Early in my life, I saw some of the remaining ruts of what used to be the Oregon Trail near Scottsbluff, Nebraska. I became more curious about one of the major routes that pioneers travelled in their covered wagons. The Oregon Trail represented a major part of the romanticized portion of United States history. The small stretch of the Oregon Trail was one of the pieces of Americana that nurtured my love of history.
The main designated starting town for the Oregon Trail is usually thought of as Independence, Missouri. The trail cut through the northeast portion of present-day Kansas and entered Nebraska Territory towards Fort Kearny along the Platte River until it reached Chimney Rock then Scottsbluff onward into what is now Wyoming. The path wound its way over the hazardous Rocky Mountains through present day Idaho and ended at the Columbia River in Oregon Country. From there, settlers could either raft the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver, or continue along the Barlow trail to the Willamette Valley into what has become the present-day states of Oregon and Washington.
Several wagon trains with up to 1,000 settlers apiece, with some of their belongings and livestock followed that route during the Great Migration. Historical and fictional stories abound regarding the settling of the American West. This chapter of American history continues to fuel our imaginations.
The earliest overland pioneers entered a land that had no established borders and was variously claimed by the United States, Russia, Spain, Great Britain, and Mexico. Great Britain and the United States had agreed to a joint occupation of Oregon Country in 1818. The resulting population mix was quite eclectic.
The original native Americans were soon displaced by British fur traders with the Hudson’s Bay Company and the hopeful farmers that had arrived during the Great Migration.
Concerned about organizing the area, some of the Willamette settlers first met in 1841 at the town of Champoeg to work up plans to form a formal governing system. In 1843, the European-American pioneers adopted a provisional constitution to establish the framework of organization. Even though no treaties were signed with native tribes, the makeshift constitution permitted settlers to claim up to 640 acres of land at no charge.
Meantime, The Mexican Rebellion for Independence from Spain had also broken out. In 1846, the Northern half of Mexico was quickly captured by the United States at the outbreak of the Mexican-American War. The Mexican Cession included lands from the Rio Grande, Alta California, and Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico. Following the invasion of Southern Mexico and Mexico City there was the matter of settling US national borders in the South.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was eventually forced. While Mexico didn’t officially cede any land, the redefined borders transfered Northern Mexico into the control of the US. The land was then purchased from Mexico for $15,000,000 plus the assumption of another three and a quarter million dollars in Mexican debts to American citizens. The geo-political map was redrawn to establish the official southern border of Oregon Country as one result.
Since the 1844 election of Democrat James K. Polk to the White House, the US began an overt program of expansionism. Polk wanted to eliminate the Oregon Country’s joint administration with Britain, once and for all. He also had to appeal to the sentiments of both the Northern and Southern voters in efforts to maintain the Congressional sectional balance.
Negotiations with Great Britain over Oregon started during the summer of 1845. The first US proposal included the boundary to be set at the 49th parallel and would divide Vancouver Island in two. The British quickly rejected the idea. The rejection enabled the President to assert his campaign pledge to terminate the joint occupancy agreement. He vowed to expand northward to the 54° 40′ line to effectively nullify the joint occupancy of Oregon Country. Northerners applauded the suggestion with the slogan “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!”. Southern interests were solidly opposed to going to war over Oregon Country.
At the same time London expressed opposition to war with the United States. A profitable economic relationship with the US had been growing so they were averse to harming that status. Because the US was still fighting Mexico, the Senate was preoccupied with that conflict. In order to satisfy both parties, the US Senate approved a new Oregon Treaty with the British government. In June of 1846, the Northern boundary of US interests in Oregon Country was set at the 49th parallel.
The American land was to remain unorganized for a couple of more years.
An unfortunate incident happened on November 29, 1847 near Walla Walla in what is now Washington State. Dr. Marcus Whitman, his wife and eleven others were murdered by native Americans who accused the doctor of having poisoned over 200 Cayuse Indians under his care. The killings were the result of a complicated relationship between the Indians and the Whitmans, who had led the first wagon train on the Oregon Trail. Historians blame the inability of Dr. Whitman to cure the spread of measles among the Indian population. The native Americans held him responsible for the deaths.
News about the Walla Walla masacre reached Washington DC and motivated the US Congress to help organize Oregon Country into a US Territory. All the necessary ingredients were in place, borders had been established and people were populating the countryside. The US Congress approved the Act to Establish the Territorial Government of Oregon. President Polk signed the bill on August 14, 1848. The Territorial Capital was established in Salem.
Because the previous, provisional governing board had been partially comprised of subjects of the British Crown, the provisional constitution and its land grants were dissolved. In order to legalize property rights in the new Oregon Territory, delegate Samuel Thurston petitioned and authored the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850. The law made the previous claims legitimate and offered more grants to new settlers.
The law granted 320 acres of federal land to caucasian male citizens 18 and older who resided on property before December 1, 1850. If married before that time, an additional 320 acres were granted in the wife’s name. The provisions were extended in 1854 to include further purchases for $1.25 an acre. The policy was in effect until passage of the Homestead Act of 1862.
Political intrigue fired further heated debates over the national slavery issue between the North and the South. Northern Democrats split with the Southern Democrats over the question and the Whig party began its total disintegration at this time. A Know-Nothing clique opposed the dominant political forces of the territorial establishment in Salem. In June of 1857, citizens of Oregon Territory voted to hold a constitutional convention the following year.
Careful of upsetting the testy balance of powers in Washington DC, Oregon statehood waited in a purgatory of shifting political coalitions. An overwhelming majority of Oregonians were in favor of forming a free state, but its senators were proslavery Democrats. The nation became distracted by violent clashes between proslavery factions and abolitionists in Kansas Territory and Missouri.
Following a two-year delay after the Oregon constitutional convention, the US Congress finally passed the law granting Oregon statehood. On February 14, 1859, President James Buchanan signed the bill into law. The new State of Oregon joined the Union.
Following addmission of Oregon as a State, the northern and eastern portions of the old Territory became Washington Territory, with the southeastern tip being absorbed into Nebraska Territory on March of 1861. Two years later, Washington Territory to the east of the Snake River and the 117th meridian was reorganized as Idaho Territory. The remainder existed as Washington Territory until it gained statehood in 1889.