Oregon History: Territorial Government

painting of Oregon's territorial seal
A mural in the Oregon Capitol of Oregon's official seal during the territorial period. (Oregon State Archives Photo)
The Oregon Country lay in limbo following the 1846 treaty with Great Britain. Congress had not acted and was diverted by both the Mexican War and the slavery question. The tragedy at the Whitman Mission demanded action. In December, 1847, the Provisional Legislature drafted another memorial to lay again before Congress its "situation and wants." The petition discussed the deaths at Waiilatpu, lack of revenue laws, and uneasiness about land claims. Should Congress act, the memorial pointed out that "the present citizens of this country have strong claims upon the patronage of the General Government" for any appointments. Joseph Meek with nine compatriots carried the petition east in the early spring of 1848.
Much was at stake. If Congress created the Oregon Territory, the region would fall under the mantle of federal authority and funding. The residents of the region might expect, at last, action on the free land proposals and a host of benefits from the creation of a vital infrastructure to enhance security, improve commerce, and ease communication problems. On August 14, 1848, President Polk signed the Organic Act creating the Oregon Territory. Uncle Sam could now begin his labors in the Pacific Northwest in earnest.
Joseph Lane, a Mexican War hero and resident of Indiana, was appointed governor. He set out for Oregon City, where he was inaugurated on March 3, 1849, proclaiming the sprawling region under the administration of the United States. The event was of singular consequence. Territorial status brought not only a governor but also three judges, an attorney, and a marshal--all federal appointees. Oregonians who were male, 21 years or older, and citizens of the United States had the franchise and could elect a territorial legislature. Its laws, however, were subject to veto by Congress and the legislature had limited power to incur debt. The residents could elect a delegate to speak for their interests before Congress. Samuel R. Thurston, the first named, lacked the power to vote, but he could advocate territorial interests.
photograph of Governor Joseph Lane
Governor Joseph Lane served as Oregon's first territorial governor. Learn more about Lane. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
The Organic Act extended the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 to the region. This legislation of the Continental Congress articulated the philosophy for development of new territories in the Ohio and upper Mississippi Valleys. It prohibited slavery, provided land grants for support of public schools, and affirmed "utmost good faith" in dealing with Indian tribes. The ordinance and its inclusion in the Organic Act thus recognized aboriginal land title throughout the region. It voided the land laws of the Provisional Government, except for the claims to 640 acres of the various missions to the Indians. Oregon's act granted two square miles of land per township to fund schools.
Land remained foremost in the minds of the Oregonians. Thurston knew the anxiety and jockeying for claims. Thousands had risked their lives and futures on the prospect of getting free farms in Oregon. On September 29, 1850, Congress passed what became known as the Oregon Donation Land Act, establishing the system of land survey prior to deeding properties. By 1851 John P. Preston, surveyor-general, and his crews had established the Willamette Meridian running north and south between Canada and California and begun survey of the east and west Baseline. The coordinates met at Willamette Stone Park in the west hills above Portland. The system left an indelible imprint. From the beginning of time nature had etched the land in gentle contours. Henceforth straight lines, section corners, and a massive grid system--followed by roads, timber harvests, and fields--imprinted the landscape. The beauty of the system was that it was regular. It gave every parcel of land a unique address based on its distance from the primary coordinates.
Congress also established the General Land Office, the first of which opened in Oregon City and was followed, in time, by branches in The Dalles, La Grande, and Roseburg. Seekers of Donation Lands--ultimately 7,437 successful claimants in Oregon--could register their claims and await the surveys of the townships and their particular claims. Once the surveys were completed, they could obtain title, subdivide, and sell. Speculation was built into the fabric of the act, particularly because it permitted both men and women to acquire up to 320 acres--a square mile for married couples. This was far more land than any farmer might till or manage.
Territorial status brought highly significant investments in Oregon. The U.S. Coast Survey dispatched William Pope McArthur and the vessel Ewing to begin charting the coastline. Over the next several years the Coast Survey examined the shoreline and the estuaries. It produced charts with depth readings, noted dangerous rocks, and gave form to the shore. Its reports included handsome engravings of coastal headlands as mariners saw them from sea.
Oregon coast at Cape Arago
The charting of Oregon's coast began during the territorial period as part of new federal investment. Shown above is the Cape Arago area. (Oregon State Archives Photo)
Dr. Elijah White had served since 1843 as Indian agent in Oregon. His appointment was strange in that he worked on federal salary when American sovereignty was not established. In 1849 Joseph Lane began duties both as governor and ex-officio superintendent of Indian affairs. He was succeeded by Anson Dart of Wisconsin and next by Joel Palmer, negotiator of several of the region's ratified treaties. The superintendents named Indian agents to serve at The Dalles, Clatsop Plains, Willamette Valley, Umpqua Valley, Rogue River Valley, and Port Orford.
