Early Government and Statehood
There was enough unity among American settlers to organize a provisional government in 1843. Then, in 1848, the federal government decided to accord Oregon territorial status. With migration increasing exponentially from 1843 on, there was little doubt in Congress about Oregon’s viability. Still, it took frontiersman Joe Meek to coalesce popular opinion.
He had first performed this role in Champoeg, at the northern end of the Willamette Valley, in 1843, when he boomed out the rallying cry for regional confederation, “Who’s for a divide?,” in order to force a vote on the question of whether to challenge the British claim of sovereignty in the region. Two Canadians, F. X. Matthieu and Etienne Lucier, crossed the line and won the day for the Americans.
In equally dramatic fashion, Meek strode into the halls of Congress fresh from the trail in mountain-man regalia to argue forcefully the case for territoriality. Congress granted the petition, and Meek accompanied newly appointed territorial governor Joseph Lane to Oregon in the spring of 1849.
The Oregon Territory got off to a rousing start thanks to the California gold rush of 1849. The rush occasioned a housing boom in San Francisco and a need for lumber, and the dramatic population influx created instant markets for the agriculture of the Willamette Valley. Portland was located at the north end of the valley and 110 miles upriver from the Pacific on the Columbia, near the world’s largest supply of accessible softwood timber. The young city was in a perfect position to channel goods from the interior to coastal ports. So great was the need in California for food that wheat from eastern Oregon was declared legal tender. The exchange rate started around $1 per bushel and went as high as $6.
The economic benefits from the gold rush notwithstanding, Oregon lost two-thirds of its adult male population to gold fever. Many of the emigrants returned when the news of gold discoveries in southwestern Oregon came out between 1850 and 1860. The resulting influx helped establish the Rogue Valley and coastal population centers.
However, strategic importance and population growth alone do not explain Oregon becoming the 33rd state in the Union. Shortly before statehood, the Dred Scott decision had become law in 1857. This had the effect of opening the territory to slavery. While slavery didn’t lack for adherents in Oregon, the prevailing sentiment was that it was neither necessary nor desirable.
Because territorial status would be a potential liability to a Union on the mend, the congressional majority saw an especially compelling reason to open its doors to this new member. When nonslavery status was assured, Oregon entered the Union on Valentine’s Day 1859.
by Judy Jewell and W. C. McRae from Moon Oregon, 8th Edition, © Elizabeth & Mark Morris and Avalon Travel