Following exploration by the Spanish in the 17th and 18th centuries, Lewis and Clark mapped Oregon during their expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. Starting in the 1830s, many groups of pioneers traveled to the state on the famous Oregon Trail, and the U.S. began joint settlement of the area with the United Kingdom. In 1846, the border between U.S. and British territory was formally established at the 49th parallel—the part of the territory given to the British would ultimately become part of Canada. Oregon was admitted to the Union as a state in 1859.
Portland, Oregon’s largest city, is considered one of the top cities in the nation in terms of quality of life. The state is also known as one of the nation’s top producers of wine, boasting 995 wineries and 1,370 vineyards as of 2022.
Oregon Native American History
Fossils found in the Paisley Caves in Oregon’s south-central region suggest that the first Native Americans arrived in the area more than 14,000 years ago from Asia. By the 16th century, these Indigenous people formed dozens of clans. Before the first European settlers arrived, they comprised more than 200,000 people and spoke over 60 languages. Major groups included the Chinook, Coos, Siuslaw, Coquille, Tillamook, Takelma, Molalla, Klamath, Modoc, Kalapuyan and Athabaskans, among others.
Oregon’s first permanent settlers in the early 19th century traded furs with Indigenous people and repeatedly brought deadly epidemics of malaria and other diseases. Throughout the 1830s, these outbreaks wiped out an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the Indigenous populations in some parts of the state.
In 1834, Methodist preacher Jason Lee arrived in Oregon intending to convert Indigenous people to Christianity. He founded the Indian Manual Training School—later known as Willamette University—in Salem in 1835. Although he was unsuccessful in his conversion efforts, his lobbying to Congress on behalf of Oregon laid the foundations for the territory’s eventual annexation. Over the following years, more Protestant missionaries, including the Whitmans, Spaldings, Eells, Walkers, Smiths and Clarks arrived in Oregon territory—none of whom were very successful in Christianizing Indigenous people.
Throughout the 1840s, many new settlers from the Oregon Trail took over Indigenous lands and introduced epidemics that wiped out more of the Native American population. In 1847, men from the Cayuse and Umatilla tribes rebelled against the incursion and killed roughly a dozen settlers, including the Whitman missionaries. The incident set off the Cayuse War between Indigenous tribes and the Oregon volunteer militia, who were later joined by the United States Army. Other battles between settlers and Native Americans, including the Rogue River Wars and the Yakima War, resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Indigenous people.
In 1855, numerous treaties forced the Cayuse, Kalapuyan, Clackamas, Molalla and other tribes to give up their land to the United States government and move to reservations. Many did not survive the 200-mile journey known as Oregon’s Trail of Tears. Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, more so-called “Indian Wars” with tribes including the Klamath, Modoc, Yahooskin Paiute, Modocs, Nez Perce and Northern Paiute stripped Indigenous people of their remaining native lands.
Throughout the next century, settlers continued to claim Oregon lands with the help of the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, which allowed the federal government to break up tribal reservation lands and resell plots to non-native settlers. From 1953 to 1954, Congress passed resolutions known as the Termination of Tribes, which dissolved Oregon’s Indigenous groups, including the Grand Ronde, Siletz, Coquille, Coos, Lower Umpqua, Siuslaw and Klamath. Their lands were taken over and sold to settlers. With the goal of “assimilating” Indigenous people into the general population, the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 forced Native Americans out of reservations and into urban cities such as Portland.
In 1968, Native Americans in Oregon joined the American Indian Movement to protest government policies that they blamed for poverty and cultural loss in their communities. From the 1970s to 1980s, nine Oregon groups were restored their federally-recognized status, including the Burns Paiute of Harney County Tribe; Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians; Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde; Confederated Tribes of Siletz; Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation; Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians; Coquille Indian Tribe; Klamath Tribes; and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.
Oregon Exploration and Colonial History
In 1774, Spanish explorer Juan Perez arrived for the first documented European visit to Oregon's coast. The following year, the Spanish explorers Bruno de Hezeta and Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra “discovered” the Columbia River. However, it wasn’t until 1792 that American Robert Grey sailed into the Columbia River, followed the same year by British captain George Vancouver.
Perhaps the most famous European exploration of the future state was the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which charted the Oregon territory from 1805 to 1806. Commissioned by the U.S. Department of War, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark voyaged the Columbia River with 30 travelers. Aided by the Nez Perce tribe, they spent the winter near Astoria at Fort Clatsop. Throughout their trip, the group cataloged hundreds of new plant and animal species and mapped the Pacific Northwest, helping lay future claims to the territory for the United States.
The first permanent European settlement in Oregon was established in 1811 at Fort George (now known as Astoria) by the British Pacific Fur Company. The British-Canadian Hudson Bay Company, which also traded in furs, later founded Fort Vancouver in 1824. Over the following decades, Oregon became the center of a robust regional fur trading network.
Competition between American and British companies led to a strategy of “trapping out” or decimating beaver populations in certain areas to prevent competitors from moving in. Due to the high demand for beaver hats and coats and unregulated trapping during these early settlement years, beavers were nearly extinct by the end of the 19th century. Since then, proper management has allowed semi-aquatic mammals to flourish once again. Known as the “Beaver State,” Oregon features a picture of a beaver on the back of its state flag.
The Oregon Trail and Manifest Destiny
In the early 19th century, the United States, Great Britain, Spain and Russia all disputed ownership of Oregon Country. John Quincy Adams, then secretary of state, convinced Russia to renounce its claims, and in 1818 Great Britain agreed to jointly occupy the region with the United States for a decade. After Florida residents rebelled for independence from Spain, Adams convinced Spain to cede West Florida and the Oregon territory to the United States for $5 million with the 1819 Treaty of Adams-Onis. In 1827, Great Britain and the United States agreed to continue their joint ownership of Oregon indefinitely.
