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From John Fiske — Unpublished Orations: “The Discovery of the Columbia River, and the Whitman Controversy;” The Crispus Attucks Memorial;” and “Columbus Memorial”; The Bibliophile Society; Boston; 1909; pp. 17-62



May 11, 1792.


WE have met here today on a most auspicious occasion, to celebrate the first discovery by white men of the magnificent river upon the bank of which we are assembled. We do well to celebrate that event, for it was an affair of great importance, connecting the past with the future in more ways than one. In a certain sense it may be said to have completed the Discovery of America, just three centuries after that discovery was fairly inaugurated by the first voyage of Columbus across the Sea of Darkness.

While thus closing a wonderful chapter of past history, it played an important part in opening a new chapter for the future, inasmuch as it was concerned in giving to the people of the United States the noble country drained by this mighty stream — a country of nothing less than imperial greatness, when we consider its extent, its resources and its legitimate prospects. To him who studies the history of the colonization of North America by men of European race, this 18 northwest country will always have a special interest as the last debatable and debated territory in the long struggle for possession — the struggle between the native races and the invaders, between Spaniard and Frenchman, between Spaniard and Englishman, between Frenchman and Englishman, and finally, between what the late Mr. Freeman would have called those sons of England who have their imperial city upon the Thames and those who have their imperial city upon the Potomac; or, as red-skinned orators long ago learned to phrase it, between the “King George men” and the “Bostons.” Great is the story of that long struggle, appealing as it does at once to philosopher and to poet, illustrating general principles of profound importance, and filled with romantic and thrilling incidents over mountain and valley, upon river and lake. All the way from Quebec to Astoria, the history of North America — sometimes thoughtlessly called dull — abounds in materials of romance awaiting the advent of some spiritual heir of Walter Scott, whose wizard touch shall make them live with fresh life forevermore.

The attention of the present generation of Americans has been gradually drawn toward the richness of their history through the numerous centennial celebrations of the past seventeen years, for in the course of these commemorative occasions there has been a manifest tendency to 19 combine broad principles with local coloring, to illustrate general history by the aid of topical history, and it is in this way that the past comes most easily and naturally to seem alive. The centennial of Lexington in 1875 called forth swarms of pamphlets and essays, in which the details of the story were subjected to strictest scrutiny; localities were carefully identified and in many cases marked with monuments or tablets, characters and motives were impeached and sermons printed, family reminiscences drawn upon, until the whole scene was made to live again and one might almost feel that one had “been there.” So it has been done in other parts of our country, as the various anniversaries have arrived; and the result has been seen in a manifold quickening of interest in the common history of these States, both old and new, and in a strengthening of the sense of brotherhood and union. There has been something eminently wholesome in these centennial occasions. To acquire a due sense of the events of our common American history and their significance, is to become impressed with the felling of our common destiny and the solemn obligation that lies upon each of us, in whatsoever part of this broad Union he may have his home, to do his best toward shaping that destiny worthily. It is well for us from time to time to pause and take some account of what we have done, and even in the moment 20 of our warm felicitations ask ourselves just why and how we have come to be what we are.

I said a moment ago that the discovery of the Columbia River, a hundred years ago, has its interest for us, whether we look backward or forward from that date; whether we regard it as putting the finishing touch upon the discovery of North America or as prophetic of the beginnings of the three commonwealths, Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Let us briefly consider it, first in one of these aspects and then in the other.

Our custom of affixing specific dates to great events is convenient and indispensable, but it is sometimes misleading. Thus we speak of America as discovered in 1492, and people sometimes unconsciously argue as if the moment Columbus landed on one of the Bahama Islands, somehow or other a full outline map of America from the Arctic Seas to Cape Horn suddenly sprang into existence in the European mind. In point of fact, the discovery of America was a slow and gradual process, requiring the labors of several generations of hardy navigators and explorers, among whom Columbus was first and most illustrious. The outline of South America was known, with a fair approach to correctness, by the middle of the sixteenth century, though Cape Horn was not doubled until 1616. The knowledge of North America progressed much more slowly. After the death of Columbus much more than a century 21 elapsed before map makers could delineate correctly our eastern coast from Florida to Labrador. It took still longer time to learn the vast breadth of the continent.

As late as 1609 we find Henry Hudson sailing up his river under the shadows of the Catskill Mountains in search of a passage into the Pacific Ocean. The notions of map makers and of navigators were as various as vague. Some held to the original idea that the Atlantic Coast of this continent was part of the eastern coast of Asia. In 1637 Thomas Morton, of Merrymount, seemed to think there was some connection between New England and Tartary. Others again imagined a great archipelago in place of our continent, and were convinced that somewhere a Northwest Passage into Asiatic waters would be found. It took many a rough voyage among Arctic ice floes and many a weary journey on foot through the wilderness to correct these erroneous notions.

By the middle of the eighteenth century men’s ideas of the eastern half of the continent, as far as the Rocky Mountains, were becoming fairly well adjusted to the facts, at least so far as general outlines were concerned. New Mexico and California were also regions more or less known and occupied, though very imperfectly explored. But the great Northwest was still terra incognita. In De l’Isle’s map of 1752 the area of Oregon, Washington and Idaho, with that of Montana 22 and other States, is usurped by a huge inland sea communicating with the Pacific Ocean by two narrow straits between the fortieth and fiftieth parallels; and some five degrees farther north there begins a chain of straits and lakes through which a ship might sail northeasterly all the way into the upper corner of Hudson Bay, and so over into the Atlantic. These inland waters were figments of the imagination, sometimes devised by geographers whose wish was father to the thought, sometimes the inventions of gross exaggerations of sailors in their yarns.

