online History)
Several delegates had comments about the temporary or eventual placement of the new state capital. Delazon Smith hoped to see "his favorite town (Eugene City) [as] the future seat of government." Another favored Jacksonville. Thomas Dryer proposed that the capital be moved to Portland until a final decision was made. Smith responded to the attempt by reminding the convention of recent politically motivated movements of the territorial capital, arguing that for an interim period the state capital "might as well be [in Salem] as picked nobody's pocket, and broke nobody's legs. What removed it from Salem [for the short time it was moved to Corvallis]? Bribery and corruption. Who brought it back? An indignant people, speaking through the legislative assembly." Meanwhile, Frederick Waymire appeared to call for a pox on all their houses when he was "opposed to having anything to do with towns in locating the seat of government." He vowed that "he would not locate the seat of government to please town proprietors and raise the price of their property." Instead, he wanted to save money by "locating the capital somewhere in the country where we could get a large donation of land, lay it out into a town and sell lots for enough to build the statehouse without one cent of expense to the people." Footnote 5

In the end, the convention would allow the people to answer the question of where to place the seat of government. The delegates specifically prohibited the legislature from setting the permanent seat. Instead, it required the first state legislature to put the decision before the voters. Their selection would need to garner a majority of the vote to be valid. In the meantime, it banned any spending to build a statehouse until 1865. Moreover, once the voters had decided on the capital, they would not be allowed to change the location for 20 years. Footnote 6 The convention apparently didn't want a repeat of the recent political wrangling over the question. And, they certainly didn't want large sums of money spent on building a statehouse at one location, only to see the capital moved to another city by political whim or maneuver.

Providing an Education

Students in a pioneer classroom
Delegates debated whether or not only "white children" should be allowed to attend public schools. (Oregon State Archives, Marion County Educational Exhibit image)
Debates about education revealed a few general characteristics about the convention: Its delegates favored a solid fund to pay for a basic system of common schools; many wanted to exclude non-whites from attending school; and they were deeply ambivalent about the value of higher education and the wisdom of providing state support for it. The delegates made "liberal and abundant provision for the education of the rising generation" by setting up a common school fund. The fund would be based on the sale of public land as well as other money that accrued to the state in the form of forfeitures and escheated property such as estates without heirs. The interest and other revenues from the fund would be distributed to school districts around the state. These provisions caused no significant debate. Footnote 7

However, disagreements soon arose over who should attend the public schools. The committee draft simply referred to "children." David Logan objected, worrying that someone could "wring in a nigger or an Indian under the provision as it stood." He wanted the text to read "white children." But the realities of living in a frontier territory led others to oppose banning non-whites. John White of Washington County noted that "there were many half-breed children in his county." J.C. Peebles from Marion County agreed, adding that "there were many voters in his county whose children had Indian blood—half-blood or less. They paid taxes, and their children ought to enjoy the benefits of common schools." The final version of the constitution referred only to "children." Footnote 8

Another debate centered on funding higher education, especially in relation to religious influence. In the 1850s, a university education was very uncommon, usually associated with a religious denomination, and often seen as a symbol of elitism. For these reasons alone, many delegates distrusted higher education. Many thought it was unnecessary for building the mostly agrarian society they envisioned for the state. Matthew Deady, fearing that a state university could be used for political or religious indoctrination, argued against funding, saying that

Instead of the state creating a university, he thought higher education should be under the direction of religious denominations so parents could send their children to the school that best matched their beliefs. William Watkins said that "the state universities of the west were generally failures." He described the state university of Indiana as "completely under the control of the Methodists" and called the "Massachusetts university...a bigoted theological institution." Footnote 9

Others, such as Thomas Dryer, supported a university, saying that "children wanted to learn more than was taught in common schools." Likewise, Delazon Smith said there was enough money for both common schools and a university. He claimed that "it was the poor who wanted the university, not the rich. The rich could send their children anywhere." In the end, the delegates postponed the decision on founding a state university until ten years after the passage of the constitution. Footnote 10

Antique decoration 


  1. Carey, Oregon Constitution, 155-157.
  2. Ibid., 150-151.
  3. Ibid., 366, 30.
  4. Ibid., 349-350.
  5. Ibid., 350-351, 356-357.
  6. Ibid., 425-426.
  7. Ibid., 388, 420-421.
  8. Ibid., 331.
  9. Ibid., 332-333, 421
  10. Ibid., 332, 334