Volume V, Number 2, Fall 2009 · Special Issue: Proceedings of the 2008 HAAS Conference


"British and/or American – the Colonization of the Oregon Country" by Andrea Kökény

Andrea Kökény has a PhD degree in History from the University of Szeged, Hungary. She is currently a Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of Modern World History and Mediterranean Studies at the University of Szeged. E-mail:

The historiography of the borderlands of the American Southwest/Mexican North, has been characterized by a robust scholarly presence and has produced a wide range of literature over the past decades. The borderlands of the Pacific Northwest, however, have received much less attention. There are some excellent works on the entire U.S./Canadian borderlands, but none of them deals specifically with the region west of the Rocky Mountains. There are other works related particularly to the region, but they either cover the whole of U.S.-Canadian relations or limit their inquiries within their nation-states (One of the most recent publications about the U.S./Canadian borderlands is a collection of essays by Sterling. For an overview on the historiography of the 49th parallel see the Foreword and the introduction to Part I, xi-xiv, 1-15).

The primary aim of my research is to study the early transboundary history of interactions in the Pacific Northwest. I am especially interested in the transitional period of 1818-1846 when there was actually no boundary yet, but the whole region was under joint British-American occupation. As an introduction to the topic this paper proposes to analyse the colonization of the Oregon Country and the formulation of communities in the first half of the 19th century focusing on the American immigrants who arrived in the region. Who were they? Where did they come from? What were their motives and expectations? Why did they decide to establish their own government? What role did the British and the American governments play in establishing and securing their claim to the territory?

The Oregon Country consisted of the land north of 42°N latitude, south of 54°40′N latitude, and west of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The area now forms part of the present day Canadian province of British Columbia, all of the US states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming.

The region was originally claimed by Great Britain, France, Russia, Spain, and the USA. While France, Spain, and Russia had given up their claims in separate treaties between 1763 and 1824/25, the United States and Britain negotiated the Anglo-American Convention of 1818 (Weber 249, 287-289, 299-300; LaFeber 76-78).

It was agreed that the 49th parallel would mark the boundary between Canada and the United States from Lake of the Woods in Minnesota to the Rocky Mountains. The two countries agreed to joint occupation of the land west of the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean (LaFeber 75; Boorstin, 151; Faragher 264). The treaty allowed the nationals of both Great Britain and the United States of America to trade or settle on the Northwest Coast of America, westward of the Rocky Mountains. The convention was signed for a ten-year period, renewed in 1827 with the stipulation that it could be terminated by either party on a one-year notice (Meinig 74-75). The region was mostly occupied by British and French Canadian fur traders from the 1810s, but more and more American settlers started to arrive there from the mid-1830s. The United States based its claim to the Oregon Country on the discovery of the mouth of the Columbia River in 1792 by Robert Gray, the captain of a fur-trading ship out of Boston. Following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804 and 1806 confirmed the American claim to the whole of the Oregon Region (LaFeber 42; Boorstin, 151).

Then mountain men arrived in the territory looking for beaver pelts and other furs. They were followed by fur-trading companies setting up posts where mountain men and Indians could exchange their pelts for tools, supplies, and liquor. The British-owned North West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company penetrated the Oregon Country from the north, arriving in 1808 (Bumsted 202-203).

The first attempt by an American to set up a permanent settlement in the Oregon Country was made by John Jacob Astor. He was a German immigrant from New York. He founded the Pacific Fur Company, which established a fur-trading post at Astoria, Oregon in 1811. The Pacific Fur operation, however, broke down during the War of 1812 and was sold to the British. In 1821 the Hudson’s Bay Company took over all the operations in the Pacific Northwest. As a result, the territory for most of the period was under de facto British administration. However, it was limited to its trading posts and forts and the small settlements which grew up around them (Bumsted 205; Meinig 66-68, 70; Boorstin 243; Divine 194-195; Brown 88, 230).

The activities of the company consisted of four main areas. The first and most important of them was the operation of an extensive trading network and the exchange of beaver pelts for manufactured goods. There was a series of forts (Fort Vancouver, Fort Colville, Fort Langley, Fort McLoughlin) to the north and a couple (Forth Boise and Fort Hall) to the east of the Columbia river.

