Oregon Territorial History

See Crafting the Oregon Constitution for more Oregon territorial history.

The Pacific Northwest was the focus of a contest between the United States and Great Britain at the end of the 18th century. Exploration by Lewis and Clark (1805-1806) and Britain's David Thompson (1811) publicized the abundance of fur in the area. In 1811, New York financier John Jacob Astor established Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River as the anchor for a chain of Pacific Fur Company trading posts along the river. The War of 1812 caused the British to gain control of the posts as well as Fort Astoria.

Competition for the fur trade continued during the 1820s and 1830s. The British Hudson's Bay Company dominated the region. John McLoughlin, the Company's Chief Factor of the Columbia District, built Fort Vancouver in 1825. From his headquarters at the fort, McLouglin controlled an area of 670,000 square miles. Simultaneously American interest in Oregon was increasing as the region came to be perceived as a place of cheap, fertile land, an alternative to the rapidly filling lands of the Midwest.

Mural of white settlers with their families and covered wagons pause on the Oregon Trail.
The wagon train migration of 1843 (Oregon State Capitol mural).

Nathaniel Wyeth tried unsuccessfully to found the first American colony on the Columbia in 1832. He tried again in 1834. Two Methodist missionaries, Jason and Daniel Lee, accompanied him. Although Wyeth left Oregon for good in 1836, the Lees remained. McLoughlin persuaded them to establish their mission on the Willamette River, 10 miles north of what is now Salem. Despite the fact that local Indians were unreceptive to the Lees, the mission prospered and soon produced its own lumber and flour.

During the 1830s, the Lees' mission was a magnet for Americans settling in the Willamette Valley. In 1835, President Andrew Jackson sent William Slacum, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, to report on the situation in Oregon. Slacum arrived in Oregon in 1836. When he discovered the Hudson's Bay Company held a monopoly on cattle in Oregon, he persuaded the American settlers to join together to buy cattle in California and bring them to Oregon. In January 1837 the Willamette Cattle Company was formed for this purpose. Both Jason Lee and John McLoughlin were shareholders. That same year some 600 head of cattle were brought to Oregon. The success of this venture gave American settlers a sense of independence from the Hudson's Bay Company.

Americans continued to move to the Willamette Valley. Together with French-Canadians employed by the Company, there were some 500 whites in the area by 1842. An initial attempt to form a government, caused by the need to probate Ewing Young's estate, failed in 1841. A second attempt succeeded in 1843. Oregonians voted in an open air meeting at Champoeg on July 5 to establish Oregon's provisional government. This government was supposed to function until the United States extended its jurisdiction over Oregon. At this time, slavery was prohibited.

Unfortunately, the first government was ineffective and biased in favor of the Methodist mission. Americans arriving as part of the Great Migration in 1843 were especially unhappy with the new government. In 1844, representatives of this new contingent began to form a new government modeled on those in the Midwest. The following year, John McLoughlin, as representative of the Hudson's Bay Company, recognized the provisional government. Successive waves of immigrants arriving into the 1850s shared the same values and gave early Oregon a remarkably homogenous and cohesive population.

An estimated 53,000 settlers came to Oregon between 1840 and 1860. Most made the journey over the 2,000 mile Oregon Trail, which stretched from Independence, Missouri to western Oregon. The trip took 6 to 8 months and many immigrants arrived with their resources exhausted. John McLoughlin supplied food, clothing, temporary shelter and jobs to immigrants at Fort Vancouver, despite Hudson's Bay Company orders to the contrary. McLoughin was convinced the area south of the Columbia would become American territory. By sending settlers there, he hoped to keep them away from the Company's activities north of the Columbia River. Unfortunately, McLoughlin's authoritarian personality often angered newcomers and caused settlers to resent him.

By 1846, the United States and Great Britain agreed to divide the Pacific Northwest at the 49th parallel- the present border with Canada. Hudson's Bay Company headquarters had moved to Fort Victoria, on Vancouver Island. John McLoughlin resigned his position with the Company and settled in Oregon City. Americans in the Willamette Valley wanted territorial status immediately, yet the debate over slavery in Congress delayed this step.
When white settlers arrived, Indians inhabited all of present-day Oregon. Whites failed to understand Indian culture. They considered the Indians to be nomads drifting purposelessly from place to place. In reality, Indians moved from winter to summer villages and camps to hunt, fish and gather food. In turn, Indians did not understand white customs. As a result, Indian-white relations were marked by frequent skirmishes.

In 1847, Cayuse Indians attacked the Whitman mission at Waiilaptu and killed 14 people. The immediate cause of the attack was an epidemic of measles, brought by immigrants, which devasted the Indians. They believed Marcus Whitman introduced the disease to get Indian lands and horses. More fundamentally, the conflict between the two cultures caused great tensions between Indians and whites. To make matters worse, as whites came into Oregon, their demands for land increased. The Whitman Massacre and settlers' demands for protection finally caused Congress to move on the issue of territorial status, and Oregon became a United States territory on Aug. 13, 1848.

In 1850, Congress passed the Donation Land Act, which recognized most land claims filed under the provisional government. Single white males over age 21 could claim 320 acres. If married they could claim an additional 320 acres for their wife. Widows could hold title to land, but single women could not.

Territorial officials began their terms on March 3, 1849, in Oregon City, when Oregon was still predominantly wilderness. Homesteads usually consisted of one room log houses with vegetable gardens and a few acres planted in wheat. With little hard currency available, wheat was the primary medium of exchange. Few roads existed, so water was the quickest way to move crops and supplies. Some settlers laid out townsites from their claims. John McLoughlin was the first to do this when he platted Oregon City in 1842.

Despite the steady flow of immigrants many settlers were genuinely isolated. Only 5 newspapers were published in 1849. Post offices did not appear in most towns until the 1850s, and stage coaches and express companies were just beginning. When gold was discovered in Southern Oregon in the 1850s, the government opened more roads.

During its brief existence, the territorial government was deluged with petitions from citizens asking for laws of everyday life. They wanted divorces, schools, and pensions; prohibition of liquor; care for the insane; college charters and release from militia duty. On Feb. 14, 1859, as the national debate over slavery was drawing to a close, Oregon was admitted to the union as the 33rd state.