Oregon in Control of Hudson’s Bay Company

As the ten-year period of joint occupation drew to a close, new commissioners were appointed by the two governments to effect a settlement of title to the disputed territory, but after much discussion they were unable to agree upon a boundary line, and, in 1827, a new treaty was signed extending the period of joint occupation indefinitely, to be terminated by either party upon giving one year’s notice. Thus, again, the settlement of the question was left to time and chance.

In the meantime the British government, through the agency of the Hudson’s Bay Company, had gained a tangible foot hold in Oregon by actual occupation, and so strong and powerful was this company that it crushed all effort at competition. A few American fur traders did make the attempt to contest the field with the great English corporation, but through lack of unity of purpose and combination of capital they were driven to the wall. The first of these American traders was J. S. Smith, agent of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, who, with several associates, came in 1825. He and his party were attacked by the Indians, a number were killed and the venture proved, in every way, unsuccessful. Smith was followed by a second party of American trappers led by Major Pitcher. They came in 1828, but shared the same fate as their predecessors, all but three of them being murdered by the Indians. The next band of American trappers was led by Edwin Young, who, a few years later, became one of the first and most energetic settlers in Oregon. In 1831 the old American Fur Company, which had been so long managed by Mr. Astor, established trading posts in Oregon, at which time the Rocky Mountain Fur Company was also operating in this field. Strong rivalry sprang up between the two companies, which was intensified in 1833, by the appearance of two other competitors in the persons of Captain B. L. E. Bonneville and Nathaniel J. Wyeth.

Captain Bonneville was a United States army officer, who had been given permission to lead a party of trappers into the fur regions of the Northwest, the expedition being countenanced by the government only to the extent of this permit. His object, as given by Irving, was: “To make himself acquainted with the country, and the Indian tribes; it being one part of his scheme to establish a trading post somewhere on the river (Columbia), so as to participate in the trade lost to the United States by the capture of Astoria.” He and his companions were kindly received by an officer of the Hudson’s Bay Company, but when Captain Bonneville asked for supplies, and his heretofore genial host was made aware of the intention to found a rival trading post on the Columbia, “he then” says Bonneville, “assumed a withered up aspect and demeanor, and observed that, however he might feel disposed to serve him personally, he felt bound by his duty to the Hudson’s Bay Company to do nothing which should facilitate or encourage the visit of other traders among the Indians in that part of the country.”

Bonneville returned home without establishing a post, but in the following year again visited the Columbia River country with quite a large force of trappers and mountain men and an extensive stock of goods for traffic with the Indians. But the Hudson’s Bay Company’s officers had instructed the Indians not to trade with the newcomers, and they refused to have anything to do with the Americans. Thus hemmed in and unable to carry on trade Bonneville was forced to abandon the field and leave the English company practically in undisputed possession.

Nathaniel J. Wyeth, a Boston merchant, was another unsuccessful contestant with the Hudson’s Bay Company. With eleven men he made the trip overland to Vancouver in 1832. But he had the misfortune to lose his supply ships containing all of his goods while on

the way around Cape Horn, and thus being without means to carry on business he returned east. Two years later he organized the Columbia River Fishing and Trading Company, with a view of continuing operations on the Pacific Coast under the same general plan that had been outlined by Astor, adding, however, salmon fishing to the fur trade. Despatching the brig Mary Dacres for the mouth of the Columbia loaded with necessary supplies, he started overland with sixty experienced men. Near the headwater of Snake River he built Fort Hall as an interior trading post, and on Wapatoo Island near the mouth of the Willamette he established Fort Williams. Like his predecessor, Bonneville, he found the Indians completely under the control of the Hudson’s Bay Company and it was impossible to establish business relations with them. This fact, including a scarcity of salmon in the Columbia River for two successive seasons, as well as ungenerous treatment on the part of his own countrymen engaged in the fur trade, induced him in a spirit of retaliation upon the American traders, after an experience of three years, to sell Fort Hall to the British Company.

