Advent of the Missionaries

The Catholic missionaries devoted their time not only to the Indians, but ministered to the Canadian French, who, after leaving the Hudson’s Bay Company, settled in the Willamette Valley and on the Cowlitz. The Willamette Falls was selected by the company in 1829 as a place of settlement for its retired servants. It had previously been the policy of the company not to permit settlements to be made by their servants whose term of service had expired, since they deemed such settlements detrimental to the preservation of the region as a fur producing wilderness. But the company was bound under heavy penalties not to discharge any of its servants, even after they could render no service, and was therefore forced to provide homes for them where they could to a degree be self-supporting. They were still retained on the company’s books as its servants, and still inclined, as British subjects, to uphold and maintain the supremacy of Great Britain in the country where they lived. The settlement at Willamette Falls did not prosper, and a few years later it was abandoned. The ex-servants then located near Champoeg, in Marion County, and became quite a flourishing colony, and there their descendants live to the present day, useful and industrious citizens.

At the close of 1837 the independent population of Oregon consisted of forty-nine souls, about equally divided between Missionary attaches and settlers. With but few exceptions, the arrivals during the next two years were solely of persons connected with the various Missions whose advent has already been noted. The settlers who followed then were moved by no religious incentive. Some were independent trappers from the Rocky Mountains, who had become enamored of the beautiful Willamette valley, and had come here to settle down from their life of danger and excitement. Some of them were sailors, who had concluded to abandon the sea and dwell in this land of plenty, while still others were of that restless, roving class, who had by one way and another, reached this region in advance of the waves of emigration which swept into it a few years later. Including the arrivals of 1840, among whom were Dr. Robert Newell and Joseph L. Meek, there were in the Fall of that year (exclusive of the officers and employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company), one hundred and thirty-seven Americans in Oregon, nearly all in the Willamette Valley, about one-third of whom were connected with the Missions in some capacity. There were also sixty Canadian settlers, former employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who had left the service of the company and settled in the Willamette Valley, and who eventually cast the weight of their influence on the side of the independent American settlers, as those unconnected with either of the Missionary societies or Hudson’s Bay Company were called.

Up to 1839, the only law or government administered in this region, was the rule of the Hudson’s Bay Company, but in that year, deeming that there should be some authority that settlers would respect, the Methodist Missionaries appointed two persons to act as magistrates. Thus, the independent settlers acquiesced in, although it had been done without their co-operation or consent. So far as the latter class were concerned they were, through the inattention and neglect of Congress, absolutely without government or laws of any kind. The Missionaries had rules and regulations established by themselves which governed them in their social intercourse with each other, and united them in a common cause for their mutual protection. But the independent settlers had not even that security for their lives or their property. By their own government, which ought to have thrown around them its protecting care, they were treated literally as political outcasts, nor was Congress unaware of their condition. On January 28, 1839, Hon. Lewis F. Linn, one of the United States Senators from Missouri, and the most zealous and indefatigable champion of the American settlers in Oregon and of the claims of the United States to the Oregon Territory, presented to, the Senate a petition of J. L. Whitcomb and thirty-five other settlers in Oregon, which in simple and touching language set forth the conditions of the country, its importance to the United States, its great natural resources and necessity of civil government for its inhabitants. The settlers thus plead with the Nation’s Representatives:

“We flatter ourselves that we are the germ of a great State, and are anxious to give an early tone to the moral and intellectual character of our citizens-the destiny of our posterity will be intimately affected by the character of those who emigrate.

* * * *

But, a good community will hardly emigrate to a country which promises no protection to life or property.

* * * *

We can boast of no civil code. We can promise no protection but the ulterior resort of self defense.

* * * *

We do not presume to suggest the manner in which the country should be occupied by the government, nor the extent to which our settlement should be encouraged. We confide in the wisdom of our national legislators and leave the subject to their candid deliberations.”

The petition concluded by urging the necessity of assumption of jurisdiction of the territory by the United States, and of the inauguration of energetic measures to secure the execution of all laws affecting Indian trade and the intercourse of white men and Indians. “The security” said the petitioners, “of our persons and our property, the hopes and destinies of our children, are involved in the objects of our petition.”

