Establishment of a Civil Government in Portland

The first effort looking toward the organization of a civil government was made in 1841, at Champoeg, which at the time was the seat of the principal settlement in the Willamette Valley. It originated among the members of the Methodist Mission, and for that reason did not have the cordial support of the independent settlers. The movement failed, and although several causes contributed to this result, the main reason was the unpopularity of its chief promoters among those Americans disconnected with the missions. At this time, says an early pioneer, the people of Oregon were divided into two great divisions with reference to their allegiance-citizens of the United States and subjects of the British sovereign. Among the people there were three classes-the officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who were considered the aristocratic English class; the missionaries, who were regarded as the American aristocrats, while the third class was composed of the “common people” of both nationalities, who refused to accept the social position assigned to them. Thus jealousies and prejudices were engendered, which required time, association and a feeling of mutual dependence to obliterate.

During the year 1842 the subject of establishing a civil government continued to be agitated by the members of the Methodist Mission. They invited their fellow residents of foreign birth to join them in the work as they had done in 1841, but were met with persistent refusal. Although these efforts of the missionaries proved utter failures, yet the independent settlers were by no means discouraged or despondent; they merely waited for a convenient opportunity to take the matter into their own hands. This occurred in February, 1843, when a meeting was called ostensibly for the purpose of taking measures to protect the herds of the settlers from the depredations of wild animals, but actually the object of the meeting was more for the purpose of concerting measures for the formation of some kind of civil government. At this meeting a committee was appointed to give notice to the people that another meeting would be held in March; and fearing that a full attendance would not be secured unless the object was one in which all had a common interest, it was not disclosed that any action was intended except to devise means to rid the country of destructive animals. At the March meeting the real purpose was revealed by the adoption of a resolution providing “that a committee be appointed to take into consideration the propriety of taking measures for the civil and military protection of the colony.” This committee composed of Dr. J. L. Babcock, Dr. Elijah White, James A. O’Neil, Robert Shortess, Robert Newell, Etienne Lucier, Joseph Gervais, Thomas J. Hubbard, John McKay, W. H. Gray, Solomon Smith and George Gay, agreed upon a plan of government, and called a general meeting of the citizens at Champoeg, May 2, to consider their report. At this meeting the report of the committee, after much canvassing, was adopted by a vote of 52 yeas to 50 nays. Before adjourning, the meeting set the new government in motion by electing a Supreme Judge, sundry subordinate officers, and a Legislative Committee of nine persons, namely: Robert Moore, Robert Shortess, Alanson Beers, Thomas J. Hubbard, Wm. H. Gray, James A. O’Neil, Robert Newell, David Hill, and William P. Dougherty, to prepare and report the necessary laws for the new government, to be submitted to a vote of the people on the 5th of July. This first Legislative Committee duly performed the work assigned, and articles of compact and a code of laws, were ratified by the people in convention assembled on the day named. The following preamble to the organic law states fully and clearly the object which animated the settlers, viz.:

“We, the people of Oregon Territory, for the purpose of mutual protection, and to secure peace and prosperity among ourselves, agree to adopt the following laws and regulations, until such time as the United States of America extend their jurisdiction over us.”

The bill of rights adopted guaranteed all the great safeguards of individual liberty, freedom of conscience, the habeas corpus and trial by jury. The duty of encouraging morality, religion and knowledge by the support of schools was recognized. Good faith to the Indians was to be observed, and the territory was forever dedicated to freedom by the adoption of the ordinance of 1789. The executive power was reposed in an Executive Committee of three, two of whom were a quorum. The lawmaking power was continued in the Legislative Committee of nine, and a judiciary constituted, consisting of a Supreme Court, Probate Court and justices of the peace. A whole system of laws was adopted in the most original manner. Certain laws and parts of laws of Iowa were declared to be the statute laws of Oregon by the mere recital of the act by title, or the section of the act, giving the page quoted. A land system, militia law and other, necessary measures were duly adopted. The finances of the government were provided for by the unique and very original plan of private subscription. Not only did the pioneers deem the consent of the governed an essential thing, but each citizen enjoyed the privilege of saying how much he would contribute, how much restraint he would tolerate by becoming a part of the government.

Thus, while Oregon was claimed and partially occupied by the British, a government was begun that, in form and spirit, was purely American. It was this act on the part of the American residents in Oregon which settled the question of our right to the country, and won back for the United States the title to the disputed territory, which national diplomacy had well nigh lost. The attention of the whole country was soon directed to the little republic; which the American pioneer had established on the Pacific, and none of the public men now thought of surrendering the country to the control of Great Britain, while a great political party at its national convention, in 1844, declared our title to Oregon to be “clear and unquestioned.”

Every step leading up to the establishment of provisional government was opposed by the influence of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the British subjects generally, although chief factor, McLoughlin, was ready to enter into a compact or domestic treaty for the regulation and adjustment of all points of dispute or difference which might spring up among the residents; indeed they admitted that it was time to establish some rules based upon public opinion, decidedly expressed, for the maintenance of good order and individual rights, but they felt apprehensive for themselves and their interests in placing extensive lawmaking power in the hands of a legislative body composed of men actuated by a desire to secure the territory as a possession of the United States. This feeling, the organizers of the provincial government finally overcame, by wise and prudent conservatism and consistent democratic recognition of manhood, regardless of nativity, and all the settlers in Oregon, whether American citizens or British subjects, were soon united in hearty support of the new government.

