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Willamette Valley History


Yamhill County - The "Oregon Question" and Provisional Government - Cayuse Indian War

Yamhill County

Yamhill was the second of the four original districts created by the Provisional Legislature in 1843. Its boundaries were drawn to include all the area from the Willamette River west to the Pacific Ocean and from the Yamhill River south to the California border. The district consisted of 12,000 square miles; however, twelve counties were eventually created from Yamhill County leaving 709 square miles within its present borders. The county shares borders with Washington County to the north, Tillamook County to the west, Polk County to the south, and Marion and Clackamas Counties to the east.

The county was named for the original inhabitants of the area, the Yamhill Indians, a tribe of the Kalapooian family, who lived around the Yamhill River. The tribe was moved to the Grand Ronde Reservation in 1855. The earliest non-native settlers entered the area in 1814; most were employees of the various fur companies operating in Oregon. Many of the American immigrants who came over the Oregon Trail during 1843-1844 settled in the Yamhill region, which became the agricultural center of the Willamette Valley.

LaFayette, at one time the principal trading center of the western Willamette Valley, became the county seat in 1847. The first courthouse, purchased in 1850, was originally a county store in LaFayette. The building was destroyed by fire in January 1857, and all records except probate and land records were destroyed. The next courthouse was built in 1858 and remained in use until the county seat moved in 1889 to McMinnville where a new courthouse was built. The fourth and present courthouse was built in 1964.

Yamhill County government originally consisted of three commissioners, district attorney, assessor, clerk, sheriff, surveyor, and treasurer. In 1964 the probate function was transferred from the jurisdiction of the county court to the district court. The county court was abolished in 1968 and the board of commissioners was established in 1969.

The population of Yamhill County in 2000 was 84,992 representing a 29.66% increase over 1990.

Yamhill County ranks seventh out of Oregon's thirty-six counties in annual market value of its agricultural production. Today, the county's primary industry is agriculture, specifically wheat, barley, horticulture, and dairy farming. Yamhill County is also the center of Oregon's wine industry. One-third of the county is covered with commercial timber, and the economic mainstay of the western part of the county is logging and timber products. Non-seasonal light industries have also located in Yamhill County. Nearly one-fifth of the county's workforce commutes to the Portland metropolitan area.

Courtesy of Oregon State Archives

Oregon History- The "Oregon Question" and Provisional Government

Oregon was an Indian land but a prize lusted for by two partisans. In 1845 President James K. Polk informed Great Britain he wanted resolution of the issue of sovereignty in the Pacific Northwest. In the agreement reached in 1828, the nations had one year in which to resolve the long-simmering "Oregon Question." Polk was an avowed expansionist. A Democrat, he sought the presidency in 1844 on a simple platform: the annexation of Texas and the occupation of Oregon. The Tyler administration took care of acquiring Texas before Polk was sworn into office, but he persisted in an aggressive agenda of American expansion. Polk campaigned under the popular slogan "54-40 or fight," a contention that the southern boundary of Russian America was the northern boundary of Oregon. He pressed through diplomatic channels and used his inaugural address to assert American rights to all of Oregon. His ambitions far exceeded the area of American activity.

Resolution came on June 15, 1846, in the Oregon Treaty. Polk was already in pursuit of a greater prize--California--and had helped engineer a declaration of war against Mexico by massing troops along the Texas border until they were attacked by Mexican soldiers. Oregon became a sidebar in the unfolding story of the Mexican War. While Congress was willing to plunge the country into a war against its neighbor to the south, it was opposed to entering a conflict with Great Britain. That nation, beset with internal disputes over Corn Law reform, was likewise eager to reach a settlement. Thus in 1846 the two countries agreed to extend the boundary on the 49th parallel westward from the crest of the Rockies to the primary channel between Vancouver Island and the continent. British citizens and the Hudson's Bay Company retained trading and navigational rights in the Columbia River, though the United States subsequently terminated those privileges in 1859.

By 1846 the arguments of the United States to claim the Oregon Country were founded on more than "discovery rights." Several thousand Americans had settled in the region. Every year the arrival of new emigrants tipped the scale against the Hudson's Bay Company. The Americans had also established a Provisional Government. Its genesis came with the death in 1841 of Ewing Young. A former mountain man who had built up cattle herds in the Chehalem Valley and owned more than $3,000 in promissory notes from his neighbors, Young died without heirs. Residents gathered after his funeral to discuss what to do with his property. They agreed to name a committee to draft a civil code. Father Blanchet served as chair. When they assembled four months later, Blanchet reported his committee had not met. Disagreements between French-Canadians and Americans about the form of self-government and its powers had created an impasse.

The arrival of overland emigrants in 1842 and the increase of retired fur trappers who settled in the Willamette Valley with their mixed-blood families complicated matters. Old settlers and new arrivals worried about their land claims. They wondered what might happen if Congress passed Linn's bills granting lands to Americans who settled in Oregon. Wild animals brought to a head the decisions for a government. Grizzlies, black bears, cougars, and wolves ranged freely in the Willamette Valley. Their destruction of livestock gave cause in the spring of 1843 for a "Wolf Meeting." A second Wolf Meeting led to the decision to create a system of government. On May 2, 1843, at Champoeg, Joseph Meek posed the critical question: "Who's for a divide? All for the report of the committee and organization follow me," he shouted. By a close vote, perhaps 52 to 50, those wanting the government prevailed.

