Pacific Destiny: The Three-Century Journey to the Oregon Country, by Dale L. Walker, Forge, New York, 2000, $27.95.
Oregon Country–basically everything from present-day western Wyoming and Montana to the Pacific Ocean–was mysterious and alluring. The Spanish, whose explorers may have seen the coast of Oregon as early as 1543, thought so, and later on, so did the British, the Russians and the Americans. The early sightings and visits were by sea. In 1793, the great Scot Alexander Mackenzie became the first European to reach the Pacific Northwest coast from the interior of the continent. Twelve years later, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis led the Corps of Discovery to what Lewis called “that ocean, the object of all our labors, the reward of all our anxieties.”
But there would be plenty more anxieties, as well as rewards and discoveries, for other Oregon Country visitors in the years to come, particularly the employees of John Jacob Astor’s new Pacific Fur Company who reached the Oregon coast by sea and by land beginning in 1811. Astoria, the isolated American foothold they established on the far coast, did not last long–a casualty of the War of 1812 with the British–but American mountain men and the U.S. government maintained an interest in the region. The Spanish officially relinquished claims to the area above northern California (the 42nd parallel) in 1819, and by the mid-1820s the Russians had disclaimed all territories below the latitude of 54 degrees 40 minutes. “Thus by the mid 1820s,” Dale Walker writes at the end of the ninth chapter of his enthralling 478-page book, “only the old establishments–England and the United States–remained to contest the territory between 42 degrees north and 54 degrees 40 minutes.”
In the chapters that follow, Walker deals with the cutthroat competition for the so-called Oregon Country between the two English-speaking countries. The first American emigrants to Oregon were Protestant missionaries like Jason Lee and Marcus Whitman in the 1830s, and Jesuit missionary Pierre-Jean De Smet in 1840. Soon thereafter came the settlers on the Oregon Trail. Both British subjects and American citizens participated in the governing of Oregon until a treaty with Great Britain on June 15, 1846, gave all of Oregon up to the 49th parallel to the United States.
Walker covers the details in fine style. A particularly fascinating chapter deals with “Kelley’s Odyssey.” The eccentric New Hampshire-born Hall Jackson Kelley had a half-century-long obsession with Oregon and its colonization. In 1834, he managed to see the land of his dreams with the help of American trapper Ewing Young and an assist from employees of the hated Hudson’s Bay Company. In his final chapter, “Last Trails,” Walker provides some interesting information about historian Francis Parkman, whose 1849 book The Oregon Trail remains in print to this day.
This is Walker’s fourth historical book in four years for Forge. The others are Legends and Lies (1997), The Boys of ’98: Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders (1998) and Bear Flag Rising: The Conquest of California, 1846 (1999). Taking on Oregon may have been Walker’s destiny. It’s a perfect fit–a fine writer dealing with “a more beguiling assortment of characters,” as he puts it, than can be found anywhere else in western American history.