Working: Oregon's Economy

Labels from salmon canneries in 1885
Salmon canneries, and the gigantic fish wheels and seines (nets) that fed them, typified the extractive nature of Oregon's economy. (OSA, Oregon Trademark Labels, White Star Brand Salmon - #188, White Star Packing Company, Oregon, 1885)

The Fur Trade

The fur trade became the first major extraction industry of the Oregon Country. Coming on the heels of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, British companies established the first sustained presence by non-Native Americans in the area dating to the early decades of the 1800s.

In fact, by the 1820s, British concerns about American fur traders moving into the area led to a plan to eradicate fur bearing animals in the Oregon Country. The British Hudson's Bay Company hoped that by discouraging Americans from coming it would thus maintain the British dominance of the area. But in the end, fur traders would not establish the sustained American presence in the region. Instead, it was the lure of souls to save and land to cultivate. Thus, the arrival of missionaries, coupled with American social and economic factors, would push the United States and Great Britain to settle the Oregon Question of sovereignty over the region in 1846.

Settling the Land

Beginning in the 1840s, the Oregon Trail brought thousands of white settlers to what they hoped would be a better life. These immigrants, and the diseases they carried, soon displaced the Native Americans, who had lived and died on the land for many centuries. The settlers nurtured a strong work ethic and a belief that they could improve the land. They quickly set about draining swamps and clearing trees for farmland. Sawmills buzzed and flour mills hummed as ever more settlers entered Oregon, drawn by the generous land grant provisions of the federal Donation Land Act of 1850.

Farmers cut, thresh, and sack wheat in early 1900s Oregon. (OSA, Accession 88A-057)

The Larger Extraction Economy

Prospectors discovered gold and other precious minerals in southern and eastern Oregon in the 1850s and 1860s. In the coming decades, they were joined by legions of loggers and salmon fishermen. Many worked on their own or for small local companies. But an increasing number toiled in mills, mines, and canneries for large corporations, often based in far off cities. New industrial techniques developed as Oregon's economy came to rely on extracting natural resources such as timber, minerals, and salmon for a growing nation. As a result, Oregonians rode the same boom and bust cycles that plagued the national economy in the late 1800s.

Farming remained a mainstay of the economy from the earliest pioneer days. Cattle and sheep ranching expanded as more people settled in the drier areas of central and eastern Oregon during the last decades of the 1800s. Portland grew into the only city of size in the state but smaller cities such as Pendleton, Astoria, Baker City, and Medford became hubs for local economies. Functioning as distribution centers, they furnished local loggers, farmers, and others with supplies and equipment. At the same time, a network of railroads began to link Oregon's major communities together.