Why a Trail to Oregon?

In 1841 Sir George Simpson, who was 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 were most Chief Factors, but he knew that in allowing the missionaries to establish themselves so strongly he had betrayed company policy. Though Sir George was noncommittal, it was clear that he was not satisfied.

The Hudson’s Bay Company was well aware that there was a growing sentiment in the United States for the seizure of Oregon. In fact, 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 of rushing settlers in to attain predominant numbers for the United States. Conservative members of the Government 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.

Columbia River below the Cascades,

Columbia River below the Cascades,

In May 1841, a group of people assembled at Independence, Missouri for migration to California. They had been collected largely 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.

In 1842 the real march on Oregon began. In this year the imperialists, led by Senator Thomas H. Benton of Missouri, had succeeded in having an official trail-exploration expedition sent as far west as the Wind River Valley in present-day Wyoming, which was led by Benton’s new son-in-law, John C. Fremont. Fremont’s report, issued early in 1843, roused wide enthusiasm. In 1843 he again went out and spent most of the two following years exploring foreign land in Oregon and the Mexican possessions in what is now the United States. His reports of these expeditions became the chief guidebook of later emigrants.

At the time Fremont was making his first trip, a party of about a hundred started for Oregon under the leadership of Dr. Elijah White, a member of the Willamette Valley Mission. Previously White had quarreled with Jason Lee and left the area, but when he returned he boasted the title of “Indian subagent for Oregon.” Dr. McLoughlin s agent at Fort Hall sent a guide to lead them to the Willamette Valley. This party did not pass Fort Vancouver, but McLoughlin later helped many of its members by extending credit at the company commissary to them. In the following year nearly half the members of the White party moved on to California; however, their arrival had stimulated the Americans in the Willamette Valley to form a loose civil government for themselves. The British subjects in the valley first joined the movement but withdrew when they discovered the nationalistic character of the activities.

Whitman Mission

Whitman Mission

In 1842, Dr. Elijah White brought orders to Dr. Marcus Whitman that part of his missions were to be closed because the board was tired of the dissension among the workers and disappointed in the number of conversions. Whitman and his colleagues determined to disregard the instructions. In the fall of this year, Whitman suddenly decided to rush east, regardless of the weather. After a quick trip across the mountains, he went straight to Washington to urge his ideas on Government officials, asking for forts to protect emigrants along the Oregon Trail. He then visited New York, where he met Horace Greeley and filled him with enthusiasm for the disputed territory. Finally, he went to Boston to consult with his board. Almost immediately he started west again, lecturing as he went, to join the travelers at Independence and turn them toward Oregon.

In the meantime, nearly a thousand people were assembling at Independence, Missouri and preparing to start west. In November and December of 1843, about 875 persons straggled into Oregon. Like those who preceded them, they were assisted in various ways by the Hudson’s Bay Chief Factor of the Columbia, Dr. John McLoughlin.

In the following year the settlers reorganized and strengthened their provisional government, and welcomed 1,400 more arrivals. Still, Dr. McLoughlin extended credit to the straitened newcomers, who promised repayment in wheat and other commodities to be produced on the new lands. It is possible that he yet hoped to redeem himself in the eyes of his superiors by making Fort Vancouver the export center for the territory.

Oregon Trail pioneers pass through the sand hills, painting by William Henry Jackson

Oregon Trail pioneers pass through the sand hills, painting by William Henry Jackson

In 1845, which saw the arrival of more than 3,000 immigrants, the provisional government was fully established. In the same year, the Hudson’s Bay Company forced the resignation of Dr. John McLoughlin. After winding up his affairs he moved south in an attempt to regain the land he had laid claim to 15 years before and in the expectation of some repayment from the many newcomers he had helped. Many of the settlers had not paid their debts to the Hudson’s Bay Company and McLoughlin’s later years were embittered because he had to use his lifetime savings to reimburse the company. Though he soon became a citizen of the United States, his land claim was not recognized until five years after his death.

The acquisition of vast western lands swelled the stream of migration to all parts of the West. By 1848 the Oregon Trail was deeply rutted. The discovery of gold in California in that year drove it deeper into the prairies, for it carried the great bulk of the gold seekers at least to a point west of South Pass, Wyoming.

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