If historical documents are passports for time travel, there is no better embarkation point than the stacks of the National Archives. On dimly lit shelves, gray Hollinger manuscript boxes and bound volumes preserve countless handwritten reports, petitions, and letters spanning more than two centuries. Among the documents are compelling first-hand accounts that record the nation's saga: its emergence and conflicts, its innovations in communication and transportation, and its inexorable westward expansion.

One such document begins with its location and date: "U.S. Frigate Savannah, San Francisco, California, February 1, 1847." It is an American naval officer's remarkable report on the Oregon Territory and its diverse population in the pivotal year of 1846. Lieutenant Neil M. Howison sailed up the Columbia River and traveled by horseback, visiting settlements and penning colorful descriptions of personalities, cultures, and scenery. He wrote of his encounters with British naval officers, French Canadians, American Indians, missionaries, and employees of the Hudson's Bay Company. As destitute American settlers emerged from their arduous journeys on the Oregon Trail, Howison documented their desperate plight in graphic detail.

Howison's departure in September was thwarted, when his schooner, the USS Shark, was shipwrecked on a sand bar in the treacherous mouth of the Columbia. All of his crew miraculously survived. While awaiting another vessel, he learned of the outbreak of the Mexican War, the U.S. occupation of California, and the successful resolution of the Oregon Territory's boundary dispute with Britain. He hoisted the American flag that he had saved from the shipwreck over the territory for the first time.

Howison's report was originally published by the U.S. House of Representatives in 1848. Its author had died from heart disease earlier that year. The following excerpts are from the 1913 reprint of the report, published in The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society.

M. L. G.

Below and in the highlight boxes on the right are excerpts from the Report of Lieutenant Neil M. Howison on Oregon, 1846. In the excerpts below, Humanities Texas has introduced section headings and line breaks for enhanced readability. The complete text of Howison's report is available online.

Hudson's Bay Company

The persons of any consideration who have been longest settled in Oregon are the factors, clerks and servants of the Hudson's Bay Company. Their first point of residence was at Astoria; but the country hereabouts was forest land, and difficult to clear, and it became necessary to increase their resources of provisions and other domestic productions as their establishments enlarged. About twenty-two years ago, leaving a single trader to conduct the fur trade at Astoria, they made a new settlement ninety-six miles up the river, and called it Vancouver. This eligible site is the first prairie land found upon the banks of the river sufficiently elevated to be secure from the summer inundations. The control of all the company's affairs west of the Rocky mountains was at that time, and continued until 1845, to be in the hands of Mr. John McLaughlin.

As this gentleman figures largely in the first settlement of the country, and continues to occupy a most respectable and influential stand there, it may be proper to describe him. He is a native of Canada, but born of Irish parents; his name is seldom spelt aright by any one but himself; he is well educated, and, having studied medicine, acquired the title of doctor, which is now universally applied to him. Of fine form, great strength, and bold and fearless character, he was of all men best suited to lead and control those Canadian adventurers, who, influenced partly by hopes of profit, but still more by a spirit of romance enlisted themselves in the service of the fur trading companies, to traverse the unexplored country west and north of Hudson’s bay. He came, I think, as early as 1820 to assume the direction of the Hudson's Bay Company's interest west of the Rocky mountains, and immediately organized the necessary trading posts among the Indians of Oregon and those on the more northerly coasts. He continued to maintain the superintendence of this increasing and most profitable trade, and by judicious selections of assistants, the exercise of a profound and humane policy towards the Indians, and unremitting steadiness and energy in the execution of his duties, placed the power and prosperity of his employers upon a safe and lasting foundation.

So much of his early life was passed away in the canoe and the camp, that he seems to have been prevented from cultivating those social relations at home which have their finale in matrimonial felicity, and (as was customary among his brethren of that day similarly employed) he rather unceremoniously graced the solitude of his camp with the society of a gentle half-breed from the borders of lake Superior. This lady occasionally presented him a pledge of her affection and fidelity, of whom two songs and a daughter survive, and I believe before her death was regularly married to the doctor, whose example in this particular was followed by all the other officers of the Hudson's Bay Company who had acquired the responsibility of parents.

. . .

