American History and Genealogy Project

Oregon Territory

The Oregon Territory consists of a large extent of country lying between the Rocky Mountain and the Pacific Ocean and drained by the Columbia River and its tributaries. The boundaries of this country are not entirely settled. The natural boundaries of this territory are, on the east, the Rocky Mountains, extending about 900 miles from the 41° to the 54° n. lat.; on the south, the Snowy Mountains, extending from the Rocky mountains to Cape Mendocino, on the Pacific, in 40° N. lat.; on the west, the Pacific ocean, about 500 miles due n. to Cape Flattery, at the entrance of the Strait of Fuca, about lat. n. 48°; and on the north, by a line extending from Cape Flattery about 120 miles n. e., and thence a line along the highlands separating the waters of the Columbia from those of Frazer's River, to the Rocky mountains. The country thus described contains about 350,000 square miles. The United States claim the country from the 42° to the 54° of N. lat.; while the British urge their claim to the country, as far south as the Columbia River; and both parties occupy the country.

The territory drained by the Columbia presents a constant succession of mountain ridges and valleys, or plains of small extent. The principal ridges are two in number, besides the Rocky Mountains, running nearly parallel to each other and to the coast; and the country is thus divided into three great regions, which differ materially in climate, soil, and productiveness. The first region, or low country, is that between the coast and the chain of mountains nearest to the sea; the second region is between the mountains nearest the sea and the middle ridge, called the Blue Mountains; and the third region or high country, is between the Blue mountains and the Rooky mountains. All these divisions are crossed by the Columbia, the main stream of which is formed in the middle region, by the union of several branches flowing from the Rocky Mountains and receiving in their course supplies from innumerable smaller tributaries, draining the intermediate countries.

The distance from the coast to the nearest chain is, in some places, 100 miles; in others much less. The intervening country is crossed in various directions by low ridges connected with the principal chain, some of them parallel to it, and others stretching toward the ocean. From this region the Willamette River conies more than 200 miles, in a direction nearly due n., and enters the Columbia on its s. side. The valley through which it passes is said to be the most delightful and fertile in Northwestern America. The climate of the region between the ocean and the first range, though not unhealthy, is not very favorable to agriculture. The summer is warm and dry. From April to October, while the westerly winds prevail, rain seldom falls in any part of Oregon: during the other months, when the south wind blows constantly, the rains are almost incessant in the lower region, though sometimes the dry season continues there longer. Further from the Pacific, the rains are less frequent and abundant; and near the Rocky Mountains they are reduced to a few showers in the spring. In the valleys of the low country snow is rarely seen, and the ground is so little frozen that ploughing may generally be done during the whole winter. Most of the productions of the northern states, excepting Indian corn, succeed tolerably well. Horses and neat cattle will subsist without fodder through the winter. The second bottoms of the rivers, being above inundation, are extremely fertile, and prairies are considerably numerous and extensive. The forests on the uplands, although the soil is tolerably good, abound with such enormous trees, as almost to defy cultivation. A fir tree growing near Astoria, on the Columbia, 8 miles from the sea, was 46 feet in circumference 10 feet from the ground, and 153 feet in length before giving off a single branch, and not less than 300 feet in its whole height. Another tree of the same species, on the banks of the Umpqua, was 57 feet in circumference, and 216 feet in length below its branches; and sound pines from 200 to 280 feet in height, and from 20 to 40 feet in circumference, are not uncommon.

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The middle region of Oregon, between the mountains nearest the coast and the Blue mountains in the east, is more elevated and dry, and less fertile than the low country. It consists chiefly of plains, between ridges of mountains, the soil of which is generally a yellow sandy clay, covered with grass, small shrubs, and prickly pears. Timber is very scarce; the trees are of soft and useless woods, such as cottonwood, sumac, and willow, which are found only in the neighborhood of streams.