Before the close of 1843 some eight hundred emigrants poured into Oregon. The causes which had prompted the immigrations of 1841 and 1842 had become more potent and widespread than ever in 1843. Senator Linn was pressing his “Oregon Bills” upon the attention of Congress, one of which provided for the donation of public lands to all who might settle in Oregon, his idea being that a liberal immigration alone could be relied upon to win the Columbia for the United States, and that special inducements should be offered to those brave and hardy pioneers, who must constitute the nation’s line of battle on the frontier. The emigrant train of this year was the first to come the entire distance in wagons and demonstrated the long disputed fact that the mountains, deserts and canyons could be passed by the wagon of the emigrant.

The pioneers of 1843 stood pre-eminent among the early settlers. The greater number of them were pioneers by nature and occupation, as their fathers had been before them. In childhood, the story of their ancestors’ migrations from the east to the west, and then to the newer west, was their handbook of history. They were “home builders” in the texture of their mental constitution and most of them cared little for the amenity of polite society. Among them were Jesse, Charles and Lindsey Applegate, Peter H. Burnett, Daniel Waldo, John and Daniel Holman, J. W. Nesmith and many others who, in later years, left the impress of their personality upon the formative period of Oregon’s history.

The immigration of 1844 amounted to some eight hundred persons, and its general character did not differ materially from that of the preceding and subsequent years. Prom the account of one who came with the immigration of this year, we are told that it was composed for the most part of “frontiersmen who kept in advance of the settlements, emanating from the southern rather than the eastern States. There were men in it from all the States east and north, perhaps, and individuals from nearly all the countries of western Europe, but the largest number traced their origin to the Scotch covenanters who had settled in Virginia, Georgia and North Carolina.” The immigration of 1845 was still larger than that of either the two preceding years, containing about 3,000 persons. It was largely from Iowa. Fully two thousand persons constituted the immigration of 1846, only one half of whom remained in Oregon, the remainder going to California. In 1847 above three thousand were added to the population and an equal number during the following year, so that at the time of the establishment of the territorial government in 1848 there was a population of about 15,000 in the country.

After the influx of the immigration of 1843 and 1844, the committee government of the former year was found insufficient for the population. A stronger government was needed. At the session of the legislative committee, June, 1844, several modifications were made, a special election on three amendments was ordered, and they were ratified by a majority of 203 votes, to take effect after the first Tuesday in June, 1845. By this change was created the office of Governor, in lieu of the Executive Committee, conferring upon the office veto power instead of submitting laws to popular vote, while the legislative committee of nine was superceded by a House of Representatives, consisting of not less than thirteen and not more than sixty-one members. This form of government, as amended in 1845, existed until the jurisdiction of the United States was extended over the territory.

George Abernethy, whose arrival in the territory has been already mentioned, was elected Governor under the remodeled government, in 1846, and was annually elected by popular vote until the provisional government ceased to exist. Medorum Crawford, a pioneer of 1842, says of him: “As a missionary he was consistent and conscientious; as a business man, he was honorable, enterprising and liberal; as a governor, he was patriotic; efficient and unselfish. And for this he deserves the respect of the pioneers and honorable mention in the history of Oregon.” Another distinguished pioneer has left the following tribute to his worth and character: “George Abernethy, an intelligent Christian gentleman, unassuming, indisposed to court popular favor, with strong common sense, and a desire to do his duty conscientiously and quietly, was the right man for the occasion, and whatever prejudice may assert to the contrary, it was fortunate for the colony that just such a person could be had to fill the highest and most responsible position in the pioneer government.” A mass of concurrent testimony could be given to prove that the foregoing was the general verdict of the pioneers who lived under his administration. He was not a great man, but that he was good, pure and patriotic, truthful history must record. He died in the city of Portland, May 3, 1877, where he had long resided.

The provisional government was admirably adapted to meet the exigencies of the times and the condition of the people. It commanded the support of all citizens without distinction, and so thorough was the confidence of the people “in the integrity of those who administered it,” says Judge Thornton, “that it was strong without either an army or navy, and rich without a treasury. Property was safe; schools were established and supported; contracts were enforced; debts were collected, and the majesty of the law vindicated in a manner that proved that the government was able and efficient, because the people confided in the patriotism, wisdom and ability of those who administered it, and of course the people were prosperous and happy.”

Perhaps the most severe test of energy and power the provisional government endured was the prosecution of the war against the Indians which commenced in the depth of the winter of 1847–8. On the 29th of November, 1847, the Cayuse Indians murdered Dr. Whitman and associates at Wailatpu and the country east of the Cascade Mountains was abandoned by all the American missionaries and settlers. Here was a most appalling situation. The danger of an uprising of all the Indians of the Columbia was imminent, and there were enough of them to overwhelm the settlement in the Willamette Valley. To avert this it was necessary to punish the Indians promptly. In thirteen days from the receipt at Oregon City of information of the massacre, a force of fifty armed men under Col. J. W. Nesmith was in possession of the mission station at the Dalles of the Columbia River, having marched a distance of one hundred and fifty miles in the inclement month of December. At the same time a regiment of fourteen companies was recruited and equipped, upon the faith of the provisional government, and moved to the front. After a campaign of several months, in which two battles were fought, the Cayuses were driven entirely out of their country, nor were they permitted to occupy it again in peace until they delivered up five of the guilty ring-leaders who were tried, convicted and executed at Oregon City. Thus the government of the pioneers, without aid from the United States, quickly and efficiently avenged the murder of American citizens, and in doing this “there was,” says ex-Gov. Curry, in an address before the Pioneer Association, “a display of energy and power which would be regarded as remarkable in the operations of any government, but in one so new and inexperienced as that of the pioneers of Oregon, it must be proof eminently satisfactory as to the ability and efficiency of it, that it was not only one in name, but a government formed in the esteem and sustained by the will and majesty of the people.”


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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