IN MIDDLE-SCHOOL history classes, most Oregonians learned that Oregon was a “free” state in the runup to the civil war.
The familiar map of slave states and free states was a source of some pride, since everyone today sees the ludicrous injustice of the slavery system.
But the map was wrong.
The new state of Oregon was, in fact, unique in the country. Black people in Oregon in 1859 were neither slaves nor free; they were simply illegal.
Oregon is the only state that was admitted to the union with a racial exclusion law baked right into its constitution. No African-Americans could legally come to or live in the state — no slaves, no freemen, nobody.
And although the restriction wasn’t actually enforced, it wasn’t removed from the state’s law books until 1926.
As if that weren’t enough, after the Civil War, the state legislature actually rescinded its ratification of the 14th Amendment (equal protection). As for the 15th Amendment (voting rights for Black people), that was left unratified for 90 years — until 1959, on the eve of the state’s Centennial Celebration.
So, what gives? Most Oregonians today consider themselves among the more enlightened citizens of the country when it comes to matters of race. And yet the popular attitudes of just a few dozen years ago seem like those of another place entirely.
The answer is that Oregon was, in essence, another place entirely. Specifically, it was Missouri — which was, in the 1850s, very much a slave state.
A colony of Missouri
THE OREGON TRAIL started in Missouri, and although plenty of emigrants came from other states, the trail’s draw was strongest in the Show-Me State. Consequently, most of the torrent of settlers coming out west in the wagon trains of the 1850s was made up of frontier southerners. Moreover, they were poorish frontier southerners — with enough money to outfit a wagon and leave town, but not wealthy enough for it to make financial sense to stay. That gave them a particular outlook on race matters, and it’s that outlook that Oregon ended up stuck with.
First, the emigrants were near the bottom of the social pecking order, with Black freemen just below them. That meant they felt the pressure of social competition with those free blacks much more than their wealthier peers would have.
And secondly, the emigrants were leaving an environment in which the deck was stacked against them because their wealthier competitors were benefiting from free labor.
Emigrant Wilson Morrison, who left Missouri in 1844, phrased it succinctly: “Unless a man keeps [racial slur referring to Black people] ... he has no even chance; he cannot compete with the man who does. ... I’m going to Oregon, where there’ll be no slaves, and start over.”
So for these guys, it came down to competition. Black freemen would compete with them for social standing and for available resources; and Black slaves would make it impossible for them to compete with their slaveholding neighbors.
And there was another aspect to this as well: The Native Americans. Though many tribes were wiped out by exotic diseases, other Native Americans in Oregon were actively resisting the settlement process in those days — especially in the south and east parts of the state. What might happen if a population of Black freemen were to move to Oregon and make common cause with the Native Americans there?
Something hinting at that sort of thing had already happened, involving a free Black man named James Saules, back in 1844. Saules had married a Native American woman; in a subsequent dispute with a man named Cockstock over ownership of a horse, he threatened to raise an army of his wife’s relatives and start a race war. This, of course, was utter balderdash, but it got taken seriously at the time.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: In "reader view" some phone browsers truncate the story here, algorithmically "assuming" that the second column is advertising. (Most browsers do not recognize this page as mobile-device-friendly; it is designed to be browsed on any device without reflowing, by taking advantage of the "double-tap-to-zoom" function.) If the story ends here on your device, you may have to exit "reader view" (sometimes labeled "Make This Page Mobile Friendly Mode") to continue reading. We apologize for the inconvenience.]
THE SAULES INCIDENT touched off the first of several territorial laws excluding Black people from Oregon, later that year. That first law was known as the “Lash Law” — because it stipulated that any African-American caught in the territory would get “not less than 20, nor more than 39” stripes laid across his or her back with a whip. Then, if he or she did not leave within six months, the punishment would be repeated.
The brutality of this penalty proved shocking even to the hardened Southern settlers of the day, and its author, Peter Burnett, was later embarrassed by it. It was modified to exclude the whipping before it went into effect; but the name stuck, and the sentiment behind it could not have been more clear.
A colony of Massachusetts
WHAT MADE OREGON different from Missouri, though, was the presence of another cohort of settlers clustered around the trading port cities of the lower Willamette — such as Oregon City, Portland and Astoria. Of the elites of these towns, very few had come over the Oregon Trail from Missouri. They were, by and large, from New England states like Massachusetts, and they had come by sea, “around the horn.”
These New Englanders were not particularly worried about Black people one way or another. They were mercantile libertarians, wanting primarily to be free to pursue business success and personal happiness free of distractions such as the Civil War. From their standpoint, the presence in Oregon of Black freemen and slaves alike held only the potential for trouble; it would get the passions of those Southerners all inflamed. These Yankee traders saw the Civil War as a massive destruction of wealth and resources, and wanted no part of it. So they were just fine with keeping Black people out.
After the Civil War, though, worries of getting sucked into the war were gone, and the Yankees lost all enthusiasm for exclusion. Furthermore, Portland was a very Republican town in the 1800s, while the rest of the state was predominantly Democratic. And after the Civil War, the Republican Party was far less hostile to Black people.
So the African-Americans who did move to Oregon tended to settle in Portland, where they formed the nucleus of a friendly colony and could look after one another — rather like the Chinese did.
Oregon’s cultural legacy
THE CULTURAL LEGACIES of Missouri and Massachusetts, and their disparate attitudes toward Black people, were still very influential in Oregon right through the end of World War II — when thousands of Black families came to work in the shipyards, and returning servicemen brought back a more cosmopolitan, combat-forged attitude on race. The fruits of those influences are Oregon’s attitudes today, which most people agree are pretty modern.
But when you walk down a street in downtown Portland at rush hour and see only one or two non-white faces, it’s a reminder that Oregon is a latecomer to egalitarian enlightenment.
(Sources: Nokes, R. Gregory. Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory. Corvallis: OSU Press, 2013; McLagan, Elizabeth. A Peculiar Paradise: A History of Blacks in Oregon. Portland: Georgian Press, 1980; oregonencyclopedia.org; ohs.org)