White Man's Territory

The exclusionary intent behind the 1850 Donation Land Act.

Lithograph of Mount Hood by the British military officer Henry James Warre from his 1848 book "Sketches in North America and the Oregon Territory" (Newberry Library, Chicago, Ayer 7A 4)

The following is an excerpt from Dangerous Subjects: James D. Saules and the Rise of Black Exclusion in Oregon, reprinted with permission from Oregon State University Press. Saules was a Black sailor who was shipwrecked off the coast of Oregon and settled there in 1841. He is often cited as the inspiration for Oregon’s first Black exclusion law, the “lash law” of 1844.

Although [an Oregon] 1849 Black exclusion law boldly declared Oregon a white man’s territory, Saules remained in the region. Because he was already living in the vicinity of the territory when it passed, he was not legally subject to exclusion. Nevertheless, the passage of the law sent a clear signal to Black residents that they were unwelcome. Yet at the same time as Black exclusion became territorial law, Oregon politicians and elites were encouraging the passage of a federal act that was arguably more instrumental in establishing a racial status quo in Oregon by promoting the Anglo-American resettlement through the distribution of free land to potential white settlers.

The 1850 Donation Land Act was largely written by Oregon territorial delegate Samuel R. Thurston as a response to the original Oregon Territorial Act, which did nothing to honor land claims recorded by the provisional government’s land office. To add to this insult, the US government had initially granted 640 acres to each missionary station in the new territory. The Donation Land Act, which President Millard Fillmore signed into law on September 27, 1850, not only validated the legal title of land claimed by early overlanders, it also granted 320 acres of free land to white male American citizens (or mixed-race Native men with white fathers), provided they lived on it and improved it through cultivation. If the male settler was married, his wife was granted an additional 320 acres, thus encouraging families to settle in the male-dominated region. Passage of the five-year act resulted in eight thousand Anglo-American claimants receiving three million acres of land from 1850 to 1855, as well as a population increase of 300 percent. This also meant that the number of white settlers now exceeded the entire Native population of the region, thoroughly upsetting the delicate balance that had characterized the region for much of the nineteenth century.

The Donation Land Act was also a decisive victory over the last vestiges of the middle ground forged by indigenous peoples and the fur trade. The act was intended to usurp land claims made prior to the formation of the provisional government, particularly those of non-Americans associated with the fur trade. Thurston, in advocating for the act in Congress, insisted on the phrase “American citizen” in the law itself, a designation he contrasted with “every servant of the Hudson’s Bay Company.” For example, section eleven stipulated that the territorial legislature would receive the majority of John McLoughlin’s Oregon City land claim. According to Thurston during a congressional debate on May 28, 1850, “[The HBC] has been warring against our government these forty years.” This recalls the earlier unfounded belief among some American settlers that the HBC was arming local Native people to undermine their nascent community. Thurston also singled out one culprit in particular: “Dr. McLoughlin has been their chief fugleman, first to cheat our government out of the whole country, and next to prevent its settlement.”

Lithograph of Cape Disappointment at the mouth of the Columbia River by Henry James Warre (Newberry Library, Chicago)

The Donation Land Act was an emphatic endorsement of the color line in Oregon, and the law essentially functioned as an affirmative action program for Anglo-American settlers. Saules, like most nonwhite residents of Oregon, was unable to take advantage of this free land bonanza, and the Donation Land Act was, in many ways, a more effective racial exclusion act than either the 1844 or 1849 Black exclusion laws. Although previous governments had denied citizenship to nonwhites, earlier land laws had never specified whiteness as a prerequisite for land ownership.

The Donation Land Act’s racial exclusion element had an enormous impact on regional power dynamics and the racial composition of Oregon. In the nineteenth-century American West, wealth and power was measured by land ownership. A settler could use free land claims to grow crops and graze livestock for subsistence or the marketplace. In a capitalist economy, land was also a commodity that one could subdivide and sell for profit. Yet only males with white fathers and their wives qualified for free land according to the law. In drawing up the initial draft of the bill, Thurston was therefore conflating whiteness with legitimate American citizenship. This notion had its origins in the 1790 Naturalization Act, which limited American citizenship to whites. The act’s exclusionary provisions therefore racialized Oregon land claims as both American and white spaces. Those forbidden from owning land in Oregon included Blacks, indigenous people without white fathers, Chinese, and Pacific Islanders. Thurston’s justification for excluding Pacific Islanders was partially due to their prominent role as Oregon fur industry workers and ties to the HBC. Yet his stance also revealed that he, like so many racialists of the nineteenth century, held a binary view of race based more on skin tone than specific ethnicity. On May 28, 1850, when defending the racial exclusion clause before the US House of Representatives, Thurston referred to “Canakers” or Pacific Islanders as “a race of men as Black as your negroes of the South, and a race, too, that we do not desire to settle in Oregon.”

The Donation Land Act was significant in that it allowed some women, namely the wives of claimants, to own large parcels of land in their own name. This was one means to address Oregon’s imbalanced sex ratio: in the 1850 census, white women were only 37.8 percent of the 13,294 people counted. By granting land claims to the wives, and eventually widows, of white male settlers, the US federal government found an effective means to encourage the racial and ethnic homogenization of the region, thus increasing the marginalization of nonwhite residents. In 1850 thousands of women living in Oregon could not qualify for land, as they were married to either Native, Pacific Islander, Chinese, Black, British, or French Canadian men. The exclusionary aspects of the Donation Land Act further marginalized these women by elevating the position of white women in the region. These white women would presumably also give birth to the next generation of white residents. Margaret D. Jacobs argues that the mobilization of white women is a necessary component of settler colonialism because it encourages settlement by white families, balances sex ratios, reproduces colonial gender systems, and makes “the home” a “means of establishing dominance in the new settlement.” The increasing number of white women in the Pacific Northwest also allowed promoters of racial exclusion to exploit fears that nonwhites in the region would pose a sexual threat to the white wives and daughters of settlers.

