The human history of the Pacific Northwest started about 20,000 years ago, when people first stepped into North America via a land bridge from Siberia to Alaska – now the Bering Strait. These early hunter-gatherers, the ancestors of Native Americans, spread through the Americas over millennia. In the mid-16th century, white people came knocking. Explorers from Portugal, Spain, Britain and Russia made claims, but it was the expedition of Americans Lewis and Clark that mapped and defined the region.
Early coastal inhabitants – who tramped up and down the Pacific Coast, around Puget Sound and along river valleys – went out to sea in pursuit of whales or sea lions, or depended on catching salmon and cod and collecting shellfish. On land they hunted deer and elk while gathering berries and roots. Plenty of food was stored for the long winters, when free time could be spent on artistic, religious and cultural pursuits like putting on potlatches (ceremonial feasts), taking part in vision quests (spiritual trances) or carving dancing masks and totem poles. The construction of (ornately carved) cedar canoes led to extensive trading networks among the permanent settlements that stretched along the coast.
Inland, on the arid plateaus between the Cascades and the Rocky Mountains, a regional culture based on seasonal migration between rivers and temperate uplands developed among tribes including the Nez Percé, Cayuse, Spokane, Yakama and Kootenai. During salmon runs, the tribes gathered at rapids and waterfalls to net or harpoon fish, which they then dried or smoked. One such spot, highly significant to many native peoples as both fishing grounds and a community gathering place, was Celilo Falls, located 12 miles east of the present city of The Dalles on the Columbia River (unfortunately, construction of the Dalles Dam in 1957 submerged these falls).
In the harsh landscapes of Oregon's southern desert, yet another native culture evolved. Tribes such as the Shoshone, Paiute and Bannock were nomadic peoples who hunted and scavenged in the northern reaches of the Great Basin desert. Berries, roots and small game such as gophers and rabbits constituted their meager diet. Clusters of easily transported, woven-reed shelters made up migratory villages, while religious and cultural life focused on shamans, who could tap into the spirit world to heal sickness or bring success in hunting.
Europeans Take a Look
The first Europeans to clap eyes on the area were the crew of Portuguese explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo. In 1542 his ships sailed from Mexico and, under the command of Bartolomé Ferrelo (Cabrillo had died along the way), reached the mouth of the Rogue River in 1543; this is where the city of Gold Beach now stands. English explorer Sir Frances Drake checked out the region in 1579, but by the 18th century the Spanish had colonized the southern parts of California and begun to explore the northern Pacific Coast in earnest. They were looking for the Northwest Passage, a fabled direct water route from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. By 1774, Spanish frigates reached as far north as the Queen Charlotte Islands, claiming the Northwest coast for the Spanish crown.
The British, not to be outdone, were also looking for the Northwest Passage. In 1778, Captain James Cook explored the coast of present-day Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, landing at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island. With him was George Vancouver, who in 1792 became the first European explorer to sail and chart the waters of Puget Sound (and left quite a legacy – Fort Vancouver, Vancouver, BC, Vancouver Island and Vancouver, WA, are all named after him). The Spanish attempted to build colonies along the Northwest coast; however, European politics forced Spain to give up its Northwest claim to Britain in 1792.
The Americans entered the scene in 1792 when Captain Robert Gray spotted the mouth of the Columbia River, where Astoria is today, through obscuring sandbars and hazardous currents. He sailed up the great waterway, traded with the Native Americans and named this great river the Columbia, in honor of his ship. The true importance of his discovery would be realized later, when it supported US territorial claims to the area.
Lewis & Clark
Like European explorers before them, Lewis and Clark came to the Pacific Northwest in search of adventure – and the fabled Northwest Passage. It started in 1801, when US president Thomas Jefferson enlisted his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis, as leader of an expedition to chart North America's western regions. The goal was to find a waterway to the Pacific while exploring the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and establishing a foothold for American interests. Lewis, then 27, had no training for exploration but couldn't resist this grand opportunity. He convinced his good friend, 33-year-old William Clark, an experienced frontiersman and army veteran, to tag along. In 1804, the party left St Louis, MO, heading west with an entourage of 40 adventurers.
The Corps of Discovery – the expedition's official name – fared relatively well, in part because of the presence of Sacagawea. This young Shoshone woman had been sold to, and become the wife of, Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian trapper who was part of the entourage. Sacagawea proved invaluable as a guide, interpreter and ambassador to the area's Native Americans. York, Clark's African American servant, also softened tensions between the group and the Native Americans.
The party traveled some 8000 miles in about two years, documenting everything they came across in their journals with such bad spelling that it must have taken historians a few extra years just to sort out what they wrote. Meticulous notes were made on 122 animals and 178 plants, with some new discoveries along the way. On November 15, 1805, the party finally reached the mouth of the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean at Cape Disappointment (now a state park in Washington). Needing to bed down for the winter, they established Fort Clatsop just south of Astoria, which today has been reconstructed in the Lewis & Clark National Historical Park.