The two rival American fur companies were consolidated in 1835, as the American Fur Company. To this company and to a few independent American trappers, after the retirement of Bonneville and Wyeth, was left the work of competing with the English corporation. For a few years the unequal struggle was continued, but eventually the Hudson’s Bay Company almost wholly absorbed the trade.

While we have been tracing the unsuccessful attempt of the American fur traders to gain a foothold in Oregon, it must be borne in mind that it was not the first effort after the failure of the Astor party to secure the occupation of the country by American settlers. As early as 1817, Hall J. Kelley, of Boston, began to advocate the immediate occupation of the Oregon territory. He became an enthusiast upon the subject and spent his time and considerable money in promoting a scheme for emigration to the country. In 1829 he procured the incorporation, by the commonwealth of Massachusetts, of “The American Society for the Settlement of the Oregon Territory.” This society presented a memorial to Congress in 1831, setting forth that it was “engaged in the work of opening to a civilized population that part of Western America called Oregon.” The memoralist state that: “They are convinced that if the country should be settled under the auspices of the United States of America, from such of her worthy sons who have drunk the spirit of those civil and religious institutions which constitute the living fountain and the very perennial source of her national prosperity, great benefits must result to mankind.” They further stated: ” that the country in question is the most valuable of all the unoccupied portions of the earth,” and designed by Providence “to be the residence of a people whose singular advantages will give them unexampled power and prosperity.”

Congress, however, busy with other political abstractions did not even take the time to investigate or in any way encourage this scheme of colonization. In fact the conduct of the national legislature all through the early struggle for the acquisition of the Oregon territory was halting and dilatory; and had Congress been solely relied upon, Oregon might have became a dependency of Great Britain. The society, however, having constituted Mr. Kelley its general agent, continued its efforts despite the indifference of Congress. In 1831, Mr. Kelley published a pamphlet entitled: “A General Circular to all Persons of Good Character who wish to Emigrate to the Oregon Territory,” which set forth the general objects of the society. The names of thirty-seven agents are given in the pamphlet, from any of whom persons desiring to become emigrants to Oregon under its auspices might obtain the proper certificate for that purpose. These agents were scattered over the Union. One of them was Nathaniel J. Wyeth, whose unfortunate fur and fishing ventures have been related. The expedition was to start from St. Louis in March, 1832, with a train of wagons and a supply of stock. Each emigrant was to receive a town and farm lot at the junction of the Columbia and Multnomah Rivers and at the mouth of the former, where seaports and river towns were already platted.

But the scheme bore no immediate fruit. The failure of Congress to take any action in the matter destroyed its force as an organized effort, and only two of its original promoters, Mr. Kelley and Mr. Wyeth ever visited the scene of the proposed colony. Nevertheless the agitation of the project brought the country favorably before the public, and here and there set certain special forces and interests in motion, which in due time materially aided the consummation for which Mr. Kelley and Mr. Wyeth so devoutly wished and so long labored. Although their efforts proved financial failures they were not without results conducive to American occupation. Several of the persons who accompanied Wyeth as well as those who came with Kelley, remained and were the beginning of the independent American settlers in the country.

Among them were the well known names of Edwin Young, James A. O’Neil, T. J. Hubbard, Courtney M. Walker and Solomon Smith, all of whom afterwards exerted a positive influence in favor of American interests. There were also two men of French descent Joseph Gervais and Etienne Lucier, who had come out with Wilson P. Hunt’s party and whose sympathies were American. All told, in 1835, aside from the missionaries, there were about twenty-five men in Oregon who were favorable to the United States.