In Jeffery’s map of 1768 we see the Strait of Fuca entering the coast at about the forty-eighth parallel, and continuing northeasterly until it loses itself among the groups of straits and islands between the great bays of Hudson and Baffin. The implication is clear that one might sail by the Strait of Fuca from ocean to ocean. The origin of the idea is to be found in the story told by a Greek pilot in the Spanish service to Dr. Michael Lok, a distinguished English geographer in the time of Queen Elizabeth. This pilot’s name was Apostolos Valerianos, but he was known in the Spanish marine as Juan de Fuca. He said that in 1592 he was sent out from Acapulco in search of a northeast passage into the Atlantic or Arctic Ocean, and found it. His description of the route was vague, and it has even been doubted if any such voyage was ever made. It is possible 23 that he may have entered the strait which now bears his name, and may have sailed along into the archipelago through which modern excursion steamers thread their way to Alaska. Upon most old maps the much desired strait connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans is given, sometimes bearing the name of the Greek pilot, but more often called the “Strait of Anian,” a name of which the origin is doubtful.

There is no clear and satisfactory evidence of any voyage upon the Oregon coast by European ships before the eighteenth century. Just how far north Sir Francis Drake may have come in 1579 is not easy to determine. He was the first Englishman to thread the Strait of Magellan and sail upon the Pacific Ocean. His errand was one that in those days used to be called “singeing the King of Spain’s beard.” As often as occasion offered he would dash into a Spanish harbor, burn the shipping, and carry off such treasure as he could lay his hands on. When he had reached the California coast, heavily laden with spoils, it occurred to him to seek for a northeast passage as a short route homeward. But after sailing for some distance up the coast, which he called New Albion, he changed his mind, crossed the Pacific and went home by way of the Cape of Good Hope, circumnavigating the globe. It is probable that Drake saw a portion of the coast of Oregon, but we can hardly call it certain.


In the eighteenth century the first impetus to discovery in the northern waters of the Pacific was given by the Russians after the completion of their conquest of Siberia. In 1728 the great navigator, Vitus Bering, passed through the strait which bears his name, into the Arctic Ocean without seeing the American coast, and four years later a Russian officer, Gvosdjeff, sailing in these same waters, saw both sides of the strait. In 1741 Bering discovered the lofty mountain which he named St. Elias, and farther stretches of the Alaska coast, besides the Aleutian Islands. These discoveries aroused an interest in seal catching, and by 1766 various Russian companies had been organized for prosecuting the fur trade upon our Pacific coast. By the end of the century Russia had taken possession as far down as the fifty-fifth parallel, and before 1820 scattered Russian posts had been established even upon the coast of California.

It seems to have been the advance of the Russians that stimulated Spain to new efforts toward exploring and occupying the coast. For nearly two centuries Spanish energies had been stagnant, but with the reign of the very able Charles III., who came to the throne in 1759, there was a marked revival. In the course of the next ten years the occupation of California, from San Diego up to San Francisco, was completed; and in 1773 Juan Perez set out in the 25 good ship Santiago on a voyage of discovery. He kept well out to sea and to the northward until he struck the coast of Queen Charlotte Island, in latitude 51° 22´. He followed that coast to its northern extremity and tried in vain to make his way eastward through Dixon Entrance, with its powerful adverse currents. Failing in this attempt, Juan Perez returned upon his course down the outer course of Queen Charlotte Island, and presently discovered Vancouver Island, and anchored for awhile in an inlet which was probably Nootka Sound. His voyage thence down to Monterey was a rough one and much vexed with rain and fog, but he seems to have caught sight of the snow-capped summit of Mount Olympus and of a good many points on the Oregon coast.

In 1775 this voyage was followed up by an expedition of two vessels, the Santiago, commanded by Bruno Heceta, with Juan Perez for his pilot, and the Sonora, commanded by Juan de Bodega y Cuadra. They landed at Point Grenville, on the Washington coast, and in the presence of the astonished Indians set up a cross and took possession of the country in due form for the King of Spain. A few days afterward the two ships were separated in a storm and quite lost sight of each other, and their subsequent courses were very different. Cuadra, with the Sonora, made his way northward as far as Sitka 26 and took formal possession of that coast; but by the time Heceta, in the Santiago, got as far as Nootka Sound, his crew was so thinned by scurvy that it became necessary to turn homeward. He missed the Fuca Strait, but farther to the south began hugging the coast, and on the 17th of August discovered the mouth of the Columbia River, but without recognizing it as a river’s mouth; he mistook it for a mere bay or inlet, and named it as such Bahia de la Asuncion.

By these explorations of Perez, Heceta and Cuadra, Spain clearly established a claim to the Northwest Coast in so far as the mere fact of discovery was concerned. By Borgia’s bulls of 1493 and 1494, Spain was entitle to whatever heathen territory anybody might discover to the west of a certain arbitrary meridian in the Atlantic Ocean. But in the eighteenth century little heed was given to the memory of Borgia or his bulls, and discovery without actual occupation went practically but little way in giving a title to new countries. The Spanish government did not publish any account of these exploring voyages and had no just ground of complaint if other nations visited the same shores. The British were next upon the scene. In March, 1778, Captain James Cook was on his way from the Sandwich Islands to explore our Northwest Coast and see if any practicable passage could be found into the Atlantic Ocean. He first saw the point which he 27 called Cape Foulweather, and sailing south from there he named Capes Perpetua and Gregory. Thence he turned about to the northward and in the struggle with adverse winds was carried well out to sea, so that the next land which he saw was the point which he named Cape Flattery. “It is in this very latitude,” said Cook, “that geographers have placed the pretended Strait of Juan de Fuca. But we saw nothing like it; nor is there the least probability that ever any such thing existed.” He crossed the mouth of the strait without suspecting its existence, and did not see land again until he reached Nootka Sound. He supposed Vancouver and Queen Charlotte Islands to be part of the continent. Afterward he explored with much care the coast of Alaska before returning to the Sandwich Islands, where a tragic fate awaited him.

Several English voyages followed after Cook’s, and each one added something to the knowledge of the coast, but it is not necessary to specify details. Let it suffice to observe that in 1788 Captain Meares, after entering the Strait of Juan de Fuca and applying that name to it in honor of its real or alleged original discovery by the Greek pilot, began to search the coast for the bay visited by Heceta, which we now know to have been the mouth of the Columbia River. He reached it in due season and it is extremely curious to find him making almost the same remark that Cook had 28 made about the Strait of Fuca. Heceta had given the name San Roque to the cape just north of the bay, and it had somehow been rumored that there was a river there, perhaps on the strength of statements made by Indians. A river of San Roque seems to have been laid down upon some Spanish sailing charts, and Captain Meares now looked for it, but he misinterpreted the great breakers at the bar and decided that there was no river here. “We can now safely assert,” said he, “that no such river as that of Saint Roc exists.” Cape San Roque he rechristened Cape Disappointment, and the mouth of the great river he called Deception Bay. A tricksome piece of water it must indeed have been, thus once and again to deceive the sharp eyes of those experienced old sea-dogs!

