John Day Fossil Beds
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Chapter Four:

The decade of the 1840s unleashed forces that forever changed the Pacific Northwest. Within a seven-year period more than 10,000 emigrants traveled westward over the Oregon Trail. Their presence helped tilt the geopolitical direction of the region.

Euro-Americans brought with them an unquenchable thirst for ownership of land, and a determination to tame the landscape in ways inherently in conflict with indigenous cultures. In a series of halting steps, accompanied by much bloodshed throughout the territory, the U.S. Government moved to extinguish native title to the land. From the 1850s through the late 1860s, the Government pushed various tribes of the region to formalize treaties of cession, even as it enacted sweeping programs of land grants of the public domain.

The discovery of rich gold deposits and vast cattle ranges drew Willamette Valley settlers east across the Cascades in the 1860s. Population in the John Day basin swelled during that decade, but moderated thereafter in the face of a semi-arid climate, scant resource base, and difficult access to markets. Subsistence living on lands around the present-day units of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument remained a formidable challenge to settlers well into the twentieth century.

Oregon Fever

In 1846, under the leadership of President James K. Polk, an avowed expansionist, the United States gave notice to Great Britain that it wanted resolution of the question of national sovereignty in the Pacific Northwest. When negotiations were finished, the United States, through the Oregon Treaty of 1846, secured all of the region lying westward from the crest of the Rocky Mountains and south of the 49th Parallel of north latitude. In the stroke of a pen came closure on the operations of the Hudson's Bay Company and major changes for the region's native peoples.

Why did Americans (and others) contract the "Oregon Fever" in the mid-nineteenth century? The causes were multiple. Favorable publicity was one factor. The journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition, especially the two-volume edition of 1814 edited by Nicholas Biddle, were literally read to pieces by Americans hungry to learn about the Far West. Publication of Astoria (1836) and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A., in the Rocky Mountains and the Far West (1837) by Washington Irving captured the attention of a large public. Samuel Parker's Exploring Tour (1838), John Kirk Townsend's Narrative of a Journey Across the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River (1839), Ross Cox's Adventures on the Columbia River (1831), and Gabriel Franchere's Narrative of a Voyage to the Northwest Coast of America (1819, first English edition 1854) — all provided specific information about the abundant fish, vast stands of timber, healthy and moderate climate, and agricultural potentials of the region. The scientific reports of the U.S. Exploring Expedition (Wilkes 1845), its subsequent technical reports and illustrated folios, and the journal narrative and maps of the 1843 John C. Fremont expedition, published in 1845, provided authority for the accounts of others.

"Pull" factors included adventure, the prospect of mounting missions to the Indians, and securing free land in the fabled Willamette Valley. Throughout the decade of the 1840s, Lewis Linn and Thomas Hart Benton, senators from Missouri, sponsored bills proposing up to as much as 1,000 acres of free land to those who emigrated to Oregon. Finally in 1850, Congress passed a Donation Land Act. As subsequently amended, it operated until 1855 and enabled 7,437 claimants to secure 2.5 million acres in Oregon (Johansen 1957: viii). Other "pull" factors were the presence of kinfolk in the West, who wrote letters home describing conditions and opportunities in Oregon and the possibility of the discovery of gold (confirmed with the strike in California in 1848 and a succession of placer and lode rushes in succeeding years) (Unruh 1979).

residents on buckboard
Fig. 8. Residents of upper John Day valley traveling by buckboard, ca. 1900 (OrHi 23, 213)

"Push" factors included escape from fevers and ill health, a respite from years of repeated flooding in the bottomlands along the Missouri, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers, and a break from creditors in the economic downturn which followed the Panic of 1837. Some felt pushed by the rapid settlement of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri. Many were motivated, however, by the possibility of selling out their improved farms for a profit and gaining free land in Oregon to start over again with a much larger base of potential capital (Unruh 1979: 90-117).

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Last Updated: 25-Apr-2002