It’s a little simplistic to say that it was founded exclusively for whites, though it’s not far from the actual reality in practice.
Early colonization of Europeans in Oregon was something of a contest between Catholics and Protestants. Which isn’t much of a surprise since in the 1840s Oregon was under dual occupation by both the British and the Americans.
The Americans at first tended to be Protestant, while the British people tended to be Catholics by virtue of Quebecois migrants. This coincided with the local head of the Hudson Bay Company, John McLoughlin, converting to Catholicism and becoming “the father of Oregon.”
There is this other wrinkle too: during the campaign for Home Rule in Ireland, Daniel O’Connell attempted to use tensions in Oregon as a way to leverage support for Ireland in Britain. The idea being that if there was a war over Oregon, Britain would need the support of Ireland, who would only be content doing so if Ireland was given some autonomy.
This had the weird outcome of a lot of radical Irish people, that tended to be Catholic, to come into Oregon. Which is why you get these relatively early foreign-born Catholic leaders of the area like Stephen J. McCormick—something you don’t see in much of the rest of the West.
This led to something of a backlash. While Young Ireland was having 1848 rebellion in Ireland, accusations from Protestants in Oregon began circulating that Catholics were secretly arming Native Americans in preparation for “the extermination of the Protestants.” This led to the fear of Catholics being “the enemies of American domination” and it stuck in several ways. This partially laid the groundwork for later groups like the Ku Klux Klan who were violently opposed to Catholics. The most infamous act of this was the 1922 Klan-backed attempt to end Catholic education in Oregon.
But back to the 19th century, Oregon was attempting a kind of statehood. As the Civil War crept closer, attention started to shift less from religion than to race. Samuel R. Thurston, the Oregon territorial delegate to congress, pushed for the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, which made this explicit by granting land to whites based on race instead of religion or national origin.
This brought in these pesky Irish Catholics, French Canadians, and Catholic members of the Hudson Bay Companies. This wasn’t done because everybody put their old hatred of each other base don religion aside—it was to achieve the minimum 60,000 non-Native people needed to apply for American statehood.
In 1857, the state constitutional convention couldn’t agree to become a free or slave state and put that question to the people to vote on. By a 3-1 majority, Oregon would be a free state. However, the public also ratified Black exclusion by a majority of 8-1. Though this was never enforced and made redundant after the 14th Amendment it was a clear “stay away” indicator.
This legitimized a lot of these “ethnic” Catholic populations that were slowly dwindling in population in comparison to the Protestants from the United States coming in. And as a result, people like the aforementioned Stephen J. Douglas became leaders of the state. In fact, this spread and in 1867 Oregon created a Fenian circle that included Washington, Idaho, and Montana recognized as the 20th Regiment of the Irish Republican Army while at the same time having a section of this organization recognized as a legal and fully recognized militia in Oregon.
We’re underlining a lot of this because, while it would be wrong to say there were no black people in Oregon during this time, or that they were treated fairly, the focus of “otherness” was less on them than it was in areas of the United States that had a significant black population.
After the Civil War a lot of the Irish leaders in the West, most significantly Thomas Francis Meahger in Montana and Douglas in Oregon, basically ordered all their men to become Americans first and put away any sense of ethnicity.
And as this change happened, the Chinese began to come to the West Coast in force. And it was the Chinese that drew most of the ire for the next quarter century. There were not enough blacks, the Catholics had somewhat been forgotten, and both Catholic and Protestant felt threatened by the Chinese. So riots against the Chinese became the order of the day.
Through violence and eventually the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Chinese population in Oregon was whittled down and, as eluded before, the Catholics became the big-other as the Klan became popular in Oregon.
The black population in Oregon did not grow to be significant for decades later, when the Kaiser Shipbuilding Company was put into service for building ships for World War II. Only then did a lot of African-Americans move to Oregon with any real numbers. And they were, of course, discriminated against horribly so far as where they could move. There were a few black neighborhoods in Portland, but the big center was Vanport, which in 1948 was washed away and was never replaced. This started a pattern that continues today of the Black population being gentrified out of areas and moved around.
We want to be clear here: Blacks were never treated well in Oregon. But the population was never quite big enough to be considered the threat that other groups were. By the time there became a crises of any kind, around 1948, the Civil Rights movement was already starting and but much of the really solidified hate that existed in some other locations didn’t have time to bake as much.
Added to this was an influx of white people at the end of the twentieth century that tended to have their minds shaped by the Civil Rights Movement and, again, no deep-rooted ethnic biases specific to the region that the new-Whites would be aware of at first.
But this invisibility itself has proven to be a problem. In some ways Blacks in Oregon have gone from a minority to a kind of abstraction. A neighborhood might be completely gentrified and the last black person moved out for three years before any of the new white residents learn that it used to be a black area of town. And this lends Portland particularly, into a place where a more docile racism is rampant.
The other side of this is that other places on the West Coast that tended to have well educated people became really expensive and Portland became a destination for them. Which also pushed the state further to the left.
And, finally, conservatives in Oregon have tended to be a lot more libertarian than Bible-thumping. This obviously isn’t always the case, but Mark Hatfield, a Republican, has half the state named after him. A pro-life evangelical Christian that wanted a way to divert federal taxes to local neighborhood services, he was also against the Vietnam War, a huge proponent on Civil Rights issues, and worked to limit nukes and military spending.
2. Ohara, Pioneer Catholic History of Oregon (Portland, OR: Glass & Prudhomme Co., 1911)
3. “The Oregon Question,” Nation, May 17, 1845
4. Malcolm Clark, Jr, “The Bigot Disclosed: 90 Years of Nativism,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, 75, No. 2 (1971) p. 115
5. Katrine Barber, “We were at our journey’s end: Settler Sovereignty Formation in Oregon,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, 120, No. 4 (2019) p. 394
6. Amy E. Platt and Laura Cray, “‘Out of order’: Pasting Together the Slavery Debate in the Oregon Constitution,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, 120 no. 1 (2019) p. 88
7. Wilfred Schoenberg, Defender of the Faith (Portland: Oregon Catholic Press,1993)
8. E. Kimbark MacColl and Harry H Stein, “The Economic Power of Portland’s Early Merchants, 1851-1861,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 89, no. 2 (1988)
9. Sue Fawn Chung, Chinese in the Woods: Logging and Lumbering in the American West (Campaign: University of Illinois Press, 2015) p. 17