Why a Trail to Oregon?

Excerpted from The Oregon Trail; the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, 1939.

Explorers, Frederic Remington, 1904

All explorers, pioneers, and fur traders who headed to the American West belonged to a restless breed. When, after a hard winter in a hut along the Missouri River, Meriwether Lewis wrote that the moment of departure for the untrodden wilderness was among the happiest of his life, he was voicing the feeling of all who followed him westward.

Time and again, the traders and mountain men vowed that they were through with hardships and going back to the security of the settled East, but the first person who asked them to return to the mountains was sure to start them west again. Even briefly, those who returned to the East spread unrest and stirred up the adventurous blood dormant in most of the descendants of the first pioneers.

In the early decades of the 19th century, a large part of the population of the United States was in a particularly disturbed state of mind. The more perfect union envisioned by the Constitution had not abolished taxes or created idyllic communities; the new factories, belching forth smoke and cinders, provided many new comforts but did not pay wages that enabled the hands to buy them in quantities; farmers were receiving lower prices for their products because of competition from the newly settled lands; the blow dealt to the spiritual authority of the churches by the American Revolution had robbed many of their feeling of spiritual security, and the ideas let loose by the French Revolution, widely aired by those who had fled to America to escape the reactionary regimes of the post-Revolutionary period, added to the mental ferment.

Sacagawea guided Lewis and Clark on their expedition  of 1804-06

Sacagawea guided Lewis and Clark on their expedition of 1804-06

The Journals of Lewis and Clark and other explorers, as the diaries and letters of travelers and journalists, turned public attention to the Far West. European philosophers, poets, and novelists had long been romanticizing the American wilderness and, to some extent, the pioneers. James Fenimore Cooper, however, was the first American to idealize the frontiersmen. Washington Irving began the literary exploitation of the Far West. The romantic attitude gradually spread downward from the literate to the illiterate, and restless migrants who had never read a book in their lives began to see themselves as participants in the heroic drama and to act and pose accordingly.

One of the first to advocate emigration to the Oregon region was Hall J. Kelley, a teacher in a school near Boston, Massachusetts, who began writing letters and memoranda to the newspapers on the subject in 1818, basing his statements mainly on his own interpretations of what Lewis and Clark had reported. In time, he organized emigrant meetings, addressed memorials to Congress for aid, and eventually founded an Oregon Emigration Association to travel west in 1832. His first appeals were commercial and agricultural, but as the clergy, fearful of losing more parishioners, and factory owners, determined not to have their cheap labor market diminished, began to attack him and his propaganda, his writings became somewhat socialistic.

Kelley interested the well-to-do Nathaniel Wyeth in the scheme. Wyeth indicated the state of mind of the average emigrant when he wrote: “I cannot divest myself of the opinion that I shall compete better with my fellow men in new and untried paths than in those which require only patience and attention.” But Wyeth early discovered Kelley’s impracticality and determined to lead his own expedition as a fur trader, not a settler. His plans were like those John Jacob Astor had made earlier; a ship would carry supplies for the Indian trade to the Columbia River, and Wyeth would travel overland to meet it. In late October 1832, Wyeth reached Fort Vancouver, Washington, after many difficulties resulting from his lack of experience, and upon his arrival, he found that his ship was still at sea. Dr. McLoughlin, liking the young man, took him into the Hudson’s Bay mess with his usual hospitality but, at the same time, warned him frankly that he would do all he could to oppose his business venture. Wyeth did not learn for many months that his ship had been wrecked and that it was useless for him to remain in Oregon.

Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville

Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville

In 1832 Captain Benjamin de Bonneville also arrived in Oregon, ostensibly as a fur trader but was actually a United States secret intelligence officer. The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, written by Washington Irving from Bonneville’s notes, was read by many people, who, in 1837, the year the book was published, were sharing the results of the disastrous financial crash that had been caused by mad speculation in public utilities and unsound public and private financing. To them, the West began to seem like a place of refuge, offering unlimited land without mortgages.

It was a rule of the Hudson’s Bay Company that an employee reaching the end of his term of service must return to the point of enlistment for discharge. Several French Canadians employed in the Department of the Columbia asked McLoughlin’s permission to settle near Fort Vancouver when their time was up; they liked the country and had taken wives from local Indian tribes. Ignoring the company regulation, the doctor sent them down the Willamette and aided them with tools and supplies; he did this partly from kind-heartedness and partly, perhaps, because he had an idea that settlement south of the river by loyal Canadians might enable him to hold the country. As the settlement expanded and the number of mixed-race children increased, he became anxious to provide education and religious training. He repeatedly asked headquarters to obtain a clergyman for the post, but none was sent despite promises.

