Portland Walking Tours

Happy Birthday, Oregon – You’ve come a long way!

February 14th, 2009

The march to American settlement and eventual statehood started in 1811 – almost 200 years ago – when John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Trade Company established Fort Astoria, the first permanent American settlement in Oregon Country.

A mere 35 years later, the United States and Great Britain signed the Oregon Treaty, which designated the 49th parallel as the international border, making it possible for Congress to create Oregon Territory two years later. At that point, the non-native population was about 6,000. It didn’t take that long for the pioneers to get together and start working on a constitution for statehood. 33 farmers, 18 lawyers, five miners, two newspapermen and a civil engineer met in Salem and envisioned an agrarian state of white farmers. The delegates’ greatest shortcoming was failure to resolve the issue of slavery. In consequence – even with the pushy pro-slavery separatists in southern Oregon – slavery was axed from the proposed constitution, but was submitted to voters in the form of two questions: “Do you vote for slavery in Oregon?” and “Do you vote for free negroes in Oregon?”

In the end, what they created was a wordy constitution that was later viewed as a narrow-minded and generally unoriginal. Oregon Territory voters (restricted to about 10,000 white, male citizens) adopted the constitution by a margin of more than two to one in November 1857. Seventy five percent of the electorate rejected slavery but eighty-nine percent voted to exclude free blacks from the state, a provision that was generally not enforced but nonetheless influenced the state’s demographics. Through this vote, Oregon ended up becoming the only state to have a Black Exclusion provision in its Constitution even though it banned slavery.

Back east, many had reason to object to creating a western state that had rejected slavery and free blacks at a time when the nation had turned its attention to the fights between abolitionists and pro-slavery factions. Regardless, on February 12, 1859, after a delay of more than two years, the U.S. Senate passed a bill granting statehood to Oregon. It was signed by President Buchanan two days later making February 14, 1859 the official date of statehood. However, it takes nearly a month for the news — which was relayed by telegraph to St. Louis, by stagecoach to San Francisco, by steamer to Portland, and by messenger on horseback to Salem — to finally reach governor Oregon Territory Joseph Lane.

Fortunately, the Black Exclusion provision of the Constitution was not enforced. In 1926, Oregon voters rescinded the “free negroes” exclusion in Article of the Constitution, but strangely left the “Do you vote for free negroes in Oregon?” question in another Article. It wasn’t until only 7 years ago (!?) that we finally removed the last traces of this staggered start to statehood.

These issues behind race and color are just some of the incredibly fascinating tidbits we cover on our “Underground Portland” walking tour.