The second area was the fur trade business operated by brigades south and east of Fort Vancouver. The trappers could be divided into two groups: company employees who were paid a salary and free trappers who were outfitted by the company and were paid an agreed sum per pelt. They were often accompanied by their wives and children. They usually departed from the headquarters in late fall and returned in early summer loaded with furs.

The HBC also became involved in lumber and salmon export. The rationale behind this kind of business was not so much direct profit, but rather keeping out Russian and American competition as well as keeping the ships and the crews of the company busy when it was not a season to engage in fur trade – in summer and early fall.

The fourth area was the coastal trade and the activity of the mariners who brought the goods from England and took the furs to China or other markets (Dodds 42-44).

The headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company was Fort Vancouver (present-day Vancouver, Washington) located almost opposite the junction of the Willamette and Columbia rivers. By the mid-1830s the main post had enclosed offices, stores, workshops, and residences of company officers. The workers’ cabins were nearby as well as the barns, a boathouse, and a sawmill. About twenty miles to the south, at the Falls of the Willamette, a gristmill and a sawmill had been set up, and further on was an informal settlement of the retired employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In total nearly 1,000 people resided in and around this primary focus of the Northwest Coast (Meinig 107-108; Dodds 40, 42; Clark 28, 46, 55-56).

It is important to point out that even though Fort Vancouver and the other trading posts were ordered to be as self-sufficient as possible and grow as much of their own food as possible to reduce the costs of imported provisions, which resulted in the development of small agricultural communities, they were company towns and not rooted colonies. The HBC did make an attempt to establish a food-producing operation with hopes even to be able to supply the Russian traders in Alaska, but the Puget’s Sound Agricultural Company founded in 1838 for that purpose was not successful. The HBC was never fully committed to the program, had unfavorable employment terms, and could not secure enough labor supply either (Dodds 47; Clark 122).

The establishment of organized settlements was carried out by Anglo Americans. During the 1820s and early 1830s, a fair number of American explorers and traders visited the region beyond the Rocky Mountains. Reports of the Oregon Country, booklets as well as different kinds of propaganda material circulated in the eastern United States. The most well-known of them was Hall Jackson Kelley’s eighty-page booklet entitled A Geographical Sketch of that Part of North America Called Oregon (in Powell 1972 (1932)). He was a schoolman from Massachusetts who founded the American Society for Encouraging the Settlement of the Oregon Territory and tried to gain Congressional support for the establishment of a colony there. His own expedition failed, but he was successful in popularizing the region among enterpreneurs as well as some churches that were influenced by the idea of Christian mission that Kelley connected with the prospects of a commercial enterprise (On Kelley’s activity see Powell 1917; Horsman 89; Meinig 108).

These churches were also responding to the call from some of the Flathead Indians to receive teachers who would Christianize the Native population. The first missionary to respond was a Canadian Methodist minister, Jason Lee. He was a teacher in Ontario and was involved in missionary work to Indians in that region. He heard about the call published in a Christian magazine (Christian Advocate and Journal) and travelled to Boston, where he was charged to the Oregon mission (White 72).

Lee and his companions arrived at Fort Vancouver in 1834. They were greeted by Dr. John McLoughlin, Chief of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who was under orders to discourage white settlers, but was personally sympathetic to the newcomers. They located the mission in the Willamette Valley about ten miles north of present-day Salem, and called it Mission Bottom (Faragher 417; Clark 74, 92).

The news of the success of the Methodists encouraged other denominations. In 1836 the Presbyterians sent out Dr. Marcus Whitman and Henry Spaulding and their wives, Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding. The Whitmans founded a mission to the Cayuse Indians in Walla Walla, present-day state of Washington. The Spauldings founded a mission to the Nez Perce Indians at Lapwai in present-day Idaho. Two Franciscan priests arrived in 1838, and in the early 1840s the Jesuits also set up a number of Catholic missions in the Oregon Country (Boorstin 243; LaFeber 105). These missions were not very successful as epidemics had devastated the region’s peoples, and because most Natives were not willing to give up their nomadic life and settle down as the missionaries wanted them to do. (Between 1829-1832 malarial fever carried off about three-quarters of the Native population on the lower Columbia river and about half of those in the Willamette Valley. Clark 56.) Still, they had an important influence in drawing population to the region.

