The oldest known inhabitants of what is now the state of Oregon lived along the shores of huge lakes in the Klamath Lakes Basin some 10,000 years ago. Here they fished and hunted ducks and left records of their passing in several caves. These peoples would have witnessed the massive eruption of Mount Mazama, which left a vast caldera that eventually filled with water and was named Crater Lake. Along the coast, numerous small tribes subsisted on salmon and shellfish. In the northeast corner of the state, the Nez Perce tribe became expert at horse breeding even before Lewis and Clark passed through the region at the start of the 19th century. In fact, the appaloosa horse derives its name from the nearby Palouse Hills of Washington.
However, it was the Columbia River tribes that became the richest of the Oregon tribes through their control of Celilo Falls, which was historically the richest salmon-fishing area in the Northwest. These massive falls on the Columbia River, east of present-day The Dalles, witnessed the annual passage of millions of salmon, which were speared and dipnetted by Native Americans, who then smoked the fish to preserve it for the winter. Today Native Americans sometimes still fish for salmon as they once did, perched on precarious wooden platforms with dip nets in hand. However, Celilo Falls are gone, inundated by the water impounded behind The Dalles Dam, which was completed in 1957. Today little remains of what was once the Northwest's most important Native American gathering ground, a place where tribes from hundreds of miles away congregated every year to fish and trade.
Even before this amazing fishing ground was lost, a far greater tragedy had been visited upon Northwest tribes. Between the 1780s, when white explorers and traders began frequenting the Northwest coast, and the 1830s, when the first settlers began arriving, the Native American population of the Northwest was reduced to perhaps a tenth of its historic numbers. These people were not wiped out by war but by European diseases -- smallpox, measles, malaria, and influenza. The Native Americans had no resistance to these diseases, and entire tribes were soon wiped out by fast-spreading epidemics.
The Age of Exploration
Though a Spanish ship reached what is now southern Oregon in 1542, the Spanish had no interest in the gray and rainy coast. Nor did famed British buccaneer Sir Francis Drake, who in 1579 sailed his ship the Golden Hind as far north as the mouth of the Rogue River. Drake called off his explorations in the face of what he described as "thicke and stinking fogges."
However, when the Spanish found out that Russian fur traders dealing in sea-otter pelts had established themselves in Alaska and along the North Pacific coast, Spain took a new interest in the Northwest. Several Spanish expeditions sailed north from Mexico to reassert the Spanish claim to the region. In 1775 Spanish explorers Bruno de Heceta and Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra charted much of the Northwest coast, and though they found the mouth of the Columbia River, they did not enter it. To this day, four of the coast's most scenic headlands -- Cape Perpetua, Heceta Head, Cape Arago, and Cape Blanco -- bear names from these early Spanish explorations.
It was not until 1792 that an explorer, American trader Robert Gray, risked a passage through the treacherous sandbars that guarded the mouth of the long-speculated-upon Great River of the West. Gray named this newfound river Columbia's River, in honor of his ship, the Columbia Rediviva. This discovery established the first American claim to the region. When news of the Columbia's discovery reached the United States and England, both countries began speculating on a northern water route across North America. Such a route, if it existed, would facilitate trade with the Northwest.
In 1793 Scotsman Alexander MacKenzie made the first overland trip across North America north of New Spain. Crossing British Canada on foot, MacKenzie arrived somewhere north of Vancouver Island. After reading MacKenzie's account of his journey, Thomas Jefferson decided that the United States needed to find a better route overland to the Northwest. To this end, he commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to lead an expedition up the Missouri River in hopes of finding a single easy portage that would lead to the Columbia River.
Beginning in 1804, the members of the Lewis and Clark expedition paddled up the Missouri, crossed the Rocky Mountains on foot, and then paddled down the Columbia River to its mouth. A French-Canadian trapper and his Native American wife, Sacagawea, were enlisted as interpreters, and it was probably the presence of Sacagawea that helped the expedition gain acceptance among Western tribes. After spending the wet and dismal winter of 1805-06 at the mouth of the Columbia at a spot they named Fort Clatsop, the expedition headed back east. Discoveries made by the expedition added greatly to the scientific and geographical knowledge of the continent. A replica of Fort Clatsop in the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park is one of the most interesting historical sites in the state. Outside of The Dalles, a campsite used by Lewis and Clark has also been preserved.
