How did Oregon Get Its Name?
Oregon has given etymologists no end of trouble and nobody knows for sure how it originated. More theories have been advanced to explain the origin of Oregon than that of any other State name.
In 1765 Major Robert Rogers (1732-1795) of Rogers' Rangers fame petitioned King George III for permission to conduct an exploring expedition to the Pacific by way of the river "called by the Indians Ouragon." This is believed to have been the earliest use of the term that ultimately became Oregon. Oregon did not become familiar to the American public until William Cullen Bryant
used it in "Thanatopsis," which was first published in the North American Review in 1817 and which contains the lines:
It is hard to say who was the first white man to set foot on what is now Oregon. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542; Francis Drake in 1579; Martin d'Aguilar in 1602 and other early explorers sailed along the Oregon coast. Hugo Heceta explored the coast in 1774 and 1775 and was the first white man positively known to have landed on any part of what is now Oregon. Captain James Cook explored the region in 1778 and in his report called attention to the presence of sea otters in the Northwest.
Spain claimed the entire western coast of North America by virtue of the papal line of demarcation of 1493 and by "right of discovery and exploration," but the Nootka Convention between Spain and Great Britain in 1790 granted the British trading privileges down the coast to Upper California and clouded the title of Spain. A few years later the Spanish abandoned their station at Nootka. Russia admitted the Spanish claim to territory on the coast as far north as 54 degrees and 40 minutes. Great Britain claimed the territory by virtue of the discoveries and explorations of Drake and Cook and occupation by a few fur traders.
Meanwhile, a group of Boston businessmen decided to link the China trade and the Northwestern fur trade in a single operation. For the first voyage they employed John Kendrick as commander of the expedition and captain of the ship Columbia, and Robert Gray (1755-1806) as captain of the sloop Lady Washington. Gray, a native of Rhode Island, was a naval veteran of the Revolutionary War and a seasoned navigator. The two vessels sailed from Boston in September, 1787, and reached the Northwest coast by way of Cape Horn. After gathering a cargo of sea otter skins, the Columbia under the command of Gray started in July, 1789, on its homeward voyage by way of China. The American captain, after having sailed nearly 42,000 miles and carried the United States flag around the earth for the first time, reached Boston on August 10, 1790.
In 1811 John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company, an affiliate of the American Fur Company, established Astoria. a fort and trading post near the site of Lewis and Clark's old "Fort Clatsop." Two years later the British partners in the Pacific Fur Company, anticipating seizure of their property during the War of 1812, sold their interests to the British North West Company.
On May 3, 1843, when the "Oregon fever" was increasing in the United States, the inhabitants of the Willamette Valley held a convention at Champoeg "for the purpose of taking steps to organize themselves into a civic community, and provide themselves with the protection secured by the enforcement of law and order." Dr. McLoughlin, the Hudson's Bay factor at Fort Vancouver, seeing his control of the territory slipping from his hands by the mounting influx of Americans, counseled against the movement on the ground that the time was not ripe for organizing a local government. Pro-British and Pro-American delegates in the Champoeg convention were divided 51 to 51 when Joseph L. Meek demanded a roll call on the question. On the final division, a French Canadian named Francis Xavier Matthieu changed his vote and the Pro-Americans won by a vote of 52 to 50. Another French-Canadian delegate also voted with the Americans. On July 5 of the same year the delegates reassembled at Champoeg and adopted "articles of compact" to be effective "until such time as the United States of America extend their jurisdiction over us."
The British, who had abandoned all hope of acquiring the whole of the Oregon country, were now willing to settle the question, but they insisted on the Columbia River as the dividing line, while the United States several times offered to settle for a westward extension of the Anglo-American boundary from the Lake of the Woods along the forty-ninth parallel. This left what is now the State of Washington as disputed territory. Later in 1844 a resolution was introduced in the House of Representatives authorizing the President to give Great Britain a year's notice of the termination of the "joint occupancy" agreement, and this resolution was finally passed by Congress.
The Democratic platform of 1844 declared that "our title to the whole of the territory of Oregon is clear and unquestionable" and that "reoccupation of Oregon" at "the earliest practicable period" is a great American measure. This meant that the Democratic Party claimed for the United States all of the Oregon territory to the parallel of 54 degrees and 40 minutes north, which was the southern mainland line of Russian America. "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight" was a Democratic slogan of the campaign.
Although James K. Polk was elected President on the "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight" slogan, his Secretary of State, James Buchanan, to avoid further friction and possible war with Great Britain during the Mexican War, offered to settle for the forty-ninth parallel to the Straits of Juan de Fuca and down the Straits to the sea. Great Britain accepted, and the treaty was signed June 15, 1846.
By this treaty the United States acquired a clear title to 286,541 square miles of territory. Dr. McLoughlin, known to the Indians as the White Eagle, left the Hudson's Bay Company, remained in American territory and applied for American citizenship. He had lost to Great Britain a large part of the Oregon Country but saved for it that part now in British Columbia.