Genealogical Research in Oregon—Oregon's First Settlers

By Connie Lenzen, CG


"Oregon's 'healthful' climate and fertile soil . . . appealed to desperate families from older states suffering the economic effects of the Panic of 1837. [By 1850] nearly 60 percent of the territory's pioneer families were from the states that lined the Ohio and Upper Mississippi rivers."

The Fur Trappers

Four nations explored and claimed the region of the mythical river Ouragon—Britain, Spain, Russia, and the new United States. In the wake of the American Revolution, it was a land that all wanted to exploit but one in which their families did not care to settle. Another quarter century of political maneuvering left the contest to Britain and her former colony; but the joint occupancy that this pair agreed upon in 1818 was a mere legal technicality. Aside from the adventurous treks of mountain men, Caucasian America sent few of her sons and apparently none of her daughters there until the 1830s. 1

Nonetheless, European-American families were created and records were kept. Traders and trappers took Indian wives and fathered a new people. Out of their ranks, there emerged Oregon's first farm community when, in 1829, a retired French-Canadian trapper named Etienne Lucier settled his family, broke ground, and planted crops near present-day Champoeg State Park, north of Salem. French Prairie the site is called, in tribute to Lucier and the French-Canadian trapper-farmers who joined him. 2 The St. Paul Mission Historical Society collects and preserves the culture of these first settlers in Oregon.

Meanwhile, the 1820 merger of Britain's North West Company with Hudson's Bay company resulted in the latter's construction of Fort Vancouver, near the Columbia River's juncture with the Willamette. For the next two decades, the fort was to be the center of commerce and civilization in the Pacific Northwest. 3

Under the administration of the company's chief factor, Dr. John McLoughlin, careful journals were kept—documenting visitors to the fort and parties involved in the exchange of goods. The originals of these manuscripts still exist at the Hudson's Bay Archives in Winnipeg; some have been published, 4 and many are available on microfilm through interlibrary loan.5 The Hudson's Bay Company's website is at

Also under McLoughlin's capable regime, a branch post was established at Willamette Falls (now Oregon City); and in 1842 he had the townsite surveyed and platted to accommodate American settlers who were by then pushing westward over the Rockies.6

For an interesting account of Fort Vancouver in 1832, click here.

Early Settlement

Visiting Iroquois trappers, who were converts to Catholicism, laid the groundwork for the missionary efforts that brought the first pioneer families into Oregon.

Seeing in the Iroquois a promise that the white man's religion might earn them influence; in 1831, the Flatheads and Nez Perces sent envoys on Saint Louis-bound trade caravans, asking for "black robes." From the press and the pulpit, the request was magnified into a ground swell of religious fervor; and several denominations rushed missionaries to the Pacific Northwest. Principal among these were the Methodist Jason Lee, whose small party arrived in 1834 with a commercial entrepreneur from the east and established its mission in the Willamette Valley; the Presbyterians under Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Reverend and Mrs. Henry Spalding, who settled at Waiilatpu, near present Walla Walla, Washington; and the Catholic fathers F. N. Blanchet and Modeste Demers, who established a mission at French Prairie. 7

To see a transcription of the early Methodist church records, click here.

For more information about the early Catholic church records, click here.

To read the petitions of the early French Prairie settlers to the Bishop of Juliopolis, requesting a priest, and to see the list of settlers in 1837–1838, click here.

Some converts were won, particularly among the Nez Perces and Flatheads; and the missionaries—especially the Spaldings—succeeded in teaching some of the white man's skills to their charges. But the price was tribal unrest, new strains of diseases, and pamphlets encouraged principally by the Lees. Extolling Oregon's "healthful" climate and fertile soil, this propaganda appealed to desperate families from older states suffering the economic effects of the Panic of 1837. Concurrent with the General Preemption Law of 1841, by which Congress attempted to alleviate the national suffering by permitting settlers to "squat" on tracts of the public domain, Oregon became a land of promise.

The early trickle of migrants turned into a flood across the two-thousand-mile-long Oregon Trail. When the first sizable train arrived in 1842, three agricultural communities already awaited it—the French-Canadians and their ethnically mixed families south of Champoeg (present Marion County); a newer settlement of American ex-fur traders and their similar families at Rocky Mountain Retreat on the Tualatin Plains (present Yamhill and Marion counties); and the Methodists near Salem (Marion County)—all in the temperate Willamette Valley. 8

To see a transcription of the 1842 Oregon census, click here.

Wagon Trains

During the 1840s, Oregon's population increased rapidly. The first comprehensive census, taken in 1845, tallied more than 2,000 inhabitants—1,259 of them males; and that population doubled by he end of the year. In 1847 alone, over 5,000 individuals made the trek across the Oregon Trail. At the point where the trail divided, with one fork going to California and the other to Oregon, two-thirds of the pioneers opted for Oregon.9 The following table gives trail statistics.
Year Oregon Utah & California
1840 13 0
1841 24 34
1842 875 0
1843 875 38
1844 1,475 53
1845 2,500 260
1846 1,200 1,500
1847 4,000 2,650
1848 1,300 2,800
1849 450 26,500
1850 6,000 46,500
1851 3,600 2,600
1852 10,000 60,000
1853 7,500 28,000
1854 6,000 15,167
1855 500 6,184
1856 1,000 10,200
1857 1,500 5,300
1858 1,500 6,150
1859 2,000 18,431
Trail statistics from: William E. Hill, The Oregon Trail, Yesterday and Today (Caldwell, ID: The Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1989), xxv.
The first federal census, taken in 1850, listed over 13,000 persons (roughly 12,000 were south of the Columbia River in present Oregon and 1,000 were to the north in the area that would become the state of Washington). Only 3,175 of this population had been born in Oregon itself. Nearly 60 percent of the territory's pioneer families were from the states that lined the Ohio and Upper Mississippi rivers—principally Missouri and Illinois.10 Those who seek information on Oregon-bound wagon trains and their occupants should be aware of two projects. The Overland Journey Index, at the Oregon Historical Society, is keyed to diaries and manuscripts in the society's collections. Additionally historical societies along the trail are cooperating in the compilation of COED (Census of Overland Emigrant Documents), an every-name database of person mentioned in documents that offer vital statistics on individuals. The database is compiled from over 2000 Oregon Trail documents in museums along the Trail.