In 1819 the Spanish relinquished all claims north of the present California-Oregon state line, and the Russians gave up their claims to all lands south of Alaska. This left only the British and Americans dickering for control of the Northwest.
Fur Traders, Missionaries & the Oregon Trail
Only 6 years after Lewis and Clark spent the winter at the mouth of the Columbia, employees of John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company managed to establish themselves at a nearby spot they called Fort Astoria. This was the first permanent settlement in the Northwest, but with the War of 1812 being fought on the far side of the continent, the fur traders at Fort Astoria, with little protection against the British, chose to relinquish control of their fort. In the wake of the war, the fort returned to American control, though the United States and Britain had not yet arrived at a firm decision regarding possession of the Northwest. The British still dominated the region, but American trade was tolerated.
The late-18th-century and early-19th-century traders who had come to the Northwest in search of sea otter pelts to sell in China quickly depleted the otter population, and with the decline of the otter population, British fur traders turned to beaver and headed inland up the Columbia River. For the next 30 years or so, fur-trading companies would be the sole authority in the region. Fur-trading posts were established throughout the Northwest, though most were on the eastern edge of the territory in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The powerful Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) eventually became the single fur-trading company in the Northwest.
In 1824 the HBC established its Northwest headquarters at Fort Vancouver, 100 miles up the Columbia near the mouth of the Willamette River, and in 1829 the HBC founded Oregon City at the falls of the Willamette River. Between 1824 and 1846, when the 49th parallel was established as the boundary between British and American northwestern lands, Fort Vancouver was the most important settlement in the region. A replica of the fort now stands in the city of Vancouver, Washington, across the Columbia River from Portland. In Oregon City, several homes from this period are still standing, including that of John McLoughlin, who was chief factor at Fort Vancouver and aided many of the early pioneers who arrived in the area after traveling the Oregon Trail.
By the 1830s, the future of the Northwest had arrived in the form of American missionaries. The first was Jason Lee, who established his mission in the Willamette Valley near present-day Salem. (Today the site is Willamette Mission State Park.) Two years later, in 1836, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, along with Henry and Eliza Spaulding, made the overland trek to Fort Vancouver, and then backtracked into what is now eastern Washington and Idaho, to establish two missions. This journey soon inspired other settlers to make the difficult overland crossing.
In 1840 a slow trickle of American settlers began crossing the continent, a 2,000-mile journey. Their destination was the Oregon country, which had been promoted as a veritable Eden where land was waiting to be claimed. In 1843 Marcus Whitman, after traveling east to plead with his superiors not to shut down his mission, headed back west, leading 900 settlers on the Oregon Trail. Before these settlers ever arrived, the small population of retired trappers, missionaries, and HBC employees who were living at Fort Vancouver and in nearby Oregon City had formed a provisional government in anticipation of the land-claim problems that would arise with the influx of settlers to the region. Today the best place to learn about the experiences of the Oregon Trail emigrants are at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center outside Baker City. In many places in the eastern part of the state, Oregon Trail wagon ruts can still be seen.
In 1844 Oregon City became the first incorporated town west of the Rocky Mountains. This outpost in the wilderness, a gateway to the fertile lands of the Willamette Valley, was the destination of the wagon trains that began traveling the Oregon Trail, every year bringing more and more settlers to the region. As the land in the Willamette Valley was claimed, settlers began fanning out to different regions of the Northwest so that during the late 1840s and early 1850s many new towns, including Portland, were founded.
Though the line between American and British land in the Northwest had been established in 1846 at the 49th parallel (the current U.S.-Canada border), Oregon was not given U.S. territorial status until 1848. It was the massacre of the missionaries at the Whitman mission in Walla Walla (now in Washington state) and the subsequent demand for territorial status and U.S. military protection that brought about the establishment of the first U.S. territory west of the Rockies.
The discovery of gold in eastern Oregon in 1860 set the stage for one of the saddest chapters in Northwest history. With miners pouring into eastern Oregon and Washington, conflicts with Native Americans over land were inevitable. Since 1805, when Lewis and Clark had first passed this way, the Nez Perce tribe (the name means "pierced nose" in French) had been friendly to the white settlers. However, in 1877 a disputed treaty caused friction. Led by Chief Joseph, 700 Nez Perce, including 400 women and children, began a march from their homeland to their new reservation. Along the way, several angry young men, in revenge for the murder of an older member of the tribe, attacked a white settlement and killed several people. The U.S. Army took up pursuit of the Nez Perce, who fled across Idaho and Montana, only to be caught 40 miles from the Canadian border and sanctuary.
