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.