Euro-American settlement in Oregon spread rapidly. Retired mountain men settled in French Prairie, Tualatin Plains, and the Chehalem Valley. By 1843 overland emigrants had crossed to the west bank of the Willamette to stake claims along Rickreall and Salt Creeks. By 1845 they were at the lower reaches of the Santiam and Mary's Rivers. Settlers reached the southern end of the Willamette Valley in 1848 and within a year were pouring over the hills into the Umpqua Valley. Parties coming by sea settled in 1851 at the mouth of the Umpqua River and at Port Orford on the south coast. Others, restless with their sandy claims on the Clatsop Plains, braved the Indian trail across Neahkahnie Mountain to establish a colony on Tillamook Bay.
The field notes of the land surveyors and their township maps of the 1850s work like a time machine to reveal settlement patterns. Sometimes they noted Indian villages, often located at the confluences of stream courses or at the base of south-facing slopes to catch the rays of sunlight. They charted a network of trails transforming into wagon roads with ferries at river crossings. They showed house locations confirming that many settlers, savvy about flooding in mid-America, built their claim cabins far back from the riverbanks and often positioned them facing fields, the back door to the forest and its generous supplies of firewood. They documented the prairie condition of the western Oregon valleys, the consequence of Indian fire ecology.
The Bureau of the Census in 1850 recorded 11,873 Oregonians: 4,671 females and 7,202 males--a gender disparity of 40 to 60%. In towns nearly 70% of the residents were men. "At Astoria, Milton City, and Portland," wrote demographer William Bowen, "they outnumbered women more than three to one." Bowen also found the imprint of kinship as an integrating force in frontier Oregon. "The neighborhood was one of the most basic associations of rural frontier life," he said, "a union of persons with similar backgrounds in small, fairly homogeneous communities, each slightly different from the rest." This meant that closely knit neighborhoods were quick to meet individual needs, prone to exclude outsiders (especially minorities, foreigners, and single men), but open to individuals who married into families and thereby joined the community. Bowen thus concluded that Oregon had two societies in the 1850s: a rural frontier dominated by extended families or clans and an urban frontier "drawing its members disproportionately from the ranks of unmarried men from the Northeast or abroad."
Urban development and farm improvements were driven by the California Gold Rush. A number of Oregonians headed south for the diggings in 1848 and many more did so in 1849. The men plowed and planted crops, departed for the mines, and left the women and children to weed, combat birds and varmints, water the vegetables, and mind the claim. Hundreds returned in the fall for harvest, their saddlebags heavy with leather pouches of gold dust and nuggets. Most discovered that the boom in California created a lucrative market for wheat, apples, vegetables, oysters, shingles, piling, and lumber. The influx of 100,000 new residents and statehood for California in 1850 became an important stimulus and force of stability in the Oregon economy.
Opportunities beckoned. Captain Asa Mead Simpson of Brunswick, Maine, grasped some. Six months in the Sierras convinced him in 1849 that there were better ways to find fortune in the West. He opened lumberyards in Stockton, Sacramento, and San Francisco. In the early 1850s he laid the foundations of a commercial empire stretching from Monterey Bay to Puget Sound. He shipped steam engines and saws for mills at Port Orford, Coos Bay, Umpqua River, Astoria, and Gray's Harbor in Washington Territory. With his partner, Captain George Flavel, he constructed and operated steam tugs to provide bar pilot service for his vessels and those of others. Simpson ran his enterprises for 64 years. His crews built more than 50 ships at his yards on the southern Oregon coast at North Bend.
Aaron Meier, a Jewish emigrant from Germany, worked his way north in the mid-1850s from the Sierra gold fields to new mines in the Rogue River Valley. He carried needles, thread, buttons, and bolts of cloth in his traveling dry goods business. He worked hard, saved, and in 1857 opened a small retail store in Portland, then a town of 1,300 residents. The city's boom during the 1860s with opening of new mining fields in the interior and the flow of capital through the emerging city gave him the chance to expand his business. In time Sigmund Frank, his son-in-law, joined him. Meier & Frank Department Store was on its way to becoming one of the nation's largest retail outlets.