Industrialization & the 20th Century
From the very beginning of white settlement in the Northwest, the region based its growth on an extractive economy. Lumber and salmon were exploited ruthlessly. The history of the timber and salmon-fishing industries ran parallel for more than a century and led to similar results in the 1990s.
The trees in Oregon grew to gigantic proportions. Nurtured on steady rains, such trees as Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, Western red cedar, Port Orford cedar, and hemlock grew tall and straight, sometimes as tall as 300 feet. The first sawmill in the Northwest began operation near present-day Vancouver, Washington, in 1828, and between the 1850s and the 1870s, Northwest sawmills supplied the growing California market as well as a limited foreign market. When the transcontinental railroads arrived in the 1880s, a whole new market opened up, and mills began shipping to the eastern states.
Lumber companies developed a cut-and-run policy that leveled the forests. By the turn of the century, the government had gained more control over public forests in an attempt to slow the decimation of forestlands, and sawmill owners began buying up huge tracts of land. At the outbreak of World War I, more than 20% of the forestland in the Northwest was owned by three companies -- Weyerhaeuser, the Northern Pacific Railroad, and the Southern Pacific Railroad -- and more than 50% of the workforce labored in the timber industry.
The timber industry, which has always been extremely susceptible to fluctuations in the economy, experienced a roller-coaster ride of boom and bust throughout the 20th century. Boom times in the 1970s brought on record-breaking production that came to a screeching halt in the 1980s, first with a nationwide recession and then with the listing of the Northern spotted owl as a threatened species. When the timber industry was born in the Northwest, there was a belief that the forests of the region were endless. However, by the latter half of the 20th century, big lumber companies realized that the forests were dwindling. Tree farms were planted with increasing frequency, but the large old trees continued to be cut faster than younger trees could replenish them. By the 1970s, environmentalists, shocked by the vast clear-cuts, began trying to save the last old-growth trees. The battle between the timber industry and environmentalists is today still one of the state's most heated debates.
In the Northwest, salmon was the mainstay of the Native American diet for thousands of years before the first whites arrived in the Oregon country, but within 10 years of the opening of the first salmon cannery in the Northwest, the fish population was decimated. In 1877 the first fish hatchery was developed to replenish dwindling runs of salmon, and by 1895 salmon canning had reached its peak on the Columbia River. Later, in the 20th century, salmon runs would be further decimated by the construction of numerous dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. Though fish ladders help adult salmon make their journeys upstream, the young salmon heading downstream have no such help, and the turbines of hydroelectric dams kill a large percentage of fish. One solution to this problem has been the barging and trucking of young salmon downriver. Today the salmon populations of the Northwest have been so diminished that entire runs of salmon have been listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Talk in recent years has focused on the removal of certain dams that pose insurmountable barriers to salmon. However, there has been great resistance to this.
The dams that have proved such a detriment to salmon populations have provided irrigation water and cheap electricity that have fueled both industry and farming. Using irrigation water, potato and wheat farms flourished in northeastern Oregon after the mid-20th century. The reservoirs behind the Columbia River dams have also turned this river into a waterway that can be navigated by huge barges, which often carry wheat downriver from ports in Idaho. Today the regional salmon recovery plan is attempting to strike a balance between saving salmon runs and meeting all the other needs that have been created since the construction of these dams.
Manufacturing began gaining importance during and after World War II. In the Portland area, the Kaiser Shipyards employed tens of thousands of people in the construction of warships, but the postwar years saw the demise of the Kaiser facilities. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a diversification into high-tech industries, with such major manufacturers as Intel, Epson, and Hewlett-Packard operating manufacturing facilities in the Willamette Valley.
However, it is in the area of sportswear manufacturing that Oregon businesses have gained the greatest visibility. With outdoor recreation a way of life in this state, it comes as no surprise that a few regional companies have grown into international giants. Chief among these is Nike, which is headquartered in the Portland suburb of Beaverton. Other familiar names include Jantzen, one of the nation's oldest swimwear manufacturers; Pendleton Woolen Mills, maker of classic wool shirts, Indian-design blankets, and other classic wool fashions; and Columbia Sportswear, which in recent years has become one of the country's biggest sports-related outerwear manufacturers. If you like to play outside, you probably own some article of clothing that originated in Oregon.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.