3 Oregon Fever and Western Expansion: Manifest Destiny in the Garden of Eden



In 1905 The Oregonian published a biographical article on one of the more prominent Euro-American pioneers of Oregon’s past, Joseph Meek, as the “man who saved Oregon.” The newspaper adulated him as “a frontiersman of the highest type. Six foot two of magnificent manhood an inspiration and exemplification of American citizenship.”[1] Joseph Meek was the epitome of the rugged frontier individualist that shaped the Oregon experience and provided a push for settlers to hit the Oregon Trail. Newspapers and other media outlets, never hesitated to elevate the pioneers of the West in hagiographies, especially individuals like Meek, who was a relative of President James Polk’s wife, the first lady Sarah Childress Polk. Oregon’s pioneers were reconfigured in narratives of saint-worship whereby the people of the frontier represented the assimilationist forces of civilization and progress, buttressing Jefferson’s mission of an empire of liberty built on an agrarian republic.


A portrait of mountain man Joseph Meek wearing a fur hat.
Joseph Meek: Mountain Man


Oregon, like other states of the greater Northwest and Rocky Mountain regions, cultivated the archetype of rugged frontier folk who tamed the “savage wilderness”, mastered its natural resources, and were icons of individualistic self-reliance. “The first ideal of the pioneer was that of conquest. It was his task to fight with nature for the chance to exist. The rifle and the ax are the symbols of the backwoods pioneer. They meant a training in aggressive courage, in domination, in directness of action, in destructiveness. To the pioneer the forest was no friendly resource for posterity, no object of careful economy.”[2]

In the mid-nineteenth century, John O’Sullivan was an influential political writer, journalist, and advocate for the Democratic Party. He stated that the United States already held legal title to Oregon. He was the author of an infamous essay titled Manifest Destiny. It justified American expansion through divine providence and claimed the United States owned the “true title” to the Oregon Territory. Native American claims and rights to their ownership of the land were elided and excluded from his argument.

“Our claim to Oregon would still be best and strongest. And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence had given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us…The God of nature and of nations had marked it for our own, and with His blessing we will firmly maintain the incontestable rights He has given, and fearlessly perform the high duties He has imposed.”[3]

Politicians and other influential people who contributed to Oregon Fever and settlement spoke of America’s Manifest Destiny in their arguments for national expansion and the settlement of the West. The nationalist myth of the rugged frontier individual would serve as a potent symbol of American individualism in the West, but it materialized through a morbid tragedy; the genocide of Native American communities.

Early settlers in the Willamette Valley viewed the prairies as their agrarian future and often spoke of them in positive pastoral terms that were conventional in the nineteenth century. The prairies were viewed as a Garden of Eden based on a social and racial utopia for Euro-Americans. To encourage settlement in the region, exaggerations of the size of harvests were common: beets two feet in size and turnips that weighed thirty pounds.[4] For Jefferson’s dream of an empire of liberty, nothing could have done better to fuel his dream than to speak of a destiny guided by divine providence. Government policies aimed toward a bullish run in land speculation and disbursement brought on the actualization of the settlers’ utopian vision, and the removal of Native Americans from their landholdings.



Between 1820 and 1840, an upsurge of religious awakening coincided with Oregon Fever and movement of people out West. Protestant and Catholic missionary societies focused their sights on pioneer communities. In November 1843, missionaries watched an eruption of Mount St. Helens in awe and fear and sang “This awful God is ours” from the hymn “Marching to Zion.”[5] The Canadian Methodist missionary Jason Lee and the Oregon prospector and entrepreneur Nathaniel Wyeth went overland to Oregon along with a group of Methodist missionaries and arrived in Fort Vancouver. Missionary activities piqued the curiosity of the Nez Perce Indians. In 1832, three Nez Perce and one Flathead Indian journeyed to St. Louis looking for William Clark of the Corps of Discovery. They requested the “book” and the “black robes” for their people. The Nez Perce looked for the source of the white man’s power by sending representatives to St. Louis. European American whites, in their evangelical fervor, interpreted the Nez Perce and Flatheads who had come to St. Louis seeking “the white man’s Book of Heaven” as a call for spreading their faith in the West. This story, along with the volcanic eruption, would be retold in missionary circles as a note of encouragement to bring others to the Oregon Territory to further the goals of the civilization program, and the conversion and cultural assimilation of American Indians.