The climate is salubrious, the air is dry in summer, the days warm, and the nights cool. The am begins later and ends sooner than in the lower country. This country is poorly adapted to cultivation, but is well suited to grazing, the grass being abundant in a green or dry state through the year. Horses are here reared in abundance by the Indians, some of whom own hundreds of them. The Blue Mountains on the e. of this region extend through the whole territory of the Columbia, though frequently broken into several ridges. These mountains are steep, with a volcanic appearance, and their highest peaks are covered with perpetual snow.

The third and last division of Oregon lies between the Blue Mountains on the w., and the Rocky Mountains on the e. The southern part of this region is a desert of steep rocky mountains, deep arrow valleys, and wide plains covered with sand and gravel. There is little snow in the valleys in the winter, but much on the mountains. It rarely rains, and no dew falls. The difference between the temperature at sunrise and at noon in summer, is often 40 degrees. The Columbia is the great river of this territory. The northern branch, which retains the name f the principal stream, rises in the Rocky Mountains, in about 54° of N. lat., and pursues a southern course to lat. 52°, where it is joined by two other streams, one coming from the s. along le base of the Rocky Mountains, and the other rising in a gorge of that chain in lat. 53°, its heading a small lake, which is within a few feet of another, whence the waters run into the Athabasca, one of the branches of McKenzie's River, which flows to the Arctic ocean. Two hundred miles south of the junction, the Columbia receives McGillivray's River, and a little lower down Clark's River, which, at the place of union, is nearly as large as the Columbia. The sources of Clark's River are near those of the Missouri, and the intervening ridge is not very high, allowing of an easy pass across the mountains. In its course, Clark's River spreads out into a lake, 35 miles long and 5 or 6 broad, situated in a rich valley, surrounded by snow-clad mountains of great elevation. Just before the passage of the Columbia through the Blue Mountains, Clark's river enters it and just above its entrance are the Kettle falls in Clark's River. Thence the Columbia flows w. 30 miles to its junction with the Okannagan, a large stream from the n. In lat. 46° 8' the Columbia is joined by Lewis River, its great southern branch. It rises in an angle formed by the junction f Rocky and Snowy Mountains, between the 42° and 44° of n. lat., near the sources of the Colorado, the Platte, the Yellow Stone, and the Missouri rivers. It thence flows along the foot of the Snowy mts. to the Blue mts., through one ridge of which it passes near the 43° of lat., having there the Salmon or Fishing falls. It then runs n. w. to its junction with the Columbia, having received several small rivers in its course, the largest of which are Wapticacos and Salmon Rivers from the. The Columbia, just below the junction of its 2 great branches, receives the Walla Walla Falls, and other rivers from the south, and then passes the range of mountains nearest the Pacific, in lat. 46°. Below the mouth of the Walla Walla and before passing the mountains, the Columbia has rapids, impassable at low water, but passable at high water, both up and down. Five miles below them are the Dalles, or narrows, where the river rushes through a space not more than 150 feet wide, walled in by basaltic columns on both sides; and 36 miles lower down are the Cascades, which are falls impassable at all times. The tide comes up to the foot of the Cascades, and the navigation is good for vessels not drawing more than 14 feet water, to this point, which is 125 miles from the ocean. The Multnomah or Willamette enters the Columbia from the s., about 20 miles below Fort Vancouver, and is navigable 25 miles to the falls. From thence the Columbia proceeds 90 miles in a northwesterly course to its entrance into the Pacific Ocean.

One of the most striking features in this territory are the passes through that immense barrier, the Rocky mountains, which are in general a continuous chain; and which are found, near the N. sources of the Columbia, to contain peaks 15 or 16,000 feet in height; and some N., which are thought to be much higher, and are probably the highest mountains in North America.

