Oregon History: Oregon and Imperial Ambition

Statue of Robert Gray dressed in traditional garb of 18th-century sea captain, with a tri-cornered hat, big buckle shoes and a spyglass.
A statue of American sea captain Robert Gray in Garibaldi.​ (Oregon State Archives scenic photo)
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The Europeans who came to Oregon beginning in the 1500s recognized in their own ways the power of the nonhuman world. They arrived by means of the Pacific Ocean, an immensely powerful force that regularly destroyed ships and stole lives. But thirst for knowledge, hunger for wealth and imperial ambitions drove Europeans and Euro-Americans to try to overcome and control the forces of nature. The Pacific Ocean offered not only danger, but also economic and political opportunities, especially if one could find a water route through North America that would facilitate global trade between Europe and Asia. Spain was the first European empire to send ships to Oregon: initially, in the mid-1500s, in purposeful pursuit of a water route through the continent; then, throughout the 1600s, by accident as galleons travelling the Pacific occasionally wrecked off the Oregon coast; and finally, in the mid-1700s, with a series of naval expeditions meant to establish Spain’s claim to the entire Pacific Coast and defend its colonies, mines and other imperial interests in Mexico. Spain imagined competition from Russian fur traders in the north, who had by the late-1700s established extensive operations in Alaska. But Russia never posed a real threat to Spain’s claims to the Pacific Northwest. The wealth of nature, both in the imagined water trade route through North America and the real riches in animal pelts, drew a much more formidable opponent toward Oregon.

The English first came to the Pacific Northwest in search of the mythical Northwest Passage bridging the Pacific and Atlantic, but they returned because of the real and profitable pelts of sea otters, beavers and other fur-bearing animals. England’s interest in the Pacific Northwest began in earnest with Captain James Cook, whose 1776–1780 voyage not only made landfall on the Oregon coast, but also established and publicized the enormous profits available in the sea otter fur trade. British traders soon were plying the Northwest coastline for ports, and trading with Native peoples, directly challenging Spain’s claims to the entire Pacific coast. In 1790, Spain finally relinquished those claims, and British mariners and merchants asserted their dominance to explore and trade in the region. In another attempt to find a water passage through North America, the British admiralty sent Captain George Vancouver to the Pacific coast in 1792. Vancouver’s ships carefully probed the coastline over the course of three years, creating detailed maps, gathering information on Native peoples and their environments, and establishing with certainty that no sea route through North America existed. The British still exploited fur-bearing animals for enormous profit, but doing so required crossing the continent by land and multiple rivers, such as the Columbia, which Vancouver’s expedition traveled through and officially claimed for Great Britain. 

Vancouver had a strong imperial claim to the Columbia River, but it was not the only such claim, and it would not be enough to hold the Oregon Country for Great Britain. The American sea captain Robert Gray first traveled to the Oregon coast in 1788, when he traded and fought with the Tillamook people at Tillamook Bay. He returned four years later, taking his ship Columbia Rediviva into the mouth of a great river that Vancouver had bypassed just two weeks earlier. Gray named the river after his ship, traded for a few hundred pelts, and left, neglecting to officially take possession of the river for the United States. It hardly mattered. News of Gray’s voyages, as well as reports from Vancouver and other expeditions, traveled quickly, attracting dozens of American ships to the Pacific Northwest and challenging British claims to sovereignty and the wealth of the fur trade. Although these ships flew under different flags, Americans and Britons shared the view that Oregon’s environments could be known and owned, and that they should extract wealth from those environments.

2 European men stand on a rock outcrop with a native american guide pointing at something in the distance below them.
This mural by Robert Thomas in The Dalles shows Lewis and Clark at Rock Fort along the Columbia River.​ (Oregon State Archives scenic photo​)
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For the first two decades of the 19th century, British and American merchants and traders, with the support of their respective governments, competed over Oregon’s wealth. Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition of 1805–06 brought official agents of the United States into Oregon Country, seeking a navigable route to the Pacific, scientific knowledge, economic opportunities for trade with Native peoples, and stronger claims to land that President Thomas Jefferson hoped might extend the American “empire of liberty.” Four ​years later, the Boston entrepreneur John Jacob Astor sent two parties, one by land and one by sea, toward Oregon Country to found an ambitious global fur empire called the Pacific Fur Company. These parties established Fort Astoria in 1811, but it (and the Pacific Fur Company) only lasted until 1813, when the British North West Company bought Astor’s fort and renamed it Fort George, incorporating it into their extensive network of fur trading posts in the Pacific Northwest. While American and British negotiators agreed in 1818 to jointly occupy Oregon, British fur traders established their dominance, particularly after the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) acquired the North West Company in 1821. Under the leadership of Dr. John McLoughlin, from its new Columbia District headquarters at Fort Vancouver, the HBC vigorously pursued its vision for Oregon Country. While cultivating trade relationships with Native trappers west of the Cascades, the HBC urged trappers in the east to hunt beavers into extinction, hoping to create a “fur desert” that would discourage American traders and trappers.

This strategy failed to reckon with the power of another view of Oregon’s environment: its potential for agriculture. While the fur trade offered short-term profits by extracting nature’s wealth, many Euro-Americans looked to agriculture for long-term progress through cultivation and “improvement” of nature. The Lewis and Clark expedition recorded the remarkable diversity of Oregon’s environments, particularly the farming opportunities in the Willamette Valley. The expedition’s journals and other reports on Oregon suggested that Euro-American farmers could and should fulfill what they believed to be Oregon’s true destiny as an agricultural paradise. Especially among Americans in the Midwest looking for a better life, Oregon became a place in which to live, thrive and make one’s home. That view had been present even before Americans came to Oregon: some former fur trappers and HBC employees built farms and set down roots in the Willamette Valley, including the company’s chief factor, McLoughlin, who claimed land for a home in what is now Oregon City. But McLoughlin and his fellow British citizens were increasingly joined — and soon were outnumbered by — Americans who saw in Oregon not just the possibility, but the inevitability of agricultural settlement under the U.S. flag.

Next: Oregon Becomes American >