The time was at hand, however, when the deception was to be exposed and the mighty river was to surrender its secret. In this same year, 1788, the Stars and stripes appeared for the first time in these Northern Pacific waters. Those were the days when New Englanders were truly a maritime people and vied with their British cousins in building and handling ships; and many years were still to pass before the suicidal legislation in Congress which has well nigh driven the American flag from the ocean and left us in some danger of forgetting our Viking ancestry and its glories. New England ships, trimly built, 29 swift sailors and stanch against foul weather, were to be met upon every sea; and it was quite in the natural course of things that they should find their way to these waters, fast becoming famous for their wealth of fur seals and sea otters. The first expedition, fitted out by Boston merchants consisted of two vessels, the ship Columbia, commanded by John Kendrick, and the sloop Lady Washington, commanded by Robert Gray, of Boston, who had served in the United States navy during the War of Independence.

After wintering at Nootka the two New England captains partially explored the labyrinthine archipelago through which the Alaska route now lies, and they did some pretty profitable trading with the Indians, who on one occasion are said to have eagerly given $8,000 worth of sea otter skins in exchange for a second-hand chisel. Presently the two ships exchanged captains, and Kendrick remained in these waters with the Lady Washington, while Gray, in the Columbia, carried his furs to China, bartered them for a cargo of tea, and returned to Boston by way of the Cape of Good Hope. This was the first time that the Stars and Stripes were carried around the world.

On the 28th of September, 1790, the Columbia again set sail from Boston, and in the following June, having rounded Cape Horn, he was again in the waters about Queen Charlotte Island. In the course of 1791 and 1792 more than thirty 30 vessels were cruising in this part of the ocean, including several from New England. Among these vessels was the British twenty-gun sloop Discovery, Captain George Vancouver, with her consort or tender, the Chatham, of ten guns, Lieutenant Broughton. Vancouver’s primary purpose was to meet the Spanish captain, Cuadra, as commissioner for carrying out the terms of the Nootka Convention of October, 1790, by which Spain practically relinquished her claim to the sovereignty over these northwestern islands and coasts. But it was also part of Vancouver’s business to follow up the explorations of Cook and Meares, and to renew the search for some available passage into the Atlantic. For nearly three hundred miles he scrutinized the Oregon coast so sharply that from his masthead the surf breaking upon the shores was never once lost sight of; and so he, too, was deceived by the great river, so coy of detection, for he mistook the breakers on its bar for coast surf. It was on the 27th of April, 1792, that he passed it and identified the inlet as Captain Meares’ Deception Bay, but he felt sure that there was no river there. Now, some time before, but just how long is not quite clear, Captain Gray had reached this same inlet and believed it to be the mouth of a river. He felt so strongly convinced of this that during nine days he made repeated efforts to sail in, but was baffled by the force of the outcoming waters. On 31 the 29th of April, Gray fell in with Vancouver near Cape Flattery and told him about this river. The British captain at once recognized the spot described. It was no doubt, he said, the opening passed by him the day before yesterday, but Captain Gray must be mistaken in regarding it as a river; the difficulty in entering was not due to a powerful current, but simply to the fury of the breakers. “I was thoroughly convinced,” writes Vancouver in his narrative, “as were also most persons of observation on board, that we could not possibly have passed any safe navigable opening, harbor, or place of security for shipping on this coast, from Cape Mendocino to the promontory of Classett.” Gray was headed to the south when this discussion took place, and doubtless it added a piquant zest to his determination to effect an entrance at the disputed spot. On the 7th of May we find him discovering and entering the bay still known as Gray’s Harbor. On the 11th he reached Deception Bay and, seizing a favorable wind, ran in under crowded canvas, forced his way through the breakers, and dropped anchor some ten miles up stream. After a halt of three days, to fill his water casks and trade with the natives, he ran up fifteen miles farther, but mistook the channel and got into shoal water. Nevertheless he felt sure that the river must be navigable for more than a hundred miles. There could hardly be a 32 doubt that so great a stream must extend a long way into the country and drain a very large extent of territory; and after satisfying himself as to the decisive character of his discovery, Captain Gray turned his prow toward the ocean again and sailed out over the bar on the 20th. The river he named after his good ship, the Columbia, and curious enough it is that in this roundabout way and quite accidentally the name of Christopher Columbus should have come to furnish a name to a river flowing into an ocean of which he never so much as suspected the existence; a river the discovery of which was the last important event in the era begun by him when he landed among the Bahamas three centuries before. The name of Cape Disappointment, Gray changed to Cape Hancock; and the opposite promontory, to the south of the entrance he named Point Adams. The latter name seems to have been more successful than the former in keeping its place upon the map. When the names Hancock and Adams are coupled in this way, the reference is naturally understood to be to Samuel Adams, the man who was perhaps more than any other the Father of American Independence, and it is indeed interesting to find the name of that sturdy statesman thus recorded at a longer distance from his native Boston than that which separates the Old South Meeting House from Westminster Abbey. It is like meeting such 33 names as Portland and Salem and Albany, coupling oldest East with the new West by pleasant links of association.

On the 20th of September following this discovery, Gray met Vancouver again at Nootka Sound and told him about it; and in October, on the way to San Francisco, the British captain sent Lieutenant Broughton, with one of Gray’s own charts, to verify the facts. Broughton went up the river more than a hundred miles as far as a place which he named Vancouver, but did not see the mouth of that great tributary, the Willamette, just opposite. He spent three weeks in surveying the river and gave to different places more than thirty local names. He also took possession of the river and the country in the name of George III., because, as he said, he had “every reason to believe that the subjects of no other civilized nation or State had ever entered this river before.” Under the circumstances this may seem rather an odd remark for Lieutenant Broughton to make, but his ingenuity was at no loss for a justification. According to him the water, as far as ascended by Gray, ought properly to be called a bay and not a river, so that the American captain had not really made an entrance after all! Considering the dogmatic assurance with which the British officers had maintained that there was no river there, until Gray furnished them with the positive information 34 but for which Broughton would in all probability never have made his reconnaissance, there is a coolness about this argument that on a sultry day would be quite refreshing!