To Wyeth’s expedition must also be given the credit of bringing the first missionaries to Oregon. In his supply ship, the Mary Dacres, came Rev. Jason Lee, Rev. David Lee, Cyrus Shephard and P. L. Edwards. They were sent out by the missionary society of the Methodist Episcopal Church to establish mission stations among the Indian tribes on the Pacific Coast. They established the first station in Oregon in the Willamette Valley, about ten miles below where Salem now stands. Their professed object in coming to the country, as may be said of those of other religious denominations who followed them, was purely a religious one-to convert the Indians to the Christian faith-rather than to occupy the country and establish therein an American community. They were not the sort of men who ordinarily develop the resources of a country, but a combination of circumstances ultimately made them of great advantage to the early pioneers and of great benefit to the country. The missionary stations they established became points for future American settlement and trade. When they found their missionary labors among the Indians were attended with but scanty harvest, the secular spirit became strong, and gradually the desire grew among them to become a permanent colony rather than remain mere sojourners among the Indians. “Before long,” says Judge Deady, “they began to build and plant as men who regarded the country as their future home. They prospered in this world’s goods and when the emigration came flowing into the country from the west, they found at the Willamette Mission, practically an American settlement, whose influence and example were favorable to order, industry, sobriety and economy, and contributed materially to the formation of a moral, industrious and law-abiding community out of these successive waves of unstratified population.”

The effective force of the Methodist Missions was increased from 1834 to 1840 by the arrival of Rev. A. F. Waller and wife, Rev. G. Hines and wife, Rev. L. H. Hudson and wife, George Abernethy and wife, H. Campbell and wife, and Dr. J. L. Babcock and wife. Most of those named came in 1840 by sea, around Cape Horn. By their arrival the character of the Mission underwent somewhat of a change. It assumed more of the character of a religious community or association, than of simple missionaries, actuated by the zeal of its founders to preach the Gospel to the heathen. They saw the necessity of devoting more of their time to the interest and welfare of the white settlers than to the Indians. They began to look upon the country as an inviting one for settlement, for trade, for commerce, and to make permanent homes for themselves and their children. Schools were established and churches were built by them, and thus a nucleus for a colonial settlement was created, which in later years was of essential benefit to the community at large.

The Methodist missionaries were followed by Presbyterian ministers, in 1837, who, sent out by the American Board of Foreign Missions, came across the Rocky Mountains and remained among the Indians east of the Cascade Mountains. At their head was Dr. Marcus Whitman, who took up his residence among the Cayuse Indians at Wailatpu, in the Walla Walla Valley. His co-laborers were Rev. H. H. Spalding and W. H. Gray, who were stationed among the Nez Perces Indians, at Lapwai, and among the Flatheads at Alpona. The first two brought their wives with them, they being the first women who crossed the plains. Two years later Rev. Cushing Eells and Rev. Elkanah Walker and their wives established another mission among the Spokane Indians in the vicinity of Fort Colville. Of these missionaries Dr. Whitman was the one at this time most thoroughly alive to the importance of securing Oregon as an American possession against the claims of Great Britain. He was intensely American in all his feelings; a man of indomitable will and perseverance in whatever he undertook to accomplish, whom no danger could daunt and no hardship could deter from the performance of any act which he deemed it a duty to discharge. Gray gave up the mission work in 1842 and settled in the Willamette Valley, and was one of the most active supporters of American interests, and a determined promoter of the organization of the provisional government.

In 1838 the Roman Catholics entered the field. The representatives of this church leaned to British interests, and made their headquarters at Vancouver. Their influence and teachings among the people were naturally in favor of the authority and interest of the Hudson’s Bay Company. They discouraged the early attempt at the formation of a government by American settlers in the country, but submitted to it when established. They pursued their missionary labors zealously throughout the entire region dominated by the Hudson’s Bay Company, and founded subordinate missions in many widely separated localities. Between them and the Protestant missionaries bitter hostility soon sprang up, and the ignorant savage was pulled hither and hither and given to understand that he was the bone of contention between the two religions, the representatives of each declaring by word and deed that the other was false. In the work of proselytizing the Catholics were the more successful, and the Protestant missions, as such, were discontinued within ten years.

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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