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"It appears that the points of departure, on the eastern side of the mountains, within the jurisdiction of the United States, of all the passes across, are situated in the vicinity of the Black hills, and between the 43d and 45th parallels of latitude; and that among these passes across the mountains, there is one, and probably but one, sufficiently gradual in its ascents and descents, and sufficiently open, to admit of the passage of wheel carriages, and, consequently, of the ready construction of a convenient and good road. This pass goes through an opening in the Black hills, at about 44° 30' n. lat., and, keeping between these hills and 'Big Horn mountain,' it crosses the tributaries of the Yellow Stone from the s., and finally the Yellow Stone itself. It then crosses the Missouri, or rather the three forks of that r., a short distance above their junction; from whence it pursues a south west wardly direction, until arriving at the head waters of 'Bitter Root' r.; thence down the valley of this r. to its junction with the 'Salmon, or Lewis's r.; and thence down the valley of this last r. to its junction with the Columbia. From these facts, then, the vicinity of the Black hills has to be attained, in order to cross the Rocky Mountains from there.; and the best passage of these mountains, at present known, is the one just described. This vicinity is about 650 miles in a northwestwardly course from the position of Council Bluffs. But, from Council Bluffs, the course of the Missouri, by the latest and most authentic observations, is also northwestwardly, and for about 300 miles, nearly parallel to the direction from the Bluffs to the Black hills. The Missouri, therefore, would afford water transportation for about 300 miles of this route." Report of the Sec. of War, 1842.

There are many lakes in this country, some of which discharge their waters into the sources of the Columbia, and some, having no outlet, are salt.

The principal harbor is formed by the Columbia r., which, between Cape Disappointment or Hancock and Point Adams at its mouth, is 7 miles wide From each of these points, a sand-bar runs into the water, and the waves of the Pacific, meeting the current of the Columbia with great violence, produce a line of breakers, which renders the navigation hazardous, when the wind is at all high. The bar at its mouth is 5 miles across, and the channel, in one place, only half a mile wide, with a depth of from 4½ to 8 fathoms.

The rise and fall of the tides at the mouth of the Columbia is about 8 feet, gradually diminishing until you come to the mouth of the Willamette, where little or no difference in the tides is perceptible. At present, or until the channel is buoyed out, and a light-house erected on Cape Disappointment, it is unsafe for vessels of a greater draught of water than from 10 to 12 feet to attempt entering the Columbia between the months of November and April, on account of the prevalent westerly winds, which make heavy breakers on the bar.

The inhabitants of this region consist of several Indian tribes, amounting in the whole to from 40 to 60 thousand; and establishments formed by the British Hudson's Bay Company for trading with the Indians; together with a few missionary establishments from the United States. "The colony from the United States is situated on the Willamette, a branch of the Columbia, about ninety miles from the mouth of the river, which is undoubtedly the finest grazing and wheat country in Oregon. At present (1841) it consists of about seventy families, who raise considerable grain, and have about three thousand head of cattle. The mission last year raised one thousand bushels of wheat, and made butter, cheese, &c, enough for their own use. They have five hundred head of cattle and two hundred horses; and last year they sowed four hundred bushels of wheat, one hundred and twenty bushels of peas, and planted a large quantity of potatoes and vegetables of all descriptions. They have hogs, poultry, &c, in abundance. Last year they raised over fifteen hundred bushels of potatoes. The extent of the country comprising the Willamette valley is about three hundred miles long and two hundred broad, interspersed with ravines of wood generally of sufficient quantities for fuel and fencing. The land, in its natural state, is usually ready for the plough, and is very fertile, producing from twenty-five to forty bushels of wheat to the acre; and the climate is so mild that the cattle subsist in the fields without fodder or shelter of any kind being prepared or provided for them through the winter. Salmon can be taken at Willamette falls, with little trouble, from May to September, in almost any quantity."

Fort Vancouver, on the north bank of the Columbia, 90 miles from the ocean, is the principal seat of the British fur trade. It has an enclosure 37 rods long and 18 wide, strongly stockaded, within which are 8 substantial buildings, and many smaller ones. This place has a considerable farming establishment. There are large fertile prairies, which they occupy for tillage and pasture; and forests for fencing materials, and other purposes. In the year 1835, there were at this post 450 neat cattle; 100 horses; 200 sheep; 40 goats, and 300 hogs. They have a garden of 5 acres, abounding with esculent vegetables; with fruits, such as peaches, apples, grapes, strawberries: and some exotics, as figs, oranges, and lemons; and various ornamental plants and flowers. There is a flour mill worked by ox power, and a saw mill, from which boards are sent, even to the Sandwich Islands. There is a school here for the children of the establishment. There are shops for blacksmiths, joiners, carpenters, and a tinner. Fort George, or Astoria, is 8 miles from the mouth of the Columbia; has two buildings, and a garden of 2 acres. Fort Walla Walla is on the s. side

