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Subtopic : Contact and Settlement: Settlement Begins

Themes: Exploration, Resettlement

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“An Oregon Fashionable Ball”
Christmas Dance, Coos Bay, 1855
William Wells Illustration
CN 022248

Because the Pacific Northwest was the focus of international commerce in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, people of many different cultures came to or passed through the region. The earliest Europeans to stay for long on the northern Oregon coast were the Scottish, English, French, and American people attached to the British and American fur-trading enterprises. In addition, the fur companies brought with them Hawaiians to work as seamen on company ships and as laborers ashore. The Hudson’s Bay Company’s post at Fort Vancouver employed Hawaiians to work in its gardens and in its water-powered sawmill, the first in the Oregon Country, six miles upriver of Fort Vancouver. Some of the men married Indian wives, and these early families made for an ethnically diverse population. Since the 1860s, however, the population of the coast, and indeed of the Pacific Northwest as a whole, has been predominantly European American.

The first white men to settle south of the Columbia’s mouth came to Tillamook Bay in 1851. They were Joe E. Champion, Samuel Howard, and W. Taylor. “On the first day of April A.D. 1851, I left the Columbia in a whale boat with provision for six months,” wrote Champion in his journal. The men entered the bay the next morning. “The Indians generally seemed pleased with the prospect of having the Whites to settle among them (Poor Fools), they showed me a large hollow dead Spruce Tree, into which we conveyed all my property. I christened it my Castle....”

In June of that same year, nine men traveled from Portland in the steam schooner Sea Gull and landed farther to the south, at a small harbor just south of Cape Blanco. These newcomers received a chillier welcome and responded in kind. “There were a few Indians in sight who appeared to be friendly,” the leader of the expedition, J.M. Kirkpatrick, later wrote, “but I could see that they did not like to have us there....We lost no time in making our camp on what was to be called Battle Rock.” The men set up their cannon on the narrow protuberance of Battle Rock, in present-day Port Orford harbor, and trained it on the spine of rock that sloped down to the beach. Kirkpatrick described what happened next:

When...a red shirted fellow in the lead was not more than eight feet from the muzzle of the gun, I applied the fiery end of the rope to the priming….At least twelve or thirteen men were killed outright, and such a tumbling of scared Indians I never saw before or since.

The situation went downhill from there. The white men told the Indians that the ship would be back in two weeks, and hunkered down on the rock to wait. When the ship did not appear on the appointed day, the Indians gathered and advanced on the visitors. “The big chief was now their leader. He had his warriors all drawn up around him about 250 yards from us....When he got within about 100 yards from us, I raised my rifle to my shoulder and said, ‘Fire!’” By the time the settlers fled Port Orford with nothing but their guns and axes, they had left about twenty Indians dead, including the headman.

Settlement of the marshy lands around the estuary of the Coos River began with a shipwreck. A federal troop ship, the Captain Lincoln, left San Francisco in December 1851, intending to deposit soldiers at Port Orford to prevent any further violence there. On the way the ship sprang a leak, but it could not land at Port Orford because of stormy weather, and so it limped north. On New Year’s Day of 1852 it passed the entrance to the Coos estuary and ran aground on North Spit. The captain, crew, and soldiers went ashore and set up a camp, trading with the Indians, who were friendly and helpful, for food and supplies. Not knowing exactly where they were, they called their settlement “Camp Castaway.”

The news of the shipwreck spread, and other white people came south from the Umpqua to help them. One of these, P.B. Marple of Jacksonville, in southern Oregon, went home to become a walking advertisement for the Coos Bay country, so taken was he with its scenery, resources, and economic prospects. He organized a stock company and collected $250 each from forty young men, vowing to lead them “to this new Promised Land,” as the wife of one of the men put it in her memoir. “He could easily have secured twice as many members, if he would have taken them,” she wrote.

Marple called his new venture the Coose Bay Company. His almost Biblical yearning for the promise of the frontier was repeated many times over in the motivations of the first European American settlers who pushed their way to the Pacific coast.

Fort George was mothballed after the completion of Fort Vancouver, one hundred miles upriver, in 1825, and the settlement of Astoria fell into ruins. The fort was guarded by one superintendent, according to a visitor in 1834, and the stockade surrounding it “is now overgrown with weeds and bushes, and can scarce be distinguished from the primeval forest which surrounds it on every side.”

© Gwen Wells, 2006.

Themes: Exploration,Resettlement

Regions: Oregon Coast

Date: 1825-1860

Author: Gwen Wells

Because the Pacific Northwest was the focus of international commerce, people of many different cultures came to or passed through the region.

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