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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

«·On to the Pacific—Texas and the Mexican War · Summary of Western Development and National Politics·»

The Pacific Coast and Utah

Oregon.—Closely associated in the popular mind with the contest about the affairs of Texas was a dispute with Great Britain over the possession of territory in Oregon. In their presidential campaign of 1844, the Democrats had coupled with the slogan, “The Reannexation of Texas,” two other cries, “The Reoccupation of Oregon,” and “Fifty-four Forty or Fight.” The last two slogans were founded on American discoveries and explorations in the Far Northwest. Their appearance in politics showed that the distant Oregon country, larger in area than New England, New York, and Pennsylvania combined, was at last receiving from the nation the attention which its importance warranted.

Joint Occupation and Settlement.—Both England and the United States had long laid claim to Oregon and in 1818 they had agreed to occupy the territory jointly—a contract which was renewed ten years later for an indefinite period. Under this plan, citizens of both countries were free to hunt and settle anywhere in the region. The vanguard of British fur traders and Canadian priests was enlarged by many new recruits, with Americans not far behind them. John Jacob Astor, the resourceful New York merchant, sent out trappers and hunters who established a trading post at Astoria in 1811. Some twenty years later, American missionaries—among them two very remarkable men, Jason Lee and Marcus Whitman—were preaching the gospel to the Indians.

Through news from the fur traders and missionaries, Eastern farmers heard of the fertile lands awaiting their plows on the Pacific slope; those with the pioneering spirit made ready to take possession of the new country. In 1839 a band went around by Cape Horn. Four years later a great expedition went overland. The way once broken, others followed rapidly. As soon as a few settlements were well established, the pioneers held a mass meeting and agreed upon a plan of government. “We, the people of Oregon territory,” runs the preamble to their compact, “for the purposes of mutual protection and to secure peace and prosperity among ourselves, agree to adopt the following laws and regulations until such time as the United States of America extend their jurisdiction over us.” Thus self-government made its way across the Rocky Mountains.

The Oregon Country and the Disputed Boundary
The Oregon Country and
the Disputed Boundary

The Boundary Dispute with England Adjusted.—By this time it was evident that the boundaries of Oregon must be fixed. Having made the question an issue in his campaign, Polk, after his election in 1844, pressed it upon the attention of the country. In his inaugural address and his first message to Congress he reiterated the claim of the Democratic platform that “our title to the whole territory of Oregon is clear and unquestionable.” This pretension Great Britain firmly rejected, leaving the President a choice between war and compromise.

Polk, already having the contest with Mexico on his hands, sought and obtained a compromise. The British government, moved by a hint from the American minister, offered a settlement which would fix the boundary at the forty-ninth parallel instead of “fifty-four forty,” and give it Vancouver Island. Polk speedily chose this way out of the dilemma. Instead of making the decision himself, however, and drawing up a treaty, he turned to the Senate for “counsel.” As prearranged with party leaders, the advice was favorable to the plan. The treaty, duly drawn in 1846, was ratified by the Senate after an acrimonious debate. “Oh! mountain that was delivered of a mouse,” exclaimed Senator Benton, “thy name shall be fifty-four forty!” Thirteen years later, the southern part of the territory was admitted to the union as the state of Oregon, leaving the northern and eastern sections in the status of a territory.

California.—With the growth of the northwestern empire, dedicated by nature to freedom, the planting interests might have been content, had fortune not wrested from them the fair country of California. Upon this huge territory they had set their hearts. The mild climate and fertile soil seemed well suited to slavery and the planters expected to extend their sway to the entire domain. California was a state of more than 155,000 square miles—about seventy times the size of the state of Delaware. It could readily be divided into five or six large states, if that became necessary to preserve the Southern balance of power.

Early American Relations with California.—Time and tide, it seems, were not on the side of the planters. Already Americans of a far different type were invading the Pacific slope. Long before Polk ever dreamed of California, the Yankee with his cargo of notions had been around the Horn. Daring skippers had sailed out of New England harbors with a variety of goods, bent their course around South America to California, on to China and around the world, trading as they went and leaving pots, pans, woolen cloth, guns, boots, shoes, salt fish, naval stores, and rum in their wake. “Home from Californy!” rang the cry in many a New England port as a good captain let go his anchor on his return from the long trading voyage in the Pacific.

The Overland Trails

The Overland Trails.—Not to be outdone by the mariners of the deep, western scouts searched for overland routes to the Pacific. Zebulon Pike, explorer and pathfinder, by his expedition into the Southwest during Jefferson’s administration, had discovered the resources of New Spain and had shown his countrymen how easy it was to reach Santa Fé from the upper waters of the Arkansas River. Not long afterward, traders laid open the route, making Franklin, Missouri, and later Fort Leavenworth the starting point. Along the trail, once surveyed, poured caravans heavily guarded by armed men against marauding Indians. Sand storms often wiped out all signs of the route; hunger and thirst did many a band of wagoners to death; but the lure of the game and the profits at the end kept the business thriving. Huge stocks of cottons, glass, hardware, and ammunition were drawn almost across the continent to be exchanged at Santa Fé for furs, Indian blankets, silver, and mules; and many a fortune was made out of the traffic.

