Oregon Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Oregon’s special character, like that of every state, was formed from its geography and geographical position in the nation combined with the formative events of its history.

History of Oregon

Oregon’s special character, like that of every state, was formed from its geography and geographical position in the nation combined with the formative events of its history. Oregon’s character marries the independent spirit of the frontier West inherited from the nineteenth century with modern, urban America, the result of the economic development of the World War II era and the years of steady growth that followed. The cool, wet western portion of the state coexists with a semi-arid eastern segment in whose economy irrigation has played a major role. Oregon’s society and politics exhibit a unique blend of liberalism and conservatism, making it a fascinating laboratory of democracy.

Early History

Before the arrival of white settlers, the region of Oregon was inhabited by numerous Native Americans. These included the Clackma, the Multnomah, the Tillamook, and the Kalapuya in the northwest. Also present were the Bannock, Cayuse, Nez Perce, Paiute, and Umatilla, who lived east of the Cascade Mountains. Near today’s California border were the Klamath and the Rogue peoples.


Oregon was explored by a succession of European nations before Americans arrived. In the sixteenth century, Spanish adventurers first explored the region. Two centuries later English and more Spaniards searched for the Northwest Passage linking eastern North America to the Pacific, eliminating a voyage around South America. In 1774 Juan Pérez sailed the coast, and the following year Bruno Heceta was the first European to find the Columbia River.

In 1778 the famed English navigator Captain James Cook, also searching for the Northwest Passage and the finders’ reward of twenty thousand pounds, sailed up the coast to Yaqina Bay. In 1788 the first American ships arrived, including those of John Kendrick and Robert Gray. In 1792 Gray became the first white man to sail up the Columbia River, which he named after his ship. Soon afterward, William Brougham, a lieutenant of British captain George Vancouver, who was exploring the region, sailed into the Columbia and continued well inland. At this time, too, Russian traders were pushing south from posts in Alaska, and British fur traders were exploring the West, since Oregon furs were seen as a promising component of the growing trade with China.

American Exploration and Settlement

Spain abandoned exploration of the area after 1795, leaving it to the British and Americans. In 1805, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, leading the expedition sent by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the territory of the Louisiana Purchase, arrived at Fort Clatsop, where the Colombia River meets the Pacific Ocean.

A more permanent American presence first appeared in the form of fur trappers and traders, and only later in the form of agricultural settlers. The first American fur company was established in the region by John Jacob Astor, who brought his Pacific Fur Company to Oregon, basing it in Astoria in 1811. Two years later, during the War of 1812, he sold it to the North West Company, which in turn sold it to Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821. By then, however, Britain and the United States had signed a treaty establishing joint occupation of the region by both countries.

Joint occupation brought both British and American influence. By the 1820’s, Britain’s Hudson’s Bay Company was a dominant force in the region, guided by Dr. John McLoughlin at Fort Vancouver, on the Columbia River. Americans were also arriving: Mountain men such as Jedediah S. Smith rivaled the trappers of Hudson’s Bay Company in the southeast of the region. In 1829, Hall J. Kelley founded the American Society for the Settlement of Oregon Territory. One of his followers, Nathaniel J. Wyeth, attempted to establish a permanent post on the Columbia River.

Missionaries added their numbers to the fur trappers and traders, especially after Marcus Whitman arrived in the region in 1836. The missionaries awakened American interest in the region. Two years after Whitman, the first Roman Catholic missionaries, François N. Blanchet and Modeste Demers, arrived, and others followed.

The 1840’s saw the advent of the “Great Migration” of Americans moving steadily westward in covered wagons across the Great Plains. In 1842 and 1843 enormous wagon trains braved American Indian attacks and hardship to cross the prairies and mountain chains of the Oregon Trail. Friction soon arose between Americans and British. It had not been so long, after all, since Britain had attempted to undo the results of the American Revolution in the War of 1812. American leaders such as Jesse Applegate advocated establishment of an American government in the area. Thus, in 1843 about one hundred settlers, missionaries, and retired fur traders met at Champoeg and created an Oregon provisional government, modeled on American lines, despite objections by the British-oriented among them.

Conflict with Native Americans and Statehood

The national spirit of the young American republic was now sufficiently stirred to demand removal of British authority in its entirely from the area. The 1844 election slogan Fifty-four Forty or Fight expressed American demands for ousting the British up to that latitude. Fighting proved unnecessary, however, since in 1846 the two nations agreed on borders dividing the Oregon Country.