This petition was read, laid on the table and neglected. In June, 1840, Senator Linn again presented a memorial signed by seventy citizens of Oregon, praying Congress to extend Federal jurisdiction over the territory, in which the government was warned that the country is too valuable to be lost, that attempts were being made by the rival nations to reduce it to possession, and that appearances indicated British intent to hold exclusively the territory north of the Columbia. Then modestly invoking the attention of Congress to the region because of its national importance, they concluded with this patriotic prayer: “Your petitioners would beg leave especially to call the attention of Congress to this, our condition as an infant colony, without military force or civil institutions to protect their lives and property and children, sanctuaries and tombs, from the hands of uncivilized and merciless savages around them.

“We respectfully ask for the civil institutions of the American Republic-we pray for the high privileges of American citizenship; the peaceful enjoyment of life; the right of acquiring, possessing and using property and the unrestrained pursuits of rational happiness.”

This memorial, like the preceding one, was laid on the table and forgotten by a majority of the Senators to whom it was addressed. Senators Linn and Benton almost alone remained the true and tried friends of Oregon. The former, during three terms of Congress had not only introduced and urged consideration of bills for the purpose of extending the jurisdiction and laws of the United States over the territory of Oregon, but had also urged the passage of bills granting donations of the public lands in Oregon to citizens who had settled there. He did not live to see the measures he had so zealously advocated become laws, but eight years after his death the legislative Assembly of Oregon, in a spirit of gratitude and out of affectionate regard for his memory gave his name to one of the largest and most productive counties in the territory.

Why Congress suffered the petitions of the settlers in Oregon to lie unheeded, why it failed to protect them by extension of laws over the territory, as the English government had done for British subjects, must remain a matter of conjecture. But it must be borne in mind that at this time, in the judgment of many of the leading men of the day, Oregon was regarded as valueless and unpractical for American settlement. Statesmen and publicists had been wont to speak derisively of the idea that American civilization would press westward of the Rocky Mountains and secure a foothold on the shores of the Pacific. Among the first recognition on the part of Congress of such a country as Oregon, which occurred in 1825, on the introduction of a bill by Mr. Floyd, of Virginia, “authorizing the occupation of the Oregon river,” Senator Dickinson, of New York, assailed the measure in a sarcastic speech in which he claimed that it would never become a State, that it was 4650 miles from the seat of the Federal Government, and that a young and able-bodied senator might travel from Oregon to Washington and back once a year, but he could do nothing more. He closed his speech with the remark: “as to Oregon Territory, it can never be of any pecuniary advantage to the United States,”-a conclusion which subsequent events and the present situation and prosperity of the State prove him to have been little of a sage and a miserable failure as a prophet. As late as 1843, when Senator Linn’s bill was introduced in the senate of the United States, providing for granting land to the inhabitants of Oregon Territory, a senator said, in the discussion of the bill: “For whose benefit are we bound to pass this bill? Why are we to go there along the line of military posts and take possession of the only part of the territory fit to occupy-that part lying upon the sea coast, a strip less than a hundred miles in width; for, as I have already stated, the rest of the territory consists of mountains almost inaccessible, and low lands covered with stone and volcanic remains; where rain never falls except during the spring, and even upon the coast no rain falls from April to October, and for the remainder of the year there is nothing but rain. Why, sir, of what use will this be for agricultural purposes? I would not for that purpose give a pinch of snuff for the whole territory. I would to God we did not own it. I wish it was an impassible barrier to secure us against intrusion of others. This is the character of the country.” This extract will give an idea how dense was the ignorance concerning Oregon less than half a century ago by a man presumptively of more than average reading and information.

