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Beginnings of Self-Government

Oregon came into the American sphere of influence in the 1790s when Captain Gray discovered the mouth of the Columbia River. Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to explore Oregon in 1804, but he saw it possibly developing into a parallel, independent Republic of the Pacific, rather than a part of the United States.

The 1818 Treaty of London, which officially ended the War of 1812 and set the northern border of the Louisiana Territory at the 49th parallel, defined the Oregon Country as from Russian Alaska (54 degrees, 40' N) to Spanish California (40 degrees N) and from the Pacific Ocean to the crest of the Rocky Mountains. Political control was not vested in either the U.S. or Britain; the area was considered to be under "joint occupation." The treaty would be automatically extended every ten years (as it was in 1828 and 1838) unless one side gave notice of renegotiation (as the U.S. did in 1846).

In Oregon at this time, the need for government depended upon who you were. The local Indians had tribal laws and customs that served their cultures perfectly well. Hudson's Bay Company employees, whether active or the retired French-Canadians farming the Willamette Valley's French Prairie, came under the jurisdiction of the HBC charter and its factors. But the American fur traders, missionaries, former seamen, and arriving immigrants were on their own. They were outside the United States and lacked the protection of any government.

An incident occurred early in 1841 that underlined the need for an American government. Ewing Young, entrepreneur and cattle baron, died with considerable wealth, no apparent heir, and no system to probate his estate. A meeting followed Young's funeral at which a probate government was proposed. Doctor Ira Babcock of Jason Lee's Methodist Mission was elected Supreme Judge.

Most of the offices established in 1841 were vacant by 1843, as the probate government had no particular power outside divvying up the estates of the recently deceased in the event that they left no will or heirs. Lacking any other body to address the difficulties facing the American settlers, Babcock chaired two "Wolf Meetings" in 1842 which were ostensibly held to discuss the need to protect the countryside from wolves and other vermin "worse than wild animals," a thinly-veiled reference to the British. Babcock also chaired the two Champoeg Meetings which followed. The five meeting of '41 through '43 flowed together as a gradually unfolding process which led to the creation of a new government.

During 1842, agitation for an organized government began to increase. At one point a movement to make Oregon an independent country seemed popular. The annual arrival of new settlers and the simmering resentment of the British made for lively debates at the Oregon Lyceum and Willamette Falls Debating Society. Three individuals led the independence movement: Lansford Hastings, William Bennett, and James Marshall. Interestingly, it was in California that all three would later make their mark on history -- Hastings for his ill-conceived guidebook that doomed the Donner-Reed Party, Bennett for his role in the Bear Flag Revolution, and Marshall for discovering gold while supervising the construction of a sawmill for Johann Sutter in 1848.

On May 2, 1843, one hundred and two settlers met at Champoeg on the edge of French Prairie, halfway between Lee's Mission and Oregon City in the heart of the Willamette Valley. Fifty-two Canadians had instructions from the Hudson's Bay Company to head off any attempts at organizing an independent government. Fifty Americans stood united in favor of doing just that. Chaos almost prevailed, but when a vote was called for, two Canadians -- Etienne Lucien and Francois Matticaux, who were former Astorians and thus probably not as loyal to the HBC as the other Canadians -- joined the unified American bloc for a 52-50 vote. In principle, Oregon's Provisional Government was born that day.

A legislative committee was created and instructed to draft a constitution and report back on July 5. The committee met in Oregon City in May and June. Their constitution, called the Organic Act, was adopted on the 5th of July, officially marking the birth of the Provisional Government. The makeup of this nine-man committee was classically American, with a mountain man, missionaries, Oregon Trail pioneers, and one or two potentially shifty characters sitting at the same table.

Robert "Doc" Newell had been in Oregon as a mountain man since the early 1830s and had retired to his Champoeg farm. Thomas Jefferson Hubbard had jumped ship in 1834 and was cleared of a murder on Sauvie Island before settling down. James O'Neil had arrived with the 1834 Wyeth Expedition.

The next four members had all come to Oregon to be part of Jason Lee's Methodist Mission. William Gray, a Presbyterian farmer at the mission, arrived with the Whitmans in 1836. Alanson Beers had emigrated in 1837 from Connecticut. At age 62, Robert Moore was the oldest member, having come to Oregon with the Great Reinforcement of 1840. Robert Shortess had also arrived in 1840. Oregon's first constitution is in his handwriting.