Chief Factor John McLoughlin persuaded Lee to start his mission in the central Willamette Valley where Hudson Bay Company employees lived. Lee established his mission ten miles north of Salem near French Prairie, an agricultural enclave. When the Methodists and Lee arrived they entered an area of human tragedy in the Willamette Valley: a vast malaria epidemic had broken out and decimated the Kalapuya population. The missionaries, unlike the fur traders, were interested in transforming the Indians’ religious beliefs and cultural practices. Native Americans had looked to the missionaries in a time of a humanitarian crisis to gain consolation and understanding of the trials they had undergone with the wave of epidemics that wreaked havoc upon the region. Lee established an assimilation school to convert Kalapuya children to Christianity and impose punishments for traditional cultural practices viewed as “uncivilized”. When he left, “there were more Indian children in the mission grave yard…than alive…in the manual labor school.”[6]

The Oregon Country represented unlimited possibilities for development and personal enhancement for Euro-American whites. During 1838 and 1839, Jason Lee went on a lecture tour through the East and Midwest, extolling the natural wonders and economic opportunities of Oregon with an evangelical fervor. He brought back fifty-one settlers, known as the Great Reinforcement, to Oregon, and they set up towns such as The Dalles, near Celilo Falls.




Faded photograph of Jason Lee
Jason Lee


The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions sponsored the Whitman and Spalding missionary parties upon the urging of Marcus Whitman. In 1836, Whitman and his wife Narcissa, established a mission at Waiilatpu “The Place of the Rye Grass” in the Walla Walla Valley. Both the Spaldings and Whitmans claimed they were helping the Cayuse and Nez Perce “develop a better way of life,” but the Christians and non-Christians were segregated from each other. Narcissa Whitman, the wife of Marcus, disliked the Cayuse people, and like many on the Oregon frontier, she rarely interacted with them. The Cayuse were alarmed by the waves of pandemics in measles and smallpox that arrived with Euro-American settlers. Their suspicions grew regarding the onset of disease in their community and they thought the Whitmans were poisoning them. In a matter of time, Narcissa and Marcus Whitman’s missionary settlement at Waiilatpu met its demise in 1847.

Henry Spalding, a Presbyterian missionary, arrived into the Northwest along with the fur traders. His family established themselves among the Nez Perce, also known as Nimipu, or “The People” in the Sahaptian language. Spalding supported cultural assimilation of the Nimipu in the Oregon country. He urged them to adopt an agrarian lifestyle and abandon nomadic traditions. Spalding brought in a printing press and published the biblical book of John in the language of the Nimipu. Spalding, like the Whitmans, was paternalistic and punitive in his relations with the local indigenous peoples. He attempted to enforce the prohibition of their ritual dances and ceremonies, and he grew frustrated over private property disputes with the tribe. Asa Bowen Smith, another missionary associated with Spalding, was critical of his attempts to turn the Nimipu into farmers, and ultimately failed to convert them to Euro-American lifestyles.

French Prairie, located in the Champoeg region, and St. Paul became epicenters of Catholic missionary work upon the invitation of Chief Factor John McLoughlin and the encouragement of his French-Canadian Catholic employees in the Hudson’s Bay Company. Francois Norbert Blanchet and Modeste Demers were French Catholic missionaries who responded to McLoughlin’s invitation. The Bishop of Quebec sent them to “regain from barbarism and its disorders, the savage tribes scattered over that country” and to extend their help “to the poor Christians who have adopted the customs of the savages and live in license and forgetfulness of their duties.”[7] They established two missions, one north of Fort Vancouver in Washington and the other in the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

With the establishment of Catholic missions and activity, religious tensions arose between Protestants and Catholics in Oregon. Catholics and Protestants, similar to the American experience in the eastern regions of the United States, felt distrust and animosity toward one another because of their religious and political differences. Marcus Whitman viewed Catholics in Oregon with suspicion and stereotyped them as crusaders of expansionist papal states, “Romanism stalks abroad on our right hand and on our left, and with daring effrontery boasts that she is to possess the land. I ask, must it be so?”[8] Until his death, Henry Spaulding was convinced Catholic missionaries and the Jesuits conspired with Hudson Bay employees and spurred the attack against the Whitmans. Catholics in turn were suspicious that Protestants ultimately wanted to control the trade and commerce of the area all to themselves, and they feared the Protestant authoritarian approach to indigenous people would harbor their resentment and animosity. But both Christian faiths felt without spiritual conversion, Native Americans were doomed to perdition.



Charles Grandison Finney, who was one of the most celebrated revivalists of the Second Great Awakening, a Protestant movement of the time, was a large man who had a commanding presence and intimidating visage comparable to John McLoughlin. Finney experienced a soul-wrenching conversion during which God told him to plead his cause to others. Finney’s preaching style was forceful and imposing, and he represented the age of Jackson with a focus on the individual. Finney’s impact swept across the east and provided a religious fervor that fueled westward migration. He focused on the individual with a representation free of ornamentation and pomp. Arguably, Finney provided spiritual fuel for Oregon Fever. Finney and the Second Great Awakening held a cultural worldview based on temperance and abolitionism. Finney constantly preached the sins of slavery and how the United States must repent for its transgressions against mankind. This represented a significant cultural force in the European American construction of Oregon.