We can say that Lewis and Clark paved the way for fur trappers who explored the West, the trappers paved the way for missionaries, and the missionaries paved the way for the settlers who gradually broke the British claim to the Pacific Northwest.

The Methodist missionaries sent several petitions to Congress requesting that the United States extend its jurisdiction into the area. Lee left Oregon in March of 1838 to travel to New York City to request supplies and more personnel for his mission. He carried with him a petition signed by 36 settlers asking President Martin Van Buren to take formal and speedy possession of the Oregon country. The settlers chief complaint was that the British Hudson’s Bay Company was engaging in unfair competition and was acting as a de facto British government for Oregon. Hudson’s Bay Company was the only available source of supplies and clothing and the settlers felt they were charged unfair rates (Meinig 110; Dodds 90).

Jason Lee also toured the country to encourage people to settle in the Oregon Territory. In the fall of 1838 he visited Peoria in what is today Illinois. The so-called Peoria Party, a group of sixteen men, set out on May 1, 1839 with the intention to colonize the Oregon Country on behalf of the US and drive out the English fur trading companies operating there. They were among the first pioneers to blaze the Oregon Trail. They were led by Thomas Jefferson Farnham, a Peoria lawyer, and called themselves the Oregon Dragoons. They carried a large flag emblazoned with their motto “OREGON OR THE GRAVE“.

Almost all the Dragoons were single, in their early twenties, with a romantic sense of adventure. Although the group split up on the trail, several of their members did reach Oregon in June, 1840 and were among the prominent early pioneers of that region (Friedman 104-106; Clark 122-124).

On May 16, 1842, the first organized wagon train on the Oregon Trail set out from Elm Grove, Missouri with more than 100 pioneers. Despite the Hudson’s Bay Company policy to discourage U.S. emigration, John McLoughlin again offered the American settlers food and farming equipment on credit (Faragher 418).

After several small groups had made their way to the region, a mass migration began in 1843. The immigrants were almost all rural people coming from the river valleys of the Midwest: the Missouri, the Mississippi, and the Ohio. The biggest driving force for settlement was the offer of free land. Many pioneers went to this promised land because of the financial depression that had begun in the US in 1837, and because they had heard tall tales that Oregon was a fertile country (LaFeber 70). The favorable climate of the region and the fact that it was a healthy country were also important pull factors.

The Oregon Trail became famous as the great overland route that brought the wagon trains of American migrants to the West Coast during the 1840s. The journey took about six months; most parties departed in May, hoping to arrive in November before the great snows hit the last mountain barriers. Many of the wagon trains were organized under fairly elaborate regulations that governed the choice of officers and the morale conduct of the emigrants while on the trail. Each expedition had a captain, with overall responsibility, and a pilot (possibly someone who had been on the trail before) who showed the way and negotiated with the Indians (Dodds 70).

In spite of the infinite variety of hardships, most who crossed the trail survived it. And they usually received warm welcome from the residents. What’s more, the residents often tried to make sure that the newcomers would settle in their town or county. Communities planned for new roads and cutoffs from the old trails so that the overlanders would wind up in their territory. And the people who survived were proud that they had made it. They gained a sense of power by the successful crossing, which became an important factor in the formulation of settler identity, too (74-75).

In 1843 alone, over one thousand settlers traveled the vast plains and mountains to make their home in Oregon. The next year brought 1500 more settlers. And in the following year an additional 3000 arrived. The immigration of 1845, in fact, doubled the number of Americans in Oregon (Boorstin 244; Divine, 261; Lafeber 105; White 72; Clark 162, 178, 181). During the 1820s and 1830s the Hudson’s Bay Company, the French Canadians, the missionaries, and mountain men coexisted reasonably well. But the colonies that the Americans established gradually outgrew the commercial stations of the HBC and the British government. These migrants began to act on their own economically as well as politically and were quick to demand the extension of full American sovereignity over the Oregon Country.