Important federal services that came with territorial status included opening of postal routes and offices, federal courts, and customs houses. John Shively, an 1843 emigrant, was appointed as Oregon's first postmaster in 1847 in Astoria. Postal routes created vital communication links along a frontier. Congress established customs districts with agents at Port Orford, Umpqua River, and Astoria. In later years it opened offices for the Yaquina District and Portland. Federal officials were charged with collecting duties and recording statistical information on the ebb and flow of commerce. Their reports showed the rise of agriculture and industry, particularly the impact of the markets produced by the California Gold Rush for Oregon crops and lumber. Court officials had charge of dispute resolution. With three districts, they had a wide geographical reach and traveled a circuit to adjudicate complaints.
Using executive authority, U.S. presidents in the 1850s began withdrawing land from public entry to set aside sites for federal projects, including reservations for lighthouses, forts, and Indians. Several instances of the withdrawals proved unwise. In the case of lighthouses, some sites were too high above the sea or too remote from supplies to permit economical construction of stations. Most forts, though constructed, were of limited utility and were soon abandoned. The Coast (or Siletz) Reservation and the Grand Ronde Reservation, however, were two instances where presidential withdrawals helped shape both Indian history and settlement patterns. The large Siletz Reservation was dismembered in 1865 and 1875 and again after 1892. The Indian tenure, though diminishing, slowed pioneer settlement along much of the central coast.
1855 regulations for Indian agents
Indian agent regulations from 1855 displayed the ongoing tension between Native Americans and whites. (Oregon State Archives Territorial Document No. 13009) Learn more about this documentEnlarge image
Territorial status meant the arrival of the U.S. Army. Congress appropriated $76,500 in 1846 to establish garrisons along the Oregon Trail, but the project was diverted by the Mexican War. In 1849 the Mounted Riflemen finally headed west under the command of Major Osborne Cross. Their assignment was to build and staff forts to preclude further difficulties with the tribes. When the Riflemen's heavy wagons bogged down on the southern slopes of Mount Hood, the soldiers dug pits and cached many of their supplies at a place later known as Government Camp. They then pushed on to occupy temporary quarters at Oregon City and Astoria. During the 1850s the U.S. Army established Fort Orford (1851), Fort Dalles (1852), Fort Lane (1853), Fort Cascades (1855) on the north bank of the Columbia in the Gorge, Fort Umpqua, Fort Yamhill, and Fort Hoskins (all 1856). Construction created jobs for carpenters, brick masons, and laundresses. Soldiers brought payrolls flowing into the local economy as well as a sense of security from the Indians.
The Army provided another important service. Its engineers were authorized by Congress to survey and construct the Scottsburg-Myrtle Creek and Myrtle Creek-Camp Stuart military wagon roads. These routes connected in 1853-55 to carry freight and travelers from the head of tidewater on the Umpqua River to the mining districts in the Rogue River Valley and northern California. The Army also dispatched Lieutenant George Derby to survey a road over the Coast Range between Astoria and Salem. Although opened by axemen, the route drew only limited use. Derby in 1855 surveyed and supervised construction of the Fort Vancouver-Fort Cascades Military Portage Road into the Columbia Gorge. Uncle Sam's engineers, soldiers, and laborers helped create primary travel corridors to remote parts of the territory. As college graduates, the military officers also recorded weather data, collected fossils, pickled zoological specimens, wrote down Indian word lists, and sent interesting materials and communications to the Smithsonian Institution. These labors contributed to further understanding about the region.
While the federal government annually considered projects in the Oregon Territory, the legislature wrestled with local issues. These included frustration with the repeated appointment of nonresidents of the region to key positions, political fighting among Whigs, Democrats, and Know-Nothings, and the outbreak of warfare with Indian tribes. Residents of Puget Sound and the Walla Walla district were especially restive with a government located in Oregon City or, after 1851, in Salem. Congress addressed this matter and on March 2, 1853, President Millard Fillmore signed legislation creating the Washington Territory. This action gave final definition to Oregon's geography.
Another important consequence of territorial status was the extension of the Pacific Railroad Surveys into Oregon in 1855-56. Funded by Congress and staffed by the Topographical Engineers, this project sought five alternative routes across the continent to connect the Mississippi Valley with the Pacific Ocean. Additionally, the surveyors examined possibilities for north-south connections between the rail lines. Lieutenants Robert Stockton Williamson and Henry L. Abbot directed the surveys through the Willamette and Rogue River Valleys and along the eastern flank of the Cascade Mountains. Their reports, accompanied by geological observations by Dr. John Strong Newberry, included hand-colored plates showing the countryside, botanical, zoological, and paleontological collections, and profiles of possible grades for railroad routes.
Territorial government catapulted the residents of Oregon into the nexus of federal authority. Although cheerfully independent, Oregonians embraced territorial status with expectation. They had frustration about political cronies named to top government posts, but they gained important services and facilities funded at national expense.