These events owe their interest to the fact that in after times the government of the United States based upon them its claim to the territory drained by the Columbia River by right of discovery. Viewed in itself, it cannot for a moment be pretended that there was anything grand or thrilling in Captain Gray’s achievement. It was indeed highly creditable to Captain Gray’s sagacity that he saw the mouth of a river where so many tried old salts had persisted in seeing only an inward inflection of the coast, but that is about as far as we can go in glorifying the event in itself. It is a good illustration of an historical truth too often overlooked or slighted, that the importance of events generally depends far more upon their causal relations to other events than upon their own intrinsic magnitude.

Captain Gray’s discovery became clothed with importance by what happened afterwards. It was a principle of international law, or international usage, more or less recognized since the time when France and Spain began to jostle one another in North America, that the discovery of a river carries with it at least an inchoate title to the territory drained by it. But as a general thing, very little heed has been paid to such 35 inchoate titles unless they have been completed and reinforced by actual settlement or occupation. A nation cannot go about the world and lay claim to unappropriated domains simply by putting its fingers on them, as children “bony” postage stamps. It must take possession really as well as symbolically. Now, in 1792 the western boundary of the United States was the Mississippi River, and as long as it remained so there was not much likelihood of American citizens occupying the valley of the Columbia.

In 1792 the vast Louisiana territory, extending from the Mississippi River to the crest of the Rocky Mountains, was the acknowledged property of Spain, but in 1800 Spain ceded it to France, and in 1803 Napoleon sold it to the United States. It has sometimes been contended that this Louisiana purchase of itself gave the United States some further claim to Oregon, as a kind of appurtenance to the Louisiana territory, on the assumption that Spain virtually turned over to France in the cession of 1800 her old claims to the Northwest Coast; but this view seems hardly defensible. With more plausibleness it has been argued that in the treaty of 1819, when Spain surrendered Florida to the United States, there was a clause that included in the cession all Spanish claims to the Northwest Coast, so that the United States became, with regard to this territory, the successor and legal representative 36 of Spain. Such questions have a certain interest of their own, as part of the metaphysical region in international law. In metaphysics a sufficient exercise of ingenuity will enable us to reach a conclusion that seems unshakable until our antagonist with similar ingenuity reaches a conclusion exactly opposite and apparently just as well supported.

It has long seemed to me that metaphysics are of precious little use, only one needs to know them in order to refute other metaphysics! The case is somewhat the same with sundry wire-drawn discussions in the old law of real estate, and with much of the maze of diplomatic argument concerning valid titles to territory. One often needs to know it in order to refute somebody, but otherwise there is more vexation of soul in it than of profit to the understanding.

With regard to our present subject it may safely be said that neither the purchase of 1803 nor that of 1819 would have gone far toward giving Oregon to the United States unless the shadowy metaphysical claims had been supplemented by the solid facts of occupation and possession.

After this explanation there is little risk of being misunderstood in saying that the Louisiana Purchase carried the United States a long way toward the possession of Oregon — all the way from the Mississippi River to the great divide 37 between the sources of the Missouri and those of the Columbia. It at once became possible for exploring parties to cross the mountains and advance to the Pacific Coast without crossing foreign territory. President Jefferson, who had long been interested in exploring the wilderness, seized the opportunity without a moment’s delay, and in May, 1804, the famous expedition of Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark started from St. Louis. Nothing was heard from them until the autumn of 1806, when they returned to this frontier city after having followed the Columbia River from the upper waters of its Snake branch to its mouth. Within the next two years the American Fur Company was organized, with headquarters at St. Louis. Two years more had scarcely elapsed when the ship Albatross, from Boston, commanded by Nathan Winship, ascended the Columbia River about forty miles, and the crew began building a blockhouse, but were driven away by the Indians. In the next year, 1811, came the founding of Astoria. The eminent New York merchant, John Jacob Astor, a most enthusiastic dealer in furs, had for some years carried on the trade by the way of the Great Lakes, over the time-honored routes that had been followed since the days of Marquette and Joliet. He was quick to perceive the value of a trading station at the mouth of the Columbia, half way between New York and China, which 38 furnished such a market for furs. President Madison’s government felt an interest in Mr. Astor’s venture, for the Russians at Sitka had made serious complaint against the Yankee skippers, on whom they largely depended for supplies. These Yankees were altogether too reckless in selling rum and rifles to the Indians, thus sowing seeds of strife and murder. Mr. Astor organized the Pacific Fur Company with the view of monopolizing the fur trade on this coast and also securing the whole business of supplying the Russian forts, so as to deprive the rum-selling skippers of their occupation. The mouth of the Columbia River was an admirably chosen centre for the trade between New York, Sitka and Canton, and the whole scheme was marked by rare boldness and breadth of view. It heralded the era in which mercantile enterprises were to assume imperial dimensions.

But Oregon was in those days a long way from the Atlantic Coast. She is now scarcely a week removed from it; she was then more than a year. A party of sixty persons, about half of Astor’s party, started overland from St. Louis; the other half started from New York on the voyage by way of Cape Horn. The overland party arrived at the mouth of the Columbia after a terrible journey of fifteen months, in the course of which several of their number had perished, and they found that the Cape Horn party had arrived some 39 time before them. No sooner had Astoria been built and fortified when the war with Great Britain broke out in 1812, and soon ruined the enterprise. Unfortunately, Mr. Astor had included among his partners of the Pacific Fur Company certain men who had formerly been connected with the Northwest Fur Company of Montreal, a British concern which already had its outposts as far west as the Frazer River; and in 1813 these partners treacherously sold out the Astoria property, for about one-fifth of its value, to the Northwest Company. Soon afterward, a British squadron entered the Columbia, with intent to destroy the settlement; but, finding it already in British hands, there was nothing left for them to do but run up their flag, change the name of the place to St. George and go on their way.