But a new force was about to appear on the scene that was to demonstrate the falsity of the ideas held by many pretentious and assuming statesmen; that was to prove that the 3,500 miles of land lying between the nation’s capital and the mouth of the Columbia could be traversed by the ordinary means of conveyance; that was to settle the question of America’s right to the country, and force Congress to extend the protection and blessings of our form of government over all the great country lying between the two oceans. It was the home-seeking emigrants, with their wives and children, flocks and herds, who in wagon trains began to make the long pilgrimage across the plains. This movement, on the basis of any magnitude did not begin until after 1840. Then began that steady stream of young, vigorous life which has annually flowed into Oregon for nearly half a century, the end of which will not be seen for many years. Deep causes existed, which moved this living stream to force its way across rocky barriers and arid plains. Very naturally the movement began in the region then known as the West, and had its greatest strength in Missouri, Illinois and Iowa. Trappers returning to St. Louis had sung the praises of the lovely and fertile valley of Willamette, where winter was unknown and the grass remained green all the year round. The Western frontiersmen caught up the refrain as it passed from cabin to cabin, and in a few years the tale was an old one to the pioneers of the West. The panic of 1837 and the consequent stagnation of business, had produced a feeling of despondency in the West, and especially in the States named where there was no market for stock or produce; where credit, public and private was destroyed, and a large number of persons were looking anxiously about for means of subsistence. This state of things helped very much to turn the public attention to Oregon. Moreover, the publication of a book by Dr. Parker, a missionary, who visited Oregon in 1835, a historical and descriptive work by John Dunn, of the charming narratives of Bonneville and Astoria by Washington Irving, and of a letter written by Robert Shortess, who had come out in 1839, were well calculated to fill the minds of the romantic and adventurous with an interest in the country and a desire to make the marvelous journey across the plains.

Moved by the impulses just recited, the first regular emigration began the long journey to Oregon in the Spring of 1841. It consisted of one hundred and eleven persons. In the Fall of the, same year, twenty-three families from the Red River settlement of the Hudson’s Bay Company came out and settled on Cowlitz Prairie, some of them locating later in the Willamette Valley. These were brought out as an offset to the American settlers, but they were too few in numbers to stem the tide setting Americanward, and were overwhelmed by the American emigration of the next few years.

In 1842, the first regular emigrant wagon train started for Oregon, consisting of sixteen wagons and one hundred and nine people. No wagon wheel had ever cut the sod of the country over which they proposed to go, and the region through which they must pass was practically unknown as a route for wagons. With infinite difficulty the party advanced as far as the old trapping rendezvous on Green River, where half of the wagons were dismantled. The other half were taken as far as Fort Hall on Snake River, where they were abandoned, owing to the deep-rooted belief that wagons could not be taken through the Snake River Canyon and Blue Mountains. In the train was Dr. Elijah White, who had spent three years in Oregon in connection with the Methodist Mission, and had now secured the appointment of Indian Agent for the region West of the Rocky Mountains. Among others were the well remembered names of A. L. Lovejoy, L. W. Hastings, Medorum Crawford, J. R. Robb, F. X. Matthieu, Nathan Coombs, T. J. Shadden, S. W. Moss and J. L. Morrison, all of whom deserve to he placed in the front rank of Oregon’s pioneers. Lovejoy was a lawyer from Boston-the first lawyer in the colony-and was prominent in its affairs for the next twenty years, while Crawford afterwards held various positions of honor and trust under the National and State governments.

The year 1842 also witnessed the first successful attempt at independent trade in Oregon. In July of that year, Captain John H. Couch brought the ship Chenamus into the Willamette River with a cargo of goods from Boston, which he placed on sale at Willamette Falls. Prior to this event the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Mission had a monopoly of the mercantile business in Oregon. Couch was so well pleased with the country that he gave up the sea and settled in it. Couch’s addition to the city of Port-land is built upon the land claim taken up by him in 1845.

Wherever the American citizen goes he carries with him the great fundamental principle of representative democratic government, and no better example of this great fact can be cited than the conduct of the early settlers of Oregon. Hardly had the first pioneers erected a shelter from the inclemency of the season, when, true to their American instincts, they missed and at once desired to supply the protection afforded by civil institutions. Too weak for self-government, naturally they turned to the United States Congress to supply their first necessity. Their petition of 1838, is an admirable argument for the principle that good order can only be assured by a “well judged civil code.” In 1840, they eloquently lamented that they were without protection which law secured. Their appeals ignored by their government, they turned to themselves, to each other, and at once agitated the question of establishing a temporary government.

History, Missions,

Harvey Whitefield Scott. History of Portland, Oregon: with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Prominent Citizens and Pioneers. Portland, Oregon. D. Mason & Company, 1890.

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