Today`s Oregon was inhabited by indigenous peoples for more than 10,000 years before the arrival of the first European explorers. (See Far West Culture and Northwest Culture.)
The earliest European visitors to the area were the Spanish of the 1540s, who sailed up the west coast of North America in search of the elusive Northwest Passage — a highly prized water link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In 1579, it is likely that Sir Francis Drake, the English adventurer, visited Oregon waters, claiming the area for his country, but he was dissuaded from further explorations by adverse weather conditions.
The Spanish continued their expeditions. In 1775 Juan Francisco Bodega y Quadra and Bruno Heceta may have been the first to sight the mouth of the Columbia River but pushed northward rather than court disaster by sailing over the bar into the river. Three years later the English returned in the person of Captain James Cook, who mapped portions of the coast and, for evident reasons, bestowed the name of Cape Foulweather on a major coastal promontory. Cook`s journals were later published and did much to spark interest in the area by noting the abundance of fur-bearing animals.
Russia also entered the picture by basing its North American operations in present-day Alaska and sending fur traders and trappers southward where they often clashed with competing English interests. The Russians continued to assert their claim to Oregon until surrendering it by treaties in the 1820s. Demand for furs existed not only in the home countries of the occupying powers, but also in China, which had developed into a hugely lucrative market. This confusing picture of overlapping claims was further complicated by a claim to the area by the fledgling United States. The new nation cited a voyage of Robert Gray in 1792 aboard the Columbia, the river being named for the ship.
In 1803, the United States completed the Louisiana Purchase, securing title to an immense tract of land from France. Ever-curious Thomas Jefferson helped to plan the exploration of the new possession under the leadership of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. The explorers were disappointed to not find an easy water route across the continent, but collected valuable information about the flora, fauna and peoples of the area. After wintering in 1805-06 at Fort Clatsop south of the Columbia, the party returned to the East with reports that sparked great interest among other explorers and entrepreneurs. This expedition served to strengthen the U.S. claim to Oregon.
American influence in the area increased in 1811, when New Yorker John Jacob Astor established a settlement at Astoria. He hoped this post would serve as a warehouse for furs gathered from a string of trading posts stretching back to the Mississippi River. His grand designs for his Pacific Fur Company were interrupted by the outbreak of the War of 1812. Astor feared losing his venture to the British enemy and promptly sold his holdings to the rival North West Company. Astoria was returned to U.S. control by the peace terms at war`s end, but amid mounting tensions, both British and American citizens continued to occupy the territory.
In 1818, the United States and Britain decided to put off final resolution of the ownership issue by signing a treaty that provided for 10 years of joint occupation; this agreement was renewed in 1827 without an expiration date. Meanwhile, each side tried to strengthen its claim by bringing settlers into the area — a task much easier for the Americans to accomplish.
In 1819, a treaty with Spain established the southern boundary of Oregon at the 42nd parallel.
Nevertheless, the British presence remained strong owing largely to the activities of the Hudson`s Bay Company, which had acquired the North West Company. Its driving force, John McLoughlin, established Fort Vancouver on the north side of the Columbia in present-day Washington state, about 100 miles from the Pacific. American settlers were stoutly discouraged from staying on that side of the river, but McLoughlin later became an American citizen and is now regarded as the "father of Oregon" as a result of his assistance to newcomers.
During the 1830s, American missionaries took the Gospel to the Indians of the Northwest, particularly in the Willamette Valley. The natives initially received the newcomers in friendship, but cultural dissonance later led to tension and eventually to warfare. Despite a general inability to win converts, the missionaries wrote back to friends and relatives in the East about the richness of the soil in the Valley — news eagerly received by many who were suffering through a prolonged depression that followed the Panic of 1837. Agriculture grew in importance to the Oregon settlers as the fur trade declined.
Beginning in 1842, economically hard-pressed Easterners undertook the arduous 2,000-mile journey from Independence, Missouri, across the continent on what became known as the Oregon Trail. As their numbers swelled, many began to press for removal of the British from the entire area. Ownership of Oregon became a major issue in the presidential Election of 1844, when belligerent American expansionists called for "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!" — an extreme stance that would have established the international boundary well north of Vancouver Island in present-day British Columbia. The British realized that they were losing the population battle and relocated the Hudson`s Bay Company headquarters at Fort Victoria in 1843. In that year, settlers in Champoeg, near present-day Newberg in the Willamette Valley, organized a provisional government, the first such effort at self-rule.The Oregon Question was resolved in 1846 by mutual agreement, and the 49th parallel became the international boundary between the northwestern United States and Canada, but clarity was still needed on the ownership of the San Juan Islands. Two years later, the Oregon Territory was formally established by Congress, which encompassed the area between the 42nd and 49th parallels, today the states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and portions of Wyoming and Montana. Joseph Lane became the first Territorial Governor in 1849. The seat of government was initially located in Oregon City, but moved to Salem in 1851. There followed a long and often heated debate over the wisdom of seeking statehood. Proponents hoped that admission to the Union would win federal assistance against the Indians — an increasingly serious problem — but opponents feared that statehood would bring new taxes.