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of the Columbia, 10 miles below the entrance of Lewis River. On the Willamette River, 55 miles above its entrance into the Columbia, is McKey's settlement, and 12 miles above is Jarvis' settlement, which contain about 20 families. They consist mostly of the retiring servants of the Hudson's Bay Company, with their half-breed families, and a few Americans. Fort Colvin is on the s. side of Clark's River, below the Kettle falls, just before it enters the Columbia. Here is a considerable farming establishment. Fort Okannagan is at the entrance into the Columbia of the river of that name, 100 miles below Clark's river. The Hudson's Bay Company have also several other trading posts in this territory. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions have seven stations viz. : 1st. Astoria; 2d. Multnomah, or Willamette. The 3d. station is on the Columbia r., 140 ms. from its mouth: the river is navigable for large vessels up to this place; above this it becomes rapid and rocky. 4th. Puget Sound. Here is a fine harbor, which will one day render it an important position, in a commercial point of view: it is on the coast, 140 miles n. of Columbia r. 5th. On the Willamette, 40 miles above its junction with the Columbia. There is a fall in the Willamette at this point, supplying great water power: small craft can ascend to this place. 6th. Clatsop, a new station, near the mouth of the Columbia. 7th. On the Umpqua r., which empties into the Pacific some 200 miles s. of the Columbia.

On the 7th of May, 1792, Captain Robert Gray, in the ship Columbia, of Boston, discovered and entered the Columbia River; to which he gave the name of his vessel. He was the first person that established the fact of the existence of this great river, and this gives to the United States the right of discovery. In 1804-5, captains Lewis and Clark, under the direction of the government of the United States, explored the country from the mouth of the Missouri to the mouth of the Columbia; and spent the winter of 1805-6 at the mouth of the Columbia. This exploration of the River Columbia, the first ever made, constitutes another ground of the claim of the United States to the country. In 1803, the Missouri Fur Company at St. Louis, established a trading post beyond the Rocky Mountains, on the head waters of Lewis River, the first ever formed on any of the waters of the Columbia. In 1810, the Pacific Fur Company under John Jacob Astor, of New York, was formed; and in 1811, they founded Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia, as their principal trading post, and proceeded to establish others in the interior. A little later in the same year, the North West Company sent a detachment to form establishments on the Columbia; but when they arrived at the mouth of the river, they found the post occupied. In consequence of the exposure of Astoria by the war of 1813, the post was sold out to the North West Company. At the close of the war Astoria was restored, by order of the British government, to its original founders, agreeably to the first article of the Treaty of Ghent. Various attempts have been made since the war to renew the fur trade in Oregon. In 1821, the Hudson's Bay and North West Company, who had previously been rivals, were united, and since that time have greatly extended their establishments in the region of Oregon. The British and American governments have not yet been able to settle by negotiation their conflicting claims to the country. By the treaty for the purchase of Florida, in 1819, the boundary between the Spanish possessions and the United States was fixed in the n. w., at the 42° of n. lat., and the U. S. succeeded to all the title to Oregon which Spain had by right of discovery. At present, the subjects of Great Britain and of the United States exercise equally the right to occupy this country, and navigate its rivers for the purposes of trade, until each subject is disposed of by negotiation. In the mean time, the great capital, and the complete organization of the Hudson's Bay Company, enable them to reap nearly all the advantages of the fur trade in the Territory of Oregon.

Table of Contents

Source: A Complete Descriptive And Statistical Gazetteer Of The United States Of America, By Daniel Haskel, A. M and J. Calvin Smith, Published By Sherman & Smith, 1843

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