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A Glance at the Oregon Territory

July 10, 2017

Barbara Mahoney, author of The Salem Clique: Oregon's Founding Brothers, joins us today with an introduction to her book and an excerpt taken from Chapter One, "Bring all your guns to bear and reach Oregon."


Politics in the Oregon Territory was dominated by a group of young men known to their contemporaries and to historians as the Salem Clique. Members organized the territory's Democratic party. They served in legislative, executive and judicial offices. They were the major impetus for Oregon's pursuit to statehood, key members of its constitutional convention, and a powerful influence in keeping Oregon in the Union when the Civil War broke out. Their story is also the story of the newspapers of the era, in particular the Salem Oregon Statesman and the Portland Oregonian. The absence of a detailed study of the Clique and [my] interest in Oregon's history led [me] to research and write The Salem Clique: Oregon's Founding Brothers.


Chapter One: "Bring all your guns to bear and reach Oregon"

In February 1846, the Oregon Territory reached another important milestone when members of the Oregon City Pioneer Lyceum and Literary Club formed the Oregon Printing Association in order to found the Oregon Spectator. The first newspaper west of the Missouri River, preceding the first in California by seven months, was published in four pages twice a month. Its editors made their intentions clear: "It will be our object to give foreign as well as internal news. Our means of obtaining news at present are limited. But as the country improves, facilities for obtaining news will improve. Our columns will be open for the reception of literary productions, and all scientific gentlemen are invited to contribute to enable us to give as much general information as possible." The caveat about the difficulty of obtaining news of distant events reflected the isolation of the Oregon country, which through the 1850s had neither direct cross country telegraph nor rail connections. That isolation made many, both in Oregon and in the East, continue to question whether it could ever be a real part of the United States.

Few "scientific gentlemen" responded to the Spectator's invitation. The newspaper consisted largely of commentary and advertising. It championed economic development and the construction of roads and railroads. Its first editor was W. G. T'Vault, a lawyer and an officer of the Oregon Printing Association. While the association had early disavowed the newspaper's use "by any party for the purpose of propagating sectarian principles or doctrines, nor for the discussion of exclusive party politics," T'Vault printed his own political opinions and was soon dismissed. Two other men, H. A. G. Lee and James Fleming, took charge for a few months until the editor's post was passed to George Curry. Originally from Philadelphia and only twenty-six years old, Curry had just arrived in Oregon after a short time as editor of a newspaper in Saint Louis. He took the Spectator position with a disclaimer about his lack of experience along with an expression of his pride in being the editor of the only paper in the Oregon country. Curry pledged that the paper would have a "consistent American tone" and would promote "temperance, morality, science and intelligence." But less than two years later, he too was dismissed, an outcome he attributed to his resistance to Governor Abernethy's demand that the paper serve his own partisan interests.

Abernethy's concerns about his political future were certainly heightened by Curry's role in efforts to get Congress to pass legislation formally establishing the Oregon Territory. If Oregon became an official Territory, its governor would be appointed by the president of the United States, rather than elected by the people. Abernethy was well aware that it was highly unlikely that the president would appoint him to the office. Despite his opposition, an organized campaign gained strength within the Oregon country. But its supporters found winning congressional support for territorial status for Oregon a challenging process. The Organic Act's provision against slavery provoked the opposition of southerners who feared that it would set a precedent for other Territories including the recently acquired Texas. After considerable argument, the House of Representatives passed the Oregon bill on January 16, 1847, by a 133-35 majority, only to have it tabled in the Senate. When word of the standstill reached the territory, the pressure from Oregon heightened. George Curry was one of three signers of a Petition to Congress formulated by a convention of delegates from throughout the Territory and dated October 2, 1847. Proclaiming the desperate need for an effective government, it appealed to Congress for "magnanimity and justice." The petitioners lamented the reality that "we, a small, distant, and poor community of few citizens in Oregon, shall be the sole, solitary victims of our country's neglect and injustice-- it was this that pierced our heart.... Our forefathers complained that they were oppressed by the mother country, and they had a just right to complain. We do not complain of oppression, but of neglect. Even the tyrant has his moments of relaxation and kindness, but neglect never wears a smile."

Before the petition could arrive in Washington, the House sent a second bill to the Senate. Senator Calhoun led the opposition, convinced that if Congress outlawed slavery in Oregon it was declaring slavery wrong, and claiming the right to address that wrong anywhere in the country. In his argument, he rejected the cardinal premise of the Declaration of Indepence, that all men are created equal, and instead asserted that "All men are not created. Only two, a man and a woman, were created, and one of these was pronounced subordinate to the other.... Instead of liberty and equality being born with men, and instead of all men and classes being entitled to them, they are high prizes to be won-- rewards bestowed on moral and mental development."

Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, who had also vigorously supported the Buchanan-Pakenham Treaty, parted company with Calhoun on the Territory issue. Such was his advocacy that Jesse Applegate acclaimed him as "the one who had more influence in the matter of securing this country to the US than all other men put together." An enthusiastic expansionist, Benton was knowledgeable about the Oregon country and concerned about the wellbeing of the settlers in light of Native American hostility. In his view, a territorial government afforded the best defense. Although he represented a slave state, he dismissed that issue in the case of Oregon which he thought poorly suited to slavery.

On August 13, 1848, after months of argument and legislative maneuvers, the Senate finally passed the bill by a narrow margin and sent it to President Polk who signed it despite Calhoun's pleas for a veto. The law directed that a territorial government be formed with members of the executive and judicial branches chosen by the president of the United States. The territorial legislature, elected by white, male, adult settlers, was made up of a nine-member council with three-year terms and an eighteen-member assembly serving one-year terms. The legislature was to hold annual sessions. Also to be elected by the people was the delegate to Congress who would represent the Territory in Congress although he would not have the right to vote on measures before that body. The organization of the Territory's government had hardly gotten underway when word arrived of the discovery of gold in California. As many as two-thirds of the able-bodied men left Oregon for the mines. The absence of so many men frightened the remaining settlers who saw themselves as more vulnerable to Native American attacks. They also feared that "reckless, vicious and abandoned men" would come to Oregon and that their presence would constitute yet another threat to the Territory's peace and stability. The solution to both hazards, proposed in the columns of the Oregon Spectator, was that "the importation into, and manufacture and sale of intoxicating drinks in Oregon, should be prohibited by law, and that such a law would contribute more to the rapid, permanent, and healthful settlement of the country than any other conceivable statute." No such law was passed, but sentiment in favor of the temperance movement remained strong throughout the territorial period and beyond.


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