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Peoples of Oregon: Racism in the History of the Columbia River Basin

Oregon began in the 1800’s as a white state, and settlers wanted it to stay that way. Of course, before it was a state, the land had been home to hunters, gatherers, and fishers, the native peoples who knew only the natural boundaries of rivers, mountains, plateaus, and oceans. Statehood and the support of the federal government brought not only the artificial boundaries found on a map of Oregon, but boundaries imposed on the movement, dignity, and very existence of people of color. This land of promise far from fulfilled the ideals of the Constitution, which proclaimed that all men are created equal and have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For in the early years of Oregon statehood most Oregonians believed that these principles applied only to white Protestants. Throughout the past two centuries, minorities in Oregon have faced racist laws, practices and attitudes. The situation is improving, but evidence of the old attitude continues to surface still today.

Racism toward Native Americans in the Columbia River Basin began with the first white contact, as settlers migrated to Oregon territory in large numbers. The U.S. government, guided by the philosophy of Manifest Destiny, made Native American lands available for settlement by placing the Indians on reservations against their will. They fought back but were overpowered and outnumbered. European diseases and wanton killing by the white man caused their numbers to dwindle and weakened their resistance; settlers took their lands even without official government approval. When gold was discovered in the Shasta River, southern Oregon natives were massacred by white miners in the Rogue River wars, and the surviving Indians moved onto the Siletz reservation to the north. Eventually, the government opened even the Siletz reservation land to white settlement. The Nez Perce also were forced off their lands by settlers who wanted to farm their land and miners who found gold in the Clearwater River in 1861. The flight of Chief Joseph and his people to try to escape to Canada, chased by General Howard’s cavalry, is well known. It is just one more example of the suffering, decimation and dispossession of the Native tribes of the Columbia Basin. According to del Mar, “By the 1870’s, all of Oregon’s surviving Native peoples were despised, dependent, and impoverished, regardless of whether they had fought to the last warrior or agreed to settle on a reservation at their first treaty meeting.” (del Mar, page 62)

A modern day example that illustrates the racist attitudes still present today is the so-called “Salmonscam” incident involving traditional native salmon fishermen on the Columbia River. Resentment by whites over Indian fishing rights led Congress to change illegal fishing from a misdemeanor to a felony that could be prosecuted in federal court. Federal agents then set up an elaborate sting operation to entrap traditional native Columbia River fisherman into selling salmon to federal agents. David Sohappy, a Yakama who had fished there all his life, was convicted of selling 317 fish and sentenced to five years in federal prison. In contrast, two whites who sold $20,000 worth of salmon to a restaurant were charged only with misdemeanors and got no prison time.

In the 1800’s, Chinese immigrants were the largest minority in Oregon. They came in search of work and opportunity, but found racial hostility to the worst degree. Although the Chinese had been instrumental in building the railroads that brought settlers to Oregon, the people of the new state made it clear that the Chinese were not welcome. The Oregon Constitution excluded Chinese Americans from citizenship. State laws burdened Chinese miners and merchants with special taxes. Physical brutality toward Chinese workers was commonplace. When gold was discovered in the Snake River in 1887, a gang of whites robbed, tortured and murdered 31 Chinese American miners. The jury found the white perpetrators innocent. In the 1880’s, white rioters organized a movement to drive Chinese-Americans out of Oregon City, East Portland, Salem and Yamhill. They succeeded through violent means. In eastern Oregon, cowboys humiliated Chinese men by cutting off their queues.

Japanese immigrants fared no better in the new state of Oregon. They too suffered official government discrimination. In 1923, Oregon’s Ku Klux Klan supported an Alien Property Act that prohibited Japanese immigrants from owning land. In 1920, a Madras newspaper reflected public sentiment, declaring “We have no room for the yellow man and we don’t want them.” (del Mar, page 203) Mobs drove Japanese-Americans out of towns such as LaGrande and Toledo. But the worst example of racism toward the Japanese occurred during World War II. Japanese-American residents of Oregon were ordered into interment camps. They were forced to liquidate their property and live in stalls in the Expo Center in north Portland for several months. They were then moved to isolated camps in the interior United States until the war ended. This caused not only immediate suffering, but lasting trauma. The fiber of the Japanese-American community was destroyed. When the Japanese returned to their homes, they found them looted, desecrated, or destroyed. Their white neighbors were hostile. The Hood River American Legion Post even refused to recognize the sixteen Japanese-Americans who had fought for the U.S., including two who died. The former governor of Oregon announced his opinion that all people of Japanese descent should be deported. Many went back to Japan and never returned.

One of the first acts of the Oregon provisional government was to prohibit blacks from living in Oregon. Again in 1859, when Oregon became a state, this law was reaffirmed to exclude both slaves and “free Negroes”. The Constitution specifically denied blacks the right to vote, and the Donation Land Act of 1850 prevented them from owning land. These laws deterred blacks from coming to Oregon. In 1860, there were only 128 counted in the census. Small towns throughout Oregon displayed overt racism toward blacks, so the small numbers that did come in search of gold eventually moved to Portland. A public school in Pendleton refused admittance to black children in 1871. A small town near Salem drove a black man out of town, and a black man was lynched near Coos Bay near the turn of the century. In the 1920’s, Oregon’s large and influential Ku Klux Klan spread anti-African American sentiment. Even as recently as 1940, many Oregon towns would not allow blacks to live there, and even in Portland many employers would not hire them. The antagonism discouraged blacks from moving to Oregon, as evidenced by their population of only 2,565 in 1940. (del Mar, page 204).

Oregon today has a reputation as being a progressive and open-minded state. It has come a long way toward resolving the problems of bigotry that characterized its beginnings in the early 1800’s. Studying the history of racism in Oregon will help its citizens to understand the roots of the problem and work toward a more just and tolerant society.


Del Mar, David Peterson. Oregon’s Promise. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2003.

Dietrich, William. Northwest Passage, the Great Columbia River. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003.