Provisional Government of Oregon
|Provisional Government of Oregon|
Seal of the Provisional Government
Districts of the government
|-||Champoeg Meetings||May 2, 1843|
|-||United States Territorial Government arrives||March 3, 1849|
The Provisional Government of Oregon was a popularly elected government created in the Oregon Country, in the Pacific Northwest region of North America. It existed from May 2, 1843 until March 3, 1849, and provided a legal system and a common defense for pioneers settling a region at one time dominated by those encountered during the Lewis and Clark Expedition. As laid out in Section 1 of the preamble to the Organic Laws of Oregon, which were adopted in 1843 to serve as a constitution, settlers only agreed to the laws "until such time as the United States of America extend their jurisdiction over us." The government had three branches that included a legislature, judiciary, and executive branch. The executive branch was first the Executive Committee, consisting of three members, in effect from 1843 to 1845; in 1845, a single governor position was created. The judicial branch had a single supreme judge along with several lower courts, and a legislative committee of nine served as a legislature until 1845 when the Oregon House of Representatives was established.
A series of meetings were held, beginning in 1841, at Champoeg (on the French Prairie) and a few other sites in the Willamette Valley. The first meetings were held, in part, as a response to the death of Ewing Young. Young died without a will, and had extensive business dealings with many other pioneers; a probate court was needed to administer his estate. In February 1841, a probate judge and a few other positions were appointed, but no further movement towards establishing a government occurred. The movement towards self-government picked up momentum in early 1843, after over 100 immigrants traveling the Oregon Trail had arrived the previous year.
On February 2, 1843, the first “Wolf Meeting” was held at the Oregon Institute, in what is now Salem, to discuss the problem of predatory animals attacking livestock. The second “Wolf Meeting” was held in March, to further discuss the issue and to set up bounties on the animals; discussions about forming a government also began. Meetings continued in the valley over the next few months, until a large general meeting was held at Champoeg on May 2, 1843. At this meeting, the proposal for forming a provisional government was discussed, and a committee recommendation to form a government was put to a vote. According to his biography, Joseph L. Meek then called for a vote with a final tally of 52 in favor of forming a government, and 50 against, although the only surviving notes taken at the meeting stated that "a large majority" were found to be in favor. With this the Provisional Government of Oregon was formed; on July 5, 1843 the Organic Laws of Oregon were adopted, and people were elected to government offices.
The Organic Laws were drafted by a legislative committee on May 16, 1843 and June 28, 1843, before being adopted on July 5. Although not a formal constitution, the document outlined the laws of the government. Two years later, on July 2, 1845, a new set of Organic Laws was drafted to revise and clarify the previous version; this newer version was adopted by a majority vote of the people on July 26, 1845. This constitution-like document divided the government into three departments: a judiciary branch, an executive branch, and a legislature. The definition of the executive branch had previously been modified, in late 1844, from a three person committee to a single governor; this change took effect in 1845.
Executive branch 
With the first set of laws, the people created a three-person Executive Committee to act as an executive. The Second Executive Committee was elected on May 14, 1844, and served until June 12, 1845. A December 1844 amendment of the Organic Laws eliminated the Executive Committee in favor of a single governor, taking effect in June 1845. At that time George Abernethy was elected as the first governor. Abernethy would be the only governor under the Provisional Government. He was reelected in 1847, and served until 1849.
Legislative branch 
The Provisional Legislature held session mainly in Oregon City. They met at different times each year, and in 1848 they did not meet; too many members had left for the California gold fields. The legislature enacted various laws, sent memorials to Congress, incorporated towns and organizations, and granted divorces and licenses to run ferries. After the establishment of the Oregon Territory, the legislature was replaced with the two house Oregon Territorial Legislature.
Judicial branch 
The Provisional Government also included a judiciary. The forerunner of the Oregon Supreme Court consisted of a single supreme judge and two justices of the peace. The supreme judge was elected by the people, but the legislature could select someone as presiding judge as a replacement if needed. This supreme court had original and appellate jurisdiction over legal matters, whereas the lower probate court and justice courts that were also created could only hear original jurisdictional matters when the amount in controversy was less than $50 and did not involve land disputes. Some judges under the Provisional Government were Nathaniel Ford, Peter H. Burnett, Osborne Russell, Ira L. Babcock, and future United States Senator James W. Nesmith.
In addition to the division of power among government agencies, the Provisional Government divided the region into administrative districts. These districts are the predecessors to the counties that would form later, and the Organic Laws authorized from three to five districts with additional districts as the population expanded. At first there was Twality district, Yamhill district, Clackamas district, and Champooick district. The districts divided the entire Oregon Country into these four districts, however the effective area of control was limited to the lower Columbia and Willamette Valley.
Twality or Tualatin District boundaries were the northern boundary line of the United States south to the Yamhill River, with the Pacific Ocean as the western boundary and the Willamette River as the eastern boundary. Champoeg District was the land south of a line drawn from the mouth of the Haunchauke River east to the Rocky Mountains, north of the border with California, and west to the Willamette River. Clackamas District was all land north of the line drawn from the mouth of the Haunchauke to the U.S. border, and east of the Willamette to the Rockies. Yamhill District was the remaining southeast section of Oregon Country south of the Yamhill River and west of the Willamette.