The next year, the slaughter by American Indians of Marcus Whitman and thirteen others near present-day Walla Walla, Washington, brought demands for protection. The massacre led to the Cayuse War of 1847-1848 and the execution in 1850 of five Indians found guilty of its perpetration. Demands for protection from Indians also led to the establishment of Oregon Territory. The Territory embraced far more than the present state but was reduced in 1853 with the creation of a separate Washington Territory. Finally, in 1859 Oregon became the nation’s thirty-third state.

The discovery of gold in Oregon’s southwest led to fighting with the Rogue Indians, who resisted abuse at the hands of miners. Conflict with Indians often arose on account of settlers’ abuse or Native American resistance to their forcible removal to reservations, as occurred with the Medoc tribe in the early 1870’s.

Economic Development

The period from 1850 to 1880 was marked by Indian wars. Nevertheless, Oregon’s economy was developing. The California gold rush brought thousands of people to nearby Oregon. Discovery of gold in Oregon had a similar effect.

In 1867-1868 a bumper wheat crop made it possible to ship grain to England, beginning a large wheat export industry in the state. The most important stimulus came later in the century, however, with the arrival of the transcontinental railroad. Under the direction of Henry Villard, the North Pacific Railroad was completed in the 1880’s, bringing with it new trade and the onset of manufacturing. The lumber industry was already important to the state’s economy, much of the timber being shipped overseas. Australian newspapers of the period invariably carried advertisements for Oregon lumber. With the arrival of the transcontinental railroad from the east however, wood could be shipped throughout the United States, and for a time timber dominated the state’s economy. The railroad was also extended to California, facilitating transport of Oregon goods to the growing state to the south.

Political Developments

After 1900, with the state’s growing prosperity, Oregon’s politics tended to conservatism. This conservatism, however, has long been punctuated with a pronounced streak of reformism and a taste for grassroots democracy. The latter is illustrated by a series of measures enacted early in the century, designed to ensure the influence of popular will over government. In 1902 the initiative and referendum were adopted. The former gave the right of citizens to propose laws to be voted upon in general elections. The referendum secured the electorate’s right to reject certain laws passed by the state legislature. In 1904 direct primary elections were instituted. These empowered the electorate at the expense of political party organizations, since candidates for office at general elections were to be chosen directly by the electorate at “primary” elections. In 1908 the state adopted the “recall” election, whereby office holders can be voted from office in special elections. Finally, in 1912, woman suffrage was adopted, after a long and difficult struggle led by Abigail Jane Scott Duniway.

Depression and War

Oregon’s twentieth century economic and social life saw continued emigration from the East. Electric power and irrigation projects propelled agriculture and manufacturing to the fore. The Great Depression of the 1930’s dramatically increased the role of the federal government in economic affairs. Federal law allowed the lumber industry to set production quotas and prices. Farmers were paid to lower crop production. The federal government also completed the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River in 1938, bringing important economic benefits as well as flood control to the region.

After the economic hardships of the 1930’s, World War II saw a tremendous lift to the state’s manufacturing industries. The war brought the state an aluminum industry and revitalized Portland’s shipbuilding industry. The city also became an important port for shipping war material to U.S. forces and the Soviet Union. Thousands of workers migrated from the East to work in wartime industries, and many stayed after the war. The federal government built and operated an entire city in the Portland-Vancouver, Washington, area to house the huge influx of wartime workers. The city was not well situated, however, and was washed away in the great Columbia River floods of 1948.

Postwar Developments

Growing prosperity punctuated by a thriving tourist industry marked the postwar era. Visitors flocked to see the state’s scenic wonders, including Crater Lake National Park. Cheap hydroelectric power became more plentiful from a series of federally funded dams, such as The Dalles and McNary projects on the Columbia River. By 1956 natural gas became available, adding to the energy supply. Mechanization and diversification of products aided the state’s farms and agricultural industries. In the 1960’s, forest products also became more diversified, as new uses were found for previously discarded refuse.

The postwar state’s population also became predominantly urban. In 1880 only 15 percent lived in towns. In 1910, the figure was 44 percent, but by 1993, 62 percent of the population lived in incorporated cities and towns. These demographic changes were reflected in the state’s politics. The state’s early history was marked by domination of the Republican Party. With the urbanization of the 1950’s and 1960’s and the influx of migrants from other parts of the country, the pattern was reversed and a majority of voters were Democrats. From the 1970’s to the end of the 1990’s reformist politics were prominent. Oregonians, however, showed themselves independent minded, repeatedly electing Independent Wayne Morse, an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, for U.S. Senate. Indicative of this spirit was Oregon’s passage of the nation’s first “bottle law,” requiring deposits on disposable bottles and cans. The state’s centurylong tradition of conservation continued, and in 1998, the nation’s first “right to die” law, which passed as an initiative in 1994, went into effect.

Categories: History