A portrait of Senator Lewis Linn.
Sen. Lewis Linn

Senators Lewis Linn and Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri were two of the chief architects of Oregon Fever and the push to incentivize settlement in the area.  Linn viewed Oregon as an opportunity for “finding and founding empires for us,” namely white politicians and landowners.[9] Linn was one of the earliest proponents of the Land Donation Act in the Senate. The senators promoted the idea that colonists, incentivized by the federal government, conquered new areas not “by physical conquests [and] fleets and armies” but because these regions and people “have sought the blessings of our institutions; not we who will have coveted the enlargement of our territory by conquering.” Linn articulated a nationalist vision built on expansion articulated in a hagiography of William Clark. He is described as an empire builder and visionary, like Alexander the Great of Macedon, when he stood on the edge of the Pacific Ocean in 1805 and “saw through the dim vista of the future rising states of his countrymen spreading along the Pacific shore…the chain is complete from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.”[10] Settlers, along with Benton and Linn, thought they were, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, the “germe of a great State,” spreading the influence of Americanism and civilization. The imperial bravado politicians and missionaries brought an enthusiastic corps of volunteers and settlers who were ready to answer the call of Manifest Destiny on the Oregon Trail.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, a convention of prospective pioneers clamored for the immediate occupation of the Northwest territory in Oregon. They were guided by their political prophet Lewis Linn, and demanded for speedy occupation and settlement of the Oregon county according to international law. A fire was set under the feet of Congress to move things forward with the colonization of Oregon. Prospective settlers listed their resolutions and demanded Congress to provide military outposts on the trail, preserve naval and commercial independence at the mouth of the Columbia, and “that there should be no negotiation regarding the Oregon [Territory], except as the time the Hudson Bay Company should have to quit the country.”[11]


Painting, “American Progress” by John Gast.  A woman in a white gown floats over an open field above travelers, covered wagons, and animals.
American Progress by John Gast (1872). Columbia, cast in white, representing American progress dispersing the darkness of the West with the tools of civilization.


Thomas Hart Benton was an ally of Andrew Jackson, and an Oregon Fever zealot who actively pursued a militant stance on Western settlement. He promoted the idea that Oregon could be saved only by white Americans.  Benton belonged to the expansionist wing of the Jackson Coalition in the federal government, which included James Polk and Martin Van Buren. They adhered to a jingoist stance of western expansion in the American frontier and an aggressive diplomatic position of the Monroe Doctrine in Latin America. They felt American presence in Latin America was warranted and necessary. American influence, in their paternalistic view, would support those nations development into democratic republics. In their western expansionist vision, Oregon was a providential place for white settlers and according to officials’ imperial hubris, Euro-Americans would improve the human condition of the American West. According to Senator Benton, Euro-Americans were burdened with the civilizing task to enlighten the American West to their political, social and cultural institutions. It is a political philosophy that dominated international relations through the Spanish-American War. It was a nakedly Social Darwinist ideology fueled by a militant evangelism spreading Americanism to cultures perceived as needing indoctrination for their own benefit.

“The effect of the arrival of the Caucasian or White race on the western coast of America, opposite the eastern coast of Asia, remains to be mentioned among the benefits which the settlement of the Columbia will produce; and that a benefit, not local to us, but general and universal to the human race. I know of no human event…which promises a greater more beneficial change upon earth than the arrival of the van of the Caucasian race (the Celtic-Anglo-Saxon division) upon the border of the sea which washes the shore of eastern Asia.”[12]


With the arrival of Euro-American settlers, the Indian Question was born. “Should Indians assimilate to the “Caucasian race” or face their own extinction?” Federal and state policies, during this historical era, never considered whether indigenous peoples should retain their cultural heritage or their sovereign rights.[13] Instead Oregonians normalized the tragic plight and widespread death of indigenous peoples without much objection. Linn County resident Ms. James Miller wrote in 1852, “They are dying here as elsewhere, where they are in contact with civilization. I used to be sorry that there was so much prospect of their annihilation…Now I do not think it is to be much regretted. If they all die, their place will be occupied by a superior race.”[14] For the many  Euro-Americans, they had not seen themselves as a contributing factor to Indian genocide, nor did they hold much empathy towards their situation.