In 1845 the Provisional Legislature passed a law creating a new district, Polk District, from the southern section of Yamhill District. Governor Abernethy signed the bill into law on December 22, 1845, and at this point districts became counties. Benton County was created out of the southern section of Polk County on December 23, 1847.
Other government positions included Recorder, Treasurer, Attorney, and Sheriff. The recorder position would later become the position of Secretary of State. In 1845, Francis Ermatinger (a Hudson's Bay Company employee) was elected to the position of Treasurer after carrying the French vote.
The seal of the government was named the Salmon Seal and was circular with three sheaves of wheat and a salmon with the word OREGON on the top. A flag with a single star and several stripes was used by some troops during the fight against the Cayuse tribe.
Over the course of nearly six years under the provisional government, the settlers passed numerous laws. One law allowed people to claim 640 acres (2.6 km2) if they improved the land, which would be solidified later by Congress’ adoption of the Donation Land Claim Act. Another law allowed the government to organize a militia and call them out by order of the Executive or Legislature. Under the first Organic Laws of 1843 inhabitants were guaranteed due process of law and a right to a trial by jury. Some other rights established were: no cruel and unusual punishment, no unreasonable bails for defendants, and no takings of property without compensation.
In 1844, the legislature passed a law banning the sale of ardent spirits, out of concern that the Native Americans would become hostile if intoxicated. Another 1844 law prohibited additional African Americans from settling in the region (slavery had already been banned in the Organic Laws). The law banning black people authorized the lashing of any black person forty times from time to time until they left the region, but this punishment was never actually carried out. In 1849, one of the last laws passed authorized the minting of coins. These coins would be called the Beaver Coins and were created as a result of significant amounts of gold dust circulating in the area due to the California Gold Rush.
The first attempt at raising money for the government came in the form of voluntary subscriptions in 1843. However, as this failed to raise enough funds, in 1844 the Executive Committee authorized a property tax. This taxed real estate and personal property, with some exceptions, at the rate of 0.00125%. In 1845 the rate was doubled to .0025%, and a 50¢ poll tax was levied as well. Failure to pay resulted in disenfranchisement.
Collections were difficult as many citizens either refused or were unable to pay what was owed. Therefore, the government began issuing scrip for its loans, which became a sort of currency in the region. During the government's existence it collected around $8,000 from the poll and property taxes—considerably less than the $23,000 it spent.
The organic laws laid out plans for a militia that included a battalion of mounted riflemen led by someone at the rank of major. This militia was to assemble once per year in September for inspection. Every male between 16 and 60 was considered a member of the military. (This remains so under modern Oregon law, though now both sexes are included, and the age range is only 18 to 45.) Under the first Organic Laws, power to call out the militia was vested in the Executive Committee, though any officer of the militia could also call them out in times of insurrection or invasion.
In March 1844, the first need for the militia came about when a member of the Molala killed the Recorder, George LeBreton, and one other in Oregon City. In response to this incident, a company of 25 men were organized as the Oregon Rangers at the Oregon Institute. They were led by Captain Thomas D. Keizer, who resigned shortly thereafter. Charles H. Bennett then took command of these mounted riflemen, who were to be paid $2 per day for service, or $1 if drilling. These men were also expected to provide their own weapons, however the company never saw action at this time.
Cayuse War 
Following the Whitman Massacre in 1847, settlers were worried about additional attacks by the natives. In December 1847, after learning of the attack from the Hudson’s Bay Company, Governor Abernethy and the legislature met to discuss the situation. On December 8, a company of 50 men were to be organized immediately and sent to The Dalles to protect that settlement and to prevent any forces from penetrating the Willamette Valley. Major Henry A. G. Lee was placed in charge of this unit, called the Oregon Rifles, who arrived at The Dalles on December 21 and established Fort Lee. An additional force of 500 men were to meet in Oregon City by December 25. This group prosecuted the war east of the Cascades under the command of Cornelius Gilliam. The Cayuse War would continue until the chiefs of the bands turned over several members to be tried for the murders. These men were found guilty and hanged on June 3, 1850, at Oregon City.
Subsequent history 
On June 15, 1846, the Oregon boundary dispute between the United States and Great Britain was resolved with the Oregon Treaty. The treaty set the Oregon Country's international boundary between the U.S. and British North America at the 49th parallel. Two years later, on August 14, 1848, the United States Congress created the Oregon Territory; this territory included today's states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming. This extended U.S. sovereignty over the region, but effective control would not occur until government officials arrived from the United States.
On March 2, 1849, Joseph Lane arrived at Oregon City as the appointed Governor of Oregon Territory. Originally from Indiana, Lane had been appointed by President Polk in August 1848 when the Oregon Territory was created by Congress. When Governor Lane arrived he dissolved the provisional government, but the only law of the government struck down was the law authorizing the minting of the Beaver Coins, as this was incompatible with the United States Constitution. In 1853, the Washington Territory was created from the northern section of the Oregon Territory. On February 14, 1859, the Oregon Territory became the state of Oregon.
See also 
- Columbia District
- Fort Vancouver
- Historic regions of the United States
- Judges of the Provisional Government
- History of Oregon
- Methodist Mission
- Oregon pioneer history
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