Oregon Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A destination for immigration since before it was a state, Oregon has drawn immigrants from all over the world. However, through much of its history as a state, it actively resisted the immigration of people from regions other than northern and western Europe.

White settlers, both European and Americans of European descent, poured into Oregon during the middle of the nineteenth century, seeking land for homesteading. The settlers clashed violently with Native Americans, many of whom were killed, died of disease, or sent to reservations. At the same time, the state’s territorial and state governments enacted laws to reserve Oregon citizenship for white settlers. Black people were barred from Oregon in 1844, and both African Americans and Chinese were barred from Voting;minority rightsvoting or owning land by Oregon’s state constitution. An 1866 miscegenation law prohibited white people from marrying blacks, Chinese, or Native Americans. Founded as a white, agrarian, frontier state, Oregon retained an ambivalence and even hostility toward immigration into the twentieth century.OregonOregon[cat]STATES;Oregon[04000]

Nineteenth Century Patterns

At the time Oregon became a state in 1859, only about 10 percent of its residents were foreign born. Afterward, however, foreign immigration increased, but many of the new immigrants were secondary migrants who had originally settled in the Midwest. Many were attracted to Oregon’s mild climate and good farmlands.

Early on, the state of Oregon established a clear preference for German and Scandinavian immigrants, believing that these people would integrate well and achieve social and economic success. Southern and eastern European immigrants, however, were unwelcome and were described as “undesirable” in a 1912 report of the Oregon State Immigration Commission. Oregonians tended to view themselves as thrifty, independent farmers and pioneers and regarded southern and eastern Europeans as having values that were incompatible with their own.

By 1910, Scandinavian immigrants;OregonScandinavian immigrants from Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland made up 40 percent of Oregon’s population. In addition to farming, these immigrants worked as carpenters, longshoremen, and in lumber mills. Many of the women worked as domestics or ran boardinghouses. Despite the state’s bias against eastern Europeans, Jewish immigrants;OregonJews from Germany and eastern Europe also did well in Oregon during the late nineteenth century. Taking advantage of a relatively open class structure and growing economy with few labor unions, the Jews were generally regarded as shopkeepers and small business owners and were consequently not perceived as competing with native-born laborers.

Asian Immigration

Members of other ethnic groups, however, were not welcome–especially immigrants from China and Japan. Chinese immigrants;OregonChinese workers who had come to the western states to escape poverty found themselves barred from holding mining claims and land in Oregon soon after statehood. About 5 percent of Oregon’s residents were Chinese in 1880, but they were finding life increasingly difficult in the face of violent nativist opposition. After the federal Anti-Chinese movement[antichinese movement];Oregon[a]Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882;and anti-Chinese violence[antiChinese violence]Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed, mobs of Oregonians drove Chinese residents out of Oregon City, Salem, and Yamhill. Attempts to drive the Chinese out of Portland failed, but the city’s Chinese population afterward went down. In 1887, horse thieves murdered forty-three Chinese miners at the Snake RiverSnake River Massacre and were subsequently acquitted. As in California, white citizens perceived the Chinese as strange, pagan, and unwilling to assimilate, and also saw them as undercutting American wages.

Anti-Chinese violence subsided by the 1890’s, but the state government continued to explore methods of reducing the Chinese population. In 1903, the state Bureau of Labor collected data on Chinese and Japanese immigrants to determine the extent to which they were in competition with white workers.

During the first four decades of the twentieth century, Japanese immigrants;OregonJapanese workers became targets of violence and negative public feelings in Oregon. Nevertheless, many Japanese immigrants achieved success as farmers, hotel owners, and business operators. They also established the Japanese Association of Oregon, which gave legal and financial aid to new arrivals. However, after Japan launched its sneak attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Japanese immigrants felt the effects of a major backlash. Most of the Japanese American internment;OregonJapanese nationals and Japanese Americans were interned throughout World War II, giving white Oregonians opportunities to take over Japanese-owned businesses. Some Oregonians hoped to drive the Japanese out of their state permanently. After the war ended in 1945, returning internees were met with suspicion. By the late 1940’s, Oregon’s state government had partially compensated Japanese American families for their economic losses during their internment and began lifting laws that had restricted Japanese from owning land.

After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, many Vietnamese people immigrated to Oregon. By the early twenty-first century, the Vietnamese were one of the largest immigrant communities in Oregon.

