On June 15, 1846, the United States and Britain signed a treaty dividing the Oregon Territory—which at that time stretched into British Columbia—at the forty-ninth parallel. The acquisition of Oregon, like the acquisition of Texas, was part of President Polk’s program of territorial expansion. In 1847 the Illinois Journal, a newspaper based in Springfield, Illinois, decided to publish letters from former Illinoisans who had been tempted by the promise of Oregon and emigrated there. Readers curious about what life was like in the wild, northern territory got a mixed bag of reviews. While all the settlers agreed that the region was healthy, they had different views regarding its climate, soil, water, timber—and its overall capacity to provide permanent happiness to restless Americans. The newspaper’s selections from these letters are included here.
Mr. Wm. Neily writes from Oregon, under date of 11th of April last—
“In my estimation, the Oregon country has been considerably over-rated in some respects. The Willamette Valley is the principal country susceptible of farming, and for this purpose the soil is very rich and handsomely situated; but as a general thing, the country is destitute of timber. The timber used for farming purposes is principally fir.—Though there is a considerable quantity of oak, it is short and scrubby,—not much of it fit for rails. The productions of Oregon have also been overrated. From the best information I could get concerning the wheat crops, they would not average over fifteen bushels to an acre, though it is true the last year was unfavorable. With the right sort of farming, 25 bushels may be raised to the acre on the average. Grass remains green all the winter in the valleys, but I do not think we can raise much corn in this country. The winter of 1845- was pleasant, but the last winter was cold and there was a good deal of snow. Some of the cattle of the last emigrants, which came into the valley poor, died last winter. The rainy season continues to the middle of April, and sometimes till May. It seldom rains during the summer.”
Mr. Isaac Statts, in a letter to a friend, dated “Polk County, Oregon, April 8, 1847,” says—
“I am highly pleased with this country, and so far as I can now say, shall spend the remainder of my days in it. It has assuredly the most healthy climate in the world. Many persons now here who have removed from State to State, in search of health and found it not, are now hearty and robust, capable of performing any kind of labor.—Grass has been very fine and abundant for the last six weeks. When wheat is well put in, you can safely count on 30 bushels an acre. Hemp, tobacco and flax do well here. It is a good country for sheep. There is sufficient water power to carry on manufacturing to any extent. I have built my house in a commanding situation, and have a fine view of the country for ten miles around, and it is quite refreshing on a warm summer’s day to feel the invigorating breeze from the Cascade mountains.—We have a most excellent spring within sixty yards of our house, near which we have made our garden. I am convinced that this is as fine a country as can be found. Any man disposed to be industrious and who would be satisfied any where, would be satisfied in this country.”
Mr. Hezekiah Packingham, formerly of Putnam County, in this State, thus writes to his brother under date of “Willamette Valley, March 1, 1847:”
“I arrived in the Wallamette [Willamette] Valley on the 30th of September, and my calculations are all defeated about Oregon. I found it a mean, dried up, and drowned country. The Yam Hill is a small valley, destitute of timber. I soon got sick of this place, and then went to the mouth of the Columbia river. I can give Oregon credit for only one or two things, and these are, good health and plenty of salmon, and Indians; as for the farming country there is none here—wheat grows about the same as in Illinois; corn, potatoes, and garden vegetables cannot grow here without watering. The nights are too cold here in summer. The soil is not as good as in Illinois—the face of the country is hilly, and high mountains covered with snow all summer, and small valleys—the mountains and hills are covered with the heaviest timber that I ever saw. We have had a very hard winter here, snow fell two feet deep, and lay three weeks, by reason of which hundreds of cattle have died of starvation. The thermometer fell to three degrees above zero.—Prairie grass here is the same as in Illinois. There is no timothy or clover. Mechanics are very numerous here. Of the ships that sailed from New York last April, but one arrived, and she was ice bound for 50 days, in latitude 59 1–2. It is supposed the other has gone to her long home. A United States man-of-war was recently wrecked at the mouth of the Columbia. Money is very scarce here—and they have a kind of currency here (orders on stores and scrip)—they value property very high, but if they would put things at cash prices, they would be about the same as they are in the States. Oregon is rapidly filling up with young men, (but no girls,) of whom two-thirds are dissatisfied, and many would return to the States if they were able, but the road is long and tedious, and it is hard for families to get back; my trip was pleasant until I got to the South Pass—after that the country was rugged, and bad roads. Tell young men if they intend coming to Oregon, to drive no teams unless it is their own. We were uninjured by the Indians, though they were very saucy—they have no manners; they worship idols, and I saw one of their gods at the mouth of the river. There is no society here except the Camelities [Carmelites?] I shall return to the States next spring. Don’t believe all that is said about Oregon, as many falsehoods are uttered respecting the country.”
The following is a letter from Mr. Elijah Bristow, formerly a resident of M’Donough County, in this State. He left home in the spring of 1845, for the purpose of exploring California and Oregon in view of a future settlement. It is stated in the Monmouth Atlas (from which paper we copy his letter) that “Mr. B. was a resident of McDonough county of some twenty years, and is reputed to be a man of excellent judgement, discriminating mind, with little of the visionary. He is 60 years of age.”
"Pleasant Hill, Oregon, April 4, 1847.
"On the 8th of March, 1846 we left the Sacramento, in California, and after traveling thirty-five days, we reached the head of the Willamette valley in Oregon. As soon as I had rested I commenced looking at the country. I have examined it with a jealous eye; and have come to the conclusion that the Creator has placed Oregon at that point of the globe where it will ever be healthy. It has a good soil, is well watered, and has excellent timber.—The country is not as extensive as I had anticipated, but there is much unexplored. I have settled on Pleasant Hill, in the forks of the Willamette, 150 miles above ship navigation, and 60 or 70 miles from Alsea Bay, supposed to be a ship harbor.
