History of Oregon by Oregon Historical Society
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Subtopic : Education, Arts, and Letters: Establishing a Framework for Learning

Themes: Social Relations

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Hoover Cusak School, 1896
CN 020770

The genesis of non-Indian educational systems in the Pacific Northwest begins with the Hudson’s Bay Company and New Englander John Ball teaching the mixed-blood children of fur trappers who frequented Fort Vancouver. The establishment of the first missionary schools during the 1830s signaled the initial American effort. The Methodists’ Willamette Mission, the enterprise of the ecumenical American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in the interior, and the work of more than two dozen Roman Catholic ventures (Franciscans and Jesuits) extended educational activity and religious proselytizing throughout the region.

Those early denominational influences continued to help shape Oregon’s educational system through the turn of the century, with nearly thirty parochial schools operating across the state by the early 1880s. In addition, many of the region’s universities and colleges were rooted in Christian precepts, with the Oregon Institute—which would become Willamette University—tracing its beginnings to 1842 and the Methodist Mission. In similar fashion, Pacific University in Forest Grove dates its founding to 1849 and Congregational influences.

Oregon’s public schools also owe their inception to mission influences, especially in the person of Reverend George Atkinson, who authored Oregon Territory’s first body of school law in 1849. Reflecting the chief characteristics of New England educational systems, the territory’s organic school legislation included these principles:

1. education should be free
2. control should be decentralized and local
3. a permanent school fund should be established
4. professional standards should be established to provide for the certification of teachers
5. schools should be tax-supported and
6. educational institutions should practice religious freedom.

Except for its inspirational objectives, the legislation had little effect, and Oregon’s publicly supported educational systems would show little improvement for more than twenty years.

Article VIII of the Oregon Constitution, approved by Congress in the statehood act of 1859, chartered the fundamental body of school law that has guided public education to the present day. Embodying the principle of free public schools, the article declared that the governor should serve as superintendent of public instruction for the first five years the constitution was in effect. After that time, the legislature was free to create a position for an elected superintendent with specified powers and responsibilities. Article VIII also required that “the Legislative Assembly shall provide by law for the establishment of a uniform and general system of Common schools.”

Another provision of Article VIII mandated that all proceeds from the state’s school lands be used for educational purposes and that the State Land Board—governor, secretary of state, and state treasurer—“shall manage lands under its jurisdiction with the object of obtaining the greatest benefit for the people of this state.” The last stipulation was rent asunder during the land-fraud scam of the 1890s when the state squandered away its school grant lands.

Powerful and influential people acted to obstruct the constitutional provisions that called for free public education for all school-age children. Oregon Statesman editor Asahel Bush wrote that common schools could not be justified because the state was too sparsely populated. Harvey W. Scott, the forceful editor of the Portland Oregonian from 1865 until his death in 1910, was outspoken in his opposition to free textbooks and to the establishment of high schools. In numerous editorials he discussed the evils of using tax money to support high schools. In lieu of financing such a “cumbrous and expensive system,” he wrote on one occasion, parents who wanted to educate their children “beyond the common branches of the old fashioned common school should pay for it.” Governor W.W. Thayer (1878-1882) believed that education beyond elementary school should focus on teaching students a trade, and prominent businessman William S. Ladd argued that public money should not be used to teach academic subjects. Populist governor Sylvester Pennoyer (1887-1895) insisted that public taxes should be used only to teach the three R’s (reading, writing and ’rithmetic); and Simeon Reed, the chief benefactor of Reed College, thought children should be taught “useful industry” and kept in school for fewer hours.

© William G. Robbins, 2002

Themes: Social Relations

Regions: Oregon

Date: 1800-1900

Author: William G. Robbins

The establishment of missionary schools in the 1830s marks the beginnings of non-Indian education in the Oregon Country. 

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