Oregon’s Mt. Hood Territory Past and Present

Defined by the borders of Clackamas County, Oregon’s Mt. Hood Territory has consistently found itself in tune with its most visible landmark, Mt. Hood, and its most powerful water source, Willamette Falls. Regional history begins with the Native Americans but was redefined when British and American settlers made their way west in the 1800s.

Native Americans

For hundreds of years, the region was home to more than a dozen bands and villages of Native Americans. The Indian people thrived in three main groups divided by language – Kalapuyan, upper Chinookan and Molallan. Dependant on trade and a division of labor for survival, the Native people relied on the land and waterways in this region as food sources.

The Chinook term for waterfall, “tumwata,” comes from the word for heartbeat or something’s spirit/soul, “tumtum.” As Willamette Falls would later do for the emigrants, it served as the soul of the community for the Native Americans. Hyas Tyee Tumwater (Great Chief Waterfall) provided stability to at least three large villages of Clackamas Indians who thrived on the bounties of the river between the falls and rapids. Their salmon takes were so abundant that what they could not eat was used for trade with local Kalapuyan and Molallan Tribes.

As the east was settled in the 1700s, disease brought on by inland trade prior to direct contact with Europeans wiped out all but 10 percent of what was a thriving Indian population. When non-native settlers made their way west in the form of the British fur company employees who left when the fur trade ended, they came across a weakened Native population that had merged villages and bands after the devastation of the 1700s. Some Indians managed to settle near white communities, and some even married into emigrant families. The vast majority, however, were forced to a reservation near Wapato Lake.

British and American Settlers

The British arrived to settle first as Dr. John McLoughlin established the Hudson Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver in 1825. When the first overland emigration was made in 1842, McLoughlin’s employer demanded that he discourage the American settlements, in hopes of ensuring British control of the land.

However, determination and what became known as Manifest Destiny, the belief that the United States should control the lands from east to west, led to increased pioneer emigration numbers. In 1843, a total of 800 daring people made their way west, but in 1849, nearly 30,000 pioneers made the journey followed by 55,000 the next year. Estimates claim that upwards of 200,000 emigrants came west on the Oregon Trail.

Dr. McLoughlin’s eventual kindness to the emigrants lost him his job. He went on to donate a portion of his land claim at Willamette Falls to be developed as Oregon City. Located between the former Indian fisheries and trading villages of Clackamas Rapids and Willamette Falls, Oregon City became the center of trade between the Pacific coast and inland farms. As it had for the Native Americans, Willamette Falls played a major role in the development of the city where the powerful energy source made way for flower, textile and lumber mills.

Former fur trappers, missionaries, ex-Hudson’s Bay Company employees and pioneer French Canadians formed the Oregon Provisional Government in 1843. Clackamas County was one of four original districts created and its borders spanned portions of four present-day states (Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska) and one Canadian province (British Columbia). Oregon City was named the first incorporated city west of the Rocky Mountains by the Provisional Legislature in 1844. The McLoughlins moved to Oregon City in 1846 and Dr. McLoughlin’s generosity and reputation for fairness to all (Native Americans, African Americans and pioneers) earned him the title, The Father of Oregon.

Oregon became a U.S. Territory in 1848 and Oregon City, the commercial and political center of the region, was named capital. Representing the American dream, Oregon City was the first community pioneers saw after leaving the mid-west behind and the river traffic, houses, churches, and small businesses were a welcome site to Trail-worn travelers. By the 1850s the town boasted dairy farms, orchards, boat yards and flower mills. The majority of political activity moved from Oregon City in 1852 when the territorial capital was relocated to Salem and in 1854, Clackamas County was designated to its current boundaries, encompassing 1,879 square miles.

As a result of Oregon Indian Treaties, the majority of the region’s Native people were forced onto the Grande Ronde Reservation by 1855. The Indians of the region who once found themselves so distinct in history, language and tradition, now were forced to inter-mingle tribal cultures for survival. Historic lines were blurred and access to the once-abundant Willamette Falls was denied. Today, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde preserve the combined culture of the Kalapuya, Molalla, Umpqua, Chasta and Rogue River Indians.

The Oregon Trail

The more than 2,000-mile journey west represented a new beginning for many families, but illness and death haunted many along the Oregon Trail. In the early years, pioneers en route to make a land claim in Oregon City had to brave the relentless rapids and falls of the Columbia River before going up the calmer Willamette River to settle in and around Oregon City. The fees to buy a raft were high, and the river consumed countless lives. As an alternative, Sam Barlow created a less expensive land route in 1845. The Barlow Road took emigrants around Mt. Hood and down to the banks of the Sandy River via a near-vertical drop called Laurel Hill Chute. After emptying out their wagons and lowering them to the riverbed by ropes wrapped around tree trunks, the pioneers had a relatively smooth journey into Oregon City compared to what was behind them.

Oregon City was the Clackamas County seat, thus serving as the location where all emigrants had to make their land claims. Exhausted men, women and children were often too tired to settle their land upon arrival. Thousands of emigrants paid a minimal fee to spend their first winter on Abernethy Green, a meadow near the Willamette River that came to be known as the end of the Oregon Trail. George Abernethy served as the first Governor of the Oregon Territory. As a merchant, he had a vested interest in having the pioneers end their journey near his stores and supplies. Abernethy let tired emigrants spend their first winter on the green behind his house where they could camp while letting their animals graze. Those who had money upon arrival spent it on food and supplies from Abernethy’s store.

The Oregon Trail was heavily traveled from 1843 into the 1870s, but wagons were still commonplace on the trail into the 1880s. The completion of the Union Pacific railroad link to the Pacific in 1869 made rail travel the preferred option. In 1906, Oregon Trail emigrant Ezra Meeker traveled the Trail by wagon in an effort to remind people of the historic significance of the Oregon Trail. Descendants of Trail pioneers are common in the region and stories captured in journals or passed down through generations keep the history of the Oregon Trail and its people alive.

Oregon’s Mt. Hood Territory Today

The rivers that served as landmarks on the westward trail are now hotbeds for fly fishing and whitewater rafting. Hikers, skiers, snowboarders and mountain bikers now populate the forested hills and mountains braved by pioneers. As the leader for nursery and greenhouse activity in Oregon, the Mt. Hood Territory lands that were home to the regions’ earliest farms now boast nurseries, vineyards, fruit farms and more, ranking Clackamas County seventh in national agricultural output. The Mt. Hood Territory has evolved to keep pace with the world, but the pioneers would be proud of how the region has maintained its love of and commitment to the land.

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