As in the cases of the first two Black exclusion laws, Saules may have influenced the rhetoric used to defend the bill in Congress. When faced with a possible amendment to remove various exclusionary aspects from the bill, Thurston continued to raise the familiar threat of Black-Indian collaboration. During the May 28, 1850, congressional session, Thurston softened his stance toward the British and French Canadians living in Oregon; he consented to include them in the land law if they were willing to become American citizens. At the same time, Thurston reaffirmed his rigid stance against nonwhites: “I am not for giving land to Sandwich Islanders or negroes.” He then cited the danger of interracial sexual relationships, claiming that “the Canakers and negroes, if allowed to come there, will commingle with our Indians, a mixed race will ensue, and the result will be wars and bloodshed in Oregon.” During a congressional debate two days later, Thurston stressed the supposed affinity between Black people and Natives, claiming that that the few Black residents in Oregon “preferred to rove with Indians, encouraging them to acts of hostility against the whites instead of settling down and laboring like the settlers.”

The proposed bill did make an exception by allowing land grants for “American half breeds.” This was probably due to the influence of the French-Indian families of French Prairie and the fact that many prominent American male settlers had Native wives and wanted their progeny to receive land. As for [those characterized by the US government as] full-blood Native people, Thurston successfully lobbied Congress to authorize the president to appoint commissioners who would negotiate treaties with Native groups “for the extinguishment of their claims to lands lying west of the Cascade Mountains.” This was the first stage in a process that later resulted in the removal of several Native groups from their ancestral lands.

The Donation Land Act was also an example of settler colonists driving US policy rather than the reverse. In other words, Oregon politicians like Thurston were instigating Jacksonian Democracy from the fringes of empire. Despite the expansionist rhetoric of President Polk and Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton, in the 1840s Manifest Destiny remained a contentious topic among US politicians, especially when combined with the question of whether slavery would extend to the Far West. Yet many Oregonians believed the federal government had tacitly promised settlers free land in the West, even though Senator Lewis Linn’s Oregon Territorial Bill, a precursor to the Donation Land Act, failed to pass the US House of Representatives in 1843. In 1849, when the Oregon legislature appointed Thurston as its delegate to Congress, his first and most important assignment was to draft a new land bill and take it to Washington, DC. In a remarkable case of the periphery guiding the empire, the resulting Donation Land Act was virtually identical to Thurston’s proposed bill. This process began decades earlier and was far from unidirectional—it involved Oregon politicians and their constituents placing pressure on the federal government to help enact their own particular vision of a culturally and ethnically homogenous West.

The first cadastral survey of Cape Disappointment. (Bureau of Land Management)

On September 27, 1850, Saules’s vacated plot of land on Cape Disappointment became a donation land claim. The claimant was none other than Elijah White, the former Indian agent who had contributed to regional tensions by imposing foreign laws on Native groups. White had also convinced Saules to leave the Willamette Valley and later urged the provisional government to remove all Black people from the region. White, who had moved back to Ithaca, New York, in 1845, returned to Oregon in 1849 to refashion Cape Disappointment into Pacific City, a future metropolis he hoped would eclipse both Oregon City and San Francisco in importance. In 1850 White and his business partner, James D. Holman, subdivided the property, erected a sawmill there, and transported a luxury hotel in pieces by ship from New York via San Francisco. White’s reputation in Oregon, however, was tarnished, and in 1851, the Oregon Spectator warned readers against doing business with him. Yet White still managed to convince Henry and Jane Fiester to move from Aurora, Oregon, to Pacific City; he gave them two city lots for free, citing his desire to have an all-white family begin populating the town. Reports vary on how many Anglo-Americans White convinced to resettle in Pacific City, ranging from seventy-five to five hundred people. On February 26, 1852, White’s ambitions were nevertheless dashed when President Fillmore, citing the fourteenth section of the Donation Land Act, ordered that Pacific City be turned over to the federal government and converted it into a military reservation later known as Fort Canby. While White was compensated for the land, this demonstrated how bringing the federal government into the region for protection could have unforeseen consequences.

The Donation Land Act was also the culmination of a colonial project that began when Saules, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, and the rest of the [United States Exploring Expedition] arrived on the lower Columbia in the summer of 1841. As he surveyed the region, Wilkes was confident that it would one day belong solely to the United States. He employed the era’s most advanced surveying and cartographic techniques to create accurate yet abstract representations of physical space that could be then presented to politicians in Washington, DC. For those who sought to absorb the Pacific Northwest into United States, these images seemed to reinforce and legitimate their imperial desires. Geographer Daniel Clayton argues that the appropriation of territory by the nation-state is often “underpinned by imperial intentions that were at once public and scientific.” The Donation Land Act also used surveys and cartography to apply a gloss of scientific objectivity to the colonial project of seizing and privatizing land once held in common. Unlike the more primitive techniques of the provisional land office, the Donation Land Act brought a surveyor general to the area in 1851. He implemented a formal survey that converted what the federal government called the “unsurveyed public domain” into squareshaped private land plots easily identified and referenced on official maps. According to historian Katherine G. Morrissey, “Representing land as state-regulated property, accessible for private individual ownership, a commodity to be bought and sold on the market, the maps connected their users to national, economic, legal, and political systems.” The process of surveying and mapmaking integral to the Donation Land Act therefore reified land itself as political space fit only for those whose race qualified them for citizenship. 

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