Oregon City and the Trail

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History


Near the mouth of the Clackamas River, there once stood an old, moss-covered, seemingly dilapidated house 300 feet long. In it lived the entire Clackamas Indian tribe. The Indians along this portion of the Wal-lamt, or Willamette, River were hosts to the hundreds of migrating Molallas, Calapooyas, Multnomahs, Teninos, and Chinooks who came each year to catch salmon at Hyas Tyee Tumwater — what white men named Willamette Falls. The Indians’ permanent marks can still be seen in petroglyphs at the base of the falls on Black Point.

The first white man to take an interest in the Willamette Falls area was Alexander Ross of the North West Company in 1815, who recognized that the falls could supply reliable, year-round power to mills along the river banks. In 1829, John McLoughlin established a land claim at Willamette Falls in the name of the Hudson’s Bay Company and began to encourage former trappers to settle nearby. McLoughlin would later buy out the HBC’s interest, putting the claim in his own name before retiring. Next were the Methodists in 1840, when the Reverend Alvin Waller established a mission and started building a church. The Methodists and McLoughlin would be at odds for a dozen years, driven more by strength of personality than by the soon mooted battle for political supremacy in Oregon City.

Nez Perce National Historic Trail

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History

In 1877, the Wallowa Band Nez Perce, under the leadership of the brothers Joseph and Ollokot, joined four other tribal groups traveling from their traditional homeland in the Wallowa Valley to the Nez Perce reservation in Idaho Territory. At Tolo Lake (Idaho), several young warriors (who were not members of the Wallowa Band) avenged the death of tribal members by killing four white men. Fearing retaliation from the military, the not-treaty Nez Perce, joined by bands of the Palouse, left for White Bird Canyon — and the cavalry followed. Thus began the flight of Joseph, Ollokot, and the non-treaty Nez Perce; a journey that would capture the imagination of the nation.

About 800 people, herding more than 2000 horses and carrying whatever possessions they could manage, embarked on a circuitous 1,100 mile route through four states. They made this trek in less than four months, fleeing from the U.S. Army which was under orders to place them on a reservation in western Idaho Territory. The 250 Nez Perce men fought more than twenty engagements and five major battles against 2000 US soldiers and civilians. Time and again the non-treaty Nez Perce outmaneuvered the military as they tried to reach the Canadian border. The exhausted bands surrendered just forty miles short of its goal. It was there that Chief Joseph reportedly made the speech: “My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” The story of the non-treaty Nez Perces’ flight from their traditional homelands and Chief Joseph’s diplomacy in the years that followed are internationally recognized symbols of Indian skill and resilience.

Beginnings of Self-Government

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History

Oregon came into the American sphere of influence in the 1790s when Captain Gray discovered the mouth of the Columbia River. Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to explore Oregon in 1804, but he saw it possibly developing into a parallel, independent Republic of the Pacific, rather than a part of the United States.

The 1818 Treaty of London, which officially ended the War of 1812 and set the northern border of the Louisiana Territory at the 49th parallel, defined the Oregon Country as from Russian Alaska (54 degrees, 40′ N) to Spanish California (40 degrees N) and from the Pacific Ocean to the crest of the Rocky Mountains. Political control was not vested in either the U.S. or Britain; the area was considered to be under “joint occupation.” The treaty would be automatically extended every ten years (as it was in 1828 and 1838) unless one side gave notice of renegotiation (as the U.S. did in 1846).

Nathaniel Wyeth Route

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History

Nathaniel Wyeth’s two expeditions into this region encompassed many of America’s interests in the Oregon Country. Wyeth’s initial trip in 1832 provided the foundation and experience for the 1834 trip. In 1834, Wyeth and his companions, Jason and Daniel Lee, Thomas Nuttall, and John K. Townsend each sought elements of Oregon that we cherish today. Wyeth dreamed of framing, lumbering, and fishing opportunities. The Lees were fueled by religious missions and perhaps more practically, by the opportunity to build a community. Nuttall and Townsend, renowned naturalists, were compelled by a deep scientific curiosity about the region’s natural history and ecosystems. Wyeth’s route was a precursor to the Oregon Trail route followed by hundreds of thousands beginning just a decade later. Wyeth and his compatriots traveled already established Indian and trapper trails from the Snake River to the Hudson’s Bay Company post at Fort Vancouver.

