The Forgotten History of the Oregon Trail

Multi-ethnic family including Kalapuya, Oregon, circa late 1800s

Multi-ethnic family including Kalapuya, Oregon, circa late 1800s


Perhaps one of the most misunderstood aspects of America’s past is the history of westward migration.

Who exactly rode west in those wagons?

There was almost no colonisation effort on the western American frontier which didn’t begin with squatters and “outsiders”.

Squatting was a tricky game – people had to squat lands not yet formally claimed or controlled by the British (and later USA) establishment, but these same lands had to lie in borderlands and contested areas where indigenous control had been sufficiently weakened to make successful attacks on squatters and intruders less likely.

By “outsiders”, we might mean people who actively wanted to remove themselves from mainstream society or traditional political structures of government.

Such outsiders were often part of non-mainstream religious communities such as the Moravians, “Dunkards“, Primitive Baptists, Quakers, Mormons. and many others.

Such religious groups sometimes had money, sometimes not, depending on the particular situation.  Sometimes they purchased land, sometimes they squatted land.

Sometimes they married amongst their own, sometimes they took partners from other ethnic groups.

Another more common category of “outsiders” were those people not driven by religion, but families and groups simply too poor to purchase officially surveyed or officially “claimed” land, people who saw land-squatting as a way to improve their lot in life.  These people had not always rejected “respectable” or “elite” society – more usually, it had rejected them.

This mostly impoverished group of outsiders often included various free but “non-white” communities who felt unsafe as color-based slavery began to be enforced under the law in more developed areas with functioning judicial systems.

The borderlands, badlands, swamps, forests, mountains, and hollers of the frontier became the province of these people, along with sundry renegades, former Tories, outlaws, runaway servants and slaves.

These “free people of color” have traditionally been construed by American historians and anthropologists as “bi-racial” or “tri-racial” groups, because slavery based on “race” or skin color demanded that people should slot into one of just three or four legal categories of “color” or “race”.

American historians and anthropologists have thus been co-opted into playing along with the intrinsic absurdity of clear racial categories.  If a term is widely used for long enough – especially in law and legalese – people act as if a “white race” or “black race” actually exists in reality.

But what did people call a brown person with a half-Scottish, half-Cherokee father, and a half-Jewish, half African-American mother?

Were they “bi-racial”? “tri-racial”? or even “quadri-racial”?

And how did they fit into America’s mostly binary legal system?  Were they “white” or “black”?

This is not some random imaginary scenario – such complex intermarriages were common on the early American frontier.

A single “outsider” family in a place like Hawkins County, Tennessee, or Cumberland County, Kentucky in the 1790s might have ancestors from five continents, of ten or more ethnicities.  Children in this one family might range from red-haired and blue-eyed, to black-haired and black-eyed, with a range of skin tones.

Spare a thought for the child born into such a family, who took-after the “wrong” grandparent…




But there are another couple of “outsider” groups who squatted and colonised the leading edge of the American frontier – and they are almost never mentioned.

These two groups were:

1) Dispossessed Eastern Indians, and

2) Old communities of Métis – groups formed by centuries of interaction between Spanish, French, German, Jewish, Romani, African, and Scottish/Irish/Welsh/English frontier trappers, prospectors, traders, miners, longhunters, and indigenous Americans from Canada to Mexico.

Many eastern tribes had been on the move west (and to points north and south) ever since the first colonisers arrived in the 1500s and 1600s.  These migrations were too many and too complicated to go into here, but some were large enough to have a real impact on the demographic make-up of entire regions.  Many of the earliest “pioneers” of the Ozark Mountains of Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas were in fact Lenape (Delaware Indian) families from back east.

As for Métis communities, I would highly recommend that readers search the internet for the terms “Métis” and “Half-Breed Tracts“, in order to understand just how common these mixed-ethnic communities actually were.

Anyone who listened to our recent podcast episode Sun Bonnets and Bootstraps will have learned a little about these groups, and their interaction with Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s family in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

In a way, these so-called “half-breeds” and Métis were really just a specific, but related branch of the free people of color already discussed above.

Which brings us finally to the point of this post – The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, which was intended to open-up the Oregon Territory for settlement, and led directly to the famed “Oregon Trail” which started-off in Missouri.

“Settlement” is a more slippery word than “colonisation”, because it allows the user to sidestep the implications of colonialism – the violent dispossession of land from its rightful inhabitants.

The earliest “American” settlers in Oregon arrived mainly as squatter “outsiders” in advance of the Distribution – Preemption Act of 1841.  This was followed by the Organic Act and Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, which was the most generous “homesteading” act in American history, running for five years from 1850 to 1855.  At its inception, earlier squatter and claimant families which included a man and a wife were entitled to claim and gain legal title to a full square mile of surveyed land – a claim equivalating to 640 acres.  Even women and widows were allowed to become registered land owners in those otherwise patriarchal times – and in their own name!  Individuals were entitled to claim half this amount of land – 320 acres.

There can be little doubt that this federal “generosity” was intended to encourage a land rush which would overwhelm the local indigenous population, essentially sparing the US government the need for direct (and expensive) military intervention.

As always in America’s past, the land-hungry underclasses would be used as “shock troops” in frontier regions, and a blind eye would be turned to wholesale massacres by well-armed (but not well-regulated) local militias.

I invite anyone to read about the Willamette Valley and The Rogue River Wars – if you can stomach stories of outright depravity against innocent men, women and children.

Only once the underclasses had done the “dirty work” and cleared the land of natives, did the bigshots arrive from back east – the lumber and land speculators, with the non-indigenous population of Oregon Territory increasing by around 10,000 each year between 1850 and 1855.

Fidgeters and sceptics might at this point be wondering what land grants in Oregon have to do with non-white “outsider” communities farther east?

Let’s read the eligibility requirements for the actual Donation Land Claim Act of 1850:

[each claim be] “granted to every white settler or occupant of the public lands, American half-breed Indians included, above the age of 18 years, being a citizen of the United States, or having made a declaration according to law of his intention to become a citizen.”

Let that sink in. “American half-breed Indians included…”

Such a clear legal provision can mean only a few things:

1) Loads of American “pioneers” in Oregon arriving from Appalachian, Southern, and Midwestern states during the 1830s and 1840s were not seen as “white”.

2) The American government was trying to encourage its undesirable and “expendable” multi-ethnic underclasses to remove to points farther west, weakening tribal structures by incorporating them into the landholding, tax-paying mainstream “white citizenry”.

3) The American government was letting its less desirable and more “expendable” multi-ethnic underclasses do the dirty work of ethnic cleansing in the name of Manifest Destiny.

There will of course be people who argue that this was a case of the American government becoming “progressive” and color-blind in its land acquisition and distribution policies.

Yeah, right.

Tell that to the ethnic groups explicitly excluded from availing of 19th century Oregon land grants, such as free (but clearly African) people, or Hawaiians.

Most of all, tell that to people such as the Kalapuya of Oregon.

Never heard of them?

Of course we never heard about them.

People ban certain kinds of history books from American schools.

And that is exactly how Truth, “Bad Things”, and the story of entire peoples are made to disappear into the distant fog of our silence or ignorance.


And our own conjured reality remains safe, for a time…


#BeforeWeWereWhite #OregonHistory #Métis #Kalapuya