|Date||1841 to 1843|
|Also known as||Wolf Meetings|
|Participants||Settlers of Oregon Country|
|Outcome||Created Provisional Government of Oregon|
The Champoeg Meetings in Oregon Country were the first attempts at governing in the Pacific Northwest by European American and French Canadian pioneers. Prior to this, the closest entity to a government was the Hudson's Bay Company, mainly through Dr. John McLoughlin at Fort Vancouver in present day Vancouver, Washington.
There were a series of meetings over three years held at Champoeg on the French Prairie along the Willamette River in present day Marion County, Oregon, beginning in 1841. A small but growing number of pioneers were settling in the Willamette Valley where no Euro-American government was in place. With the death of prominent settler Ewing Young in 1841, a group of settlers led by Jason Lee began to advocate for a settler run local government in the region. These meetings at Champoeg eventually culminated in a vote on May 2, 1843, ending in favor of forming what became the Provisional Government of Oregon. Although primarily supported by the American pioneers in the region, several French-Canadian settlers did vote in favor of forming the government. A state park and marker at the site of the May 2 vote commemorate the proceedings, as well as a large mural behind the desk of the Oregon Speaker of the House in the Oregon House of Representatives chamber at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem.
The Oregon Country was at one point claimed by the United States along with the three European nations of Russia, Great Britain and Spain. Interest by these nations caused several voyages to map the coast, with Alessandro Malaspina, Robert Grey, and George Vancouver arriving in the 1790s. The overland treks of Alexander Mackenzie and Lewis & Clark which reached the Pacific Coast in 1793 and 1805 respectively continued to ferment interest by Europe and the United States. In 1818, the United States and Britain signed a treaty that called for the two countries to peaceably co-exist in the region, but not exclude other claims. Through a series of other treaties the number of countries claiming the Oregon Country was reduced to just two, the United States and Britain.
As such expeditions expanded Euro-American knowledge of the Pacific Northwest, the possibilities of exploiting the growing fur trade made several companies attempt establishing a permanent presence there. The first to do so was the Montreal based North West Company, which under David Thompson arrived in now Montana and created posts such as the Saleesh House to trade with the Salish and Kootenai tribes. The American Pacific Fur Company financed the next commercial push into the region, working with primarily the Chinookan peoples at Fort Astoria on the mouth of the Columbia River. The War of 1812 ended the American venture and its operations were sold to its competitors, the North West Company, which was itself amalgamated into the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821. From Fort Vancouver located near the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, the operations of the Hudson's Bay Company grew and quickly became the primary commercial force in Oregon Country. Despite the activities of American mountain men and upwards of 12 attempted companies, the commercial hegemony of the British company remained in force until after the formation of the Provisional Government.
Britain and the U.S. continued the "joint occupation" as economic activity in the region continued to expand. In the 1830s missionaries such as Protestants like Jason Lee, Henry H. Spalding, Marcus Whitman and Catholics like François Norbert Blanchet, Modeste Demers and Pierre-Jean De Smet would also travel overland to Oregon Country and establish missions among the Native Americans. As time passed many of these trappers and missionaries settled the land and developed farms, timber and grist mills. Then in the 1840s more and more settlers arrived via the Oregon Trail that the early missionaries and trappers helped to trail blaze. Finally, enough Americans, Canadians and Europeans were living in this land, that by Western standards was considered ungoverned, that a critical mass was reached and the settlers began to develop plans for a government.
The majority of the meetings were held at the French-Canadian enclave of Champoeg on the banks of the Willamette River. This part of the Willamette Valley was and still is known as French Prairie due to the early settlers speaking French as their first language. Some of the meetings were held at the Oregon Institute (predecessor to Willamette University) further south of Champoeg in present day Salem and downriver in Oregon City.
The Champoeg name itself has an unknown origin. Some theories are that it was the Native American's name for the spot along the Willamette River, originally Champooik. Other theories are that it is of French origin, or a French variation on the Native American term. The name would also be used as the name of one of the early districts of the government, later becoming Marion County, Oregon.