Since – in the beginning – Congress paid little attention to the small settlements, they followed the example of earlier pioneer communities and made their own government. On July 5, 1843 in an old barn belonging to one of the missions, the settlers of the Willamette Valley by a vote of 52 to 50 drafted a constitution “for the purposes of mutual protection and to secure peace and prosperity among ourselves … until such time as the United States of America extend their jurisdiction over us” (Boorstin, 244). The constitution also organized the land claim process in the region. Married couples were allowed to claim up to 640 acres (a “section” which is a square mile, or 260 hectares) at no cost and singles could claim 320 acres (130 ha). The Organic Act of 1843 officially marked the birth of a Provisional Government. A classically American nine-man committee was established made up of a mountain man, missionaries, Oregon Trail pioneers and a couple of shifty characters. The Hudson’s Bay Company was also invited to join the government, but at that point McLoughlin refused (Hastings 61-62; Dodds 91; Clark 158-159).

When the number of settlers started to grow in the region the American government could not neglect the distant “republic” of Oregon any longer. In the 1844 presidential elections campaign James K. Polk, an expansionist, ran on a platform calling for the simultaneous annexation of Texas and assertion of American claims to all of Oregon. He and his party aimed at turning the United States into a continental nation, an aspiration that attracted support in the North as well as in the South. Polk won the election by a relatively narrow popular margin (Boorstin 250; Divine 264; Clark 182-183).

In 1845 and 1846, the United States came closer to an armed conflict with Great Britain than at any time since the war of 1812. The willingness of some Americans to go to war over Oregon was expressed in the Democratic rallying cry “Fifty-four forty or fight!” Polk fed this expansionist fever by laying claim to all of the Oregon Country in his inaugural address.

[It is] my duty to assert and maintain by all constitutional means the right of the United States to that portion of our territory which lies beyond the Rocky Mountains. Our title to the country of the Oregon is “clear and unquestionable,” and already are our people preparing to perfect that title by occupying it with their wives and children. … The world beholds the peaceful triumphs of the industry of our emigrants. To us belongs the duty of protecting them adequately wherever they may be upon our soil. The jurisdiction of our laws and the benefits of our republican institutions should be extended over them in the distant regions which they have selected for their homes (Commager, 308-309).

At the same time, however, he was willing to accept the 49th parallel as the boundary. “In the meantime every obligation imposed by treaty or conventional stipulations should be sacredly respected,” he said (Commager, 309). What made the situation so tense was that Polk was dedicated to an aggressive diplomacy of “bluff and a show of force” (Pletcher, 610).

Meanwhile, many newspaper editors in the United States clamoured for Polk to claim the entire region as the Democrats had proposed in the 1844 campaign. Headlines like “The Whole of Oregon or None” appeared in the press by November 1845. In a column in the New York Morning News on December 27, 1845, the editor John L. O’Sullivan argued that the United States should claim all of Oregon “by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us” (Horsman, 220; Boorstin, 250).

In July 1845, Polk authorized Secretary of State James Buchanan to reply to the latest British request for terms by offering a boundary along the 49th parallel. The offer did not meet the British demand for all of Vancouver Island and free navigation of the Columbia River, and the British ambassador rejected the proposal out of hand. The rebuff infuriated President Polk. In his first annual address to Congress on December 2, 1845, Polk recommended giving the British the required one-year notice of the termination of the joint occupation agreement. His argument was a reassertion of the Monroe Doctrine:

The rapid extension of our settlements over our territories heretofore unoccupied, the addition of new States to our Confederacy, the expansion of free principles, and our rising greatness as a nation are attracting the attention of the powers of Europe, and lately the doctrine has been broached in some of them of a “balance of power” on this continent to check our advancement. The United States, sincerely desirous of preserving relations of good understanding with all nations, can not in silence permit any European interference on the North American continent, and should any such interference be attempted will be ready to resist it at any and all hazards. … The American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for colonization by any European powers. This principle will apply with greatly increased force should any European power attempt to establish any new colony in North America. In the existing circumstances of the world the present is deemed a proper occasion to reiterate and reaffirm the principle avowed by Mr. Monroe and to state my cordial concurrence in its wisdom and sound policy. The reassertion of this principle, especially in reference to North America, is at this day but the promulgation of a policy which no European power should cherish the disposition to resist (Commager 309-310).