With Dr. McLaughlin came many others engaged in the Hudson's Bay Company's service; and these, as before remarked, are now the longest settled residents of the land. Few of those who filled even so high a post as that of clerk have separated themselves form the company's service and still continue to reside in the Territory; but of the boatmen, trappers, farmers, and stewards, almost every one, upon the expiration of his five years' service, fixed himself upon a piece of land and became a cultivator.

French Canadians

By far the greater part of these are Canadian voyagers, or those who worked out their term of service in pulling bateaux and canoes along the water-courses, which are almost continuous from York factory, on Hudson's bay, to the shores of the Pacific Ocean[. . .] They settled contiguous to each other on the fine lands of the Wilhammette, about 30 miles above the falls, and form now a large majority in Champoeg county; their residence is called the French Settlement and Canadian French is their language[. . .] They are all connected with Indian women, and would have united themselves with the tribes to which their women belong but for the advice of Dr. McLaughlin, whose influence induced them to assume the more civilized and respectful life of the farmer. They are a simple, uneducated people, but very industrious and orderly, and are justly esteemed among the best citizens of the Territory. They come under the general designation of half-breeds, and this class of population, including all ages and sexes, may be computed, numerically, at seven or eight hundred.

They are well worthy the fostering care of the government, and have been assured that they will not be excepted by any general law of the United States in relation to Oregon land claims or pre-emption rights. If, unfortunately, their rights of property should not be protected by laws of the United States, they will soon be intruded on and forced from the lands. Falling back upon the Indian tribes with a sense of injury rankling in their bosoms, the consequence might in all time to come be most deplorable for the peace and safety of this country; where, from the sparseness of the population, a band of forty or fifty blood-thirsty savages might surprise and destroy in rotation hundreds of inhabitants.

Simultaneously with the Canadians were discharged from the company's service other subjects of Great Britain, as farmers, mechanics, gardeners, dairymen, &c., chiefly from Scotland and the Orkney isles; besides some of the wild offspring from the Earl of Selkirk's emigrants to the Red River settlement, north of the lake of the Woods. A few American hunters, not numbering over 12 or 15, straggled into the country about the same time, and occasionally runaway seamen from our northwest traders. This heterogeneous population was, in some way or other, to a man, dependent on the Hudson's Bay Company. No important accessions to it occurred until the American missionaries, with their families, came into the country; nor do I believe, prior to 1836, a single white woman lived here. It was not until the year 1839 that any regular emigrating companies came out from the United States; and these were small until 1842, when an annual tide of thousands began to flow towards this western window of our republic.

Overland Emigrants

The privations and sufferings of the first overland emigrants to this country are almost incredible, composed, as they were, of persons who, with families of women and children, had gathered together their all, and appropriated it to the purchase of means to accomplish this protracted journey.

They would arrive upon the waters of the Columbia after six months' hard labor and exposure to innumerable dangers, which none but the most determined spirits could have surmounted, in a state of absolute want. Their provisions expended and clothes worn out, the rigors of winter beginning to descend up on their naked heads, while no house had yet been built to afford them shelter; bartering away their wagons and horses for a few salmon, dried by the Indians, or bushels of grain in the hands of rapacious speculators, who placed themselves on the road to profit by their necessities, famine was staved off while they labored in the woods to make rafts, and thus float down stream to the Hudson's Bay Company's establishment at Vancouver. Here shelter and food were invariably afforded them, without which their sufferings must soon have terminated in death.

Such was the wretched plight in which I may say thousands found themselves upon reaching this new country; but, in the midst of present want and distress, the hardy pioneer saw around him all those elements of comfort and wealth which high hope had placed at the terminus of this most trying journey. At Vancouver he found repose and refreshment, the offerings of a disinterested benevolence. Aided by advice and still more substantial assistance, he prosecuted his journey up the Wilhammette, and on the banks of this river could make choice of his future home, from the midst of situations the most advantageous and lovely. Here stood the ash, the pine and the poplar—the ready materials which an Illinois man, axe in hand, wants but a few hours to convert into a family domicil; the river teemed with fine salmon, and the soil was rich, promising fruitful returns for labor bestowed on it.

