Primary Source Documents

Colonizing the Oregon Country

By The OE Staff

Subjects: Colonialization, Native Americans, Politics, Western Expansion


Archeologists in the 1930s uncovered evidence that people have lived in what is now Oregon for over 9,000 years. The region has been continuously inhabited since then, supported by the bounty of a temperate climate and a varied ecosystem. While colonists from Europe were negotiating and warring their way into settlement along the East Coast, and Spain and Russia were planting flags and establishing missions on the upper and lower West Coast, Native peoples in the Pacific Northwest were building communities, developing trade networks, and forming political alliances. The region was bounded by mountain ranges and an unforgiving coastline, frequently obscured by fog. Native traders often left the Pacific Northwest to barter at foreign posts, and there is evidence of shipwrecks along the coast, but there is little evidence that foreigners penetrated the interior of the Oregon Country before 1792, when American Robert Gray sailed his ship, the Columbia Rediviva, over nautical terrors of the Columbia Bar to enter a massive river he named Columbia.

It was as if a giant seal had been broken over the region. Among the many foreigners who traveled to the Columbia Basin in the early nineteenth century, the Americans and British were able to take the strongest foothold. Within a few years, the Americans had sent a military expedition to the region (Lewis and Clark in 1805–1806), closely followed by American and British fur traders. Missionaries, mountain men, settlers, and merchants came in the 1820s and 1830s.

The Oregon Trail became a highway for overland travel during the 1840s, bringing thousands to the Willamette Valley and securing American dominance in the region, a reality the United States reified through the Oregon Treaty with Great Britain in 1846. The trail was so heavily used that parts of it still scar the ground. In 1850, Congress passed the Oregon Donation Land Act, which gave free land to white men and women and sent negotiators to the Oregon Country to persuade Native tribes through treaties to cede their homelands to U.S. ownership. The treaty system was flawed for many reasons, not least among them because the process favored white settlers and forced Natives to negotiate under duress. The terms of the treaties led in part to a series of Indian wars that further devastated Native communities and solidified the white colonization of Oregon. The effort to remake Oregon into a white man’s region was explicitly outlined in the state constitution in 1857, which included restrictions on suffrage, land rights, and basic citizenship.

White Americans believed they had "discovered" and "civilized" the Oregon Country, but there is no corner of the land that had not been observed, lived on, named, or managed by Native people long before Gray navigated his ship to the interior. The landscape was an intimate part of Native economies, culture, and theology, and it remains so. The white settlement of Oregon imposed on that world view, but it did not diminish or destroy it.

Content Standards

  • HS.13 Examine and analyze provisions of the Oregon Constitution and the U.S. Constitution.
  • HS.55 Analyze the complexity of the interaction of multiple perspectives to investigate causes and effects of significant events in the development of world, U.S., and Oregon history.
  • HS.60 Analyze the history, culture, tribal sovereignty, and historical and current issues of the American Indian/Alaska Native/Native Hawaiian in Oregon and the United States.
  • HS.63 Identify and analyze ethnic groups (including individuals who are American Indian/Alaska Native/Native Hawaiian or Americans of African, Asian, Pacific Island, Chicano, Latino, or Middle Eastern descent), religious groups, and other traditionally marginalized groups (women, people with disabilities, immigrants, refugees, and individuals who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender), their relevant historic and current contributions to Oregon the United States, and the world.
  • HS.65 Identify and analyze the nature of systemic oppression on ethnic and religious groups, as well as other traditionally marginalized groups, in the pursuit of justice and equality in Oregon, the United States and the world.
  • HS.66 Examine and analyze the multiple perspectives and contributions of ethnic and religious groups, as well as traditionally marginalized groups within a dominant society and how different values and views shape Oregon, the United States, and the world.
  • HS.69 Create and defend a historical argument utilizing primary and secondary sources as evidence.

Additional Sources

Oregon Encyclopedia Entries

Lang, William L. "Robert Gray."

Lang, William L. "Lewis and Clark Expedition."

Soden, Dale E. "Jason Lee."

Gandy, Shawna. "Francois Blanchet."

Shine, Gregory P. "Fort Vancouver."

Barbour, Barton. "Fur Trade in Oregon Country."

Trafzer, Cliff. "Native American Treaties, Northeastern Oregon."

Robbins, William G. "Oregon Donation Land Act."

LaLande, Jeff. "Council of Table Rock."

Nokes, Greg. "Black Exclusion Laws in Oregon."

Oregon Public Broadcasting Documentaries

Luther Cressman, Quest for First People

Fort Vancouver

Broken Treaties

The Modoc War

Additional Lesson Plans

Digital Public Library of America. Primary Source Sets Lesson Plan. Explorations of the Americas

Digital Public Library of America. Primary Source Sets Lesson Plan. Cherokee Removal and the Trail of Tears

Digital Public Library of America. Primary Source Sets Lesson Plan. The Homestead Acts

Digital Public Library of America. Primary Source Sets Lesson Plan. The Wounded Knee Massacre


The OE Staff. Colonizing the Oregon Country. 2020. Retrieved from The Oregon Encyclopedia, (Accessed May 25, 2024.)

Teacher Guide

  1. Have students examine and read about the 1. Robert Gray's Sea Chest How did Robert Gray's finding of the lower Columbia River change the economy of Oregon Country? How did it change Americans' understanding of the Pacific Northwest?

  2. Have students examine the 2. Map of Lewis and Clark's Track and the 3. Estimate of Western Indians. The Corps of Discovery, led by William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, traveled through Oregon Country without losing a single member to starvation or conflict. What does this tell us about the interaction of the Americans with local people? How did those interactions change over time?

  3. Have students examine the 4. Protestant Ladder. and read about 5. Rev. Jason Lee's Diary Why were missionaries influential in the early colonization of Oregon Country?

  4. Have students examine Document 6. Drawing of Fort Vancouver The drawing of Fort Vancouver depicts Native people engaging with fur trappers. What was the difference between Native connections with fur companies and Native connections with missionaries and settlers?

  5. Have students examine Document # 7. Proceedings of the Wasco Council, 1855 How would you describe the responsibilities of the U.S. government to Native Americans as described in the Wasco Treaty?

  6. Have students examine the following documents. 8. Barlow Road Toll Collection Authorization 9. Public Meeting at Champoeg 10. Oregon Land Donation Claim Notification 11. News Article, The Treaty for the Sale of Land. Consider the short amount of time from Gray sailing into the Columbia (1792) to the passage of the Oregon Donation Land Act (1850). What legislative and military methods did the U.S. government use to colonize Oregon Country so quickly?

  7. Have students examine 12. Draft of Oregon State Constitution. Why would delegates to Oregon's Constitutional Convention limit voting, land ownership, and other economic and legal rights to women, African Americans, Chinese, Native Americans, and other non-white groups? What purpose did it serve and what are the lasting effects?