Studying Oregon's History IV
Bill Long 7/22/06
From the Whitman Massacre to Early Oregon Law
The Oregon History Project ("OHP") web site is helpful in giving the students access into the religious world of the Oregon missions (1830s and 1840s), even though little mention is made of the Methodists in Salem and the issues dividing Protestant and Catholic (beyond the purely theological). It also gives helpful information on one of the early texts interpreting the Whitman Massacre/Tragedy. This and the next essays will take us from the "tragedy at the Whitman Mission" to the development of early Oregon law, with one detour. Surprising it is to me, however, that I found on the OHP site no reference to secondary work on the historiography of the Whitman Tragedy/Massacre or the many helpful links to understanding the event. One is here and the National Park Service link is here. In addition, the 1993 book Juggernaut, on the 1850 trial and hanging of five Cayuse involved in the massacre (by Northwestern School of Law--Lewis & Clark professor Ron Lansing) is an engaging tale of early Oregon law. The Whitman Massacre/Tragedy could be studied from so many different and helpful angles: (1) the role of Protestant religious societies and evangelization in the 19th century; (2) the practice of medicine in the 19th century; (3) cultural clash and accommodation with Native peoples or between Protestant and Catholic; (4) historiography*; (5) early development of law in the Oregon Territory; (6) relations between the Mission and the Oregon Trail travelers, beginning in 1843. A contemporary (i.e., 2006) retelling of the story of the relationship between the Whitman Mission and the Cayuse over 11 years (1836-47) could serve as a helpful backdrop for us to understand the promise and perils of intercultural understanding in our day. For those who love details, as well as overarching theory, the Whitman Massacre/Tragedy is ready-made for them.
[* A recent article, "The Whitman Massacre: Religion and Manifest Destiny on the Columbia Plateau, 1809-1858," by Cameron Addis, in Journal of the Early Republic, 25 (2005), 221-258, goes reviews the historiography of the Massacre in more detail.]
Moving to Early Oregon Law
I was tempted to pursue the link on "As Thick As Mosquitoes in This Part of the World," telling about the Oregon Trail, but I was disappointed that I didn't find many facts, diaries, or maps of the trail on that link. Unless I have missed something, this is an oversight in the Project. So, I went to the next topic, entitled "A New Legal Landscape." There are so many directions the OHP page could have pursued, but it focused on one, which is a good one--the meeting establishing the Provisional Government of Oregon in May 1843 at Champoeg. Thus, instead of pursuing events forward from the time of the Massacre, such as Oregon becoming a Territory in 1848, the setting up of a Territorial Government in 1849, the Whitman Massacre trial in 1850, the Oregon Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, the surveying of the Willamette Valley beginning in 1851 and the first survey maps in 1852, we will return to the earlier 1840s to understand the formation of government. Because the minutes to that meeting are handwritten, we also are introduced to another reality of studying history of the "pre-typewriter" era: trying to decipher handwriting.
Here is the page which describes the precursors to the May 2, 1843 meeting of settlers at Champoeg. Tension between Protestant (mostly members of the Methodist Mission in Salem and Oregon City) and Catholic (mostly retired trapper or employees of the Hudson's Bay Company--usually French Catholic) had been brewing for several years, though the page doesn't give an explanation for it. It was probably motivated by the realization among the Catholics that sooner or later the United States (at that time a Protestant country) was going to place its stamp on the region, and that they ought to delay the coming of a formal government as long as possible. The page doesn't tell us on what basis men gathered at Champoeg on May 2--could any man from the surrounding area who wanted to participate do so? Who were the guiding forces behind the effort to set up this government?
The Champoeg Meeting--May 2, 1843
If the Whitman Massacre has faded from historical consciousness not only of US History but also for Pacific NW history, the Champoeg meeting in May 1843 still maintains a tenuous but strong grip over historians and students of Oregon history. It is memorialized in murals at the Oregon State Capitol building, and the names of men who formed the Provisional Government ring the House Chamber of that building. Let's turn now to the three-page handwritten account, accessible from the "minutes" link of this page, of that meeting which set up the Provisional Government of Oregon.
The handwriting of Secretary George W. LeBreton is orderly and fairly easy to read, though it lacks the sort of "standardization" which one might have expected from such a secretary. But when did penmanship become "standardized?" Another question that students might want to pursue.. It is entitled "Public Meeting At Champooick. May 2d, 1843." Note the spelling of the place. When did that become standardized to "Champoeg"? LeBreton informs us that this meeting was held in accordance with the call of the committee chosen at an earlier meeting (one of the "Wolf" meetings in the Winter/early Spring 1843), and the purpose was to organize themselves into a civil community primarily with issues of security, law and order in view.
LeBreton then informs us that after Dr. Ira Babcock was chosen Chairman (he had been appointed as judge with probate powers in 1841 after Ewing Young had died intestate) the committee, which I suppose was the committee authorized to call this meeting, gave its "report." No mention was made of what this report consisted of, but a motion to accept the report was "lost," i.e., defeated.
Let's look further, in the next essay, into this handwritten account of the May 2 meeting. We will end with LeBreton's words after the motion to accept the report was "lost."
"Considerable confusing existing in consequence...." Could capture the nature of life in 2006...
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long