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  • James Wheeling

Who can resist the temptation of “free” land?

As a land steward, I understand the feeling that comes with knowing that the land you derive your living from is personally owned. No one can take it from you. No one can tell you what you can or cannot do there, although, today’s population expansion and governmental zoning restrictions do a good job of throttling some ideas. Generally speaking, being a landowner brings certainty and peace of mind.

Working irrigation ditches at the James Ranch
Working on our family ranch in the Animas Valley. Photo courtesy of Christi Bode, Moxiecran Media.

For centuries, Europeans worked land that was not their own. Most farmed land that belonged to a lord or king, providing a contracted amount of produce to the king and keeping enough to eat and barter in order to stay alive until the next harvest. There are many, many accounts of servitude and serfdom where the landlord/tenant relationship was awful. Toss in a mysterious crop failure – and the resulting famine – and you have a certain mess.

European migration to America had been steady since the Revolutionary War but by the mid-19thcentury things really picked up. As word spread across America from the Pacific Coast of cheap, fertile land, and the Panic of 1837 unfolded, European immigrants and American emigrants alike looked westward.

Congruently, after the War of 1812, the area known to Americans as Oregon Country and “shared” by the British and Americans became an important geopolitical diplomacy test. This area was described as west of the Continental Divide, north of Alta California at the 42ndparallel north, and south of Russia America at the 54.40’ parallel north. Proactive American government actions to settle the area began in the 1820s during the 16thCongress under the stewardship of John Floyd. Failing to garner enough support to pass legislation, the Oregon Question was dropped. American missionaries began arriving in the area in the 1830s, with over 700 American settlers arrived by 1843.

A major campaign point in the 1844 U.S. presidential election, the Oregon Question helped Democratic candidate – and avowed expansionist – James K. Polk become president. It took until 1846 for both countries to agree on the Oregon Treaty, which gave Great Britain the land north of the 49th parallel, and the United States the land south of the 49th parallel and the land encompassed in the modern states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho along with parts of Montana, Wyoming and Nevada. There are plenty of other details, but for this blog, the point I want to make is that with the Oregon Treaty, the U.S. government now had an expanse of land they needed to settle in order to keep Great Britain from thinking, for just one minute, that they might want to reclaim it.

By 1844 almost a thousand migrants had arrived after making the 2,000-mile journey from Independence, Missouri to western Oregon. The settlers had only to show up, stake out their desired land and start working the ground. But, eventually, the territory’s settlers needed protection from the land’s existing (and objecting) occupants. The Oregon territorial delegate to Congress, Samuel R. Thurston, drove the free land idea through Congress by offering every white male citizen 320 acres in designated areas, doubling that land grant if the man were married with the Donation Land Act of 1850.

This law was one of the first to allow property to be held by a woman so long as she was married – single women were not allowed to participate. Those with half Native American descent could participate but not full-blooded nor anyone of Hawaiian, Asian or African descent. As long as the claimant lived on and worked the land for four years, it was fully deeded to them. This was a precursor to the California Land Act of 1851, and the Homestead Act of 1862, used to settle the American Plains.

As was the philosophy of the times, the laws benefitted the white migrants and kicked out existing Native cultures. Thurston was so intent on this idea that when he addressed Congress, he stated that dissolution of Indian title was the “first prerequisite step” for Oregon’s successful settlement. Legislation was created to authorize officials to negotiate treaties to remove and erase the Indians and any claim they thought they had on the land. By 1855, at the Act’s expiration, 2.5 million acres of Oregon land had been claimed by 7,000 individuals.

With 170 years of hindsight, it’s not hard to see that there were many injustices dealt out in the American government’s efforts to populate the west. It is hard to imagine how violated I would feel if someone showed up on my family’s ranch, pitched a tent and started shooting our cattle for their supper. And yet, when confronted, the imaginary individual would tell us, “Actually a foreign government handed this land over to a new government that has authorized us to take it from you and use it for our own purposes.” It is easy to see why the Native cultures fought until their last survivor given how wrong it was.

Conversely, the Oregon and western immigration, along with California goldrush, couldn’t have come at a better time for the ambitious United States. Determined to fill the “void” between the coasts, and knowing there was strength in numbers, the American government was single-minded in its effort to expand its power from Atlantic to Pacific as quickly as possible.

How coincidental to have both an economic disaster to create a wealth-hungering population and a world-renowned gold strike happen roughly ten years apart? Like a magnet pulling iron filings, the Pacific Coast sucked the nation’s and world’s population to its rich shores and fertile land.

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