In 1841 the early settlers found themselves in need of a government after the death of pioneer Ewing Young. Young had accumulated much wealth as a successful rancher following the Willamette Cattle Company events of 1837 when he and a group of other settlers herded over 600 head of cattle from California to Oregon. This made him very wealthy and intertwined him economically with many of the other pioneers in the valley. Young had died without a will or heir, thus necessitating a need for a probate court. Several meetings occurred over the subsequent months which included François Norbert Blanchet, William J. Bailey, Mr. Charlevon, David Donpierre, Gustavus Hines, William Johnson, Jason Lee, Étienne Lucier, Robert Moore, Josiah Lamberson Parrish, Sidney Smith, and David Leslie.
The first meeting was held on 17 February 1841 and chaired by Jason Lee, who suggested a set of measures that would establish a civil government. Amongst the measures was for a single criminal system applicable to all Oregon pioneers not employed by the Hudson's Bay Company. The proposed positions included a governor, an attorney general, justices of the peace, road commissioners, and even two people to serve as overseers of the indigent. This initial proposal rebuked by François Blanchet who counter-proposed a looser system with the post of a judge and not a governor as the highest position.
Held on the proceeding day, the second meeting was chaired by David Leslie. To mollify the French-Canadian discontent over a potential governorship Doctor Ira Babcock of the Methodist Mission was elected as supreme judge, using the laws of New York as his guide to probate any estates. The only other estate that Babock administered over was that of Cornelius Rogers, previously a laborer of the ABCFM stations  who died in February 1843. Other positions created and filled by the group included: George Le Breton as Clerk of the Courts and Public Recorder; William Johnson as High Sheriff; William McCarty, Pierre Belleque, and Havier Laderant as constables. Additionally a constitutional committee of seven was established to be chaired by Blanchet, along with three Americans and three French-Canadians to discuss further measures.
During the next meeting commenced on 1 June, Blanchet reported the constitutional committee had not met and requested a reprieve from his duties. William J. Bailey was appointed as the new chairman, and the committee was advised to consult with Commodore Wilkes of the U.S. government and Dr. McLoughlin of the Hudson’s Bay Company concerning forming a government. The group decided on subsequent meetings to be held on 1 August and on 5 October. Meeting with five men, Wilkes judged their motivation based on getting "settlers to flock in, there by raising the value of their farms and stock"; consequently he advised the group to wait for the United States to project rule over them. McLoughlin was equally unsupportive of the considered organization. These reactions discouraged the constitutional committee from ever meeting, nor were the planned general meetings convened. Despite falling short of the original goals set by Lee, these meetings helped create "an organized community" in the Willamette Valley.
In Oregon City at the Oregon Lyceum pioneers debated the aspects of forming a government or forming an independent country. Those favoring an independent nation were led by Lansford Hastings, then employed by Dr. McLoughlin, while George Abernethy led those opposed to a new country. Ultimately those favoring waiting for the United States to take ownership of the region won out in the debates. Hastings noted that if the United States hadn't "extended her jurisdiction" within in a few years many "were favorable to declaring themselves independent... of all powers of the world." On September 22, 1842, Dr. Elijah White organized and spoke at a meeting at Champoeg. His purpose was to inform the settlers that he had been commissioned by the United States War Department as a sub-Indian Agent. Additionally, he implied that the pioneers could select him as a magistrate for the region. However, White was not popular among the settlers and this led to additional discussions about forming a government.
On February 1, 1843, residents of the Willamette Valley met at the Oregon Institute in present day Salem, Oregon, to discuss the issue of predatory animals attacking livestock. The total population of non-indigenous of the valley was under 500 people during this time, but the addition of about 1,000 Americans later in 1843 bolstered the pioneer presence. However it was not until the second Wolf Meeting on March 6, 1843 that a system of bounties for wolves, cougars and bears was created. As one participant, William H. Gray, put it, the purpose discussions was to "get an object before the people upon which all could unite" to ensure settler "self-preservation, both for property and person". Bounties were to be paid by orders on the accounts of Fort Vancouver, the Island Milling Company or the Methodist Mission. The gathering set in motion the organizing of a provisional government, with the post of Governor agreed upon. Notably, the indigenous were to get half the pay of pioneers for bounties. The last organizational meeting started May 2, 1843 in Champoeg, where pioneers voted on whether to create a provisional government.
