Oregon City: The True End of the Oregon Trail

Oregon City: Pioneer History Destination

Rich in pioneer history, Oregon City was the first incorporated city west of the Mississippi, became the capital of the Oregon Territory, and offers many unique attractions.

Although many Americans are familiar with the Oregon cities of Portland, Salem, and Eugene, few have even heard of Oregon City.

Willamette Falls

Situated on the eastern side of the Willamette River in Northwest Oregon overlooking the breathtaking Willamette Falls, fur traders in 1807 formed a settlement, later to enter the lumber and grain trade. An official act of Congress established that The Oregon Trail, the perilous 2000-mile long trek through hostile terrain and wrong turns began in Independence, Missouri, and ended in Oregon City.

Before the European settlements, the land at the confluence of the Willamette and Clackamas Rivers was home to the Clackamas Indians, who hosted numerous nearby tribes to share their yearly salmon catch at the falls. Subsequently, many of these tribal monikers, such as Molalla, Multnomah, Tenino, and Chinook, became Pacific Northwest geographical names.

Dr. John McLoughlin, the chief representative of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which traded in furs, in 1829, established the town, originally named “Willamette Falls” as a lumber town. Known as “the Father of Oregon City,” McLoughlin also ran a general store, famous as the last stop on the Oregon Trail.

McLoughlin’s diplomatic skills and sensitivity in negotiations with the Native Americans were exceptional. His wife, Marguerite, was half Native American. (It was common for British trappers-settlers of that era in Oregon to wed native women.) The McLoughlin House National Historic Site, his original residence, brims with fascinating period relics and offers fascinating, informative tours.

In 1842, McLoughlin surveyed and laid out the town and rechristened it “Oregon City.” The original plat of San Francisco, filed in the Clackamas County Courthouse, sits adjacent to Oregon City’s.

Oregon City Courthouse

The courthouse, located on Main Street, was the first U.S. Court House west of the Rockies. As San Francisco (with help from the Gold Rush) Portland (whose location well-suited the maritime trade), grew significantly, Oregon City did not.

By the 1840s, vast, cheap, fertile land lured Americans farther westward. With the Jacksonian Democrats’ enticement of “manifest destiny”—that is, that the United States would eventually expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific– pioneers began their journeys: the Oregon territory would inevitably become part of the United States.

Along the northern edge of McLoughlin’s delineations stood George Abernathy’s land claim. A prominent Methodist missionary and dealer in grains and general provisions, his house on “Abernathy Green” became a meeting point for those arriving by raft from the northern river routes or by way of the Barlow Road.

End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center

One of Oregon City’s more striking tourist attractions, The End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, marked by a giant covered wagon, stands there. This museum focuses on the 19th-century history of the Pacific Northwest including fur trading, railroad, and other pioneer trades and crafts.

In 1842, with its 500 residents, one newspaper, 75 homes, a pair each of churches, saloons, blacksmiths, coopers, cabinet makers, hatters, silversmiths– and four tailors, Oregon’s Provisional Government incorporated the city.

Museum of the Oregon Territory

Be sure to check out the Museum of the Oregon Territory, another great source of Oregon history with an impressive research library, photo archive, and interesting exhibits, and take a free ride on the Oregon City Municipal Elevator, the only municipal elevator in the U.S. and one of four worldwide. It connects two of the three basalt-terraced levels that divide the city.

Oregon City Today

Today’s Oregon City has gone the way of most American towns: shopping centers and housing developments. Thirteen miles outside Portland’s City limits, Oregon City appears as yet another bedroom community, but don’t be deceived; it opens a window to America’s rich pioneer past.

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