People can live here with half the labor they can in Illinois. Stock live without corn. Wheat never fails; it will come up three years without sowing, and it is not known how much longer, but the last crop was the best. I have seen here the best that I ever saw any where: 56 bushels per acre measured. Rust is not known. We have two crops of grass a year; for as soon as the fall rain sets in the grass springs up and continues green all winter. Oats grow well; they are almost an evergreen. Turnips are raised weighing 18 lbs., and beets out of all credit. Cabbage, potatoes and other vegetables come well when it is not too dry,—Corn does but poorly, owing to the cool nights (made so by the sea breezes), but sufficient corn can be made to fatten pork, &c. Sheep, I think, will do well. Every family should bring ten ewes. They drive better than cattle. There is a plenty of bear, deer and elk near Pleasant Hill; and I could catch a plenty of fish if I had time. It does not rain as much in the winter as I anticipated. Last winter we had twenty-eight snows and fifteen times the valley was white. Many cattle of the last year’s emigration died; but those that were here before did well. The new emigrants were obliged to feed their cattle on wheat in order to winter them. I have conversed who have been here thirty-eight and forty years who never saw so hard a winter before. We can have every variety of climate, for two days' ride will carry us from the sultry plains to the region of eternal snow. This country is not without its objections. The greatest I can see is, that it rains a little too much in winter and not quite enough in summer. The time of harvesting is very dry. The water is as pure as ever bubbled from the earth. Some people here are much dissatisfied not finding every thing they wished. The principal cause of dissatisfaction is the difficulty of obtaining such things as they need, in this new country where every thing is scarce and high. Wheat $1, cash. Sharpening prairie plow $1. Dressing gun $2, and other things in proportion. There are many claims for sale. Some are going back to the States. f you see any of them you will not hear the truth, for they exaggerate to a person’s face. There are many of the best of claims not taken and will not be for years. The Willamette is a noble river with a rapid current to the falls. I have been to the mouth of the Columbia—do not like it. It is well described by Lewis and Clark. I do not think Puget Sound a very good farming country, though some like it. I have been induced to tear myself loose from the embraces of a kind and affectionate family in order to seek an asylum where under the direction of a kind Benefactor we could better our condition: and I am the worst deceived man you ever saw, if I have not found that place. All I regret is, that I did not get my consent to it years before. No country can present a better prospect for health at least. Many here have gained their health since they left the States. There are many who were miserably poor when the[y] left the States, who could no sell their property for from $3000 to $4000.
You would do well to come to Oregon if you can only get an outfit for your places; for I would not give a claim on Pleasant Hill for all three of your farms. When I look around and make full extimate [estimate] of all the prospects that are apparently eligible I can hardly enjoy myself as a christian should. My whole soul is in this thing. Tell B*** to come along, and if there are any others you have confidence in persuade them to come; for I think I am not deceived. You know I am no enthusiast. I have endeavored not to exaggerate, and you know this in my common way of writing. I have therefore said but little, but you may know from what I do that I am much pleased. It requires work to live as in other places. But we can do with less labor and responsibility, (after we get fixed,) the stock wintering without grain. The farmer has little else to do but to reap and sow his wheat. I know I may be censured for advising you all so strongly to come to Oregon: for it would be almost a miracle if all so large a family should be pleased. But I have done what I know to be my duty: as you are all young. Your mother and myself are getting old but we shall live many years longer here no doubt than in Illinois. You may think the journey will be attended with many difficulties, but if you will fix as I advise it will be no killing job, for I tell you honestly, that if you were all here with only an outfit and two year’s clothing, with three cows per family, you would be better off than you now are with all you have. You will find the journey a summer excursion or a pleasure trip, if you are not too anxious. I have never repented for a single moment my undertaking; for it is the best effort of my life. Get good strong wagons, with five or six yoke of oxen to each, and make light yokes. Bale all your feathers, extra bedding, &c., by making a box to fit a mould: lay in an envelope, pack your feathers, &c. as closely as possible: secure by means of the envelope; knock the box about; make the bales small, so as to be easily handled. Bring all your books in trunks or light boxes, your meat and flour (not superfine) in sacks.
Bring a tea-kettle, bake oven, and skillet: use tin dishes on the road. Some people have only a frying pan to keep house with on the road, live principally on beans and soup, mush and milk, with meat occasionally. Stop in the buffalo country and dry meat; waste not a particle of anything; give none to the Indians. Admit then not into your camp. Get a tin can with a small top and cap to fit, and you can have butter all the way. Rise early and keep moving. Do not push or fret your cattle by whipping them, for they will give out on the latter part of the road, where they are most needed—never get irritated. The road is the place to try men’s souls; those who are clever there will be clever anywhere. Start by the 20th of March, and be at St. Joseph’s on the first of May almost at the peril of your lives! Be up and better yourselves! Loitering will never do! Pick your company; get among Christians, if possible. Strive to be in the first company. Methinks that if I could see you all here well, I could say with Simeon of old, “Now Lord lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.” Now my dear family adieu! and may the God of peace preserve you wholly till we are all permitted to meet on this distant shore, and again unite our voices in singing those solemn lays which have so often cheered our hearts whilst I was with you, and the memory of which, causes me to sigh for the society of my long absent family.—Adieu. Your’s in hope of a blessed immortality.
Source: Illinois Journal (Springfield, Illinois), November 11, 1847.