In 1852 Abigail Scott Duniway arrived in Oregon after her mother and a brother died during the overland crossing. Abigail married young and with her husband, Ben Duniway, selected a donation claim near Lafayette in Yamhill County. Then misfortune struck. Ben signed a note, using the farm as collateral. They lost the farm and Ben, injured in a farming accident, was an invalid for the rest of his life. Having a young family and no options, Abigail assumed full responsibilities. She taught school, made hats, ran a boarding house, and aspired to be somebody. By 1859 she had started to define her future. She wrote Captain Gray's Company, a novel based on her Oregon Trail diary. Having found her voice, in later years she became a nationally known suffrage advocate and for 16 years was editor and publisher of The New Northwest, a weekly newspaper.
Joel Palmer visited Oregon in 1845 and helped open the Barlow Road. He was much impressed with what he saw and described it in Journal of Travels Over the Rocky Mountains (1847). He emigrated with his family from Indiana in 1847 and platted Dayton on his farm at the falls of the Yamhill River. Palmer's opportunities came in public service. He served as commissary-general and a peace commissioner in the Cayuse War and in 1853 was appointed superintendent of Indian affairs. Over the next 24 months he negotiated ten treaties, eight of which were ratified. A humane man, he nevertheless implemented a program of dramatic reduction of the Indian domain but tried to provide reservations close to aboriginal areas and sought to preserve peace.
Matthew Paul Deady, a lawyer from Ohio, began teaching school in 1849 in Yamhill County. He soon returned to the practice of law, was elected to the Territorial Legislature, and in 1853 was named judge of the territorial supreme court. Deady served in the constitutional convention, as federal district judge, drafter of civil and criminal codes, compiler of Oregon laws, and a founder of the University of Oregon. His diary, published long after his death as Pharisee Among Philistines (1975), confirmed his biting intellect and close observations of society.
Simpson, Meier, Duniway, Palmer, and Deady were representative of the newcomers. Thousands aspired to make something of themselves. Oregon was a great platform for dreaming dreams and improving one's lot. A number rose to the surface early, finding their callings in business, public service, literature and social reform. Thousands of others engaged in hard work, some laboring in quiet desperation and others for a modest improvement in condition.
By the early 1860s settlement moved in new directions. Some overland emigrants had stopped at The Dalles. The community emerged by 1850 as a primary outfitting point on the western Columbia Plateau and grew steadily. By 1862 settlers were claiming lands in the Grande Ronde and Powder River Valleys, along the John Day, in the Crooked River and Ochoco region of central Oregon, and in the Klamath Basin. The children of Oregon Trail pioneers were engaged in eastward migration. Precluded by high land prices or multiple heirs in large families from owning farms in western Oregon, they took surplus livestock and headed over the Cascades to the lush meadows along the margins of the region's streams and lakes. Members of the Riddle family, who settled in 1851 in the South Umpqua Valley, were pioneer settlers in the Harney Basin. James and Elizabeth Foster in 1872 moved their large family to Summer Lake. Foster's parents had emigrated through central Oregon in 1845 in the party led by Stephen H.L. Meek. Thousands of others followed this pattern.
Oregon remained a rural, small-town region in the 19th century. The Donation Land Act, by allowing claims from 160 to 320 acres per person, effectively dispersed the population. A number of townsites became ghost towns. Randolph, Waldo, Dardanelles, Elizabethtown, and Sailor's Diggings in the mines of southern Oregon vanished when the gold was gone. Cincinnati, Champoeg, Multnomah City, Peoria, and Lancaster were once thriving communities along the Willamette. Auburn, Greenhorn, Granite, and Bourne for a time served the mining populations of northeastern Oregon. Floods, fires, playing out of mineral deposits and changing travel patterns pushed them into oblivion.
Some communities naturally attracted growth. Ashland at the base of the Siskiyous in the Bear Creek Valley, Roseburg in the Umpqua Valley, Marshfield on upper Coos Bay, Prineville on the Crooked River, Pendleton at the base of the Blue Mountains and Baker City near the mines in the Blue Mountains became crossroads communities. For many towns the key to success was to capture county government. Promoters vied for such locations, for they guaranteed a flow of people recording deeds, appearing in court, securing contracts, or coping with society's needs. County government was as important as a good mill site, coal mine, or wagon road crossing in helping to anchor a community.