In 1831 four members of the Flathead tribe had journeyed to St. Louis, Missouri, to ask for instruction in the white man’s religion, having heard from a roving band of Canadian Iroquois of the superior efficiency of the “medicine” of the “black robes” (priests). Their action aroused such interest in religious circles that in 1833 the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church appointed the efficient Jason Lee “Missionary to the Flatheads.” Lee rapidly organized a small party of assistants and, learning that Nathaniel Wyeth was returning to Oregon to make another attempt to compete with the Hudson’s Bay Company, obtained permission to travel overland with the Boston merchant. In July 1834, the party reached the Snake River in present-day Idaho, where Wyeth established a small post, which he named Fort Hall; the party reached Fort Vancouver on September 16. McLoughlin greeted them warmly, despite his knowledge of Wyeth s intentions, and was soon advising Lee that it was dangerous to establish a mission among the Flatheads and that he had a congregation ready for his ministrations along the Willamette River.

Hudson's Bay Company Trading Post

Hudson’s Bay Company Trading Post

In giving this advice, McLoughlin spoke as a Hudson’s Bay man, eager to keep the Americans well south of the Columbia River. Lee accepted the advice and almost immediately set out to build his mission. Despite Dr. McLoughlin’s disapproval, Wyeth built a post close to Fort Vancouver, but he was no match for his entrenched rival, and after a very discouraging struggle, he left the field.

Another arrival at Fort Vancouver in 1834 was Hall Kelley, who had traveled from Boston by way of California. During his first visit, Wyeth had told Dr. McLoughlin of Kelley’s activities, and the doctor, ordinarily kind and courteous, had worked up an intense hatred of the man trying to stimulate what was, in his opinion, an invasion of a country he had developed. When Kelley arrived, penniless, almost alone, and preceded by a report that he had stolen horses in California, the doctor permitted him to live at the post but treated him as a pariah. Kelley lingered miserably until 1836, his hatred of McLoughlin increasing daily. When Kelley returned to Boston, his stored-up anger found an outlet in a bitter pamphlet where he accused the doctor of tyranny and activities unfriendly to the American cause. This pamphlet was called to the attention of the Secretary of State, who arranged to have Captain William A. Slacum investigate the situation on the Columbia River. Slacum’s report, which was not free from bias, aroused many feelings in the United States.

In the meantime, more missionaries had arrived along the Columbia River. The Flathead plea had moved other religious people besides the Methodists; in 1834, an interdenominational board appointed the Reverend Samuel Parker and Dr. Marcus Whitman to study the needs. In 1835 the two men traveled with fur traders to the annual rendezvous in the Green River Valley of western Wyoming. When they reached the valley, Dr. Whitman had seen enough Indians to be convinced that he need go no farther before reporting to the board that the natives needed religious attention. Parker traveled with only a few Indians, arriving at Fort Vancouver on October 16 immaculately dressed and wearing a plug hat, as was his wont. Though somewhat worried by the advent, Dr. McLoughlin was courteous as usual; but this missionary was not to be diverted to the Willamette Valley. After looking over sites for missions, he left Vancouver for Boston by way of the Pacific.

Not long after Parker departed for reinforcements, the Hudson’s Bay Company answered the doctor’s six-year-old prayer for a clergyman; the Reverend Herbert Beaver arrived from London with his wife and, within a short time, managed to set the post by its heels. Neither the clergyman nor his wife had anything but scorn for the Indians. They disapproved of the Hudsons Bay contract marriages, going so far in their dislike of interracial marriage as to snub the doctor s wife, who was a half-breed and married by contract. The severely critical letters the clergyman wrote to London made the situation increasingly tense. It culminated in 1838 when Dr. McLoughlin lost his temper and publicly caned Mr. Beaver. The act was unfortunate for Dr. McLoughlin because the Beavers, after their return to England, helped to work up opposition to McLoughlin’s activities. Up to this time, the doctor had been accorded great respect from headquarters. He had extended his posts to the north and east, raised enough foodstuffs to enable him to have a surplus for exportation, and also traded in the Sandwich Islands.

Fort Vancouver, Washington

Fort Vancouver, Washington

When Mr. Beaver put in his delayed appearance, Dr. Marcus Whitman and the Reverend Henry Spalding arrived at Fort Vancouver with their wives — the first white women to make the overland trip. Dr. McLoughlin treated the party hospitably and, when they insisted on going at once to found missions near Walla Walla and on the Clearwater River, gave them what assistance he could by permitting them to replenish their exhausted supplies from his stores. He warned them of the danger of isolating themselves inland near the treacherous Cayuse Indians.