In the Treaty of Ghent, which ended that war with Great Britain, it was agreed that “all territory, places and possessions whatever, taken by either party from the other during the war, shall be restored without delay.” President Monroe, accordingly, proposed to take back Astoria, but the British government objected on the ground that it had not been captured but simply sold from one party to another, and that it stood upon British territory, since possession of that country had long ago been taken in his majesty’s name. The reference was of course to Lieutenant 40 Broughton, who had ascended the river after its American discoverer had shown him the way! In 1818 a temporary adjustment of the question was effected. As a temporary makeshift there was a joint occupation of Oregon by the two governments. For a time this arrangement seemed practically equivalent to a British occupation. The British Northwest Fur Company being in possession of Astoria, built a strong stockaded fort there with a garrison of sixty men and an armament of twenty cannon, as a menace to all intruders.

For several years after the peace of 1815 it seemed as if there was but a sorry chance for the Americans in the regions drained by the Columbia, and especially in 1821, when the Northwest Fur Company was absorbed by the great Hudson Bay company.

But in spite of this dismal prospect certain laws of the universe, laws that work quietly but surely, were working in favor of the Americans. It was only a question of time when the westward overflow of population should reach the Pacific Coast. But much might be done by the action of the two governments in hastening or delaying that time; and here, as so commonly happens, the action of the governments had unforeseen results much more important than those that were contemplated. By the terms of the treaty for joint occupation it was agreed that any country westward 41 of the Rocky Mountains that might be claimed by either of the two powers should be free and open to the vessels and the citizens of both. For the moment the practical result of this seemed to be to leave the Hudson Bay Company in the possession of the country and in the monopoly of the fur trade, for that company seemed quite competent to look after its own interests and to keep out intruders. What then was the Hudson Bay company? It must rank, with the English and Dutch East India Companies, among the most colossal corporations every created by a government. Its founder was that merry monarch who “never said a foolish thing and never did a wise one.” Every student of American history has occasion to observe how lavish Charles II. used to be with his grants of lands and privileges in the American wilderness. It was an easy way to pay off old debts and to return favors done him by his friends; and there was such a delightful vagueness about American geography that it was as easy to give away an empire as a farm. Thus did George Monk and Edward Hyde obtain the Carolinas; thus did the great Quaker get Pennsylvania; and in similar fashion did Charles in 1670 grant to his cousin, Prince Rupert, and several other noblemen, “the sole trade and commerce of all those seas, straits, bays, rivers, lakes, creeks and sounds lying within the entrance of Hudson’s Straits, with all the lands, countries and 42 territories upon the coasts and confines” of the same. This act created the Hudson Bay Company and handed over to it a territory larger than the whole of Europe to exploit for its own use and behoof. This country was and is the natural home of otters and martens, muskrats and beavers, sables and lynxes, moose and buffalo, bears, deer, foxes and wolves. It was the object of the company to keep this country forever a grand preserve of fur-bearing animals, and to this end it discouraged all attempts at settlement. To introduce farms and villages would scare away the game and diminish the value of the monopoly.

Accordingly, until recent years Rupert’s Land, as it used to be called on the maps, has maintained its character of primeval wilderness, and it is only lately that we see civilized States, like Manitoba and others, coming into existence along its southern frontiers. A superficial glance at the map might lead one to attribute this backwardness to severity of climate; but commercial monopoly has doubtless had far more to do with it. It was the policy of the Hudson Bay Company to keep its own government misinformed as to the nature and resources of the vast and noble agricultural country that lies between Lake Winnipeg and the Pacific Coast. Nothing must be suffered to interfere with furs; and nobody not connected with the Company had a legal right 43 to visit the country, or to catch a wild animal, or to buy or sell its skin.

Seventy years ago this great corporation threw its long arms southward even as far as Salt Lake, while it held Astoria in its clutches and had posts in Idaho. A strange life in that vast wilderness, with, its dog-sledges making their winter journey of three thousand miles from Fort Garry to the Lower MacKenzie and the Upper Yukon, carrying a mail that has come to be a year old before its delivery! A vague, shadowy land, little changed since the great glaciers receded many thousand years ago — a land shut up by a huge monopoly and slow to become known.

In the race for the possession of Oregon — the race that must sooner or later terminate the joint occupation in favor of the one or the other party exclusively — England was heavily handicapped by her Hudson Bay Company. To the south of the boundary between British America and the United States the waves of population were steadily advancing westward, and it was not merely a march of trappers and hunters. It was a movement that kept creating new homes, a movement in which towns were built and the wilderness was made to bloom like a garden. It was a movement, moreover, that represented private enterprise and not a giant monopoly created by government.


The difference between the trapper and the farmer is by no one more keenly appreciated than by the red man. The trapper may be, and often is, the Indian’s ally; but the farmer is naturally his foe. The one draws his sustenance from the wilderness and is interested in preserving it; the other transforms the wilderness and spoils it for the Indian’s needs. Where plows and oxen come, the forlorn red man feels no longer at home. Hence the French pioneers in Canada found it so much easier to fraternize with Indians than the English colonists found it; and hence the British of the Hudson Bay Company had so much less trouble with the Indians than the people of the United States.

It was not until the middle of the last century that the shriek of the iron horse was heard upon the banks of the Mississippi, and naturally, during the early part of the century, the remote Pacific Coast aroused but little interest. Yet we need not regret that the founding of this western empire owes so little to direct aid and encouragement from the government at Washington. In the long run those enterprises thrive best which spring up spontaneously and with which government meddles least. In the settlement of Oregon we see the people whose government had the less care for the ultimate result, prevailing over the other, whose governmental policy defeated its 45 own ends. With the result as it has been worked out we have reason to be satisfied.

To the earliest approaches of American settlers toward Oregon during the period of joint occupation a brief allusion must suffice. The expedition of Ashley in 1823 and the following years did much to stimulate the American fur trade, with its headquarters at St. Louis, and led to the founding of the Rocky Mountain Company. The adventures of Captain Bonneville, and the expedition from Cambridge, Massachusetts, under the lead of Nathaniel Wyeth, in 1832, in the course of which Fort Hall was founded upon the Snake River, had in them much that was interesting and romantic, but need not detain us here. All these expeditions had their use in familiarizing a certain number of people with these vast stretches of western country. As fast as well could be expected in those days before railroads, the region west of the Rocky Mountains was ceasing to be an unknown land.