There were two votes on 2 May, neither being recorded at the actual event. According to the only surviving contemporary record "A great majority of those present" voted to form a government. The report presented by the committee is known to have included the position of governor. After being read, the report was rejected. The meeting was then divided over adopting "the report of the committee and an organization". The first count of the division (the only minutes of the meeting, taken by George LeBreton, merely recorded "a great majority" were in favor, although it is unclear if LeBreton considered 2 more people to constitute a "great majority.") appeared by Gray in an article of the Astoria Marine Gazette in 1866 as 52 "Americans" for and 50 "French-Canadian and Hudson's Bay men" against considering a government, and was later published in his 1870 book "A History of Oregon". Additionally he claimed that the French-Canadians were "drilled" by Vicar General Blanchet to vote no; despite the two tie breakers in Gray's version being the Catholics Étienne Lucier and François X. Matthieu. Gray's book has been stated to be rife with "acrimonious partisanship and disregard of truth", along with contemporaries Jesse Applegate, Robert Newell, Peter Hardeman Burnett, François Norbert Blanchet and George Abernethy among others criticizing portions of it. Robert Newell stated the vote was 55-50, with three additional French-Canadians supporting the motion. He also noted that the "First vote taken was that we have no Governor to defeat the wolf bummers." The official record states after the first vote, the report was voted on "article by article" without the office of Governor appearing.
The list below was created several decades after the vote, and after many of the participants were deceased. No roll of participants is known to exist from the time of the actual meeting, and the only primary source from the time of the meeting states that "a great majority" passed the motion by acclamation.
Those alleged to have voted for the creation of the provisional government:
Those voting against the creation of the provisional government (Hussey's list was originally compiled by François X. Matthieu from his store ledger and provided to George Himes, who first publicized the two lists):
After this vote, the people elected members for a legislative committee to draft a working government. The members selected were: Hill, Shortess, Newell, Beers, Hubbard, Gray, Moore, O’Neil, and Doughty. Other offices elected on May 2 was Albert E. Wilson as Supreme Judge, George W. LeBreton as Court Clerk and Recorder, Joseph L. Meek as Sheriff and William H. Willson as Treasurer.
A gathering was held on 5 July to hold a vote on the work of the legislative committee. The original Organic Laws of Oregon were modeled after the Ordinance of 1787 and Iowa's Organic Law, laying out the framework of a political structure modeled on the United States, with three branches of government. The government was created as its preamble declared, "until such time as the United States of America extend their jurisdiction over us." This document was the de facto first Oregon constitution. The election for the first Executive Committee was held with Joseph Gale, David Hill, and Alanson Beers elected as the committee members to serve in place of a governor. The entire territory was then divided into four administrative districts: Yam Hill (also Yamhill), Clackamas (also Klackamas), Tuality (also Twality, and later Washington County), and Champoick (also Champoeg). The districts were generally divided according to watersheds such as the Willamette and Pudding Rivers. The northern border was not initially clearly delineated due to the ongoing Oregon boundary dispute and no willing participants north of the Columbia river.
The Provisional Government of Oregon originally hardly functioned due to various limitations upon its power but after the adoption of the second Organic Code in 1845 its control over the Willamette Valley was solidified. It eventually established taxes, built roads, authorized ferries, passed laws, and even waged war against some Native American tribes in the Cayuse War following the Whitman Massacre. Oregon's pioneers considered this government framework that was installed by the adopted Organic Laws of Oregon to be their first constitution, although in 1844 the legislative committee specifically ruled the organic laws statutory rather than constitutional. Negotiations with the Hudson's Bay Company in 1845 expanded the rule over north of the Columbia, its officers continuing to run the majority of the civil affairs in the newly created Vancouver district. Over the next few years the boundary dispute with Great Britain was settled in 1846, which reduced the area claimed by the provisional government to that territory south of the 49th degree of latitude. Then a new territorial government was formed after 1848 when Oregon was added as an official United States territory. The presidentially appointed governor of the Oregon Territory, Joseph Lane, arrived March 3, 1849, and he officially ended the provisional government by declaring U.S. laws and government as in effect over the territory. Oregon entered the Union as the 33rd state on February 14, 1859.
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- George W. LeBreton; "Public Meeting at Champoeg, 1843" Oregon Historical Society catalog number PTD R76I12186; 2 may 1843
- Hussey, pp. 156-157
- Robert Newell, (Oregon Register, 1866) quoted in Russel B. Thomas "Truth and Fiction about Champoeg." Oregon Historical Quarterly 30, No. 3 (1929), p. 224
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