Polk had called on Congress in December, 1845; however, it was not until 23 April, 1846 that both houses complied. The delay was caused by long debates, especially in the Senate. In the end a mild resolution was approved. It called on both governments to settle the matter amicably. By a large margin, moderation had won out over calls for war. Unlike Western Democrats, most Congressmen – like Polk – did not want to fight for 54°40’ (Pletcher 322; Divine 266).

Another reason why the American government was prompted to settle the Oregon question was that they also had a war with Mexico on their hand. The joint resolution of the House of Representatives and the Senate in January and February of 1845 about the annexation of Texas had prompted Mexico to break diplomatic relations with the Unites States in March, 1845. In April of 1846 a brief skirmish broke out between American and Mexican soldiers along the Rio Grande. For the US the incident served as an excuse to declare war on Mexico on May 13, 1846 (Kökény 93-94).

Since abrogation of the joint British-American agreement about Oregon implied that the US would attempt to extend its jurisdiction north of 54°40’, the British government decided to take the diplomatic initiative in an effort to avert war. At the same time, they sent off warships to the Western Hemisphere in case conciliation failed. The new British proposal accepted the 49th parallel as the border, gave Britain all of Vancouver Island, and provided for British navigation rights on the Columbia River. The Senate recommended that the treaty be accepted with the single change that British rights to navigate the Columbia be made temporary. It was ratified in that form on June 15, 1846. (See “The Oregon Treaty“, in Commager 311-312; Boorstin 251; Faragher 418; Divine 266; Clark 187-188).

The fact that the almost thirty-year-long boundary controversy over the Oregon Country was finally settled peacefully between Great Britain and the United States of America can be attributed to different national as well as international factors. The British government proved ready to settle the dispute mostly because of domestic issues. The Irish potato famine of the 1840s, the debates around the repeal of the Corn Laws, and the emerging new economic theory, the idea that a widening of trade and the contraction of empire would serve British interests better pushed the government towards a compromise. The British public had little interest in the distant region, and the directors of the Hudson’s Bay Company who were in charge there could be persuaded to agree by guaranteeing their navigation privileges on the Columbia River and their rights in the territory awarded to the US. (The Hudson’s Bay Company formally joined the Provisional Government in August, 1845 and pulled out of Oregon in 1848. They moved their headquarters to Fort Victoria in British Columbia. The United States eventually paid the Hudson’s Bay Company 650.000 dollars for all rights and titles to HBC property and buildings that remained in the US. White 77).

In case of the American government it was an international issue, the Mexican war that accelerated the process of coming to a compromise. At the same time, we should not overestimate the American government’s role in taking possession of the Pacific Northwest. We should not forget that just like in other regions of the West, the initiative to settle down in the Oregon Country was taken by the American immigrants who arrived there.

As a result of the Oregon Treaty of 1846, the United States achieved a geopolitical victory that its actual geographical position and influence could hardly justify, and the “compromise” in fact resulted in Great Britain losing the entire area. The explanation for the American success can lie in the considerable difference in character of the British and American positions in the human geography of Oregon: the former created and maintained by a commercial company, the latter by a spontaneous folk movement; the former a network of widely dispersed stations staffed by assigned agents, the latter an organic colony of settlers.

Another explanation for the American success can be that the acquisition of the Oregon Country became a more important issue in American national politics and the United States was apparently willing to risk more in support of its demands than was the case with Great Britain.

There was a special process going on in the borderland region of the Pacific Northwest characteristic in many ways of American western expansion. As a result of the immigrants activity – let them be explorers, adventurers, hunters, trappers, merchants, missionaries, or farmers, that is settlers – finally a civil society was born. As a consequence, the settlers were also transformed into citizens, which, of course, meant the end of the frontier state of the borderland region.

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