Value of the Labor of the Oregon Pioneers

In the work of the pioneers, whose efforts we have been tracing up to this period, we have seen that already the country was practically the territory of the United States by the highest and best title in existence, the actual occupation and control of it by her citizens. This question was, therefore, virtually settled by the inauguration of the provisional government in 1843, but from that time until the treaty of 1846 was signed it was a prominent issue in American political life. Mr. Polk, the democratic candidate for President, made his campaign on a party platform, which declared that our title to the whole of Oregon up to fifty-four degrees and forty minutes north latitude was “clear and indisputable.” Negotiations were promptly resumed after the inauguration of President Polk, but the government elected upon a pledge to support and maintain the claim of the United States up to the latitude of fifty-four degrees and forty minutes, abandoned its position and made the offer of a line on parallel forty-nine, which Great Britain at once accepted, with a modification that all of Vancouver Island should be left in British territory. A treaty on this basis was concluded and ratified June 15, 1846, whereby the long disputed question of title and joint occupancy was settled. This acknowledgment of the American claim to Oregon was only a formal recognition of the fact that the long contest for the occupation of the country had terminated in favor of the Oregon pioneers.

The news of the signing of the treaty was received in Oregon with feelings which plainly indicated the importance of the measure. Joint occupancy, that uncertain tenure by which power was held, was at an end. Threatened troubles with the Indians in Eastern Oregon, before mentioned, now made the people anxious that Congress should pass an act extending territorial government over the

country. To this end they put forth every endeavor. That the provisional government might be represented at Washington by a prominent and influential citizen, who would make known to the President and to Congress the exposed condition of the people, and to ask the necessary legislation to protect them from threatened danger, Gov. Abernethy sent Hon. J. Quinn Thornton, the Supreme Judge of the provisional government. Judge Thornton arrived in Boston in May, 1848, and at once proceeded to Washington, not as a delegate, but rather as an embassador from the little provisional government, to the national government at Washington. In the meantime the Whit-man massacre had occurred and the citizens were thrown into a state of mingled grief and alarm. Joseph L. Meek was, thereupon, sent as a messenger to Washington under the sanction of the provisional legislature, to impart the intelligence, impress the authorities with the precarious condition of the colony and appeal for protection. The intelligence brought by Meek, as well as his individual efforts, did much to aid Mr. Thornton and the friends of Oregon in Congress in securing the desired legislation.

The most enthusiastic and helpful friend Oregon had at Washington at this time was Senator Benton, who for twenty years had supported every measure that promised to advance American interest on this part of the Pacific Coast. With all his wonderful energy and ability this eminent man now labored to secure territorial government in Oregon. The bill creating the territory, drafted by Judge Thornton, contained a clause prohibiting slavery, and for this reason was objectional to the slave-holding power in Congress. Under the lead of Jefferson Davis and John C. Calhoun, a vigorous fight against the bill was made in the Senate. The contest during the last two days of the session was exciting in the extreme and the feeling intense throughout the Union. The friends of the measure, however, under the lead of Senator Benton, finally triumphed and on August 13, 1848, the bill passed the Senate and a few hours later became a law by the signature of President Polk. The region specified in this act as Oregon Territory embraced all of the present States of Oregon and Washington, and those portions of Idaho and Montana lying west of the Rocky Mountains.

One of the provisions of the territorial act was that it recognized the validity of the provisional government and the laws passed by it, and declared that they should remain in force until altered or repealed; and the officers of the government were authorized to exercise and perform the duties of their respective offices until their successors should be elected and qualified. No higher tribute could have been paid to the fitness of Americans for self-government than this ratification of all the essential laws and acts of the provisional government of Oregon, which had been made and executed by the pioneer settlers for more than four years. It was the judgment of the whole nation, expressed by her representatives, that Americans could be trusted to plant the standard of freedom, and to welcome under its flag all friends of human rights.