Benton’s thoughts on racial predestination were part of his call for the settlement of Oregon:

“The Mongolian, or Yellow race is a race far above the Ethiopian, or black, above the Malay or brown, above the American Indian, or Red: it is a race far above all these, but still far below the White, and like all the rest, must receive an impression from the superior race whenever they come in contact.”[15]


Benton saw the settlement of Oregon as the gateway to providing racial improvement to Asians, Indians, and African Americans. It is clearly a white supremacist ethos. He declared that whites have an imperial prerogative to “subdue the earth,” as a providential call from God:

“It would seem the white race alone received the divine command, to subdue and replenish the earth! For it is the only race that has obeyed it, the only one that hunts out new and distant lands, and even a New World, to subdue and replenish. (On the shores of the Pacific) a great population will grow up there, luminous with the accumulated lights of European and American civilization.”[16]


Benton’s jingoist views on western expansion hinged upon Anglo-Saxon superiority, racial purity and rigid gender roles as a prescriptive civilizing force that would be a benefit to humankind. According to the tenets of imperial hubris of the mid-nineteenth century, “It is the duty of enlightened nations… to protect the rights and to cherishing the interests of the Indians, if it exerts itself for the good of the Indians. As a father would benefit his children to diffuse the benefits and blessing of civilization among them.”[17] This encapsulates federal Indian policy until the latter half of the twentieth century. Indians were considered a ward of the state, and Congress, enshrined in its paternalistic duties, protected the Indians under a condition of subservience.

The premise of Oregon Fever was fueled by an evangelism that hinged upon Anglo-Saxon superiority as the moral and cultural ideal that would bring forth Jefferson’s vision of an assimilated class of Indians who would become productive, faithful citizens in the agrarian republic of the American West. Settlement of Oregon would provide European Americans the ability to enlighten and civilize the “rude and suffering people”[18]—the Indians. It would be the duty of Americans to protect Indians under their own newly found sovereignty by uprooting Native America cultural heritage and traditions, their landholdings and legacies. “The moral condition of the Aborigines, if blessed by the influences of a refined and religious community will be improved. The attempt to enlighten the minds and to dignify the nature of this unfortunate race may no longer be defeated by injudicious plans.”[19] Clearly Benton and his visionaries paved the way for Indian assimilation as a necessary tool of colonization, and perceived under nineteenth century liberalism, their education according to Western values and Americanism would allow their integration into society.

Benton viewed the settlement of Oregon as one of the greatest achievements of mankind comparable to Christopher Columbus’ possession of the Caribbean Islands. He saw the “settlement of the Columbia River by the van of Caucasians as the most momentous human event in the history of man since his dispersion over the face of the earth.”[20] Historians later in the twentieth century caught up with the mythistory of Columbus and have revealed other civilizations had explored the American continents before the arrival of Columbus and the Spanish Empire. The jingoists of the Jackson coalition thought Oregon would provide what Columbus had intended, a “North American Road to India.”[21] Another zealous proponent of Oregon colonization, Hall Jackson Kelley also venerated the exploits of Christopher Columbus and used the “heroic narrative” of the European explorer as a torch bearer of civilization and progress, disregarding the indigenous cultures that had established themselves for millennia.[22]

Black and white portrait of Hall Jackson Kelley.
Hall Jackson Kelley

Hall Jackson Kelley was a New England school teacher who was obsessed with Oregon and wrote extensively about Euro-American settlement. Kelley was a jingoist at heart, and personally was an ambitious opportunist driven by wealth and visions of grandeur. He led an expedition to Oregon with a few less than savory individuals on the Oregon Trail. Motivated and emotionally stirred by Lewis and Clark’s journals and conversations with other explorers, Jackson Hall Kelley asserted that “active sons of American freedom” ought to make their way to Oregon. Nicholas Biddle and Paul Allen’s History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark, the first edited copy of their journals published in 1814, inspired Kelley to “go and labor in the field of philanthropic enterprise and promote the propagation of Christianity in the dark and cruel places about the shores of the Pacific.”[23] Meriwether Lewis held the view that the Pacific Northwest was a prison, a “dreary wilderness” devoid of civilization.[24] Kelley’s negative perception of the Northwest was shaped by the Corps of Discovery’s writings on the region.

Jackson Hall Kelley was a vocal proponent of mass migration to Oregon as early as 1815. He has been called the Prophet of Oregon. “In the year 1824, I announced to the world my intention to settle in Oregon. Nothing is wanting, but a second Daniel Boone to lead the way.”[25] With the increased speed in the production of printed material, Kelley spread Oregon Fever through pamphlets and letters to newspaper editors, and personally encouraged Congress to occupy and govern Oregon. He viewed Oregon as “the most valuable of all the unoccupied parts of the earth,” and organized the American Society for Encouraging the Settlement of Oregon Territory in 1829.

