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Oregon’s Early Military Heritage

When one thinks of military heritage in conjunction with the State of Oregon, we often think in terms of WWII with the Japanese shelling of Ft. Stevens, the fire balloons launched by the Japanese to destroy our forests in Southern Oregon, or even the home front beach patrols to guard against Japanese invasion from the Pacific Ocean.

In reality, our state’s military heritage dates much earlier in time – back into the late 1700’s and through the 1800’s, following discovery and exploration of what was then called “Oregon Country”. Two different British Naval vessels visited the Oregon coast in 1788 and 1792 with one actually crossing the bar and traveling up the Columbia River.

Lewis & Clark’s military expedition followed from cross-country in 1805, establishing Fort Clatsop. Over the following decades, additional explorations by the Russians, Canadians and Brits, culminated with the first large Oregon Trail Wagon Train reaching the Willamette Valley in 1843, bringing with it cultural conflicts between white settlers and Native American Indians and tribes.

The Willamette Valley settlers organized a provisional government as well as the first militia – the Oregon Rangers – almost immediately as clashes in 1844 between settlers and Indians in Oregon City resulted in four deaths. In 1846 US Congress created the US Regiment of Riflemen whose initial primary duty was to be the Oregon Trail. However, they were diverted to the Mexican War in 1846-1848 and didn’t actually come to Oregon until 1849, which by then had been established as an actual ‘territory’.

In 1850 the US enacted the Donation Land Act which was intended to spur additional settlement in the Northwest by granting free lands to white settlers. However, many of these lands were previously occupied by Native American Indians and utilized as a major component of their culture. This led to increasing conflicts which both the local militias as well as US Cavalry would become engaged in.

Oregon’s “Indian Wars” are described by some historians as early wars from 1847-1856, and late wars from 1872 – 1880. The 1855 Treaty attempt appeared to calm hostilities for a time, but the US Government’s lack of follow through on some of the promises as well as continued encroachments by settlers onto the tribal reservations, caused the frustrations to boil back to the surface during the late Indian Wars period. That culminated in the now famous ‘Last Indian War’ of the Nez Perce in 1877 when nearly the entire Nez Perce nation evaded the US Cavalry for more than three months, covering over 1,500 miles of mountainous and grueling terrain through three states.

There is much more to be learned about our State’s military heritage, and we are holding a series of classes during Lane Community College’s Winter Term throughout January, February and March. Some of these classes will feature guest speakers, and will cover all the way up to current conflicts and the War on Terror. You can learn more and even register for these classes by visiting our website below or calling the Museum at 541-902-5160.

Image by RetroSupply
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