American Heritage Chronicles — Early Oregonians
April 21, 2023 — We enjoy living in a relatively small community here in Florence, with a 2021 population count of only 9,475. We also enjoy not living in a major metropolitan region like Portland or Eugene/Springfield. And while Oregon ranks 27th among the 50 states with a population count of 4.3 million, it hasn’t always been that crowded, particularly when first discovered as a ‘country’ and then ‘territory’ in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.
Most of us might remember from our early school days, the famed Lewis & Clark Expedition of 1804 and 1805 when President Thomas Jefferson pressed for both exploration as well as eventual commercial settlement of the great then unknown region of the Oregon country. But another lesser-known expedition just a short few years later would bring a major impact to the area.
Although European explorers had scouted along the Pacific coastline in the late 1700’s, no settlements came from those efforts. That didn’t happen until wealthy Eastern businessman and entrepreneur John Jacob Astor launched his dual expeditions in 1810 to further Jefferson’s quest to expand what Lewis & Clark had established a few years earlier.
Apparently Astor had even more grandiose visions of creating a global empire than did Jefferson, and sent two different expeditions to reach the mouth of the Columbia River and establish a northwest trading post and empire – one by sea and one overland.
At that time, the free white inhabitants of the massive Northwest region consisted primarily of a few French and Canadian trappers, while the indigenous population was estimated at 50,000.
Both Astor’s seagoing party as well as his overland party eventually reached their destination and established a rudimentary post called Fort Astoria. While success looked promising it was short-lived for Astor as the post fell into British hands in 1813 and it became Fort George.
Both expeditions also suffered and in some cases partially survived their fair share of trials and tribulations in the attempts as well, particularly in the case of the overland expedition led by Wilson Price Hunt, who struggled with indecision at times and diverged from Lewis & Clark’s original route, causing delays and danger.
That expedition’s overland route left evidence of their footprints upon multiple places on the Oregon landscape and would eventually become a major portion of the Oregon Trail for settlers to follow in their own overland travels in the 1840’s and 1850’s.
Other explorers traveled the region in the 1820’s and 1830’s to settle the fertile soils of Oregon, particularly the Willamette Valley. In 1841, the area’s population was estimated at only
150 Americans, but by 1845 that number mushroomed to 6,000 for the Willamette Valley alone.
Two notable participants in Astor’s overland expedition of 1810-1812 include Marie Dorian, the Native American wife of a French trapper who was a member of the group, and John Day, a hunter from Virginia.
As if the challenges of Hunt’s Overland party were not enough, John Day himself suffered even more severe experiences, having been caught by hostile Indians in the Snake River region, stripped naked and left to wander for weeks. He miraculously survived his ordeal and eventually stumbled into another sprinter-group of members from the overland expedition, but would never fully recover emotionally from his ordeal. Despite having been reported dead at least four times during that period, his final and actual brush with death occurred in 1819. He bears the distinction of having two Oregon towns, a river, a Columbia River Dam and an entire Oregon region named in his honor.
Dorian traveled the expedition route with two young children, while pregnant with a third as well. That child was born along the trail in Eastern Oregon but sadly died within days. She would arrive in the valley eventually after several harrowing survival experiences. After reaching Astoria, Dorian and her family returned with a trapping party to the Snake River area in 1814, where her husband’s party was attacked and killed. Dorian survived for several months in the wilds, with her two children, and would outlast her French husband, re-marry several times and eventually pass away in 1850 while residing in St. Louis, Oregon, a small community in Marion County, just west of I-5. Her heritage is reflected in at least four places in both Oregon and Washington with parks as well as university halls or streets that bear her name. She has been the subject of numerous biographies including one by noted Oregon author Jane Kirkpatrick, and was also featured in a recent documentary “Into the Wild Frontier” shown on the INSP TV network.
When we think about the great migration west to settle the Oregon Territory in the 1840’s we most often think of the Oregon Trail and its impact. But the Applegate Trail was a southern route alternative for those immigrants not wanting to risk the perils of crossing the Blue Mountains or traveling the Columbia River for the last leg of their journey along the original route.
Established in 1846, the Applegate Trail branched away from the original trail route in Idaho, wound down through what is now the Klamath Basin into California and back north towards the Willamette Valley, passing through the Rogue River area in the process. It terminates in Dallas, Oregon in Polk County, but in the process winds through southern Oregon touching communities such as Ashland, Grants Pass, Wolf Creek, Creswell, Veneta, Monroe, Franklin and more, and travelers from it contributed to the settlement of those regions.
Much of the original route touches portions of present day I-5, Hwy 99 and Territorial Road, with historical markers in some of those spots. A small Applegate Trail Museum exists in
Veneta, but I have yet to catch them open for a visit. Throughout much of its route, highway signage still exists to show its evidence, including here in Lane County. Unfortunately, many of the actual heritage locations referred to by that signage are no longer accessible for unknown reasons. However, if you travel up Territorial Highway to the small community of Franklin, you can find an actual route that is presumably part of the original Applegate Trail, as the road bears that name designation. It winds for roughly four miles around the bottom of a butte, and ends at Hwy 36 in Cheshire. When you travel that picturesque route, you can almost imagine the wagons plodding along behind the oxen, carrying weary immigrants anxious to find their new home in Oregon..
So while the numbers of early Oregonians might pale in comparison to our current population counts, it is because of the efforts of those Early Oregonians that we enjoy our Oregon today.