In 1834, he persuaded a party of hunters to accompany him to Oregon through the Applegate Trail, named after famed pioneer Jesse Applegate. The famous trapper, Ewing Young, along with Kelley and fourteen additional men made their way north from California with 100 livestock. During their course along the Applegate Trail, the party routinely murdered Natives along the way, including two along the Rogue River. Kelley and his men arrived at Fort Vancouver on the north side of the Columbia River on October 27, 1834, “depressed in spirits and under great bodily weakness, then recovering from the fever and ague. He found himself an unwelcome guest at the place. Calumnies and slander were propagated about him, and the persons whom he had induced to come and settle there, were turned against him; and bloody men more than once threatened his life.”[26] Kelley lamented about his negative experience at Fort Vancouver. He never met with the Chief Factor John McLoughlin who ordered Kelley to stay in the laborers quarters at Fort Vancouver. A messenger told Kelley he could not stay in the fort and sent him to a cabin for butchering animals, which was “extremely filthy” and “mixed with animal putrescence.”[27]

He became convinced from this experience that the “agents of the Hudson Bay Company [sic], resident in the United States, have by all means, and with a settled hostility, done all they could to counteract his plans for the colonization of Oregon.”[28] Kelley was strong-armed by the Hudson’s Bay Company, and was sent on his way to Hawaii, and eventually returned to Massachusetts. Kelley held deep grievances against the Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, “Doctor John McLaughlin [sic] the chief officer of the company in Oregon, was kept informed of my movement in the states. The persecuting monster, anticipating my coming to the place of his abode, was ready, with sword in his hand, to cut me down; and I was treated at and after my arrival, with every demonstration of inhumanity.”[29]



Another aspect of Oregon Fever and its expansionist zeal was on the economic front. The Panic of 1837 was an economic depression that lasted for several years. The panic was based on a variety of factors, including a speculative real estate boom that occurred after Indian removals in the American West, declining cotton prices, and erratic banking practices. Thomas Benton and President Andrew Jackson promoted an economic policy of land acquisition based on hard currency called the Specie Circular, which required payment for land in gold and silver. This in part spelled trouble for the markets and contributed to the collapse. The financial crisis affected the global markets as well, in particular Chinese trade. It negatively affected farmers who were unable to pay their mortgages. Actions taken to move from the collapse included shifting financial investment into development of the railroads. This brought on further land speculation and a furious land grab from Native American holdings and possessions. Hard currency flowed from New England merchants, and bankers to the nascent railroad industry who gobbled up Native American lands. Nathaniel Wyeth built his financial empire from the fur trade and as an ice merchant. He shifted his investments to the blossoming railroad industry, and possible opportunities in the Oregon Territory as many other Northern capitalists in antebellum American.

Hall Jackson Kelley, like other European and American prospective explorers needed to find investors, convinced Wyeth of the business opportunities waiting for him in Oregon. Wyeth was enticed by opportunities in the fur trades and the salmon industry. Kelley intended to have Wyeth sponsor him on expeditions to Oregon, but Wyeth led his own expeditions without him not trusting the erratic personality of Kelley. It did not seem to have occurred to Kelley that in Nathaniel Wyeth possessed leadership qualities that he himself so conspicuously lacked. In the 1830s, Wyeth was leading expeditions to expand his developing business interests. He helped establish Fort Hall in present-day Idaho and Fort William on Wapato Island near present-day Portland. The Chinook people called the island Wapato, a reference to an edible bulb, the “Indian potato,” that grows there. Wapato Island is today known as Sauvie Island named for the French Canadian dairy farmer Laurent Sauvé, a Hudson’s Bay employee who settled on the west side of the island in the 1840s.


OREGON FEVER and 54’40” or FIGHT!

In 1836, President Andrew Jackson asked Congress to cancel the Oregon joint-occupation treaty with Great Britain. Thomas Hart Benton’s militancy over the issue had grown. He told Congress he wanted to “vindicate our rights on the Columbia” and that his bill would provide “thirty or forty thousand rifles beyond the Rocky Mountains, which will be our effective negotiators.”[30] American western expansion was reaching a fever pitch during the Polk presidency. Congress authorized James Polk to revoke the treaty on his own initiative when he took office. Polk and Benton put forth the rallying cry “Fifty-four forty or fight!” to meet British challenges and claim the Oregon Territory as its own. Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, whose efforts were instrumental in the diplomatic settlement of American sovereignty of Oregon, along with President Polk, wanted to get ahead of a forthcoming diplomatic dispute that was unfolding with Great Britain.

President Polk, continuing the push for American expansion out West, would inaugurate the internal migration out west to Oregon. Along with American embroilment in the Mexican-American War, the chief executive willed the people of America to fortify American claims in Oregon through settlement and a hardline stance against the British Empire with its economic claims in the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Vancouver. Following the establishment of the provisional government at Champoeg in 1843, some 5,000 Americans were living in the Oregon region in 1845. Democrats demanded “clear and unquestionable” rights to the Oregon Territory. Polk would carry the motto “Fifty-four forty or fight!” to the southern tip of the Alaskan panhandle.