The relationship between white settlers and native inhabitants soured during the mid-19th century. The Whitman Massacre (1847) in present-day Washington State prompted efforts to address outstanding issues between the races. Several treaty efforts stalled in the U.S. Senate, but a plan was adopted to provide financial rewards to the tribes in return for their agreement to relocate in remote areas. Warfare was common in the Rogue Valley throughout the 1850s; gold had been discovered there and whites invaded Indian lands in contravention of the treaties. In the early 1870s, the Modoc refused to be confined to the Klamath Reservation and mounted resistance from barren lava beds until they subdued by the army. In 1877, the Nez Percé under Chief Joseph were forcibly removed from the Wallowa Valley in the northeastern part of the state.
Oregon became the 33rd state to join the Union on February 14, 1859, entering under a constitution that prohibited slavery, but barred free blacks from taking up residence.
During the Civil War (1861-65), Oregon fared well economically by profiting from a strong demand for agrarian products, particularly wool for the manufacture of military uniforms. In the postwar period, eastern Oregon experienced a lucrative, but short-lived gold rush. The small community of Portland prospered because it was linked by a railway to the gold fields and was the chief source of miner supplies. Wheat farming emerged as the most important economic factor in eastern Oregon after the mines gave out.
Henry Villard`s Northern Pacific Railroad Company was brought into Oregon from the Puget Sound area during the 1880s, making eastern markets more accessible. Timber barons prospered immensely from the ability to move their product cheaply. Thinning of the forests, however, prompted concerns about conservation that were addressed on the national level during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt.
Oregon farmers suffered along with others during the 1890s. A panic and depression had forced prices down and numerous farmers were further aggrieved by their subservience to the railroads, which gouged them for moving their produce. As a result, the Populist Party gained some influence in the state, but greater reform results were achieved after 1900 during the Progressive Era. William S. U`Ren led efforts to amend the state constitution and succeeded in gaining approval for the initiative and referendum in 1902. Direct primaries were established in 1904, direct election of U.S. senators in 1906, the recall in 1908, and women`s suffrage in state and local elections in 1912. These reforms became known nationally as the Oregon Plan.
Oregon was touched by post-World War I paranoia when some citizens reacted -- sometimes violently -- to the presence of immigrants, Catholics and blacks. The legislature, where a resurgent Ku Klux Klan wielded considerable power, responded to these fears by prohibiting Asians from owning land in the state and by banning parochial schools.
A popular desire for better roads to get around on led to the construction of Coast Highway 101, which included macadamized roadbuilding and many beautiful bridges designed by engineer Conde McCullough. Most of the construction took place during the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression. The highway and bridges were completed in 1936.
The New Deal era of the 1930s saw a struggle between advocates of public and private power in relation to irrigation projects. The former prevailed, and their crowning achievement occurred in the completion of the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River in 1937.World War II brought vast growth to the Portland area, where abundant power resources were important to shipbuilding and other wartime businesses. Not all residents of the state participated in this prosperity; a presidential order brought about the internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans whose loyalties were questioned by the government.
Oregon has been noted for colorful and outspoken political leaders. Wayne Morse (1900-74) represented Oregon in the U.S. Senate for four terms, first as a Republican, later as an Independent and finally as a Democrat. He offered one of two no-votes on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that led to broader U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War; he remained a persistant critic of that conflict. Morse also was dedicated to securing and protecting the rights of labor and minorities. Tom McCall (1913-83), governor from 1967 to 1975, is remembered for his efforts to protect ocean beaches from private development, enactment of a mandatory bottle deposit law that was designed to reduce litter, and a famous quote in which he urged outsiders to visit Oregon, but not to move there.
Important issues of the recent past include:
- Measure 5, approved by the electorate in 1990, placed constitutional limits on state property taxes and required equalization on school funding.
- The Death with Dignity Act of 1990, a state law, provided for physician-assisted suicide under prescribed conditions; a legislative effort to repeal this law was soundly defeated by the voters in 1997.
- Native-American rights have been contested on such issues as off-reservation fishing rights and the development of Indian-owned casinos.
- The spotted owl controversy stemmed from a 1990 federal decision that placed the bird on the endangered species list; opponents of that action blame it for the decline of the state`s timber industry, but supporters argue that foreign competition — especially from Canada — accounts for the industry`s woes.
Oregon remains one of only five states that do not impose a sales tax. That fact, coupled with a vocal and well-organized anti-tax movement, has helped to create a difficult economic and political environment in which taxpayers stoutly resist increases, but continue to demand state-funded services.