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The First Oregon Settlers

In the first four decades following the Revolutionary War, the American frontier crept steadily westward across the continent, to the Mississippi River and beyond, reaching the western part of Missouri and eastern Iowa by the 1830s.

There, Manifest Destiny paused for a time. After all, further west lay the Great Plains, a sere and desolate wasteland, and beyond that were the Rockies. Although Lewis and Clark had followed an overland route to the Oregon coast in 1805, their experience was an epic adventure beyond the resources of the typical frontier settler. For thirty years after Lewis and Clark, no settlers braved the dangers of the Far West.

Religion provided the initial catalyst for settlement in Oregon. In 1831 a small group of northwestern Indians, curious about the white man’s country, traveled to St. Louis for a visit with William Clark, then serving as U.S. Superintendent of Indian Affairs. A story began to circulate that the Indians, while in St. Louis, had requested that the white man’s “Book of Heaven,” as well as some suitable instructors, be sent back to their homeland in the Northwest. Soon, many devout Christians began planning missionary journeys to Oregon.

One of the first was 30-year-old Methodist pastor and schoolteacher Jason Lee, who traveled overland with some fur traders to establish a mission in the Willamette Valley. Another early missionary was physician Marcus Whitman, who became famous for successfully removing an arrowhead from mountain man Jim Bridger’s back. Whitman and his wife Narcissa, along with a group of fellow Presbyterians including missionaries Henry and Eliza Spalding, traveled west to plant a mission near present-day Walla Walla, Washington. Narcissa and Elizabeth became the first white women to cross the Rockies; their letters home helped to popularize the overland journey to Oregon as a practical, accessible family project.

At that time, under an agreement reached in 1818, the vast, amorphous Oregon Country was being held in “joint occupancy” by both Britain and the United States. This arrangement worked well only as long as the region was largely unoccupied. But as soon as settlers began pouring in, Oregon’s ownership became an issue. In the fall of 1838, Jason Lee made a speaking tour of the East, bringing tales of a Columbia River teeming with salmon. Inspired by his powerful lectures, a group of seventeen men from Peoria, Illinois decided to head west for the specific purpose of wresting Oregon away from the British.

Calling themselves the Oregon Dragoons, the group elected as their leader lawyer Thomas J. Farnham. Bearing a banner with the legend, “Oregon or the Grave,” the group set out in May, 1839. They planned to follow the famous northern fur-trading route, later known as the Oregon Trail, which combined directness with relative ease of travel.

However, the journey did not prove an easy one. The group, which became known as the Peoria Party, spent three stressful weeks of travel just to reach Independence, Missouri. While there, Farnham changed his mind and decided to follow the more southerly Santa Fe trail instead. Unprepared for the prairie’s terrifying weather phenomena, the group struggled miserably. Food supplies ran short; three members of the group quit and returned home.

Squabbling within the group became increasingly intense; during a heated quarrel, one man was accidentally shot in the side and badly injured. This forced the group to make even slower progress. Then the group voted to depose Farnham as leader and elected another man. Sioux raiders stole two of their horses. Three more members quit the group.

In Bent’s Fort, Colorado, the strife among the Peorians reached a crisis. The wounded man, another man, and former leader Farnham were all voted out of the group. Two other men decided to join Farnham’s faction, and the two separate groups set out separately for Oregon. Finally, both groups splintered further into ones and twos.

Nine of the original seventeen eventually reached Oregon. Far from being conquerors, the men, worn thin and ragged by their trials, arrived merely as settlers. Their experiences hardly seemed to bode well for American migration to Oregon. Yet by the time Farnham and the others finally arrived in Oregon, at least ten different towns back east had already formed “Oregon Societies” for the purpose of settling the region.

(Woodworth 57-62)

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Abolitionism and Evangelical Christianity

The Abolitionist movement began in Britain, where evangelical Christians like William Wilberforce succeeded in ending slavery by 1833. The idea migrated to America with religious groups such as the Quakers and the Methodists. But Abolitionism would prove more problematic in the U.S., with its millions of slaves throughout the southern states, than in the British Empire, where slavery mostly existed in far-flung colonies.

In the 18th century, most Americans, North and South, believed that slavery was basically an evil, although regrettably a necessary one. But by the 1820s and 30s the cotton gin, the amazing profits to be made from cotton, and the correspondingly high price of slaves had effected a change in attitudes. Slavery was increasingly being promoted in the South as a positive good, something that needed to be expanded. A number of states passed laws making manumission illegal. Southerners became hostile to any criticism of slavery.