In his inaugural address in 1845, President Polk declared that American title to Oregon was “clear and unquestionable.” Polk proposed to the British that Oregon be divided at the forty-ninth parallel. When the British balked at accepting that boundary, Polk resumed his belligerent stance. He stated to Congress that he was no longer willing to compromise and that national honor and interest were at stake in Oregon. Besides Polk and Benton, and some members of the Democratic Party, very few truly believed the entire Oregon Territory belonged to the United States. According to Benton:

“There is no boundary at 54’40”; and so far as we proposed to make it one, it was for the British, and not for ourselves and so ends the redoubtable line, up to which all true patriots were to march! And marching fight! And fighting die! If need be! Singing all the while, with Horace, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. I proceed…to the dogma of the unity and indivisibility of the Oregon title, and its resulting corollary of all or none…all the way from 42’ to 54’40”no break in it, and consequently all or none.”[31]

During this time, very few Americans actually lived north of the Columbia River; that area was mostly occupied by Hudson’s Bay Company employees. Between the forty-ninth and fifty-fourth parallels, there were no Americans. The Treaty of 1818 offered joint occupancy of the Oregon Territory to American and British interest, in particular the Hudson’s Bay Company, which still held commercial supremacy of the fur trade. The Oregon Treaty of 1846 was Polk’s proud creation. It settled the international dispute with Britain once and for all. Benton provided the animus to move the Oregon Treaty on the congressional floor. Polk was using his political clout in this diplomatic battle not only to secure the Oregon Territory but to stake claims up to the forty-ninth parallel and the state of Washington. The Oregon Territory was secured through diplomatic channels rather than military conquest in the Treaty of Oregon.



America was able to avoid war with Britain during a time when things were heating up over Mexico and the annexation of Texas. The Senate ratified the Oregon Treaty in 1846, and the boundary along the forty-ninth parallel was extended from its previous terminus in the middle of the Rocky Mountain to the Strait of Georgia. The Hudson’s Bay Company would retain the right to navigate the Columbia River south of the forty-ninth parallel, and it was promised protection for its possessions in American territory.

The settlement and colonization of the Oregon Territory was achieved by an inner circle of movers and shakers with overlapping political connections. John C. Fremont, who had achieved military notoriety gained the patronage of political circles within the Democrat Party. He was an ally of President Polk and Thomas Hart Benton’s son-in-law, and gained government sponsorship to embark on a Western expedition with the elite Corps of Topographical Engineers. The army commissioned Fremont to map and survey the trail to Oregon to facilitate American settlement. He set out on his mission from St. Louis, Missouri, and eventually traversed the high desert of Oregon. He was the first to identify the Great Basin region in eastern Oregon. Fremont was also responsible for providing the means of settlement that would serve in Polk’s diplomatic claims for the Oregon Territory: a detailed map of the Oregon Trail.

But the story of Fremont is like many others in the formative period of Oregon’s history. Fremont and other critical players, such as Joseph Meek, were interconnected in a political web of opportunism. Fremont was married to Senator Benton’s daughter, and Meek was a relative of the President Polk’s wife, Sarah Childress Polk.

Joseph Lane started out as a state legislator from Indiana, along with many others from the Old Northwest, who settled in the Willamette Valley. He came to the region along the Oregon Trail in 1849. Previously he served as a general and was considered a hero of the Mexican American War. Polk appointed him governor of the Oregon Territory. Later during the 1860 presidential election he ran as John Breckenridge’s vice president, and as part of a pro-slavery wing of the Democrat Party. Lane was a devout defender of African slavery, and was a powerful figure in Oregon and the Democratic Party. Lane’s political career ended when his venture into White House failed and Lincoln won the presidential election. Lane returned to Oregon a beaten man and spent the rest of his years isolated in Roseburg, Oregon until he died in 1881.



Oregon was created during a time of national tumult over slavery. The West was considered a “free soil” land for white labor, and a white racial utopia as well. The Compromise of 1850 had designated California a free state, meaning free from slavery, but like other states in the American West, California and Oregon were to be “free labor” states—the rightful domain of white laborers free from competition of nonwhites. This established a foundation in exclusionary racist policies in Oregon that guided state legislation until the twentieth century.

American laws founded on racial discrimination were established in western states during expansion while white settlers and their families arrived in the Oregon Territory by middle of the nineteenth century. The Oregon Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 was a racially hued land settlement scheme subsidized by the federal government, and excluded a vast swath of nonwhites from obtaining land. Black pioneers in Oregon regarded the Donation Act as encouraging the settlement of a particular race of people, not themselves. In a letter to the renown Frederick Douglass, the African American abolitionist and the editor of The North Star, one of the earliest black residents of Portland wrote to him, “Even in the so-called free territory of Oregon, the colored American citizen, though he may possess all the qualities and qualifications which make a man a good citizen, is driven out like a beast in the forest, made to sacrifice every interest dear to him, and forbidden the privilege to take the portion of the soil which the government says every citizen shall enjoy.”[32]