In the meantime, Jason Lee had called for reinforcements, and in the summer of 1837, two ships arrived with supplies and more missionaries, bringing the total in the Willamette Valley to 60.

Dr. McLoughlin watched their arrival with mixed feelings; the Protestant missionaries had made slight progress, their type of religion having little appeal for the natives. Indian converts had been few, and the French Canadians, who were Roman Catholics, had held aloof. The doctor began to hear rumors that the Americans were turning their attention to real estate and politics and were considering setting up a provisional government. As the failure to win over the Indians became more apparent, the missionary group became concerned about showing some other results to their financial backers. In 1838 Jason Lee determined to visit the East and place a memorial before Congress, asking that Oregon be part of the Union.

In the same year, McLoughlin took his first vacation away from the Columbia River since he had arrived there in 1824. He went straight to London to lay before his chiefs his plans for the extension of Hudson’s Bay activities. In addition to obtaining permission to trade into Russian Alaska, with Russian consent, he was also authorized to make settlements south of Puget Sound as a means of reinforcing Britain’s claim to the territory that is now the State of Washington.

Dr. John McLoughlin

Dr. John McLoughlin

In May 1840, not long after McLoughlin’s return to his post, Jason Lee reappeared, by way of the sea, at the head of a party of 52 persons. When the doctor asked why they had come, Lee assured him they were to work in the mission. Not long after this, however, it became quite apparent that many were interested in settlement rather than missionary work. Long afterward, the McLoughlin was to learn that Lee, on his trip east, had traveled widely on lecture tours, mixing his discussion of Indian needs with large doses of propaganda on the desirability of Oregon as a place of settlement. No professional imperialist could have been more enthusiastic than Lee about the justness of seizing Oregon for the United States. Lee’s speeches and the journal of his travels, published in 1838, did much to spread the Oregon fever. The question of the ethical propriety of Lee s imperialistic activities has provided meat for decades of argument. He had accepted much help from Dr. McLoughlin in establishing his mission, with full knowledge that McLoughlin would have opposed him if his announced purpose had been commercial or imperialistic. To Lee, McLoughlin was merely a symbol representing Britain, which the average American believed should be outwitted by fair means or foul.

Less easily condoned was the act of the Reverend Mr. Waller, who deliberately pre-empted land by the Falls of the Willamette River that McLoughlin had taken possession of in 1830 and where he had blasted out a millrace. McLoughlin gave notice of the claim when Waller started to build but permitted the Methodist as a tenant to erect a small building, even giving him some lumber. Later Waller and others ignored the doctor’s claim entirely and did all in their power to take from him the spot to which he had planned to retire.

In 1841 Sir George Simpson, the Governor-in-Chief of the Hudson’s Bay Company arrived at Fort Vancouver on an inspection trip. McLoughlin had been permitted far more freedom than most Chief Factors, but he knew that he had betrayed company policy in allowing the missionaries to establish themselves so strongly. Though Sir George was noncommittal, it was clear that he was not satisfied.

Columbia River below the Cascades,

Columbia River below the Cascades,

The Hudson’s Bay Company was well aware of a growing sentiment in the United States for the seizure of Oregon. American claims disputed title to all the West Coast country up to the Russian boundary. The American claim rested in part on the fact that Robert Gray had visited the mouth of the Columbia River in 1792 and upon the explorations by the Americans Lewis and Clark. The British, however, could show that they had been developing the country, had made some settlements, and had established civil rule for British subjects in the territory. The weakness of the American claim was apparent, and the missionary-imperialists in the critical years were frank, in the States if not in Oregon, in stressing the need to rush settlers in to attain predominant numbers for the United States. Conservative government members had resisted the shouts of people supporting military penetration of the Oregon country, much as they had resisted pleas for forts near the Rocky Mountains to protect the fur traders. Settlements, however, were rapidly increasing between the Mississippi River and Indian country, particularly since the depression of 1837 had added to the popular unrest.

In May 1841, a group assembled at Independence, Missouri, for migration to California. They had been collected mainly by John Bidwell, who had heard stories of the country from a traveling French man. Most of the would-be emigrants became discouraged and withdrew from the party, which became so small that the remainder joined some trappers, including Thomas Fitzpatrick, on their way to Green River, and a party of Roman Catholic priests, including Father Pierre DeSmet, who were journeying to the Flathead country at last to answer the call for “black robes.” When the priests left them at Soda Springs, Idaho, the party, now consisting of 64 people, was split with half of them, fearing to attempt the uncertain California route, followed the better-known trail to Whitman’s Mission at Walla Walla and then went down the Columbia River.