An Early Sketch of Oregon

Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth

Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth

About the same time, Captain Nathaniel Wyeth of Massachusetts attempted to establish commercial relations with the countries on the Columbia River, to which the name of Oregon then began to be universally applied. His plan was like that of John Jacob Astor’s, with the additional scheme of transporting the salmon of the Oregon rivers to the United States. He made two overland expeditions to Oregon, established Fort Hall as a trading-post in present-day Idaho, and another, mainly for fishing purposes, near the mouth of the Willamette River. This scheme failed, owing to the rivalry of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who founded the counter-establishment of Fort Boise, where, offering goods to the Indians at lower prices than Wyeth could afford, compelled him to desist, and he sold out his interests to them. Meanwhile, a brig he had dispatched from Boston, arrived in the Columbia and returned with a cargo of salted salmon, but the results not being auspicious, the enterprise was abandoned.

The American traders being excluded by these, and other means from Oregon, mainly confined themselves to the regions of the head-waters of the Colorado River and the Utah Lake, where they formed one or two small establishments, and sometimes extended their rambles as far west as San Francisco and Monterey, California. The number of American hunters and trappers thus employed west of the Rocky Mountains, seldom exceeded two hundred; where, during the greater part of the year, they roved through the wilds in search of furs which they conveyed to their places of rendezvous in the mountain valleys, and bartered with them to the Missouri traders.

About the time of Nathaniel Wyeth’s expeditions were the earliest emigrations to Oregon of settlers from the United States. The first of these was founded in 1834, in the Willamette Valley, by a body of Methodists who went round by sea under the direction of the Reverends Jason Lee and Cyrus Shepherd. In that valley, a few retired servants of the Hudson’s Bay Company were then residing, and engaged in herding cattle. The Congregationalists or Presbyterians planted colonies two or three years after, in the Walla Walla and Spokane countries, with the Reverends Samuel Parker, Henry Spalding, William Gray, Elkanah Walker, Cushing Eels, John Smith Griffin, and Dr. Marcus Whitman as missionaries.

In all of these places mission schools were established for the instruction of the natives, and in 1839, a printing press was started at Walla Walla, where were printed the first sheets ever struck off, on the Pacific side of the mountains north of Mexico. On it, books were printed from types set by native compositors. The Roman Catholics from Missouri, soon after founded stations on the Clark River.

About the year 1837, the American people began to be deeply interested in the subject of the claims of the United States to Oregon, and societies were formed for emigration. From them and other sources, petitions were presented to Congress, to either make a definite arrangement with Great Britain, the other claimant or take immediate possession of the country. In each year, from 1838 to 1843, small parties emigrated overland from Missouri to Oregon, suffering much hardship on the route. At the close of 1842, the American citizens there numbered about four hundred. Relying upon the promise of protection held out by the passage of the bill in February, 1843, by the U. S. Senate for the immediate occupation of Oregon, about 1,000 emigrants, men, women, and children, assembled at Westport, on the Missouri frontier in the succeeding June, and followed the route up the Platte River, and through the South Pass, surveyed the previous year by Charles Fremont; thence by Fort Hall, Idaho to the Willamette Valley, where they arrived in October, after a laborious and fatiguing journey of more than 2,000 miles. Others soon followed, and before the close of the next year, over 3,000 American citizens were in Oregon.

Mountain Man

Mountain Man

By the treaty for the purchase of Florida in 1819, the boundary between the Spanish possessions and the United States was fixed on the north-west at 42 degrees latitude, the present northern line of Utah and California; by this, the United States succeeded to such title to Oregon as Spain may have derived, by the right of discovery through its early navigators. In June 1846, all the difficulties in relation to Oregon, which at one time threatened war, were settled by treaty between the two nations. In general terms, the treaty established the northern boundary; British subjects were allowed the free navigation of the Columbia River, and the Hudson’s Bay Company and all British subjects, were to be continued in possession of whatever land or property they at that time held in Oregon.

The principal obstacles to a previous settlement had been the influence of that company. The English people at large knew little of, and took but slight interest in, the country. The British first, through the North West Company, and then through the son’s Bay Company (into which the former became absorbed), from 1814 up to 1840, had enjoyed the almost exclusive use of Oregon. The son’s Bay Company received from the British government to the exclusion of all other British subjects, the exclusive right to trade west of the Rocky Mountains, where the fur-bearing animals were more abundant than in any other part of the world.

The constitution of the Company is such as to secure knowledge and prudence in council, and readiness and exactness in execution. Their treatment of the Indians, admirably combined policy and humanity. Ardent spirits were prohibited from being sold to them; schools for the instruction of the Indian children, were established at each of the trading-posts, and hospitals for the sick; missionaries of various sects were encouraged and fostered; and all emigrants from the United States and elsewhere, were treated with the utmost kindness and hospitality. But, no sooner did any of them attempt to hunt, or trap, or to trade with the natives, than the competition of the body was turned against him, and he was compelled to desist. As the fur trade began to decline, the company turned their attention to agriculture, lumbering, fishing, and other pursuits.

Fort Nasqually, Washington

Fort Nasqually, Washington

In 1841, the coast of Oregon was visited by the ships of the United Exploring Expeditions under Lieutenant Charles Wilkes. He arrived in the sloop of war Vincennes, off the mouth of the Columbia River, on the 27th of April; but, finding it hazardous to attempt the entrance, he sailed to the Straits of Fuca, the southern boundary of Vancouver’s Island, and anchored in Puget’s Sound, near Fort Nasqually, Washington from which he dispatched several surveying parties into the interior. One of these crossed the great westernmost range of mountains to the Columbia River; and having visited the British trading-posts of Okonogan, Colville, and Walla Walla, returned to Nasqually. Another party proceeded southward to the Cowelitz, a stream running south, and emptying into Columbia River about forty miles from the ocean. From the mouth of the Cowelitz, they went up the Columbia to Walla Walla, and down again to the ocean. In the meantime, other parties were engaged in surveying the coasts and harbors on the Pacific, the Straits of Fuca, and Admiralty Inlet; and particularly in exploring the valleys of the Willamette, emptying into the Columbia, and of the Sacramento River of California. During the performance of these duties, the sloop of war Peacock was lost on the bar at the mouth of the Columbia River; but the crew, instruments, and papers were saved.

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