In that same year, 1832, four Flathead Indians made a pilgrimage to St. Louis, we are told, in search of the white man’s Book of Salvation. What manner of potent medicine their savage heads may have fancied the sacred volume to contain, whether it would give them ampler hunting grounds or ward off the dreaded tomahawk and still more dreadful incantations of the next hostile tribe, it would be hard to say. But the incident 46 attracted the attention of some religious enthusiasts, and the vague plea of the Indians for help was put into a simple yet touching appeal for teachers to make known to them the white man’s Book of Salvation. This appeal made a great impression upon two of the religious organizations of the country, the Methodists and the Presbyterians. The Methodists were the first to take action, and under the lead of Jason Lee, a type of the religious missionary and States-building pioneer, a Methodist mission was established in the Willamette Valley in 1834. In 1835 the American Board for Foreign Missions, the great missionary organization of the Presbyterians — an organization which has exerted a powerful influence in the evangelization of the “waste places” of the earth — became interested in the spiritual welfare of the Oregon Indians, and despatched the Rev. Samuel Parker and Dr. Marcus Whitman on an overland tour of exploration and observation to the Oregon territory.

Before they reached the territory they fell in with some returning traders and explorers, whose stories of Oregon and the Indians satisfied Parker and Whitman of the great need of a mission there; and for its more speedy establishment it was decided that Parker should go forward and locate the region of the mission, while Whitman should return to the East for helpers, and should endeavor to bring out some families, in order to 47 make the home the nucleus for practical missionary work. Early in 1836 we therefore find Dr. Whitman back in the East, accompanied by two Indian boys, earnestly engaged in spreading information in regard to the missionary field in Oregon, setting forth the great need of helpers, urging people to engage in the work as one of the highest forms of Christian service, and making clear the ways and means of getting there.

His plea was the more effective in that a young woman of culture and deep religious feeling, Miss Narcissa Prentice, of Prattsburg, New York, had consented to become his wife and to share with him all the privations and experiences of his missionary labors. He also secured as co-workers the Rev. Henry H. Spaulding and his young bride, both of whom joyfully accepted the call to service in Oregon as a call to the service of Christ, and under conditions that would have appalled persons of worldly minds. These two young couples, with the two Indian boys, were joined at Liberty, Missouri, by W. H. Gray, a sort of practical worker; and these seven persons, all moving under the auspices of the American Board for Foreign Missions, joined in May, 1836, an expedition of the American Fur Company on their way to the Oregon territory, and resolutely set their faces towards the Columbia River.

The incidents of this journey were many, and are of interest as records of personal experiences 48 in encountering and overcoming great difficulties and dangers. These must not detain us further than to note that at Fort Hall the party gave up their wagons, as they were told that it was impossible to get wheeled vehicles through and over the mountains. The observations of Dr. Whitman, however, on this journey, convinced him that it was possible to take wagons through to the Columbia — a conviction that, later, he was to see made a reality. In September the little party reached the Columbia River, bringing to the Oregon territory the Christian home, with all its sacred and tender associations.

On the arrival of Whitman and Spaulding at Walla Walla, a trading post and also a fort on a small tributary of the Columbia, they were hospitably received, and they found that Dr. Parker, their precursor of the year before, had looked the field over and had designated Waiilatpu (the place of rye and grass) as the proper place for the mission. This was situated about twenty-five miles from Fort Walla Walla, in the midst of a beautiful and fertile section of country. The Indians round about were friendly.

It is not my purpose, nor is this the occasion, to enter upon the discussion of the value of the services rendered to the building up of civil government in these imperial commonwealths by the devoted Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries, who in advance of the great tide of immigration 49 which rolled into the territory from 1842 to 1846, had settled and made their homes in the beautiful valleys of the Willamette and the Walla Walla. They were indeed an heroic little band in this great wilderness

“Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound
  Save his own dashings.”

In 1839 the number of persons connected with the Methodist mission was seventy-seven, and the number connected with the Presbyterian missions was sixteen, with twenty more on the way. In 1842 the latter had broadened its work to three stations, Waiilatpu, Lapwai and Chemakane. Few as were the missionaries in numbers, the missions themselves were radiating points from which went forth steady streams of information to the people of the East in regard to the attractive climate, the wonderful fertility of the soil and the great beauty of physical aspect. Then, too, when the great tide of immigration set in, the missions became welcoming stations, sweet havens of rest, to the hardy pioneers after their perilous journeys across the plains and over the mountains. If in their religious zeal the missionaries seemed to overlook the childish imperfections of the Indian’s mind, and tried to give him theological doctrines that were beyond his comprehension, the while presenting to him a system of Christian ethics which they were openly violating by taking to themselves his choicest lands, 50 let it pass. The day of scientific ethnology had not come, and the proper way to civilize aboriginal man was not yet comprehended. With all their shortcomings we well may honor those devoted servants of Christ, who, braving every privation and danger that they might spread the gospel of salvation, as they understood it, to the Indians, brought hither the Christian home and the school, and became no inconsiderable factors in wresting this fair and bounteous region from the hands of a giant monopoly.

It is in evidence that about 1839 the Catholics made their presence felt among the Indians and the few Canadian settlers in the territory. The mystic rites of the Catholic service specially appealed to the Indian; and the priests, by the simplicity of their lives and by evidencing no disposition to take possession of the country for the benefit of white settlers, easily ingratiated themselves with the Indians, thereby arousing the hostility of the missionaries, and thus there was injected into the early settlement of the territory somewhat of the religious strife between Catholics and Protestants which for centuries has been the disgrace of Christendom. The incidents of this strife need not detain us further than to remark that the Indians for whose spiritual good both parties were ostensibly striving, were more or less demoralized by the unchristian conduct of their teachers; and if in some instances they 51 showed preference for the Catholics, it must be considered that the Catholics were not appropriating their lands.

