Oregon History: The "Oregon Question" and Provisional Government

map of Pacific Northwest coast
This map shows latitude parallel 54°40′, a key part of James K. Polk's 1844 presidential campaign slogan "54-40 or fight.” (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
Oregon was an Indian land but a prize lusted for by two partisans. In 1845 President James K. Polk informed Great Britain he wanted resolution of the issue of sovereignty in the Pacific Northwest. In the agreement reached in 1828, the nations had one year to resolve the long-simmering "Oregon Question." Polk was an avowed expansionist. A Democrat, he sought the presidency in 1844 on a simple platform: the annexation of Texas and the occupation of Oregon. The Tyler administration took care of acquiring Texas before Polk was sworn into office, but he persisted in an aggressive agenda of American expansion. Polk campaigned under the popular slogan "54-40 or fight," a contention that the southern boundary of Russian America was the northern boundary of Oregon. He pressed through diplomatic channels and used his inaugural address to assert American rights to all of Oregon. His ambitions far exceeded the area of American activity.
Resolution came on June 15, 1846, in the Oregon Treaty. Polk was already in pursuit of a greater prize--California--and had helped engineer a declaration of war against Mexico by massing troops along the Texas border until they were attacked by Mexican soldiers. Oregon became a sidebar in the unfolding story of the Mexican War. While Congress was willing to plunge the country into a war against its neighbor to the south, it was opposed to entering a conflict with Great Britain. That nation, beset with internal disputes over Corn Law reform, was likewise eager to reach a settlement. In 1846 the two countries agreed to extend the boundary on the 49th parallel westward from the crest of the Rockies to the primary channel between Vancouver Island and the continent. British citizens and the Hudson's Bay Company retained trading and navigational rights in the Columbia River, though the United States subsequently terminated those privileges in 1859.
photograph od Joseph Meek
Joseph Meek encouraged the formation of a provisional government for Oregon. Learn more about Meek. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
By 1846 the arguments of the United States to claim the Oregon Country were founded on more than "discovery rights." Several thousand Americans had settled in the region. Every year the arrival of new emigrants tipped the scale against the Hudson's Bay Company. The Americans had also established a Provisional Government. Its genesis came with the death in 1841 of Ewing Young. A former mountain man who had built up cattle herds in the Chehalem Valley and owned more than $3,000 in promissory notes from his neighbors, Young died without heirs. Residents gathered after his funeral to discuss what to do with his property. They agreed to name a committee to draft a civil code. Father Blanchet served as chair. When they assembled four months later, Blanchet reported his committee had not met. Disagreements between French-Canadians and Americans about the form of self-government and its powers had created an impasse.
The arrival of overland emigrants in 1842 and the increase of retired fur trappers who settled in the Willamette Valley with their mixed-blood families complicated matters. Old settlers and new arrivals worried about their land claims. They wondered what might happen if Congress passed Linn's bills granting lands to Americans who settled in Oregon. Wild animals brought to a head the decisions for a government. Grizzlies, black bears, cougars, and wolves ranged freely in the Willamette Valley. Their destruction of livestock gave cause in the spring of 1843 for a "Wolf Meeting." A second Wolf Meeting led to the decision to create a system of government. On May 2, 1843, at Champoeg, Joseph Meek posed the critical question: "Who's for a divide? All for the report of the committee and organization follow me," he shouted. By a close vote, perhaps 52 to 50, those wanting the government prevailed.
mural of settlers meeting at Champoeg
A mural by Barry Faulkner in the House Chamber of the Oregon Capitol depicts a meeting at Champoeg to form a government. (Oregon State Archives Photo)
What was the significance of the Provisional Government? In spite of claims that the vote in the spring of 1843 on French Prairie sealed the fate of American sovereignty to the Oregon Country, there is no evidence that the Polk administration weighed the action. What was important and known to the decision-makers across the continent was that an American colony had developed on the shores of the far Pacific Ocean. The Provisional Government informed the Polk administration of its existence. It passed memorials in 1843 and 1845 seeking congressional attention to the needs of Americans in Oregon. The memorial of June 28, 1845, petitioned for naval yards, mail service, land grants, military protection, and territorial status. On December 8 Thomas Hart Benton presented the document to the Senate. These endorsements and his election were all the expansionist President Polk needed in an era when many felt it was America's manifest destiny to spread from sea to sea. Whitman's ride across the continent in 1838 and the events at Champoeg--the lore of Oregon history--did not tip the scales. The United States had embarked on a grand scheme of territorial growth. Oregon was only part of the plan.
The Oregon Provisional Government played an important role in creating order on a frontier. For more than two decades the Hudson's Bay Company held and exercised civil authority and control of the fur trade, while maintaining peace in dealing with Indian tribes. Its power did not extend to American settlers and ended in 1846 with the Oregon Treaty. The Provisional Government filled the void. It provided for laws governing land claims, instituted taxation, formed counties, created the offices of governor and legislators, and set up a court system. Popularly elected representatives hammered out these decisions between 1843 and 1845. The proposals were often revised, for newly arrived emigrants increased the electorate and brought their experience and men with political ambitions. The Provisional Government was in constant flux, but George Abernethy, a former lay worker for the Methodist Mission, continued as governor.
J. Henry Brown collected the correspondence and decisions made in Oregon City and published them as Brown's Political History of Oregon (1892). He dedicated his documentary volume to the "intrepid men and women" who helped lay the foundation of the Pacific states and "builded better than they knew." The legislature patterned many of its laws on those of the Iowa Territory, including weights and measures, criminal codes, and vagrancy. In 1843 the legislature put bounties on wolves, panthers, bears, and lynxes. Cash payments for the skin of the head with ears of these animals soon decimated their population and led to the extinction of several species in Oregon. The Law of Land Claims permitted individuals to file on as much as a square mile, but only one claim at a time, and restricted filings on key town sites or waterpower locations.
The Provisional Legislature banned permanent residency of free African-Americans and mulattoes. Any reaching age 18 had two years to leave the Oregon Country, as did anyone held in slavery. The initial penalty for failure to leave was not less than 20 nor more than 39 lashes. In 1844 the legislature amended the law to put violators out to low bid for public labor and removal. The law, though never enforced, confirmed the racial prejudice of the frontier generation moving into the Willamette Valley.