What was the significance of the Provisional Government? In spite of claims that the vote in the spring of 1843 on French Prairie sealed the fate of American sovereignty to the Oregon Country, there is no evidence that the Polk administration weighed the action. What was important and known to the decision-makers across the continent was that an American colony had developed on the shores of the far Pacific Ocean.

The Provisional Government informed the Polk administration of its existence. It passed memorials in 1843 and 1845 seeking congressional attention to the needs of Americans in Oregon. The memorial of June 28, 1845, petitioned for naval yards, mail service, land grants, military protection, and territorial status. On December 8 Thomas Hart Benton presented the document to the Senate. These endorsements and his election were all the expansionist President Polk needed in an era when many felt it was America's manifest destiny to spread from sea to sea. Whitman's ride across the continent in 1838 and the events at Champoeg--the lore of Oregon history--did not tip the scales. The United States had embarked on a grand scheme of territorial growth. Oregon was only part of the plan.

The Oregon Provisional Government played an important role in creating order on a frontier. For more than two decades the Hudson's Bay Company held and exercised civil authority and control of the fur trade, while maintaining peace in dealing with Indian tribes. Its power did not extend to American settlers and ended in 1846 with the Oregon Treaty. The Provisional Government filled the void. It provided for laws governing land claims, instituted taxation, formed counties, created the offices of governor and legislators, and set up a court system. Popularly elected representatives hammered out these decisions between 1843 and 1845. The proposals were often revised, for newly arrived emigrants increased the electorate and brought their experience and men with political ambitions. The Provisional Government was in constant flux, but George Abernethy, a former lay worker for the Methodist Mission, continued as governor.

J. Henry Brown collected the correspondence and decisions made in Oregon City and published them as Brown's Political History of Oregon (1892). He dedicated his documentary volume to the "intrepid men and women" who helped lay the foundation of the Pacific states and "builded better than they knew." The legislature patterned many of its laws on those of the Iowa Territory, including weights and measures, criminal codes, and vagrancy. In 1843 the legislature put bounties on wolves, panthers, bears, and lynxes. Cash payments for the skin of the head with ears of these animals soon decimated their population and led to the extinction of several species in Oregon. The Law of Land Claims permitted individuals to file on as much as a square mile, but only one claim at a time, and restricted filings on key town sites or waterpower locations.

The Provisional Legislature banned permanent residency of free African-Americans and mulattoes. Any reaching age 18 had two years to leave the Oregon Country, as did anyone held in slavery. The initial penalty for failure to leave was not less than 20 nor more than 39 lashes. In 1844 the legislature amended the law to put violators out to low bid for public labor and removal. The law, though never enforced, confirmed the racial prejudice of the frontier generation moving into the Willamette Valley.

Courtesy of Oregon Blue Book

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Cayuse Indian War

Cold winds swept across the Columbia Plateau. In November 1847, they heralded the onset of the winter of discontent. Too long had the Cayuse Indians suffered from new diseases and the failed ministrations of Dr. Marcus Whitman. In their culture a shaman or curer who failed was subject to death. This doctor, a strapping, determined white man had come into their lands uninvited. The mission he and his wife established worked like a magnet to draw emigrants. Each year the wagon trains descended the Blue Mountains and, like the grasshoppers that swept across the countryside, they heralded discomforting changes. Smallpox, measles, fevers, death, and mourning came in their wake.

On November 29, 1847, a band of Cayuse men, fed by fear and resentment, fell upon the missionary station. In a matter of hours they murdered Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and a dozen others. Two more died subsequently of exposure and 47, many orphaned children of emigrants, were taken captive. The Spaldings fled Lapwai and skirted the Cayuse homeland in their dash to safety. Panic swept through the Willamette settlements. Initially the settlers thought the tribes of the Columbia Plateau might drive through the Gorge and attempt to murder them, too.

The Provisional Legislature faced its greatest test. While Peter Skene Ogden of the Hudson's Bay Company was rushing east with 16 men to try to ransom the hostages, Governor Abernethy called for "immediate and prompt action." The legislature authorized raising companies of volunteers to go to war against the Cayuse Tribe. It entrusted command to Colonel Cornelius Gilliam and named a committee to negotiate with the Hudson's Bay Company for loans of arms, ammunition, and supplies to mount the campaign. The government wrestled with two approaches: one, to send peace commissioners to try to persuade the Cayuse to turn over the perpetrators; and, two, to wage a war of retribution. In short order it did both. Governor Abernethy appointed a peace commission--Joel Palmer, Henry A.G. Lee, and Robert Newell. Gilliam, who did not approve of the commission, set out in January 1848 with more than 500 volunteers.

The Cayuse War became, at times, a war of nerves. The peace commissioners and friendly Indians tried to end hostilities and get the Cayuse to turn over the killers of those at the Whitman station. Gilliam and his forces, eager for action, provoked conflicts with both friendly and hostile Indians. In March, having persuaded the Cayuse to surrender five men, the military brought them to Oregon City. They were charged, tried, and hanged in 1850. The guilt of the five Indians and the jurisdiction of the court were not fully established. Controversy swirled for decades after this trial--the first culminating in capital punishment following legal proceedings in the Oregon Territory.


Courtesy of Oregon Blue Book

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Some of the history and photos courtesy of Oregon Blue Book

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