Lewis and Clark returned to a heroes' welcome in St Louis in 1806. Lewis was later appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory, but he died a year later, possibly murdered but more likely by suicide. Clark became governor of the Missouri Territory, living to be 68.
Otters & Beavers Lose Out
The British and Americans soon tapped into the Northwest's bounty of fur-bearing wildlife. While in the Northwest in 1778, Cook's crew traded with Native Americans for animal pelts, of which sea otter and beaver were the most valuable. This trade dominated British and US economic interests in the northern Pacific for the next 30 years, until the War of 1812 stuck a thorn in the side of relations between the two countries.
Trappers from two competing British fur-trading companies – the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC, still in operation today) and the North West Company – began to expand from their bases around Hudson's Bay and the Great Lakes, edging over the Rocky Mountains to establish fur-trading forts. These forts traded with local Native Americans for beaver, otter, fox, wolf or whatever other fur-bearing animal had yet to be wiped out. In 1811 the American fur magnate John Jacob Astor established a post in Astoria (where presently there's a historical building housing the Fort George Brewery). During the War of 1812, however, it was sold to the North West Company, which merged with the HBC in 1821. The HBC created a network of relationships with Native American tribes throughout the region, establishing headquarters at Fort Vancouver – today a National Historic Site.
By 1827 the Northwest's borders were becoming more defined. Spain had withdrawn its claim, establishing the northern border of New Spain at the 47th parallel (the current Oregon–California border). Russian ambitions were limited to the land north of the 54°40' parallel, at the start of the Alaska panhandle, near Prince Rupert, BC. The USA, through the Louisiana Purchase, owned all land south of the 49th parallel and east of the Rocky Mountains, while Britain controlled the territory north of this line. This left a vast territory of present-day BC – the states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho and parts of western Montana and Wyoming – open to claims by both Britain and the USA.
The Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, included an amendment that declared a joint custody (of sorts) of the Pacific Northwest: Britain and the USA could continue economic development in the area, but neither could establish an official government.
The Americans Settle In
Unlike most other early trading posts, which were basically repositories for goods, Fort Vancouver became a thriving, nearly self-sufficient agricultural community complete with mills, a dairy, gardens and fields.
Canadian-born Dr John McLoughlin, often called the 'father of Oregon', was the capable steward of this post. He encouraged settlement beyond the precincts of the fort, and allowed retired HBC trappers to settle along the Willamette River in an area still called French Prairie. By 1828 these French Canadians, with their Native American wives, began to clear the land and build cabins. McLoughlin established a mill and incorporated the first town in the Northwest in 1829, at Oregon City. He later built a house there, which today is a museum.
The eventual decline of the fur trade, along with an influx of American farmers, traders and settlers from the east, all helped loosen the weakening British Empire's grip on the Pacific Northwest. But it was the missionaries who probably played the biggest role. In 1834, New England Methodists Daniel and Jason Lee founded a mission just north of present-day Salem. Other missionaries arrived in 1836, establishing missions near today's Walla Walla, WA, and Lewiston, ID.
Losing ground despite the Treaty of Ghent, the HBC hedged its bets and established another center of operations further north at Fort Victoria, on Vancouver Island, BC. But the federal government did not offer military intervention to rid the area of British stragglers. If the settlers wanted an independent civil authority, they would have to do the dirty work themselves.
Rounding the Turn at Champoeg
By the early 1840s, the Willamette Valley had become home to a rag-tag mix of 700 French-Canadian farmers, retired trappers, Protestant missionaries and general adventurers. Eager to establish some order to the region, the settlers created the framework for a budding government. Meetings led to an 1843 vote at Champoeg, along the Willamette River about 30 miles south of Portland (now Champoeg State Heritage Area). By a razor-thin 52-to-50 margin, a measure was passed to organize a provisional government independent of the HBC. The land north of the Columbia, however, would remain in control of the British – for a bit longer.
Meanwhile, the USA–Canada boundary dispute became a hotbed of contention. There was a fervent settler movement to occupy the Northwest all the way up to present-day Alaska. The 1844 presidential campaign slogan became '54/40 or fight' (referring to the geographical parallel). The bickering finally ended in 1846, when the British and Americans negotiated the Treaty of Oregon and agreed to today's present USA–Canada border, which runs along the 49th parallel.
Accepting its inevitable fate, the HBC gave up its headquarters at Fort Vancouver and high-tailed it north to Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island (many British citizens followed, and Vancouver Island was designated a Crown colony in 1849). In 1848, Oregon officially became a US territory.