During this period neither the people nor the government of the United States were ignorant of, or idle in regard to, their interests in the Oregon territory. The report of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the diplomatic correspondence with England, the report of Commodore Wilkes, who visited the territory in 1840, on his return from Japan, the quite elaborate report of T. J. Farnham, who made extensive explorations in the territory in 1840 in behalf of proposed immigration from Illinois, the discussions in Congress and the letters of the missionaries, all had made known the exceeding richness of the territory and had aroused a widespread interest in it; and it was only waiting for the government to establish its authority in the territory by some understanding or treaty with England, for a great tide of immigration to get in motion for the region on the Columbia River.

It has been often stated, and by persons who should have known the facts in the case, that in 1842, when the Webster-Ashburton Treaty took place between England and the United States with reference to our northeastern boundary, the northwestern boundary from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast was deliberately put aside as of little consequence, and that our government 52 then was so indifferent to the whole question that it stood ready to trade away our rights to the better portion of the Oregon territory for some fishery considerations on the Atlantic Coast. Let us look at the facts.

It is a matter of common knowledge that between nations possessing extensive unexplored regions of coterminous territory and enjoying much commercial intercourse, there frequently arise international issues of varying degrees of importance, which through prolonged negotiation get diplomatically grouped as a distinct and interrelated body of issues. The first treaty between England and the United States, in 1783, which had to be very general along main lines, left a number of questions of minor importance to be settled by the “logic of events,” in the future intercourse between the two peoples who were henceforth to be independent of one another. Among the unsettled or undefined questions were: A definite boundary line between the Northern States and Canada; the rights of sovereignty on land and sea as between the two nations; the rendition of fugitives from justice; fishery rights along the Atlantic Coast; the right of search on board each other’s ships, etc. These were prolific sources for disputes, and for over fifty years — in fact, from the very beginning of our government — some of the disagreements had existed, until the diplomatic intercourse between the two 53 nations had become so completely befogged with the various projects and counter projects for their adjustment, that at the beginning of the administrations of Presidents Harrison and Tyler, in 1841, our foreign relations with England were in a very critical condition. Daniel Webster was Secretary of State. Wise, practical statesman that he was, he saw that the only way to a peaceful adjustment was by the balancing of equivalents; that is, by giving and taking on both sides. To this end he reduced the related issues to the fewest number, and these to their vital points. He found the Oregon boundary among questions at issue. He saw that this was an issue wholly unrelated to the other and more pressing ones, that it could afford to wait until its consideration could be taken up entirely independent of other issues and settled on its own merits; that its introduction alongside the older and more pressing ones would inevitably lead to some unfavorable compromise on the Oregon issue itself, or compel an unfavorable compromise on the other issues in its behalf. He therefore rejected it entirely from consideration, and subsequent events fully justified his action in doing so. He was completely successful in adjusting the other issues in the memorable treaty of 1842; and four years later, when the Oregon Treaty came before the Senate, amicably proposing the forty-ninth parallel as the boundary line of the two governments 54 in the territory, Mr. Webster was there as senator from Massachusetts to give the treaty his hearty support. The history of the diplomatic negotiations between England and the United States over the Oregon boundary question, shows that our government from the beginning maintained that the forty-ninth parallel was the proper boundary line, and that the keynote of Mr. Webster’s policy was this line and nothing else. The people of the region of the Columbia, therefore owe a special debt of gratitude to Mr. Webster for his wisdom in keeping the Oregon question distinct from unrelated issues with which he had to deal in the perplexing negotiations of 1842.

It would be pleasant on this occasion, if time permitted, to dwell upon some of the incidents and experiences of that great immigration into this territory which took place between 1841 and 1846, when the sovereign title to this fair domain passed peacefully and permanently into the hands of the United States. One of the most picturesque scenes in the early history of New England is the migration of Thomas Hooker and his church, in June, 1635, from Cambridge to the banks of the Connecticut River, where they forthwith made the beginnings of the town of Hartford. The picture of that earnest party in pursuit of a lofty purpose, a party of husbands and wives with their children, taking with them their cattle and their household goods and led by 55 their sturdy pastor, the great founder of American democracy, is a very pleasant one. Mrs. Hooker being in poor health, was carried all the way on a litter. That was a pilgrimage of something more than one hundred miles, through a country not hard to traverse, under June skies. This Massachusetts pilgrimage in behalf of civil and religious liberty has long been a theme on which historians and liberal-minded people have loved to dwell. But how insignificant it appears in comparison with the great pilgrimage to Oregon, which took place in 1843, and which virtually determined the destiny of this great region for all time to come! The story of this pilgrimage is yet to be told. It comprised an organization of nearly a thousand persons gathered principally from the States bordering on the Mississippi. It was made up largely of families with their children, taking with them their household goods and large numbers of horses and cattle. The journey was one of over two thousand miles across arid plains, broad and rapid rivers and over almost impassable mountains. Viewed in its historic aspect this was not merely a movement of individuals intent upon bettering their material condition. It was all this and more. It was the carrying of social and political organization from the region of the Mississippi to the region of the Columbia, and laying the foundations for civil government in the three imperial commonwealths that were to be.


This great movement has suffered in its historic importance by being presented, not as the legitimate outgrowth of the social and political activity of the time, which was carrying the “Star of Empire” westward, but rather as the result of the political labors of the Presbyterian missionary, Dr. Marcus Whitman — that it was in fact but the culmination of his wise, farseeing labors to save the territory from becoming exclusively a British possession through the machinations of the Hudson Bay Company and the Catholics. So much has been written upon the “saving of Oregon” by Dr. Whitman that a brief statement of his identification with the settlement of the territory and the establishment of the sovereignty of the United States to it, is admissible here.

