By Will Schneider ::
The city of Portland, Oregon was incorporated on February 8th, 1851. While the date is significant and signaled a new point in the history of settlements along the Willamette River, hard dates can also be misleading. Beginning a history of Portland at its incorporation obscures all that came before, covering over its precarious foundation, its rivalries with nearby settlements, and the long history of Native Americans in the region. Instead of just celebrating the date, we are going to look at some of the city’s early history and examine the events which lead up to Portland’s incorporation.
The original inhabitants of the land, of course, were the Native Americans who lived in the area for millennia before the arrival of Europeans. Through the corroboration of fragmentary written and oral sources, the towering figure of Chief Multnomah emerges from a shadowy past. He seems to have died before 1790 and though it is uncertain which tribe he was born into, we do know that he probably led a confederacy of tribes around the Columbia River. Multnomah’s tribe exercised its influence in the region primarily through trade, participating in a network that stretched from the Pacific Coast to the Rocky Mountains. The seat of power for the tribe was on Sauvie Island where the Columbia and Willamette Rivers met.
It is unknown how Chief Multonomah died or how his confederacy dissolved but historian Ann Fulton argues the eruption of Mt. Hood sometime around 1780 and a smallpox epidemic brought by foreign traders shattered the confederacy.
Along the banks of the Willamette, Oregon City was the original hub for travelers to Oregon Territory. William Overton and Asa Lovejoy, a drifter and Oregon City lawyer respectively, purchased the 640 acres that would become Portland in November 1843. To purchase the land, Overton and Lovejoy had to file a claim with the provisional government centered at Oregon City, which further demonstrates the city’s original dominance in the region.
The city of Portland got off to a rocky start. At first it was merely a small clearing on the west side of the Willamette which was purchased by William Overton and Asa Lovejoy in 1843. But just over a year later, Overton lost interest in the site and sold his share. The year after that, Lovejoy too abandoned the site in favor of ventures in Oregon City. In turn Francis Pettygrove and Benjamin Stark both bought the shares of the site.
At a time when nascent cities throughout the American West competed to dominate trade and draw populations, Portland and its nearby rivals were no different, and Oregon City was not the only threat. Other settlements like Milwaukie, St. Johns, St. Helens and Linnton all vied to become the major port in the region. Access to farmland was a major factor in the rivalries. Both Milwaukie and St. Johns were located on the east side of the Willamette and did not have access to the wheat which grew in the rich farmlands of Washington County. In fact, much of the East side of the river, today east Portland, was still uncleared forest.
Portland only eclipsed Oregon City with the construction of a plank road. The road was left unfinished because the builders ran out of money while constructing it. Nevertheless, the road gave Portland greater access to the farmers in Washington County. The city became a major port for shipping wheat to San Francisco.
The history of Portland, like the history of anything, is long and complex. The success of the settlement was far from certain. It suffered from rivalries with older, more established towns, and disinterest among its founders. Yet even as the citizens sought to establish Portland as a major site of commerce, they were reestablishing an older tradition of trade and influence exercised by Chief Multnomah and his confederation of tribes.
The anniversary of the city on February 8th is rightfully acknowledged as a turning point in the region’s history. But there is also a deeper history to the city.
Want to Learn More? Check Out:
- Ann Fulton, “The Restoration of an Iłkák’mana: A Chief Called Multnomah” in American Indian Quarterly, 2007.
- Carl Abbott, Portland in Three Centuries: The Place and the People. Oregon State University Press, 2011.
“Feasting on the Flowers” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers
Will Schneider, Project Manager
Alecia Giombolini, Fact Checker