In the 1820s, politicians began suggesting that Americans settle Oregon as part of a westward expansion push known as Manifest Destiny. Starting in 1843, thousands of emigrants made the 2,000-mile trek from Independence, Missouri, to the Oregon Country. This Oregon Trail was the most used of all routes during the Great Emigration. From the 1840s to the 1860s, up to 400,000 settlers took roughly six months traversing the Oregon Trail to reach the western United States, including Oregon, California, Washington and Utah. About 20,000 died on the way, mainly from disease and accidents.
In the 1840s, President James K. Polk—a staunch proponent of Manifest Destiny—made the United States’ sole ownership of Oregon Country a central plank of his policy. With the Oregon Treaty of 1846, Adams convinced Great Britain to cede the Oregon territory to the United States. The area would eventually become the states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana.
In 1848 Oregon officially became a U.S. territory, and in 1857 the territory petitioned for statehood. Oregon became the 33rd state admitted to the Union on February 14, 1859.
African Americans in Oregon
Oregon was admitted to the Union as the only state with a constitution that banned slavery while also blocking African Americans from moving to or residing in its borders. This exclusion clause remained in the state’s constitution until 1926, even though it was overridden when Oregon ratified the 14th Amendment in 1866.
In 1868, Oregon rescinded its ratification of the 14th Amendment and later refused to sign the 15th Amendment guaranteeing Black citizens the right to vote, even though that right was guaranteed by an Oregon Supreme Court decision. It wasn’t until 1959 that Oregon finally ratified the 15th Amendment, and in 1973 the 14th Amendment was re-ratified.
Throughout the early 20th century, Oregon struggled with racial inequality. The state sanctioned racial segregation in public facilities and services until the legislature passed anti-discrimination laws in 1953. In the 1920s, Oregon had the largest presence of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in any state west of the Mississippi. However, the first chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) west of the Mississippi was established in Portland in 1914. Following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, Portland grappled with school integration. Oregon achieved school desegregation in the 1970s with the closure of Black schools, which essentially forced Black students to attend white schools.
Coveted since the days of the Oregon Trail, Oregon’s fertile land continues to support agriculture. Oregon grows 99 percent of all hazelnuts produced in the United States, averaging around 37,200 tons harvested every year in the 2010s. It’s also the country’s leading producer of Christmas trees, producing more than 31 percent of all Christmas trees sold in the United States. In 2017, Oregon sold more than 4.5 million Christmas trees, netting a profit of $107 million in sales as of 2020.
Fishing has also long played an important role in Oregon’s history. Native Americans relied on fish—primarily salmon—that swam up the Columbia River from the Pacific Ocean as a major food source. The first settlers also depended on fish as a dietary staple.
In the mid-1850s, Oregon’s fishing industry expanded with inventions and improvements in canning, which allowed fisheries to export their product worldwide. The peak year for fishing in Oregon was 1911, when the state sold 49.5 million pounds of salmon. In the 20th century, new dams and overfishing decreased the amount of fish caught. As of 2020, more than 1.5 million pounds of fish and shellfish worth more than $5 million were caught or harvested in Oregon.
Date of Statehood: February 14, 1859
Population: 3,831,074 (2010)
Size: 98,379 square miles
Nickname(s): Beaver State
Motto: She Flies With Her Own Wings
Tree: Douglas Fir
Flower: Oregon Grape
Bird: Western Meadowlark
- Mount Hood, a dormant volcano that last erupted around 1865, is covered by 12 glaciers. At 11,239 feet, it is the tallest peak in Oregon.
- In November of 1986, the 80-mile-long Columbia River Gorge, which traverses the border between Oregon and Washington, was designated the country’s first National Scenic Area. Since the mixture of cool marine air on the western side of the Cascades and the drier air from the inland basin creates a natural wind tunnel, the gorge is considered to be one of the best places in the world for windsurfing.
- Oregon’s Crater Lake, formed in the remnant of an ancient volcano, is the deepest lake in the United States.
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Pacific University Oregon, Indigenous History of Oregon.
Oregon Historical Society, Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Northwest Power and Conservation Council, Fur Trade.
Northwest Power and Conservation Council, Beavers.
Oregon Historical Society, Jason Lee.
Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, Our Story.
National Park Service, The Dawes Act.
Oregon Department of Human Services, Overview of the Nine Tribes.
Pacific University Oregon, Indigenous History of Oregon.
Oregon Historical Society, The First Peoples.
Portland State University, The Native American Community in Multnomah County: An Unsettling Profile.
Nebraska Public Media, The Oregon Trail.
Oregon Historical Society, Oregon Trail.
U.S Department of State, Acquisition of Florida: Treaty of Adams-Onis (1819) and Transcontinental Treaty (1821).
Oregon-California Trails Association, First Emigrants on the Oregon Trail.
Michigan State University, Oregon Treaty 1846.
National Park Service, An Emergent Nationalism, 1815-1828.
U.S. Department of State, The Oregon Territory, 1846.
Oregon Secretary of State, Oregon History: Chronology - 1851 to 1900.
Oregon Public Broadcasting, Oregon Historical Photo: Celebrating Oregon's Statehood.
Oregon Historical Society, Blacks in Oregon.
Oregon Secretary of State, Black History Context.
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Measuring Hazelnuts in Oregon.
Oregon Agriculture in the Classroom Foundation, Christmas Trees.
Oregon Agriculture in the Classroom Foundation, Salmon.
Oregon Wine Board, Oregon Wine History.