We have seen that Dr. Whitman and the Rev. Henry H. Spaulding, acting under the auspices of the American Board for Foreign Missions, established a mission to the Indians in the Walla Walla Valley in 1836. It is evident that early in 1842 the Board was seriously exercised over the future of their mission. The Board was apprised of some dissensions within the mission itself, and of serious dangers surrounding it, arising from the growing hostility of the Indians, which it was alleged was secretly abetted by the Catholic priests as well as by the roving trappers and adventurers in the territory. Then, too, the discussion of the Oregon question in Congress and 57 by the press was bringing the settlement of the territory, the establishment of civil government and the treatment of the Indians therein, into the political arena, where it was felt that the mission had no place. Accordingly the officers wisely decided to curtail the mission, with the evident purpose of withdrawing it altogether. In the spring of 1842 instructions were sent to Dr. Whitman to give up two of his stations, to have Mr. Spaulding return to the East, and to concentrate the remaining mission force at one station.

Dr. Whitman received these instructions in the latter part of September, 1842. He was greatly exercised over them. He at once called a council of his co-workers and laid before them the instructions of the Board. The majority were at first in favor of complying with the orders of the Board, but Dr. Whitman took decided ground against such action. The people in Boston did not understand the situation. Great efforts and sacrifices had been made to establish the mission, and it was never so much needed as now, with the Papists active among the Indians, trying to undo the work that had been done, and the tide of immigration that was to control the destiny of the territory just setting in. The force of the missions should be increased rather than diminished; it should have an additional preacher, with the addition of five to ten Christian laymen, 58 the latter to look after the material or business interests of the mission in dealing with the Indians and the immigrants. Dr. Whitman was a resolute, forceful man. He closed the discussion by announcing his purpose to start at once for Boston to present his views to the Board before any definite action was taken upon the instructions. His associates, seeing his determination, reluctantly acquiesced in his plan, which involved a perilous winter journey over the mountains. This did not dishearten the resolute Doctor, and on the 3d of October, 1842, he set out on his journey. It was on of great privations and many hairbreadth escapes. He reached Boston the last of March, 1843. There is some question as to the manner of his reception by the officers of the Board. It would appear that his disobedience to orders and his crossing the continent to challenge in person the wisdom of the Board was not regarded with entire favor. It is said that his reception was chilly, and that the Board refused to pay the expenses of the trip. Be that as it may, he succeeded in getting a suspension of the order recalling Mr. Spaulding and curtailing the mission stations, and he was authorized to secure additional Christian laymen to assist in the practical work of the mission, provided this could be done “without expense to the Board or any connection with it.” It does 59 not appear that he succeeded in getting any addition to the missionary force.

While in the East Dr. Whitman visited Washington. In view of the very great interest in Oregon, his evident purpose was to lay before the proper authorities his conclusions, derived from his experience, as to the practicability of a wagon route to the Columbia; and also to urge the desirability of the government establishing a mail route from the Missouri to the Columbia, with government posts or stations along the way, not only for protecting and aiding the emigrants, but also for the purpose of extending a measure of civil government over the vast region between these two rivers. In returning, Dr. Whitman joined, in May 1843, the great immigrant expedition to which I have referred and which he found completely organized and on its way when he reached the Missouri River. That he freely rendered valuable assistance to this expedition as pilot and counsellor during its long and arduous journey, is not questioned. Such service was entirely consistent with his robust Christian character. But the claim put forward, many years after his death, that this whole expedition was the direct outgrowth of his efforts to save Oregon, that he organized it and heroically led it, with all its impedimenta of horses, cattle and wagons, that he might demonstrate to a doubting government at Washington the entire feasibility 60 of such an undertaking, is wholly a fiction of the imagination. This expedition was the outgrowth of the westward movement of the American people in the development of their social and political life, and it would have occurred just as it did had Dr. Whitman never been born.

This trip of Dr. Whitman to the East was not without its direful effect upon Dr. Whitman himself. His return, accompanied by such an army of occupation to appropriate their lands, aroused to greater fury than ever the bitter resentment of the Indians. He became a marked man for vengeance. His God could not be on the Indians’ side. In spite of sullen discontent and warnings, he and his devoted wife struggled valiantly at their post for four long years, when they were brutally murdered by the very Indians they were endeavoring to uplift and to save, and the mission came to an end.

We do well on this commemorative occasion to honor the faithful missionary who endured severe privations, braved great dangers and fell a martyr to the missionary work to which he had devoted his life. But we should do to him great injustice to ascribe to him projects of empire for which neither his words nor his acts give any warrant, which necessitate the appropriation to him of the labors of others and require an entire misreading of our diplomatic history in regard to the territory of Oregon.


To return to the immigration of 1843. After four months’ arduous journey, this vanguard of the great army of occupation that was to follow, with its convoy of horses and cattle, reached Oregon, and its numbers spread themselves over the valleys of the lower Columbia and immediately set to work in true American fashion to establish homes and schools and to organize a provisional government of their own. Among them were a number of persons of great force of character, who have left the impress of their personalities upon the religious, industrial and political development of the territory. Having shown the way, and having demonstrated the complete feasibility of an overland route to Oregon, they were followed by other hardy pioneers from the States, and before three more years had passed there was an American population in the Territory of over twelve thousand persons — no miscellaneous rabble of adventurers, but stanch and self-respecting men and women, come to build up homes — the sturdy stuff of which a nation’s greatness is made.

Here we come to the end of the story, for the title of the American people to the possession of the Oregon territory which was originated in the movements of the good ship Columbia a century ago, was practically consummated by the rush of immigrants halfway between that time and the present. Title (in full measure) by occupation 62 was thus added to title by discovery; and when in 1846 the question of sovereignty again came up for consideration between Great Britain and the United States, the great territory was amicably divided and we had little difficulty in keeping for ourselves the land upon which to erect the three goodly States of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, besides the section that fills out the contour of Montana.

Perhaps no one who has not visited this glorious country can adequately feel the significance of these beginnings of its history. When one has spent some little time in this climate — unsurpassed in all America — and looked with loving eye upon scenery rivaling that of Italy and Switzerland; when one has sufficiently admired the purple mountain ranges, the snow-clad peaks, the green and smiling valleys, the giant forests; when one has marvelled at the multifarious and boundless economic resources and realizes how all this has been made a part of our common heritage as Americans, one feels that this latest chapter in the discovery and occupation of our continent is by no means the least important. All honor to the sagacious mariner who first sailed upon these waters a century ago! and all honor to the brave pioneers whose labors and sufferings crowned the work! Through long ages to come theirs shall be a sweet and shining memory.


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