The last two members of the legislative committee were genuine overlanders, having come to Oregon via the Oregon Trail. William Doughty, age 31, was the youngest member of the legislative committee. He had arrived with the Bidwell Party of 1841. David Hill had just arrived the previous winter and was farming the Tualatin Valley. Hill would join Beers and Joseph Gale on the first Executive Committee, a three-man committee that was intended to replace the post of governor.

The last gasp of the independence movement was headed off in the revision process. The preamble originally read, "We, the people of Oregon Territory, For purposes of mutual protection, and to secure peace and prosperity among ourselves, Agree to adopt the following laws and regulations." At the insistence of the ultra-American party the words "until such time as the USA extend their jurisdiction over us" were added. The three leaders of the pro-independence movement left for California and the history books before the Organic Act was adopted on July 5.

John McLoughlin, Chief Factor of the Hudson's Bay Company, reported to his superiors that the "American party with a few Englishmen formed themselves into a body." Interestingly, the HBC was invited to join the government, but McLoughlin refused. His superior, Governor Simpson, saw the Americans as "very energetic, the Bowie knife, Revolving Pistol and Rifle taking the place of the Constable's baton in bringing refractory delinquents to justice."

The 1843 Organic Act created a legislature, an executive committee, a judicial system, and a system of subscriptions to defray expenses -- Americans were not taxed, but were encouraged to make donations to support the Provisional Government. The laws of Iowa, which was the only legal codex the legislature happened to have handy, were extended to cover areas not provided for. Four districts, forerunners of counties, were created: Yam Hill, Twality, Champooick, and Clackamas. Clackamas District originally covered much of present day northern Oregon, all of eastern Washington, most of British Columbia and Idaho, and part of western Montana.

An 1845 revision of the Organic Act changed the dates of elections and the meeting dates of the legislature. The executive committee, which had proven to be somewhat unwieldy, was changed to a single governor. George Abernethy, a miller for the Oregon City Methodist Mission, was elected Oregon's first governor.

With the revisions to the Organic Act in 1845, conditions changed for the HBC. The census of 1845 reported 2109 people in Oregon, 1900 of them American immigrants. Canadians found themselves in the minority, and a new tolerance emerged toward the Americans. For the first time an HBC employee, Frank Ermatinger of Oregon City, was elected to hold office in the Provisional Government, defeating Philip Foster for the post of Treasurer. In August of 1845, the HBC formally joined the Provisional Government. John McLoughlin came under much criticism from Peter Skene Ogden and Governor Simpson for selling out to the Americans. Within six months, McLoughlin was demoted to Associate Chief Factor, and shortly thereafter he retired to Oregon City. He would eventually become an American citizen and serve as mayor of Oregon City.

Oregon City was designated as the capital of the Oregon Country. Significant bills included one preventing the introduction, sale and distillation of ardent spirits; an income and property tax of 1/8 of 1% to replace the subscription scheme adopted in 1843; an act that banned both slavery and free blacks with a penalty of 20-39 lashes "every six months until he or she shall quit the territory;" the incorporation of Willamette Falls into Oregon City and the Methodist Mission into the Oregon Institute; the creation of the Multnomah Circulating Library; and authorization for Sam Barlow to open a toll road around Mount Hood.

The 1846 session was pared back to only essential business upon hearing that the U.S. had given notice to abrogate the joint occupation treaty. The 1847 session, held in December, was punctuated by the Cayuse War. The Provisional Government in cooperation with the Hudson's Bay Company put an army into the field to pursue the murderers of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. In 1850, five Indians were tried and hanged in Oregon City for the murders, though it is not at all certain that they were actually involved in the incident. The 1848 session was postponed until early 1849 because the discovery of gold in California nearly depleted the male population of Oregon, including many of the elected legislators.

The 1849 session would be the final session, as Governor Abernethy informed the legislature of the imminent arrival of Joseph Lane and other federal territorial officers. But first, the debts of the Cayuse War had to be paid off and an estimated $500,000 dollars in gold dust circulating in Oregon had to be taken care of. A bill creating a mint passed with only two dissenters, who correctly pointed out the unconstitutionality of minting money. When Governor Lane took over the government, the only Provisional Government law he threw out was that authorizing the minting of money. Federal officials collected all the Beaver coins they could, but the Beaver coins contained 8% more gold than their US equivalents, and some people refused to give them up.

In the spring of 1849, Joe Lane of Indiana, President Polk's choice as Oregon governor, stood on the balcony of William Holmes' Rose Farm and proclaimed Oregon to legally be under the jurisdiction of the United States. The Provisional Government created at Champoeg was out of business, but it had done a credible job of steering Oregon in its evolution from a British-dominated territory to a full part of the United States.