The Donation Act severely curtailed the territorial claims of Indians and overrode treaties that had been established between Euro-Americans and indigenous people of Oregon. The public domain was generally considered to be an inexhaustible source of wealth, and the availability of unsettled and unclaimed land, according to Euro-American perceptions, was seen as a solution to overcrowding and financial autonomy. During the American colonial era, frontier settlers and land speculators promoted growth and expansion of the colonies, and brought concomitant violence and tensions between Euro-Americans and Native Americans. Government authorities responded to political pressures by either attempting to bar limits on the spread of the western frontier, which always met with resistance, or provide funding for military protection and security of settlers who intruded within Indian territorial borders established by agreements and treaties. It was a double-edged sword; frontier agitation promoted western expansion and settlement for the United States, but gradually eliminated Indian hunting grounds, the traditional customs and livelihood of indigenous tribes, and their sovereign rights. The Land Donation Act was a teleological means to eradicate Native Americans from Oregon soil either by relocation or elimination.

While the history of the rugged individual archetype has become a critical ideological thread in the making of the West, it is an image that must take into account how reliant the pioneers were on government support and subsidies, and military support. Settlers in Oregon looked to the federal government to help them achieve solutions to the problems of land titles. The Donation Land Claim Act recognized the generous land claims of Oregon’s provisional government and set up a system for acquiring additional land. It was an early homestead act. Each white male citizen eighteen years or older was entitled to 320 acres of land if single; if he married by December 1, 1851, his wife could claim another 320 acres. A person had to live and use the land only for four years in order to have the right to gain title to the land, a narrow reading and interpretation of the legal precedent, res nullius. This created an open-ended ruling of Native land claims which frequently declared them as “abandoned property” according to Western laws. Prospective claimants needed only two witnesses to prove whether a contested plot of land was considered “in use” by the fruits of labor of its owner.



Generous land provisions within the Land Donation Act promoted more immigration and marriages within Oregon. Within a few years, little of the Willamette Valley was left unclaimed, and this spurred development in eastern Oregon in 1860. Oregon’s skewed sex ratios and the provisions of the Donation Act meant that many women married men twice their age or more which was starkly different than communities of Northern European origin. According to the historian Dorothy Johansen, “This did not assure their [women’s] independence but it did assure any woman of barely marriageable age a husband.”[33] Until 1849 women accounted for only 15 to 20 percent of travelers on the Oregon Trail. Men outnumbered women by a ratio of 2.5 to 1 in 1850. The American West scripted a different age disparity between men and women in marriage. Men in their twenties and thirties greatly outnumbered women, and marriage could double the amount of land men and women could farm. Marriages were made at a young age, often without women’s input, and abuse was not uncommon. “What could a girl of 14 do to protect herself from a man of 44,” wondered a woman whose husband “used to beat me until I thought I couldn’t stand it.”[34] Abigail Scott Duniway, a pioneer of women’s suffrage in Oregon, cast a critical eye upon the vast age disparity between husbands and wives due to the mechanism of the Land Donation Act, and women’s subservient condition, “The result is subjugation on one hand and despotism upon the other.”[35] But the Oregon Donation Land Claim Act was a watershed event in women’s property rights, and many wives were able to keep legal titles to their lands. During the Donation Land Act’s five-year existence, 8,000 claimants acquired three million acres. Most of the land that was claimed was in the Willamette Valley, whose landscape would be forever altered from the way the Indians had shaped it.

Land grants were given to settlers without the agency of the territorial government. The intention was to promote migrants from the Midwest, Appalachia and southern states to wrest control of the region from the Hudson Bay Company and the residing indigenous tribes. Homesteads in Oregon tended to include log cabins, an architectural form that pioneers had carried over from the colonial period, bringing traditional building styles and cultural practices from the Midwest and upper South.[36] According to nineteenth century liberalism, the act was intended to stimulate land settlement and benefit the country by the means of racial improvement through civilization and progress.[37]



The pioneer and lawyer Samuel Thurston was the first delegate from the Oregon Territory to serve in the House of Representatives in the United States Congress. The voters of the Oregon Territory relied on him to secure federal lands for Oregon. He was one of the chief architects of the Land Donation Act. A donation bill like Oregon’s had only been encountered one other time in the federal land system, and that was in the state of Florida which served as an Indian defense mechanism against the Seminole tribe during the Seminole War. In 1824, the land donation law of Florida permitted Euro-Americans to acquire land titles up to 640 acres from Seminole holdings and Spanish claims. Similar to the Oregon land donation act, the intention was to claim indigenous land holdings and induce white settlement. Thurston insisted the donation bill was necessary to compensate the settlers who made the journey. Several homestead bills were being passed by influential senators like William Seward, known for the purchase of Alaska from Russia, and Daniel Webster. Thurston failed to get the support of newspaper magnate Horace Greeley who felt the apportionment of 640 acres was too much for families. But Thurston pressed on to pass the bill in the House and the Senate.