But throughout the winter these enterprising people were, with few exceptions, dependent on the Hudson's Bay Company for the bread and meat which they ate, and the clothes which they wore; stern necessities, and the clamors of suffering children, forced them to supplicate credit and assistance, which, to the honor of the company be it said, was never refused. Fearful, however, of demanding too much, many families told me that they lived during the winter on nothing more than boiled wheat and salted salmon; and that the head of the family had prepared the land for his first crop without shoes on his feet, or a hat on his head. These excessive hardships have been of course hourly ameliorating; the emigrant of 1843 has prepared a house and surplus food for his countrymen of the next year; and two roads being opened directly into the Wilhammette valley, rendering a resort to the Columbia unnecessary, has enabled the emigrants to bring in their wagons, horses and cattle, and find homes among their own countrymen.

The apprehensions of want are no longer entertained; the new arrivals improve in character and condition; a cash currency is likely soon to be the law of the land, and the houses are more and more fashioned to convenience, with an occasional attempt at nicety. The Hudson's Bay Company is no longer begged for charity, or besought for credit; but is slowly receiving back its generous loans and advances.


The American missionaries were the first persons to attempt any establishment in Oregon, independent of the Hudson's Bay Company. They have doubtless done much good in past years, but are now disunited; and with the exception of Mr. Spalding, a worthy old Presbyterian gentleman who resides on the Kooskooskie river, I could hear of no attempts going on to educate or convert the aborigines of the country by Americans. Why their efforts came to be discontinued, (for there were at one time many missions in the field, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Babtist, and an independent self-supporting one,) would be a question which it would be difficult to have answered truly. The various recriminations which were uttered, as each member thought proper to secede from his benevolent associates in Christian duty, were not calculated to increase the public respect for their individual disinterestedness or purity. They seem early to have despaired of much success in impressing the minds of the Indians with a just sense of the importance of their lessons, and very sagaciously turned their attention to more fruitful pursuits. Some became farmers and graziers, others undertook the education of the rising generation of whites and half-breeds, and a few set up for traders; but these last imprudently encroached upon a very dear prerogative of the Hudson's Bay Company by bartering for beaver, and only by hastily quitting it escaped the overwhelming opposition of that all-powerful body.

The French missionaries, to-wit: a bishop, a number of priests, and seven nuns, are succeeding in their operations. They are amply furnished with money and other means for accomplishing their purposes. They educate a number of young Indians, principally girls, and all the offspring of the Canadians. In addition to a large wooden nunnery already some years in use, they are now building a brick church of corresponding dimensions, on beautiful prairie grounds a few miles from the Wilhammette river, and thirty-two above Oregon City. They are strict Catholics, and exercise unbounded influence over the people of the French settlements, who are improving in every way under their precepts. The mission derives its support from Europe, and I was told that the Queen of France, and her daughter, of Belgium, are liberal patronesses of the institution. It is at present in high estimation with all classes; it gives employment and high wages to a great number of mechanics and laborers, pays off punctually in cash, and is without a doubt contributing largely to the prosperity of the neighborhood and the country around it. A few Jesuits are located within six miles of the mission, and are ostensibly employed in the same praiseworthy occupation.

The Methodist institute, designed as an educational establishment for the future generations of Oregon, is still in the hands of gentlemen who were connected with the Methodist mission. It is finely situated on the Wilhammette, fifty miles above Oregon City. As a building its exterior was quite imposing from a distance, but I was pained, upon coming up with it, to find its interior apartments in an entirely unfinished state. Mr. Wilson, who is in charge of it, was so hospitable and polite to me that I refrained from asking questions which I was sure, from appearances, would only produce answers confirmatory of its languishing condition. Five little boys were now getting their rudiments of education here; when, from the number of dormitories, it was manifest that it had been the original design to receive more than ten times that number. I learned from Governor Abernethy, however, about the beginning of 1847, that the number of its pupils was fast increasing.

American Indians

Of the Indian population of Oregon nothing new can be said. The "Nez Percés" are described as receiving advantageously the suggestions of Mr. Spalding with regard to the cultivation of their fields and rearing their cattle and horses. No difficulties or wars among the tribes of any consequence have recently occurred. A fracas between the Cowlitzes and Chinooks took place while I was in the river, in which a young Chinook was killed, but the parties are mutually too feeble to make their quarrels a matter of any general interest. It was only among these two remnants of tribes, besides the Clatsops and the Callapooiales, that we had an opportunity of making any observations, and what I say on this subject will be understood as relating exclusively to them.