The earliest anti-slavery organizations in the U.S. advocated the resettlement of African-Americans to Africa. Groups like the American Colonization Society believed that slaveholders would willingly let their slaves go if they knew that upon their emancipation the freedmen would immediately leave the country. But this supposedly painless option never materialized; only a few free African Americans migrated to Liberia, and the Society never freed a single slave.

Abolitionists found the deportation idea offensively tame. They called for an immediate, uncompensated termination of slavery. Most Abolitionists were evangelical Christians, to whom slavery was a blatant violation of God’s command to love one’s neighbor, a sin that must be completely renounced.

Churches were enormously important institutions in the early 19th century. The American Methodist Episcopal denomination had more than one million members, with regular church attenders numbering two to three times that many. On any given Sunday, one in five Americans was sitting in a Methodist church! The Methodist church had always been strongly anti-slavery, and in 1800 the General Conference required conferences in slave states to petition their legislatures for abolition.

But mainstream Americans considered abolition a dangerously radical idea. It was frightening, not so much because of the financial loss it would cause, which was considerable, but because the specter of a lot of freed slaves suddenly living among whites on a basis of equality was too shocking to comprehend.

In the 1820s and 30s, Abolitionists were a radical minority; even in the North, abolitionist orators were often the targets of mob action. Southern leaders threatened to lynch any northerner found carrying Abolitionist literature. Southern congressmen succeeded in banning Abolitionist materials from the U.S. Mail. In 1836, proslavery congressmen passed a “Gag Rule” – no petition about slavery would be read or debated. A similar rule was passed in the Senate.

But the harder proslavery forces worked to suppress Abolition, the more northerners joined the cause. Americans who were not at first interested in slavery were stirred by Congress’s blatant infringement of their time-honored right of petition. Suddenly, antislavery petitions began flooding the Capitol, and a small group of sympathetic congressmen, including John Quincy Adams, fought to get them read. And it seemed that every time a southern mob attacked an Abolitionist, more and more complacent northerners were awakened to the tyranny of slavery.

To many northerners, the final straw was Article IV, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution: the Fugitive Slave Law. This law meant that slave states could override the rights of free states by retrieving escaped slaves from states were slavery did not exist. This was an intolerable violation of states’ rights.

For many citizens, the Fugitive Slave Law was asking them to place human law above divine law. Church congregations and abolitionist groups all over the North passed resolutions declaring that human laws contrary to divine law were not binding. By 1848, seven northern states had passed personal liberty laws, declaring that no state personnel or facilities could be used for retrieving runaway slaves. If the federal government insisted on dragging people into slavery, it would have to attend to the matter itself.

Meanwhile, more and more northerners were becoming involved in aiding fugitive slaves, and many colleges, seminaries and other Christian institutions became stations on the Underground Railroad.

But Methodism, facing constant pressure from its southern congregations, dropped the ball. National Methodist leadership began to assert that slavery was a social evil, rather than an individual one. Therefore, slaveholders would not be barred from church membership. The rapid influx of unrepentant slaveholders irreparably weakened the denomination’s stance on slavery. By the 1820s Methodist periodicals were urging church members not to be “judgmental” against slavery. In 1836 the General Conference, as always more interested in stability than in religious zeal, announced that the Methodist Church would henceforth refrain from discussing the disturbing subject of slavery.

This did not reflect majority sentiment in Methodist pews and pulpits in the North. Seven of every eight Abolitionists were evangelical Christians, and most were Methodists. Dissatisfaction with denominational acquiescence on slavery inspired about 15,000 Methodists to splinter off and form a new antislavery denomination, the Wesleyans, in 1843. Then in 1844, following a scandal concerning a slave-owning bishop, outraged southerners left to form their own strongly proslavery denomination, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.

Similar splits occurred within the Baptist and Presbyterian denominations. These various schisms in the 1840s reflected the beginnings of a major rift within the nation as a whole. For the average American, religious matters were much more important day-to-day than the doings of Congress. By polarizing along strictly North-South lines, the denominations succeeded where politics had failed: now, to the average American, the country was beginning to seem divided in two.

(Woodworth 40-54)

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