A second provision of the Donation Act limited the grants of land to white settlers only. Thurston intended to exclude Pacific Islanders and African Americans from Oregon. The congressional debate over this provision revealed the sectional divide between abolition-minded representatives and southern representatives who delivered fiery speeches on the natural inferiority of African Americans. The amendment to exclude blacks from the state of Oregon was adopted by Congress and passed by a vote of 68 to 51.[38] Eventually Thurston was able to get the Land Donation Act to pass the House and Senate in 1850.

While Oregon would become primarily a settlement and a trading interest with East Asia, the pioneers who came to the region brought their illusions of self-reliance and motivations of individualism and autonomy to Oregon. The federal government showed generous gratitude to settlers of Oregon by legislating huge tracts of land through the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, which was a profoundly racially hued mandate of land settlement in Oregon that would exclude a slew of nonwhites from gaining property in the region. The foundational establishment of exclusivity and racial privilege became a significant constitutional precedent during the formative years of statehood in Oregon, and carried on into the twentieth century.


[1] Schwantes, Carlos: Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive History, (University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, 2000)

[2] Turner, p. 269.

[3] Miller, Robert: Discovering Indigenous Lands: The Doctrine of Discovery in the English Colonies, (Oxford University Press: Cambridge, 20120 p. 83.

[4] It is a phenomenon that continued in the expansion of the American West that drove prospective farmers in the Southern Plains before the Dust Bowl. It was the promise of bountiful harvests that seemed too good to be true. Boag, Peter: Environment and Experience, p. 88.

[5] Johansen, Dorothy: Empire of the Columbia, A History of the Pacific Northwest (Harper and Row Publishers: New York, 1957) p. 43.

[6] Peterson del Mar, David: Oregon Promise, p. 47.

[7] Schwantes, Carlos: Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive History, p. 95.

[8] Ibid. p. 98.

[9] Congressional Globe 27th Congress 3rd Session, p. 117 (February 2nd 1843)

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Oregon-Adjourned Meeting,” The Ohio Statesman, March 5th, 1844, issue 51.

[12] Thomas Hart Benton, On The Oregon Question, Speech delivered in the Senate of the United States May 22,25,28 1846, (Blair and Rives: Washington, 1846)

[13] American Indian policy would not begin to experience any significant changes at the federal level until the Indian New Deal of John Collier during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency. By the 1960s, the protection of Native American sovereign rights was becoming the established norm in American politics.

[14] Boag, Peter: Environment and Experience, p. 58.

[15]  Benton, p. 28

[16] Benton, p. 29

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Kelley, Jackson Hall, p.72-76.

[20] Thomas Hart Benton, p. 30.

[21] Ibid.

[22] The historiographical consensus has been reached by which Columbus’s work is no longer seen as heroic and beneficial to American civilization since it has been thoroughly documented by Dominican friars like Bartolomeo Las Casas that Columbus tortured, maimed, raped and killed Carib and Taino Indians in the Caribbean. See James Loewen, Lies My History Teach Told Me (New Press: New York, 2008).

[23] Powell, Fred W. (ed.): Hall Jackson Kelley on Oregon: a collection of his published works,

(Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1932) p. x

[24] David L. Nicandri, “The Columbia Country and the Dissolution of Meriwether Lewis: Speculation and Interpretation,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 106, No. 1 (Spring, 2005), pp. 6-33

[25] Ibid, p. 10.

[26] Fred Wilbur Powell: Jackson Hall Kelley On Oregon: a collection of his published works  (Princeton University Press, 1932) p. 98


[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Miller, Robert: Native Americans, p. 148

[31] Benton, Speech to Congress, p. 24.

[32] McLagan, Elizabeth: Peculiar Paradise, p. 46

[33] Johansen, Dorothy O., and Charles M. Gates. Empire of the Columbia: a History of the Pacific Northwest, (New York: Harper & Row, 1967)

[34] Peterson del Mar, Oregon Promise: An Interpretive History (Oregon State University Press: Corvallis, 2003) p. 75

[35] Peterson del Mar, What Trouble I Have Seen: A History of Violence against Wives, (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1996) p. 11

[36] Boag, Peter: Environment and Experience, p. 58.

[37] Nineteenth century liberal ideology commonly embraced the ideas of imperial expansion, racial betterment and civilization as intertwined concepts throughout Western Europe.

[38] Bergquist, James: “The Oregon Donation Act, and the National Land Policy,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Mar., 1957), pp. 17-35


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Oregon’s History: People of the Northwest in the Land of Eden Copyright © by Athanasios Michaels is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book