The Oregon Trail, updated

As a history student and native of the South, I’ve spent most of my life immersed in our Peculiar region, the soil in which the blood of Black and White was mixed. The foundation of American capitalism was slavery, and it remains a system of exploitation particularly targeting those not White (Anglo-Saxon Protestant). I’d not focused on Manifest Destiny, an ideology racist as well as nationalistic. Moving to Oregon three years ago opened a new field for me, and I’ve been mulling what’s different and what’s the same west of the 100th longitude.

“The Coming of the White Man,” in Portland’s Washington Park

I am reawakened to the reality of Far West settlement at nearly every civic/political meeting I attend: The convenor notes that we meet on the ancestral lands of the Multnomah, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Chinook, Tualatin Kalapuya, Molalla.

The patterns of Western settlement were different from those in the East, but they arose from its politics. Washington and Jefferson envisioned the spread of the United States to the Pacific. Washington began his military career displacing Indians and claiming personal title to their lands; Jefferson purchased Louisiana though he thought had no constitutional authority to execute it.

I’ve biked western parts of the route Lewis and Clark took from St. Louis to Portland. Other than traversing a few crossroads in my new home state, I’ve not traveled the Oregon Trail, a wagon route established from points on the east side of the Missouri, primarily Independence, now a suburb of Kansas City, to Oregon City, at the fall line of the Willamette, a few miles upstream from my neighborhood. Tomorrow I leave home to drive it, in reverse, a couple hundred miles a day, pausing at undetermined waysides to sleep.

Oregon settlement got underway in 1840, about the time wearing beaver pelts went out of fashion in London. Emigrants, guided by out-of-work fur trappers, stretched the boundary of White America. Their goal was the fertile Willamette Valley (which feeds our household now); its settlement, spontaneous and over time encouraged by federal action, helped convince Britain to retreat from Fort Vancouver (across the Columbia from the mouth of the Willamette) and agree to a U.S. border at the 49th parallel.

Legal settlement in Oregon followed the township system Jefferson helped devise, codified in 1785 under the Articles of Confederation. A township is a six-mile square, divided into 36 sections of one square mile, or 640 acres. In the Oregon Territory, the x and y axes meet at the Willamette Stone, a marker on a mountain west of what is now downtown Portland. After White settlement of Oregon began, the congressional Donation Land Act granted 320 acres of designated areas to unmarried White males and twice that to married couples arriving in the Territory before December 1850. Contemplating that stone, surrounded by forest, is a weird experience. Three thousand miles to the east and decades before, the government decreed that this land could be expropriated in arbitrary squares, regardless of its contemporary occupants, regardless of topography. I try to imagine how a tribal member conceived of “owning” a section.

To clarify what kind of settlement Oregon’s provisional government had in mind, in 1844 it passed its first Black exclusion law, requiring the public whipping of any Black person who sought to reside in the territory. The territorial constitution, approved by voters in 1857, banned both slavery and new Black residents, and made it illegal for Blacks to vote, own real estate, make contracts, or use the legal system. The argument against slavery, articulated by Hinton Rowan Helper in his 1857 tract, The Impending Crisis of the South, was that it hurt the economic prospects of non-slaveholding Whites. Oregon was admitted as a “free” state in 1859. (This is the context for the “Proud Boys,” descendants of the settlers who designed Oregon as a White enclave, in their clash with progressive Portland.)

The Great Migration also set the pattern for the Indian Wars that climaxed with the surrender of Nez Perce Chief Joseph in 1877. Overlanders demanded military protection; many assumed the Tribes had no rights to be respected. Skirmishes between Whites and Indians escalated under a string of army commanders, leading to massacres on both sides. U.S. Army assaults accelerated with the discovery of gold in Montana in 1863; Lincoln wanted that gold to finance the war.

The 1849 gold rush made California the destination for emigrant waves, one of the most transformative developments of the 19th century. Overall, by 1860, about a quarter-million people (of an 1840 population of 17 million) had traveled the trail that fanned to Oregon City (farmers), Sacramento (fortune seekers) and Salt Lake City (Mormons). After the continental railroad was completed in 1869, wagon travel slowed to a trickle. But ruts are still visible along the route, or so I read. I’m about to find out.

It’s not the far side of the moon, but my mind is focused on the challenges the season will pose. Daylight is shrinking, and the wobbling Arctic jet stream has deposited snow on my route. An eastern Idaho Forest Service ranger, working at 6000 feet, told me four inches had fallen on a campground I have in mind. With experience in being snowbound in Oregon mountains, I’m taking my bike and making room for contingencies. The map is the idea.

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3 Responses to The Oregon Trail, updated

  1. Pingback: At South Pass on the Oregon Trail | Transformational Citizenship

  2. George says:

    I so respect your intelligence, erudition, understanding of history, and your drive to push the physical envelope by taking on this trip.


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