Latin American Immigrants

Latin American immigration into Oregon began in earnest during the 1930s, when Hispanic workers began arriving to work in the state’s agricultural industry. Many Hispanics took jobs that opened up as American citizens found employment in the growing defense industry on the eve of American entry into World War II. Mexican immigrants;OregonMexican immigration to Oregon increased sharply with the 1942 establishment of the Bracero program;in Oregon[Oregon]bracero program, which was designed to import seasonal agricultural workers during the war. Braceros working in Oregon were often subjected to substandard working and living conditions, but the program continued until 1964. Meanwhile, as native-born American workers found better-paying jobs in other industries, Oregon’s farmers became increasingly dependent on Mexican and other Latin American workers.

Mexican immigrants also worked in Oregon’s food, construction, and manufacturing industries and began small businesses. They formed organizations to assist immigrants and advocate for workers’ rights and established church- and community-based organizations to provide job training and other services for new arrivals. The long history of Hispanic immigration into Oregon has created multiple-generation households in which some members are naturalized American citizens, while others may be undocumented immigrants. This complicates integration of immigrants into society and makes their utilization of social services difficult.

Refugees and Immigration Reform

During the 1960’s, efforts to admit refugees from Cuba and other countries and lift discriminatory quotas met with resistance in Oregon, as prejudice against Asian, southern and eastern European, and Latin American immigrant groups continued. However, with the passage of the federal Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, Oregon’s immigration rates increased dramatically. During the 1980’s, the state became a popular destination for refugees, particularly from the Soviet immigrants;OregonSoviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many refugees from Soviet republics were fundamentalist Christians seeking greater religious freedom–a fact that helped win them sympathy and acceptance in Oregon. By that time, the numbers of refugees from African immigrants;OregonAfrican and Southeast Asian nations were also increasing. Many of these people, like the eastern Europeans, made use of church and state assistance for refugees as well as kinship networks to ease their transition into American society. African and Asian immigrants have encountered some resistance, particularly after the terrorist attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001, but many have established businesses and strongcommunities.

Twenty-first Century Trends

By the turn of the twenty-first century, Oregon ranked eleventh among all states in numbers of refugees taken in, and the state could be fairly described as a major immigrant gateway. Reasons for this change in demographics have included the decline of employment opportunities in other traditional immigrant gateway states, agricultural opportunities in Oregon that have drawn new immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries, and the presence of strong resettlement and social service networks that serve refugees and other immigrants. The state’s refugee social service organizations provide refugees with housing, employment, and other services during their first year in Oregon.

Despite Oregon’s growing diversity, its history as a primarily European-descended state hostile to immigrants has made it difficult for many immigrants, especially refugees, to integrate into mainstream society. Moreover, a growing percentage of Oregon’s jobs are in technology fields that require more specialized training and skills than jobs in traditional immigrant occupations, such as lumbering, farming, and fishing.

By the year 2005, 9.7 percent of the residents of Oregon were foreign born, and 60 percent of these people had arrived in the state since 1990. Most of the state’s immigrants were living in the Portland metropolitan area near the state’s northern border with Washington.Oregon

Further Reading
  • Do, Hien Duc. The Vietnamese Americans. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Brief history of Vietnamese Americans, who constituted one of Oregon’s largest immigrant communities during the early twenty-first century.
  • Hoobler, Dorothy, and Thomas Hoobler. The Scandinavian American Family Album. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Illustrated with historic photographs, this book covers the history of Scandinavian immigration to the United States, including to Oregon.
  • Nokes, R. Gregory. “’A Most Daring Outrage’: Murder at Chinese Massacre Cove, 1887.” Oregon Historical Quarterly 107, no. 3 (2006): 326-353. Detailed reconstruction of the massacre of Chinese miners at Snake River.
  • Ross, Alexander. Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, 1810-1813. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986. Ross, one of the original clerks at Astoria, gives a colorful firsthand account of the venture.
  • Tolzmann, Don Heinrich. The German-American Experience. Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity Books, 2000. Study of German immigrants in America, including western settlement.

Anti-Japanese movement

Bracero program

Farm and migrant workers

Japanese American internment

Japanese immigrants

Mexican immigrants

Snake River Massacre

United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind

Vietnamese immigrants

Washington State

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