Americans in California.—Why stop at Santa Fé? The question did not long remain unanswered. In 1829, Ewing Young broke the path to Los Angeles. Thirteen years later Frémont made the first of his celebrated expeditions across plain, desert, and mountain, arousing the interest of the entire country in the Far West. In the wake of the pathfinders went adventurers, settlers, and artisans. By 1847, more than one-fifth of the inhabitants in the little post of two thousand on San Francisco Bay were from the United States. The Mexican War, therefore, was not the beginning but the end of the American conquest of California—a conquest initiated by Americans who went to till the soil, to trade, or to follow some mechanical pursuit.

The Discovery of Gold.—As if to clinch the hold on California already secured by the friends of free soil, there came in 1848 the sudden discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in the Sacramento Valley. When this exciting news reached the East, a mighty rush began to California, over the trails, across the Isthmus of Panama, and around Cape Horn. Before two years had passed, it is estimated that a hundred thousand people, in search of fortunes, had arrived in California—mechanics, teachers, doctors, lawyers, farmers, miners, and laborers from the four corners of the earth.

San Francisco in 1849
From an old print
San Francisco in 1849

California a Free State.—With this increase in population there naturally resulted the usual demand for admission to the union. Instead of waiting for authority from Washington, the Californians held a convention in 1849 and framed their constitution. With impatience, the delegates brushed aside the plea that “the balance of power between the North and South” required the admission of their state as a slave commonwealth. Without a dissenting voice, they voted in favor of freedom and boldly made their request for inclusion among the United States. President Taylor, though a Southern man, advised Congress to admit the applicant. Robert Toombs of Georgia vowed to God that he preferred secession. Henry Clay, the great compromiser, came to the rescue and in 1850 California was admitted as a free state.

Utah.—On the long road to California, in the midst of forbidding and barren wastes, a religious sect, the Mormons, had planted a colony destined to a stormy career. Founded in 1830 under the leadership of Joseph Smith of New York, the sect had suffered from many cruel buffets of fortune. From Ohio they had migrated into Missouri where they were set upon and beaten. Some of them were murdered by indignant neighbors. Harried out of Missouri, they went into Illinois only to see their director and prophet, Smith, first imprisoned by the authorities and then shot by a mob. Having raised up a cloud of enemies on account of both their religious faith and their practice of allowing a man to have more than one wife, they fell in heartily with the suggestion of a new leader, Brigham Young, that they go into the Far West beyond the plains of Kansas—into the forlorn desert where the wicked would cease from troubling and the weary could be at rest, as they read in the Bible. In 1847, Young, with a company of picked men, searched far and wide until he found a suitable spot overlooking the Salt Lake Valley. Returning to Illinois, he gathered up his followers, now numbering several thousand, and in one mighty wagon caravan they all went to their distant haven.

Brigham Young and His Economic System.—In Brigham Young the Mormons had a leader of remarkable power who gave direction to the redemption of the arid soil, the management of property, and the upbuilding of industry. He promised them to make the desert blossom as the rose, and verily he did it. He firmly shaped the enterprise of the colony along co-operative lines, holding down the speculator and profiteer with one hand and giving encouragement to the industrious poor with the other. With the shrewdness befitting a good business man, he knew how to draw the line between public and private interest. Land was given outright to each family, but great care was exercised in the distribution so that none should have great advantage over another. The purchase of supplies and the sale of produce were carried on through a coöperative store, the profits of which went to the common good. Encountering for the first time in the history of the Anglo-Saxon race the problem of aridity, the Mormons surmounted the most perplexing obstacles with astounding skill. They built irrigation works by coöperative labor and granted water rights to all families on equitable terms.

The Growth of Industries.—Though farming long remained the major interest of the colony, the Mormons, eager to be self-supporting in every possible way, bent their efforts also to manufacturing and later to mining. Their missionaries, who hunted in the highways and byways of Europe for converts, never failed to stress the economic advantages of the sect. “We want,” proclaimed President Young to all the earth, “a company of woolen manufacturers to come with machinery and take the wool from the sheep and convert it into the best clothes. We want a company of potters; we need them; the clay is ready and the dishes wanted.... We want some men to start a furnace forthwith; the iron, coal, and molders are waiting.... We have a printing press and any one who can take good printing and writing paper to the Valley will be a blessing to themselves and the church.” Roads and bridges were built; millions were spent in experiments in agriculture and manufacturing; missionaries at a huge cost were maintained in the East and in Europe; an army was kept for defense against the Indians; and colonies were planted in the outlying regions. A historian of Deseret, as the colony was called by the Mormons, estimated in 1895 that by the labor of their hands the people had produced nearly half a billion dollars in wealth since the coming of the vanguard.

Polygamy Forbidden.—The hope of the Mormons that they might forever remain undisturbed by outsiders was soon dashed to earth, for hundreds of farmers and artisans belonging to other religious sects came to settle among them. In 1850 the colony was so populous and prosperous that it was organized into a territory of the United States and brought under the supervision of the federal government. Protests against polygamy were raised in the colony and at the seat of authority three thousand miles away at Washington. The new Republican party in 1856 proclaimed it “the right and duty of Congress to prohibit in the Territories those twin relics of barbarism, polygamy and slavery.” In due time the Mormons had to give up their marriage practices which were condemned by the common opinion of all western civilization; but they kept their religious faith. Monuments to their early enterprise are seen in the Temple and the Tabernacle, the irrigation works, and the great wealth of the Church.

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