The Place We Make
In 1829, a red-faced man with a shock of white hair and steel-blue eyes brought his vessel to rest at the base of a waterfall. Raised in Quebec by a Scotch Irish father and a French Canadian mother, the man had trained as a doctor before making his way across the continent as a fur trader. He was six feet, four inches tall and forty-five years old. A biographer would later gush that he was a “superb specimen of man” with “magnificent physical proportions.” The Indigenous people called him “White-Headed Eagle.” Others knew him as “the Czar of the West,” whose “rule was imperial for a thousand miles.” By the time of his voyage up the Willamette River that day, he was serving as chief factor of the Columbia region for the Hudson’s Bay Company, supervising all British trade from Alaska to California, the Rockies to the Pacific. His name was John McLoughlin.
Did McLoughlin pause, just for a moment, to gaze in awe at the dense crowd of fir, maple, cedar, and oak trees that stood sentinel along the riverbanks? Did he stop to listen to the mighty rhythm pounded out by water jumping ceaselessly over rock? Did he notice the eyes—of elk, or deer, or Clowwewalla Indian—that might have peered out from among the trees, watching him? Or did he turn to his companion, George Simpson, and shout over the noise of the falls that they had reached the farthest inland point in the Willamette Valley accessible by ship? This was it. The end.
As they scrambled up the steep, grassy riverbank to the narrow strip of land running between the river and the nearby basalt cliffs, the men imagined a productive sawmill operating one day through the power of the waterfall. McLoughlin saw the place as a potential connection point between the fertile farmland south of the falls and the waterway north that would lead to trade with the outside world. He had found a site, he thought, “destined by nature to be the most important place in the country.” He constructed three buildings there and “claimed land at Willamette Falls for England.”
The story of North American land being claimed by the first White man to walk upon it stretches back, of course, to 1492. And that story held (among those who repeated it, anyway) for five hundred years—as late as 1999, John McLoughlin’s biographer still conceived of the land McLoughlin found as “deep and rich, waiting for their plows.” But the story of land lying in wait for White men’s plows is not the first story told about this continent. Our First Nations have long told other stories. For them, the land is not a virgin to be conquered but a mother who freely offers what her children need. For them, the land’s story does not begin with the first White footsteps. It stretches back, with the presence of their peoples, to the beginning of time.
“Almost every tribe,” wrote Lakota activist and history professor Vine Deloria, Jr., “can point out those features of the landscape which mark the boundaries of their lands and tell how the people first knew that this was their country and that it was in exactly the right place.”
The exact right place for the Clowwewalla people was the village they called Charcowah, with its most important feature: the mighty waterfall that provided them with fish. The ancestors of this small band of the Clackamas Tribe had fished and traded here for ten thousand years.
Just fifteen years before McLoughlin’s visit, a Canadian explorer named Alexander Henry had passed by the Charcowah village, noting six longhouses and “numerous” Clowwewalla residents. But by the time McLoughlin arrived in 1829, waves of European diseases like smallpox and cholera had reduced the Clowwewalla numbers to a mere twenty-five to thirty inhabitants. Though few, they resisted McLoughlin’s incursion by burning his three buildings to the ground.
McLoughlin had an intimate yet authoritarian relationship with the people indigenous to the territory he ruled. He took two Native wives in succession, the mothers of his five children. He believed in treating American Indians fairly and admonished his employees to do the same. Yet he was frustrated that an abundance of salmon and “Nutricious Roots” contributed to what he considered the Indians’ “Lasiness,” making them unwilling to work for him as often as he wished they would. McLoughlin also exacted swift punishment for perceived wrongs. When a Hudson’s Bay employee was killed in an attempted robbery, McLoughlin pursued the Indigenous man alleged to be responsible for the crime and “made the arrangements for the execution in a way best calculated to strike terror to the Indian mind.”
When the Clowwewalla burned his three buildings at Willamette Falls, McLoughlin rebuilt.
A town was born.
Seventeen years later, after the career that sent him roving up and down the West Coast came to an unfortunate end, McLoughlin returned to the falls of the Willamette. He was an older man now, approaching the end of his life. This time—disgraced by an ongoing feud with George Simpson that had cost him his job and disconsolate over the untimely death of his oldest son—McLoughlin came to stay.
In the intervening years since he’d first set foot there, McLoughlin had kept tabs on his claim. After erecting those first three buildings, he’d returned to his base at Fort Vancouver, twenty miles north, near the place where the Willamette River emptied into the Columbia. But he’d left some company employees to mind the site at the base of the falls, and he had often returned to make improvements. In 1832, McLoughlin blasted a millrace. In 1838, he built a “house & store.” In 1842, he platted the streets of his town and named it Oregon City. In 1844, he designated the location of Oregon City’s jail. That same year, Oregon City became the first incorporated city west of the Rocky Mountains.
Shortly after, in 1846, McLoughlin moved to Oregon City permanently, with his second wife and a couple of adult children and their families, into a two-story house with a pyramid-shaped roof that he built with his own two hands. He opened a dry-goods store across the street. Depressed about his precipitous fall from chief factor of half a continent to proprietor of a small-town general store, McLoughlin sat in his new house in Oregon City and wrote to his former employer, “I have Drunk and am Drinking the cup of Bitterness to the very Dregs.”
The house where McLoughlin drank his dregs was pictured on the cover of the New York City publication Holden’s Dollar Magazine
not long after the McLoughlins moved in—it is just to the right of the mast of the ship that lays at anchor, with the American flag pointing down at it. The sketch depicts the expansion of the town in its first two decades, far beyond its initial three buildings. As the first city in the West to be founded as a commercial center rather than as a military fort or religious mission, Oregon City’s population had grown from a handful at the start of the decade to nine hundred at its close.
The sawmill McLoughlin had envisioned decades before is visible here in the etching, already humming. And McLoughlin’s dream of ships streaming in from the Pacific has been realized too. In the sketch, one ship stands ready for its supplies to be unloaded and portaged over Singer Creek, at the right edge of the picture, and past the Willamette Falls, which roars just outside the frame, to the waiting steamboats on the higher stage of the river. The other ship in the etching appears to be moving away from Oregon City, presumably full of exports produced by farmers in the fertile Willamette Valley. Still, for all this human activity, the town itself appears almost lost in the vast landscape of sun-tipped clouds, towering evergreens, soaring cliffs, and the glassy river. The artist has depicted the town’s buildings as but a handful of dice scattered across the sliver of open land that hugs the river. To the Holden’s Dollar readers in New York, the little town must have seemed awfully exotic and far away.
Oregon City was the focus of the national imagination just then, toward the end of the 1840s. The closing decade had seen thousands of Americans toiling across the plains and over the Rockies, oxcarts laden with expectations. All their hopes were pinned on reaching those wooden structures scratched out between the bluffs and the river. Oregon City was the official End of the Oregon Trail. All over the country, from New York to Independence, Missouri, hearts were soaring at the very idea of Oregon City. Whatever the country would become—marching west in pursuit of her Manifest Destiny—she would become it in Oregon City.