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The history of Oregon - the way I remember it, anyway

It was in the eighth grade that we got our biggest dose of Oregon history, and I remember liking it. We went to the state Capitol in Salem and also up to Champoeg, where our earliest settlers met in the 1840s to discuss everything from the wolf problem to whether or not they should have a government.

Kelly

Maybe, like me, it’s been a long time since you were in eighth grade — and maybe you’re just new to Oregon and you’re hungry for historical knowledge. Either way, it’s your lucky day because I’ve got a hankering to bring anyone interested up to date on some of our most important historical facts. You don’t need to take notes, though, because there will not be a test.

First of all, the name Oregon was being tossed around way back in the 1700s, when early explorers talked a lot about the famous (though nonexistent) “Northwest Passage.” One theory was that the Great Lakes were possibly connected to the Pacific Ocean by a river the Indians called Ouragon, which may or may not have been connected to the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Let’s face it, the early explorers were kind of a wacky bunch, what with their willingness to sail right off the edge of a flat earth, if that’s what it took to figure out what shape this planet really was.

Several European explorers have taken credit for discovering Oregon. Three or four major Spanish guys with Spanish names reported spotting parts of the Oregon coast at different times. Considering that we almost completely ignored the fact that native people had already been here for thousands of years, let’s just continue that stupidity and ignore these other foreigners and start with “our kind” of people, James Cook and Robert Gray.

Cook, who oddly enough was not a cook at all but a sea captain, explored the coast looking for the other end of that pesky Northwest Passage (which he did not find). And Gray, who would go on to make a name for himself in the construction business, had the audacity to sail up the Columbia in 1792, declaring this would someday be a great spot for the Rose Festival fleet to park.

But by far the biggest shot in the arm this territory received was with the arrival of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. As we all know, this expedition was led by comedian Jerry Lewis and TV personality Dick Clark, with help from a comely Indian maiden named Sacagawea, who I’m pretty sure looked a lot like Rita Coolidge. It was not an entirely smooth expedition, of course. After it was over, Lewis would team up with singer Dean Martin and Clark would go on to take over ownership of all American New Year’s Eve celebrations.

Many significant things came of the expedition, however, including the discovery (by white people, that is) of salmon, the Pacific Ocean, numerous waterfalls and the canoe, and it led to the building of Fort Catsup near what is now Astoria. The fort was so named because, for that entire first winter (which was unspeakably wet and cold), all the explorers had to eat was the tomato condiment they brought from Back East.

People continued to flock to the Northwest, especially after John Jacob Astor established the first white settlement at the mouth of the Columbia River. Astor dedicated his life to becoming filthy rich in the fur trade.

It was pretty much all trappers and roughnecks around here until Eastern religious leaders began hypnotizing their flocks with tales of fruitful land and plenty of space to spread their spiritual beliefs. In many cases, people packed up their entire towns, often even bringing along the city’s name — which is why we have names like Albany, Independence, Salem, Monmouth, Aurora and St. Louis.

I figure their heads were so full of other details (like how to get all the way here without taking a wrong turn, which Indians were nice and which weren’t, what plants they could eat, etc.) that they didn’t really want to have to learn a new town name when they got to their destination.

The Great Migration began in 1843, and it was a big deal in American history. Families would load all their belongings into covered wagons and walk or ride along beside them all the way across the country. The wealthiest kids — in families bound for the West Hills, Cooper Mountain and Lake Oswego — no doubt rode their trail bikes.

One of the best-known wagon train leaders was Ward Bond, who for years traveled back and forth to Oregon, teaching people his simple American values and rooting out bad guys who were attempting to get to the Northwest for the wrong reasons. Eventually, of course, they would make a hit television show about his life, with Mr. Bond playing himself.

Now, earlier we talked about Champoeg, but I wanted to mention one of the most important events to happen in this area’s history — the vote that was taken on May 2, 1843, on whether or not to set up a provisional government. That vote, in which two lines of people formed to indicate whether they wanted to establish a government or not, was 52-50. In pictures you’ll see the two lines separated by a few feet, with both sides looking at each other.

Right after the vote, of course, they broke into a reel, which was a popular dance at the time, in which people on each side danced out, greeted each other, then began galloping down the line, arm in arm, laughing and carrying on as if they were drunk, which they may have been.

One of the people present at that 1843 Champoeg vote was Harry Glickman, who later would help form the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team, but he was very young then.

Former managing editor of several community newspapers, including the Woodburn Independent, Lake Oswego Review and the Times papers, Kelly is chief of the central design desk for Community Newspapers and the Portland Tribune, and he contributes a regular column.




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