Life in the Flood Plain

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History

Since its founding, Oregon City has been flooded repeatedly. Oregon’s first elected governor, George Abernethy, was all but wiped out in 1861 when eighteen days of rain caused serious flooding throughout the lower Willamette Valley. Abernethy moved to Portland and started over, but Oregon City’s residents have cleaned up and rebuilt in the wake of seven more major floods since then. The difficulties involved in shoehorning a town into a shelf of rock at the base of a tall, steep bluff have been remarked upon since the 1840s, but the industrial district around Willamette Falls has always been too important to abandon to the vagaries of the river. The riverside area is the “Old Town” of Oregon City, the first part of town to be settled and developed, and it was for many years the seat of local government and culture. The first opera house and Masonic lodge in Oregon were built there, and it was the central business district and trolley terminal for the area until such things fell from favor after the arrival of the automobile.

Downtown Oregon City is also a natural bottleneck for travel up and down the Willamette Valley. In the early years, all roads led to Oregon City because it was the capital of the region. During the 1850s and ’60s, riverboats were the dominant means of transportation in the valley proper. Willamette Falls divided the river in half: the southern, upper portion of the river drained the breadbasket of the Willamette Valley, where the settlers were claiming and farming the clearings left by generations of Indians using fire to control the landscape; and the northern, lower stretch of the river led the last few miles to Portland and the Columbia River, where the produce from the farms of the upper valley was loaded onto ocean-going ships and exchanged for the finished goods headed upstream to supply the growing population. For many years, the portage around the falls was troublesome to passengers and a serious choke point for cargo.

Life and Death on the Oregon Trail

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History

In December of 1847, Loren Hastings was walking the stump-filled, muddy streets of Portland, Oregon, when he chanced upon a friend he had known back in Illinois. Hastings had made the trip on the Oregon Trail unscathed, while his friend had lost his wife. Hastings’ summary of their feelings was eloquent: “I look back upon the long, dangerous and precarious emigrant road with a degree of romance and pleasure; but to others it is the graveyard of their friends.”

The overlanders encountered their first hardship before they even left home, as leaving friends and family behind was difficult. Henry Garrison described his uncle’s parting from Iowa: “When Grandmother learned the next morning that they were then on their way, she kneeled down and prayed that God would guard and protect them on their perilous journey.” She would never see them again.

Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History

In 1804, Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery, under direction from President Thomas Jefferson, set forth on a lengthy expedition into the Western Lands of the continent to survey the resources, to serve as US ambassadors to the native tribes living there, and to locate a waterway that would equal the Mississippi River as a means of transporting goods and products from the interior of North America to worldwide markets.

The successful completion of the Lewis and Clark Expedition strengthened the United States’ possessory claim to the Pacific Northwest and the lands drained by the Columbia River and its tributaries. The journals kept by the explorers provided the initial knowledge of the American West, describing the geography, flora, and fauna of the region and the first recorded contacts with native peoples who lived here.

Land Claims

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History


The single most important impetus for coming to Oregon was the lure of free land. The most important act of new settlers upon arriving in Oregon was to claim a piece of property, and for many years that could only be done in Oregon City.

There had been Americans in Oregon since the early 1810s, when fur trappers first arrived, but there was no real settlement until the 1830s. There simply weren’t enough trappers interested in settling down for them to need an organized system of staking claims. However, with the arrival of missionaries and the first waves of settlers, a need arose for means to secure legal title to their lands.

Klamath Trail

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History

The Oregon Trail is the predominant symbol of American westward expansion in the Nineteenth Century, a period of Manifest Destiny when the nation realized its dream of stretching from ocean to ocean. It demonstrated the feasibility of large-scale movement by wagon across great distances and over the Rocky Mountains, once perceived as an impassable barrier. The Oregon Trail was at the core of the largest and longest mass migration in United States history to that time and provided the means for strengthening American claims on the Pacific Northwest. Of the various western trails used by fur traders, missionaries, gold seekers and emigrants, the Oregon Trail became the most famous.

Jefferson’s Envoys to the West

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History

Early in the spring of 1789, Captain Robert Gray was in Nootka Sound, anchored off the coast of what would later be named Vancouver Island as his men made repairs and waited to go ashore to trade with the natives for sea otter skins, when three Spanish warships arrived. Gray’s two ships were engaged in a round-the-world expedition authorized by President George Washington, but the Spanish authorities suspected that the arrival of the Lady Washington and the Columbia Rediviva was the first step in an effort by the newly United States of America to colonize the Pacific Coast. The Spanish commander grudgingly left the Americans alone and, over the next few weeks, seized three ships in the service of the British trader John Meares. The purpose of the Spanish expedition was to shut down British trade and assert Spain’s claim to the American coast, but its actions brought Spain and England to the brink of war. Captain Gray watched in fascination, correctly supposing that President Washington would be very interested in this “Sea Otter War” between Spain and Britain.