The promise of free land in Oregon Territory in the early 1800’s lured many settlers westward. Entrepreneurs like John Jacob Astor, who founded the Pacific Fur Company in 1811, moved to the region and sought to establish their businesses almost as soon as Lewis and Clark finished their overland expedition to the Pacific Ocean. By 1818 interest in the area led to the pact between the United States and Britain to share occupancy of the Oregon Country.
Growing tensions over slavery between the North and the South made moving to Oregon a tempting alternative to the possibility of war between the states. In 1838 Methodist missionary Jason Lee petitioned Congress for legislation to secure titles to acreage the settlers occupied and to extend jurisdiction of United States laws over the territory. With the assurance the land claimed could become a permanent home, larger numbers of settlers arrived in the Willamette Valley by 1840.
My great-great-grandfather heard the call. He’d left his childhood home in Syracuse, New York and gone to work for his uncle on the railroad in Michigan. A fellow laborer filled his head with tales of the new territory, telling him the land was a place of “milk and honey” much like the Israelites were told before they entered Canaan (Exodus 33:3). A man could claim 320 acres in the Willamette Valley and if he were married, his wife could claim an additional 320 acres.
All for free.
After gathering as many facts as he could find about surviving such a move, my great-great-grandfather invested in livestock and equipment to make the journey. He and a few other young men joined the Hulin wagon train in 1847. He crossed the prairie on his faithful mare, Dolly, and even though a new easier route coming up from California had been established for wagons, avoiding the arduous path taken by fur trappers and miners earlier, the trek took six months. My great-great- grandfather’s adventure had just begun.
Author’s note: This is the beginning of a series of stories about my grandfather’s heritage as I research his adventures in the 1840’s. More excerpts to come.
Do you know your family’s history? What have you learned?