President Polk appointed General Joseph Lane, of Indiana, Governor of the new territory. He was a man of great executive ability. His brilliant services in Mexico had made him a popular hero, and earned for him the title of the “Marion of the Mexican War.” He immediately started for his new field of duty, and on the 3d day of March, 1849, the last day of Polk’s administration, he issued his proclamation assuming the government. On the same day Governor Abernethy turned over to the new governor the records of the provisional government, “and so,” says Bancroft, “without any noise or revolution the old government went out and the new came in. The provisional government was voluntarily laid down as it had voluntarily been taken up. It was an experiment on the part of the American people, who represented in this small and isolated community, the principles of self government in a manner worthy of the republican sentiment supposed to underlie the Federal Union by which a local population could constitute an independent State, and yet be loyal to the general government.”

The act organizing the territory of Oregon will ever be memorable in our national history for two reasons: First, because of the provisions for public education which granted the sixteenth and thirty-sixth section in each township and forever dedicated their proceeds as an irreducible fund, the interest of which should be devoted to public schools. This was a grant twice as large as that of 1787,

which had previously been the precedent observed by Congress in creating territories out of the public domain. The act of 1848 now became the precedent and has ever since been observed. It gave to the original territory of Oregon over 16,000 square miles of land for public schools, and opened the way for the grant of more than 26,000, 000 acres in the nine States, including Oregon, admitted to the Union since 1848. The idea of this magnificent donation, which will be of inestimable value to future generations, originated with Judge Thornton who framed the section in the territorial act, and who zealously labored to overcome the opposition it encountered at Washington. It was the inauguration of a liberal national policy in behalf of free education which should give imperishable fame to its author, a distinguished representative of the Oregon pioneers.

The other fact which marks the creation of Oregon Territory as a grand and inspiring event was the clause relating to the entire and absolute exclusion of chattel slavery. This was in accord with the general wish of the pioneers. Their new empire on the Pacific; their toil to win it; their test of self government, all bore the seal of liberty. In putting slavery under perpetual ban in Oregon the whole region from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific, was under pledge for the rights of man regardless of color or race.

Thus briefly have we attempted to summarize the leading events in Oregon, from the time of the first explorations along the Pacific Coast till, under the strong hand of the whole nation, it rose from the weakness of a humble colony of adventurers to the rank and power of a coordinate member of the American Union. The event which the old pioneers had so long waited and hoped for had come and they were no longer counted exiles on a doubtful domain, but rightful fellow heirs and owners of the country.

That the United States is indebted to the pioneers for the confirmation of its title to the American possessions west of the Rocky Mountains, will, perhaps, never be questioned. To the pioneer is due all the honor mankind willingly gives to the founders of States and the creators of civilization in savage lands. But that these were the motives which led to the colonization of Oregon, as some writers have intimated, is contradicted by patent facts and contrary to common sense. The early emigrants did not undertake the toilsome

journey across the plains in the face of dangers and privations animated by a patriotic desire to save this land to the United States and plant the banner of republican liberty on the shores of the Pacific. For the most part they were men of limited means who sought a country where the restraints of civil and social institutions would press less hard upon individual freedom, and who in their plain way would have answered an inquiry for their motive in coming west with the common response that they had come to better their fortunes and in order that their children might “grow up with the country.” They were actuated by the same strong courage that has characterized the enterprising frontiersmen in all our States. Circumstances called them to act a part which, in the light of subsequent events, is shown to have been of the utmost importance, securing to their country dominion over a vast empire.

If, however, they did not come with an inspiration as absorbing as that which moved the old crusaders, it was one far more intelligent-an inspiration to seize the golden moments when peacefully, with their small means, they might possess themselves of homes, where prudence and economy after some discipline of pioneer hardship and privation would be sure of just rewards, and where ample means for the nurture and education of their children should be within the reach of every industrious citizen. Animated by high purposes they laid the foundations of this commonwealth in industry, frugality and the domestic virtues, and their descendants who enjoy all the blessings of their toils and privations, their trials and danger, will hold them in loving remembrance.

For the purposes of this work it is unnecessary to follow the further steps of these State builders, whose prudence, loyalty and courage saved Oregon to the Union. In the fullness of time Oregon was decked with the honors of Statehood under the same perpetual dedication to equal rights and universal liberty for which its founders had so nobly battled. Its people may well take pride in the State, whether they contemplate it simply in its own greatness, or in comparison with other States. In the main its record is a clear one, bearing upon it few marks that one would care to erase. It has been steadily advancing with strong and even pace, and has more than kept good the wonderful promise of its earliest 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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