Follow the Oregon Trail
The party was now just getting started. In the Willamette Valley, nearly 900 new settlers arrived in one go, more than doubling the area's population. They were a trickle in what became a flood of migrants following the 2170-mile Oregon Trail, which edged south around the footsteps of the explorers before them – first Lewis and Clark, then adventurous fur trappers and intrepid missionaries (good interpretive centers exist today in Oregon's La Grande and Baker City). Between 1843 and 1860, over 50,000 fresh faces arrived to a brand-new future in the gorgeous Pacific Northwest.
Spanning six states, the Oregon Trail sorely tested the families who embarked on this perilous trip. Their belongings were squirreled away under canvas-topped wagons, which often trailed livestock. The journey could take up to eight months, and by the time the settlers reached eastern Oregon, their food supplies were running on fumes. And there was one last challenge: when the weary parties arrived at the Columbia River in The Dalles, they had to choose between rafting themselves and all their belongings through the rapids in the Columbia River Gorge, or struggling up the flanks of Mt Hood and descending via the precipitous Barlow Trail.
The journey ended at Oregon City, at the base of the falls of the Willamette River, which became the region's early seat of government. Above the falls, in the river's broad agricultural basin, small farming communities sprang up. Not far away, Portland, near the Willamette's confluence with the Columbia River, took on an early importance as a trade center.
After Fort Vancouver fell to the Americans in 1846, explorers began to mosey up the Cowlitz River into the Puget Sound area, initially putting down roots at Tumwater near Olympia. By 1851, a group of Oregon Trail pioneers, led by brothers Arthur and David Denny, set their sights on Elliott Bay and founded the port city of Seattle.
In 1846, seeking a route around the daunting Columbia River Gorge, a party of pioneers began to blaze a southern route into the Willamette Valley. This new Applegate Trail cut through the deserts of Nevada and California before turning north through the valleys of southern Oregon. Immigrants along this route established towns such as Eugene, and scouted the land in the Rogue, Umpqua and Klamath River valleys.
By the late 1850s, settlers had staked claims to the best land in the western valleys. Some folks began looking east of the Cascades, particularly to the Grande Ronde River valley of present-day Oregon and the Walla Walla River valley of what would be Washington. Eastern Oregon didn't become a hot spot until the discovery of gold there in the 1860s.
Decimation of Native Americans
By 1860 the Pacific Northwest's coast was strung with white settlements, and most major cities had been founded. The area's wildlife, especially the beaver and otter populations, had been nearly extinguished. European diseases had devastated whole Native American communities, while alcoholism took its own insidious toll on their cultures.
Missionaries eventually delivered the final blow. In 1847, near Walla Walla, the Whitman mission's attempts to bring Christianity to eastern Washington tribes ended in tragedy. The Cayuse Native Americans slew over a dozen missionaries in revenge for a measles epidemic. Settlers now felt justified in removing Native Americans from their land and incarcerating them on reservations. Coastal Native Americans were marched or shipped to reservations in 1855 and 1856, where increased illness, starvation and dislocation led to the complete extinction of many tribal groups. Even on Vancouver Island, where British policies were generally more enlightened, most arable land was given to European settlers. Missionaries worked to make illegal the traditional potlatches that formed the nucleus of coastal Native American religion and social life.
East of the Cascades, Native Americans were more resistant to the US military and settlers. Fierce battles were fought between the US Army and various tribes from 1855 to 1877. Especially bloody were the Rogue River and Modoc Wars, in southern Oregon, and the Cayuse War, near Walla Walla. However, these Native American groups also ended up on reservations, dependent upon the federal government for subsistence.
More Recent Times
By the 1880s, the Northwest's port cities boomed with the region's rich agricultural, fishing and logging resources. The Northern Pacific Railroad linked the Northwest to the eastern USA, making national markets more accessible and bringing in more settlers. Seattle became the area's most important seaport in 1897 when gold was discovered in the Canadian Klondike and prospectors poured into the city.
The World Wars brought further economic fortune to the Pacific Northwest, when the area became the nation's largest lumber producer and both Oregon's and Washington's naval yards bustled, along with William Boeing's airplane factory. The region continued to prosper through the second half of the 20th century, attracting new migrations of educated, progressively minded settlers from the nation's east and south. In the 1980s and '90s, the economy shifted to the high-tech industry, embodied by Microsoft in Seattle and Intel in Portland.
But growth has not come without cost. The production of cheap hydroelectricity and massive irrigation projects along the Columbia have led to the near-irreversible destruction of the river's ecosystem. Dams have all but eliminated most runs of native salmon and have further disrupted the lives of remaining Native Americans who depend on the river. Logging of old-growth forests has left ugly scars, while 'Silicon Forest' had its own economic collapse at the turn of the 21st century. And Washington's Puget Sound area and Portland's extensive suburbs are groaning under the weight of rapidly growing population centers.
Still, the Pacific Northwest's inhabitants generally manage to find a reasonable balance between their natural resources and the region's continued popularity. The Northwest continues to be one of the USA's most beautiful places to visit…and settle down.