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Northwest settlers created DIY government in 1843

Divide! Divide! Who’s for a divide? All in favor of the American flag, follow me!

Legend has it that these were the words called out by Joe Meek at a monumental meeting in the old Oregon Country 174 years ago this week.

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According to the story, Meek, along with 101 other men, had gathered along the banks of the Willamette River near Champoeg (pronounced “sham-POO-ee”), located roughly between present-day Portland and Salem.

Some American residents of what’s now Oregon, Washington and Idaho were frustrated that the land on which they stood remained in political limbo, caught between the United States and the British, dating back to a “joint occupation” agreement from 1818.

By 1843, Americans had wanted the Oregon Country to be part of the United States for decades, says Dr. Melinda Marie Jette, a professor at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire and authority on Oregon Country history.

“There had been petitions before 1843 by people who wanted to get Oregon into the United States, and there had been a lot of published pieces – you might even say propaganda pieces – going back even to the 1830s, and as far back as 1820 in some cases,” Dr. Jette said.

Long before the May 2 meeting at Champoeg, the lack of a government was contributing to problems that called for practical solutions. A wealthy settler and landowner had died in 1841 with no heirs and no will. Wolves and other wildlife were plaguing farms. Settlers held meetings to plan what to do.

Amy Platt is project manager of the Oregon Encyclopedia for the Oregon Historical Society. She says that the so-called “Wolf Meetings” that began in 1842 – along with a growing population – were the catalysts that led to the May 2 vote at Champoeg.

“In 1843 there were now hundreds and hundreds of people (in the Willamette Valley) because of the Oregon Trail, and they were having a problem with predators on their farmland,” Platt said. “So they thought, ‘Oh, we’ve got to do something,’ so they got together to put together a bounty system (for wolves) and a taxation (mechanism) so they could pay the bounty.”

Platt says the settlers also wanted some simple things that they believed only the government could provide.

“There are all of these things that we do every day that we consider mundane that to settlers were just absolutely crucial,” Platt said. “How do you mail a letter if you don’t have a government who has a post office that is sending your letter for you? That was one of the first things the settlers wanted.”

The absence of government in the Oregon Country from the early part of the 18th century to the 1840s also helped foster a complex sociopolitical situation, with representatives of global entities present, and layers of basic human intrigue, too.

There were differences between Methodist missionaries from the United States and French-Canadian fur trappers, many of whom were Catholic.  The Hudson’s Bay Company, with its charter from Great Britain to harvest furs, functioned as a sort of de-facto government, with dozens of employees, and infrastructure in the form of forts (or trading posts) and agricultural buildings.

Many American settlers viewed the Hudson’s Bay Company – and its allegiance to Great Britain – as competition for ultimate political possession of the Oregon Country or, at the very least, as an obstacle to the area becoming part of the United States.

The debate about creating a provisional government “was really an economic discussion in many ways,” said Amy Platt. “I know that there’s lots of things about this debate between the Methodists and the Catholics, but it was a battle of personalities, not so much of theology,” Platt said.

And in the personality department, Joe Meek was, by all accounts, a charismatic, larger-than-life character, but historians disagree as to whether he actually spoke those stirring words to the crowd at Champoeg back in 1843.

However, they do agree that the end result was that the settlers voted to create a provisional government.

According to the legend, when the dust settled, 51 men stood with Meek, 50 did not. The vote couldn’t have been any closer. After the vote, the 50 opposed left, and the remaining men began hammering out the details of what to do next.

Legend also has it that an unknown number of French-Canadians – perhaps two, perhaps just a handful —  “crossed the line” to vote with the Americans and tip the balance in favor of the provisional government.

“The French-Canadians were in a tough spot,” said Amy Platt. “They were subjects of Queen Victoria, but it was clear that the Americans, population-wise, were taking over everything south of the Columbia River.”

Platt says that many of the French-Canadians were married to Native American women, and many had biracial children.

“Were [the French-Canadians] going to buy into this provisional government, which was pretty much going to push Oregon towards statehood with the United States, or are they going to stay loyal to their country – to Canada and Great Britain?” Platt said. “There is some argument about how many of those French-Canadians were on this side of the line or that side of the line.”

Dr. Melinda Marie Jette grew up in Oregon. She’s part French-Canadian, and her Native American ancestors have lived in the Willamette Valley for centuries.

“I would say [the story of the vote is] apocryphal or mythic,” Dr. Jette said. “We can’t really pin that down for sure. It makes a great story, but it’s still, in a way, illustrative of what people were thinking at the time. Even if they tell this story, you know, settlers and their progeny, they tell the story. For them, it explains how they see things, so it’s instructive, even if it’s not literally true.”

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Regardless of the count, the final vote was in favor of the provisional government, and work began to organize a basic set of laws – cribbed from a book of Iowa laws that conveniently belonged to one of the American settlers – and to nominate American men to serve as judges and in other official capacities. Settlers met again on July 5, 1843 to formally adopt the laws and to ratify the nominations.

Dr. Jette says that, ultimately, the Hudson’s Bay Company and many French-Canadians decided to work with the Americans and the provisional government – figuring that participating was better than simply turning their backs.

“[The provisional government is] not quite as nationalistic as it had been interpreted by the really nationalistic Americans at the time,” Dr. Jette said. “Some people, like the French-Canadians, are working in their own community best interest, what they see as their community interest. The Hudson’s Bay folks eventually get involved because they see it better to be engaged and involved rather than just coming up on the outs.  Economically, they want to be part of the conversation.”

“So it’s really a complicated story,” Dr. Jette said.

Amy Platt says that Joe Meek’s work to muster the votes for a provisional government that day in Champoeg was only the beginning of his labors on behalf of Oregon. He was named sheriff on July 5, but then he also became something of a goodwill ambassador to the United States.

“After the May meeting in 1843, they sent Joe Meek out to Congress with another petition and said, ‘Hey, look what we’re doing – look what you forced us to do –  we’ve created our own government because you left us out here in the howling wilderness to fend for ourselves. So now you see that we mean business,’” Platt said.

“[The American settlers at Champoeg] had every intention of [the provisional government] pushing them toward territoryhood, certainly . . . and then eventually statehood,” Platt said.

Platt also says that Native Americans – Kalapuya and other tribes – played no direct role in the meeting at Champoeg, and that they were viewed as an obstacle by most of the American settlers.

“The people who met at Champoeg were assuming that the Native Americans around them would die out in one way or another,” Platt said. In contrast, French-Canadians cooperated and interacted with Native Americans, Platt says, and the British “were actually really good at that kind of settlement or colonization.”

“The Americans were not as good (as the British),” Platt said. “So a lot of the violence (toward Native Americans) that was happening in the Oregon Country prior to 1843 was American.”

Meanwhile, diplomatic gears were turning in Washington, DC and London, and the US and Great Britain settled the boundary issues of the Oregon Country via the Treaty of 1846; Oregon Territory, with a territorial governor appointed by the President, was created in 1848. Washington Territory was created from the northern portion of Oregon Territory in 1853; Oregon became a state in 1859.

The site of historic Champoeg is now an Oregon State Heritage Area, which includes a visitor center with history exhibits. A monument was dedicated there in 1901, and an observance to mark the creation of the provisional government has been held on the site every year since.

The 2017 celebration will take place at 1 p.m. on Saturday, May 6.

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