How and why did national and world events transform Oregon history between 1750 and 1900?

The civil war and the ascendancy of the Republican party to power had influenced and shaped Oregon’s political future. In 1865, Slavery was prohibited by the Thirteenth Amendment. And in 1866, the Fourteenth Amendment gave citizenship to all people born on American soil. Between 1872 and 1908 both the Republican party and the Democratic party won senate contests alternatively. However, the presidential elections were won exclusively by the former. This Republican occupation of the White House shaped Oregon’s political culture for decades to come (Robbins).

Industrial Revolution was another event that affected the course of Oregon’s history. The mode of locomotion in the early 19th century was largely by foot. In the middle of the century horse wagons were very much in use. The Industrial Revolution changed all that. The Revolution had had its contribution to Oregon’s history towards the last decades of the 19th century as Railroads were its product. The trails used by Indians were later converted to roads and railroads. Traditionally, rivers served as channels of commerce. But for wagons they were a hindrance. To overcome this difficulty many bridges were built. From temporary log bridges to more advanced covered timber spans were built across the Yamhill and Marys rivers. They helped mobilize populations across Oregon’s expansive outback. Railroads brought capital flows to Oregon, with people from distant places buying timber plots, town lots and mineral rights. They also made investments in building new railroads (Engeman).

Even when railroads did not bring economic benefits to communities, the mere idea of their potential spurred business activity and excited the imaginations of developers, dreamers, and town promoters. In both a physical and psychological sense, railroads helped break down regional isolation, freeing passengers and freight from the constraints of geography and closing both time and space with distant places such as the Midwest and California. The construction of the railroads captured the imagination and challenged engineers who found ways to tunnel through mountain barriers and build bridges and trestles across deep ravines. (Engeman)

The laying of railroads resulted in a “demographic explosion to Oregon and the Pacific Northwest”. The metropolis Portland acted as a commercial hub, with a population of nearly twenty thousand in 1880. For most of the 19th century Portland overshadowed Seattle as the “leading metropolis of the Northwest” (Robbins). During this period, Portland was also a major banking centre with substantial influence.

The explorations of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark profoundly impacted the course of United States and Oregon history. Lewis and Clark represented the government’s ambitions of Westward expansion. The main political figure behind this grand project is Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States. Jefferson was “the architect of American democracy, a linguist, a natural scientist, a philosopher-statesman, an inventor, and a vicarious explorer” (Lang). He was also regarded as the “father of the American west” (Lang).

Initially, Jefferson was interested in the land immediately west of the Appalachian Mountains. This interest grew to include the entire trans-Mississippi West by the time he was elected as president. Jefferson’s plans included finding a land-based Northwest Passage, connecting the Pacific Ocean to the Mississippi Valley. Soon after his inauguration, Jefferson assigned to Meriwether Lewis the task of “learning about the American West, its topography, river systems, climates, Indian tribes, and the like” (Robbins). And in the fall of 1802, Jefferson asked Lewis to head an exploratory journey towards the Pacific.

The expedition was the result of three factors. First: Thomas Jefferson’s geopolitical and scientific interest in the far west. Second: the lure of fertile lands and natural resources for economic advancement. Third: identifying and establishing trade relations with the indigenous Indian tribes. Some historians regard sending the Lewis and Clark expedition as an act of empire building, while others believe commerce was the prime motive (Robbins). While we may argue about the motives and purposes of the Corps of Discovery, there is little doubt that it carried out Jefferson’s instruction. The Corps navigated uncharted terrain with minimal loss of life. The officers in charge of the Corps provided valuable information about the far west. The findings included geographic and ethnographic information and acted as important sources regarding the Columbia River Country. This great adventure in the West between 1803 and 1806 also finds mention in most literature of the times. Though the interpretation of this complicated episode of American history may differ, the fact remains that the expedition laid the foundation for what would become the modern states of Idaho, Washington, and Oregon.

When the Corps of Discovery crossed the Continental Divide on their way west in 1805, they entered a vast region that lay beyond the territories claimed by the United States. They were the first Euro Americans to travel by land into the region and everything they saw and recorded in their journals came as new information to the government, to scientists, and to the public. What they did in the Columbia River Basin, who they met, and how they reacted to what they saw had potential and real impact on subsequent events in Oregon. In a genuine way, the Lewis and Clark Expedition is the beginning of the non-Indian history of Oregon (Robbins).

The inland migration of Europeans was another crucial event. During 1830’s and 1840’s the Willamette Valley was divided socio-economically into two. On one side were the Native American population and the other were the European-American groups. This period marked a “critical turning point in the place that would become Oregon” (Robbins). The newly arrived European groups were establishing elementary farmsteads and raising cattle. The group comprised of merchants, missionaries and scientists. They first displaced the aborigines in Oregon’s western valleys and in 1860 moved eastward. During this period, native groups were pushed to the margins through unjust federal treaties that provided reservations in less desirable locations.

The inland migration of Europeans, which involved traveling 2000 miles, was directly related to the Lewis and Clark expedition. Expansionist American politicians of the day enthusiastically began to publicize and promote the Oregon Country as a settlement area. The increased American interest in this region coincided with a decrease in European influence, as is evident from the treaty with Great Britain in 1818. Meanwhile, The U.S. House of Representative prepared a “greatly exaggerated report”, describing the Columbia region as very significant for trade (Lang). The committee further emphasized the area’s closeness to China, its potential for fur trade and cultivatable lands to drive home its point. In other words, the northwest was portrayed as an “earthly paradise”, where earnest Americans could turn their dreams into reality (Lang).

Adding to this were hype-creators of a higher order. One notable example is the Harvard-educated Hall Jackson Kelley. Kelley promoted the Oregon Country using such descriptions as “a New Eden, a land with sublime and conspicuous mountains, a salubrious climate, a place well watered, nourished by a rich soil, and warmed by a congenial heat”. Though such claims have been ridiculed and considered out of touch with reality, they did help attract settlers to Oregon country. Missionaries also described the Williamette Valley favorably. The religious journals of the day published stories that predicted the finding of the promised land and notions of a bright future. The Oregon country’s “fertile soil and mild equable climate” were portrayed as advantageous for setting up factories and commerce. The chief propagators of such messages were the protestant missionaries (Robbins).

Farmers in the Midwest were suffering the effects of depression in agricultural economy in the wake of the “Panic of 1837”.

The lingering effects of the Panic of 1837; several years of flooding in Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois; the lure of free land in the West; the promise of economic betterment; the quest for adventure and excitement; and, finally, the promise of physical health. Chronic sickness and disease in the Mississippi Valley rank ahead of economic considerations and all other factors as motives for the move to Oregon. (Robbins)

So, apart from the myth-manufacturing, there were some genuine reasons as well. A combination of several factors contributed to the “Oregon Fever” of the 1840’s. As a result, the European American population rose from 1,500 in 1843 to 52,000 in 1860. The development of Oregon City is another symbolic event that transformed the landscape of the valley. Within a few years of the inward migration, the city held in its confines several churches, settlements, stores, sawmills and public buildings.

Works Cited:

Robbins, William. “This Land-Oregon.” The Oregon History Project. 2002. Oregon Historical Society. 15th Feb. 2006.

Engeman, Richard. ”Wooden Beams and Railroad Ties: the History of Oregon’s Built Environment.” The Oregon History Project. 2005. Oregon Historical Society. 15th Feb. 2006.

Lang, William. “Lewis & Clark: From Expedition to Exposition, 1803-1905.” The Oregon History Project. 2004. Oregon Historical Society. 15th Feb. 2006