Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

"The Nomadic Race to Which I Belong": Squatter Democracy and the Claiming of Oregon

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

"The Nomadic Race to Which I Belong": Squatter Democracy and the Claiming of Oregon

Article excerpt

IN 1850, Jesse Applegate wrote to Samuel R. Thurston, Oregon's territorial delegate to Congress, offering his appraisal of the Donation Land Bill that was moving through the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Thurston was locked in the fight of his life, trying to win lawmakers' support for a long-sought measure that would grant up to 640 acres of free land to white Oregonians, even as debates over slavery dominated the session and threatened to fracture the nation. Tracking the evolving land bill, Applegate --the blazer of a southern trail into Oregon and one of the region's most influential citizens--chafed at a provision requiring grantees to occupy their land for four years before they could receive title. "If this 4 years confinement is intended to check the restless spirit and desire of change of the nomadic race to which I belong I consider it not only impolitic but oppressive," he wrote. The United States "owe their existence" to that "restless spirit," which first appeared "on the rock of Plymouth and added every acre to this wide spread republic," Applegate maintained.

Since the Revolution the nomads and squatters have subdued the valley of the Mississippi, they have added Texas and Calafornia [sic] to the Union, and we have given them Oregon and they propose to pay us for this magnificent gift by doling out a few acres of our own land coupled with a condition... at variance with our habits and subversive of our right and liberties. (1)

Applegate's reflections were more than the self-serving musings of a man seeking to legalize his claim to 640 grassy acres in the lush Umpqua Valley. They represented a headlong plunge into one of the most contentious debates of the antebellum era: the role and rights of U.S. squatters in the North American West.

By the 1840s, when the United States was aggressively vying for control of the Oregon Country, squatters--that is, settlers who lacked title to the lands they claimed--had come to occupy a prominent, polarizing position in the nation's political culture. (2) Were they violent intruders on others' lands, as critics charged, or the unsung pioneers of the expanding nation, as their advocates asserted? Should they be encouraged or contained, rewarded or punished? Once ensconced in western domains, did they have the right to shape their own laws and institutions? These questions, and the conflicting responses they provoked, converted squatters into lightning rods at the center of political strife in the decades leading up to the Civil War.

Squatters' heightened visibility and growing clout came courtesy of the Democratic Party, which rose to dominance in the 1830s and 1840s on a novel platform that celebrated these once-maligned settlers as stoic yeomen at the vanguard of U.S. expansion. The party, widely known as "the Democracy," passed favorable land policies to stimulate westward migration and reward those who ventured to the far reaches of the continent, securing U.S. claims there. At the urging of their constituents, Democrats took the lead in passing a series of preemption laws that allowed squatters to obtain title to lands they had illegally occupied. In a significant break from precedent, those preemption laws not only legalized squatting but also facilitated the practice, contributing to an era of massive territorial conquests spearheaded by squatters and enabled by Jacksonian Democrats. (3) Once settled in the newly won territories of the West, these same squatters tended to overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party. Such were the dynamics of the political brand I term Squatter Democracy.

Squatter Democracy conditioned the claiming of Oregon Country. Democrats in the White House and Congress and their allies in the press brashly asserted the nation's "clear and unquestionable" title to the bountiful land still occupied by Native peoples and also claimed by Great Britain, and they encouraged emigrants to redeem that title by settling there. …

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