Early Government

In February 1841, a fur trapper named Ewing Young died intestate and without heirs—leaving extensive property and a large herd of cattle for which the fur company's government offered no probate process acceptable to the nearly arrived Americans. Settlers had already held one general meeting to discuss the problem of marauding wolves; now they had another public need. Inevitably, their mounting concerns led to the establishment of a provisional government in 1843.11 British claims to the Oregon country were ceded in 1846 and Hudson's Bay Company withdrew, leaving the provisional government with sole dominion. By 1848 the swelling population earned territorial status; in 1853 Washington Territory was cut away; and in 1859 Oregon was admitted to the Union with the same boundaries it now possesses. A wide cross section of federally generated documents relating to territorial Oregon, including petitions and letters bearing signatures that establish identities and other materials of genealogical value, is now available on microfilm. Researchers who are not daunted by the lack of an every-name index will want to consult Territorial Papers of the United States: The Territory of Oregon 1848-1859, a twelve-reel collection issued by the National Archives as M1049.


[1] For an introduction to Oregon's history, see Otis W. Freeman, The Pacific Northwest, 2d ed. (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1954); and Rick Steber and Jerry Gildermeister, Where Rolls the Oregon (Union, Oregon: Bear Wallow Publishing Co., 1985). Concise interpretations from a national perspective are offered by John M. Blum, Bruce Catton, Edmund S. Morgan, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Kenneth M. Stampp and C. Vann Woodward, The National Experience, 2d ed. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968), 276–77; and George Brown Tindall, America: A Narrative History, 2 vols. (2d ed., New York: W. W. Norton, 1988), I:536–37. For the Native American perspective, see Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., The Indian Heritage of America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968), 326–30.

[2] Harriett Munnick, "Oregon's First Farmer," Marion County History, vol. 3 (Salem: Marion County Historical Society, 1957), 9; Howard McKinley Corning, Willamette Landings (Portland: Oregon Historical Society, 1947), 81; Burt Brown Barker, ed., Letters of Dr. John McLoughlin, Written at Fort Vancouver, 182932 (Portland: Binford and Mort, 1948), 313. Also see James R. Gibson, Farming the Frontier; The Agricultural Opening of the Oregon Country, 17861846 (Seattle: Univ. of Wash. Press, 1985).

[3] An overview of Fort Vancouver's history is provided by J. A. Hussey, The History of Fort Vancouver and Its Physical Structure (Portland: Abbott, Kern and Bell Co. for the Washington State Historical Society, 1957). For the short-lived but strategic activities of John Jacob Astor's American Pacific Fur Company and Astoria, in this period, see Alexander Ross, Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, 18101813 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986); and Gabriel Franchere, Adventures at Astoria, 18101814 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967).

[4] See Barker, Letters of Dr. John McLoughlin, Written at Fort Vancouver, 18291832; Burt Brown Barker, ed., The Financial Papers of Dr. John McLoughlin (Portland: Oregon Historical Society, 1949); E. E. Rich, ed., The Letters of John McLoughlin from Fort Vancouver to the Governor and Committee, 3 vols. (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1941–44); and William R. Sampson, ed., John McLoughlin's Business Correspondence, 18471848 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973).

[5]Finding aids are available on the Archives' website:

[6] Corning, Willamette Landings, 15.

[7] Wilfred P. Schoenberg, S.J. A History of the Catholic Church in the Pacific Northwest, 17431983 (Washington, DC: Pastoral Press, 1987), 12, 26; Josephy, Indian Heritage of America, 326–27; Blum et al., The National Experience, 276–77; Tindall, America, I:538.

[8] Terrence O'Donnell, That Balance So Rare; The Story of Oregon (Portland: Oregon Historical Society, 1988), 42; William A. Bowen, Willamette Valley: Migration and Settlement on the Oregon Frontier (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1978), 12. For extensive information on these mountain men and their families, see LeRoy Reuben Hafen, ed., The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West; Biographical Sketches of the Participants by Scholars of the Subject and with Introductions by the Editor, 10 vols. (Glendale, Calif: A. H. Clark Co., 1965–72).

[9] Bowen, Willamette Valley, 13.

[10] J. D. B. DeBow, ed., Statistical View of the United States—Being a Compendium of the Seventh Census (Washington: Beverley Tucker, Senate Printer, 1854), 116–18. To see a chart of the birthplaces, click here.

[11] J. A. Hussey, Champoeg: Place of Transition (Portland: Oregon Historical Society, 1967), 351. See also Kenneth L. Holmes, Ewing Young, Master Trapper (Portland: Binford and Mort, 1967): and Caroline Dodds, Men of Champoeg: A Record of the Lives of the Pioneers Who Founded the Oregon Government (Portland: Metropolitan Press, 1932), 61.