History of Oregon by Oregon Historical Society
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Subtopic : The Great Divide: Resettlement and the New Economy: A New Legal Landscape

Themes: People and the Environment, Social Relations

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General Joseph Lane
OrHi 1703

The sudden in-rush of Americans to the Oregon Country in the early 1840s led to a new legal landscape, imposed first in the Willamette Valley and then to outlying areas. The earlier Euro-American settlers in the valley—French Canadians, retired HBC personnel, and people associated with the Methodist mission—held land through simple preemption and occupation. But the growing number of Americans arriving in the valley posed a threat and prompted a search for legal mechanisms to protect existing land claims.

Forewarned that a large group of emigrants could be expected to arrive in the Willamette Valley in the fall of 1843, Euro-American residents came together in a series of celebrated meetings in the spring and early summer. They fashioned what became known as the Provisional Government, which existed independently of both the United States and Great Britain. Article 3 of its Organic Code established the basis for land ownership:

No individual shall be allowed to hold a claim of more than a square mile, of 640 acres in a square or oblong form, according to the natural situation of the premises; nor shall any individual be allowed to hold more than one claim at the time.

The code granted citizenship to “every free male descendant of a white man who has resided in the territory for 6 months,” wording that enfranchised the sons of white males with Indian wives. The newly adopted legal principles also prohibited slavery.

After much bluster and threats of war, the United States and Great Britain signed a treaty in 1846 that established the boundary along the forty-ninth parallel, exclusive of the southern tip of Vancouver Island. With beaver largely trapped out south of the Columbia River, the influential Hudson’s Bay Company did not pressure the British government to strike a more favorable agreement. Moreover, the company had already moved its Columbia Department headquarters from Fort Vancouver to Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island.

Settlement of the boundary issue, however, still left law and governance to the Provisional Government. The issue of territorial status for the American Northwest remained in limbo, because the slavery issue delayed congressional action to create a new territory. Congress finally took action following the Cayuse attack on the Whitman Mission in November 1847 and passed the Oregon Territorial Act in 1848. The measure prohibited slavery by acknowledging an anti-slavery section of the Ordinance of 1787, and it simply ignored the Provisional Government’s generous land-law arrangements.

© William G. Robbins, 2002

Themes: People and the Environment,Social Relations

Regions: Oregon Country

Date: 1800-1870

Author: William G. Robbins

The immigration of Americans to the Oregon Country in the early 1840s created the need for a legal system that would impose some order to the growing patchwork of settlements.

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