The old and melancholy record of their decline must be continued. Destitution and disease are making rapid havoc among them; and as if the proximity of the white man were not sufficiently baneful in its insidious destruction of these unhappy people, our countrymen killed two by sudden violence and wounded another in an uncalled for and wanton manner during the few months of my sojourn in the country. The only penalty to which the perpetrators of these different acts were subjected was the payment of a blanket or a beef to their surviving kindred. Public opinion, however, sets very strongly against such intrusions upon the degraded red man, and perhaps a year hence it may be strong enough to hang an offender of this kind.

It is clearly the duty of our government to look promptly into the necessitous conditions of these poor Indians. Their number is now very small: of the four tribes I have named, there are probably altogether not over five hundred, old and young, and these are scattered into lodges along the river, subject to the intrusion of the squatter. If their situation could but be known to the humane citizens of the United States, it would bring before the government endless petitions in their behalf. As a matter of policy, likewise, it is indispensable that measures should be taken to get a better acquaintance with these as well as the mountain tribes; they are perfectly familiar with the difference between Americans and English, calling us "Boston mans," and the English "King George's mans"; and it would be highly judicious to make them sensible of their new and exclusive relations with the United States. A gratuitous annual distribution of a few thousand flannel frocks and good blankets (for an Indian would rather go naked than wear a bad one) to those living near our settlements would be not only an act which humanity demands, but one from which many good consequences would ensue.

In speaking of the Indians, I would respectfully suggest that this moment is, of all others, the most favorable for extinguishing their titles to the land. Miserable as they are, they display some spirit and jealousy on this subject. Although a patch of potatoes may be the extent of their cultivation, they will point out a circuit of many miles as the boundary of their possessions. The tribes of which I have spoken have no chiefs, and on that account it would be difficult to treat formally with them; but a well selected agent, with but small means at his disposal, would easily reconcile them to live peaceably and quietly in the limits which he should specify.

Salmon Fishing

The salmon fishery naturally succeeds the preceding subject. Strange to say, up to this day none but Indians have ever taken a salmon from the waters of the Columbia; it seems to have been conceded to them as an inherent right, which no white man has yet encroached upon. They are wonderfully superstitious respecting this fish; of such vital importance is his annual visitation to this river and its tributaries that it is prayed for, and votive offerings made in gratitude when he makes his first appearance. In Frazier's river, and still further north, the Indians carry their ceremonies and superstitious observances at this event far beyond the practices in the Columbia; here the shoals of salmon, coming from the north, enter the river in May, but they are permitted to pass on several days before nets are laid out for their capture. No reward of money, or clothes, will induce an Indian to sell salmon the first three weeks after his arrival; and throughout the whole season, upon catching a fish they immediately take out his heart and conceal it until they have an opportunity to burn it, their great fear being that this sacred portion of the fish may be eaten by dogs, which they shudder to think would prevent them from coming again to the river. When it is remembered that the many thousand Indians living upon this river, throughout its course of more than twelve hundred miles, are almost entirely dependent upon salmon for their subsistence, it would lessen our surprise that these simple-minded people should devise some propitiatory mean of retaining this inappreciable blessing. The annual inroad of these multitudinous shoals into the Columbia may, in its effects upon the happiness and lives of the inhabitants, be compared to the effect produced upon the Egyptians by the rising of the Nile; a subject upon which they are described as reflecting not with lively solicitude and interest, but with feelings of religious solemnity and awe.

Land Claim Disputes

The policy of confirming all these land claims is not my province to discuss; but it may be necessary to observe that few of those who are now in possession of the land could by any means be made to pay even a dollar and a quarter an acre for it. In the first place, they have not the necessary funds; and in the second, they feel that they have fairly earned a title to it, by assuming possession while it was uncertain to whom it belonged, and that this very act of taking possession at the expense of so much toil and risk gives an increased value to what remains unoccupied, which will indemnify the government for the whole.

Marked for Future Distinction

Many allowances should be made in favor of these people. They come generally from among the poorer classes of the western States, with the praiseworthy design of improving their fortunes. They brave dangers and accomplish Herculean labors on the journey across the mountains. For six months consecutively they have "the sky for a pea-jacket," and the wild buffalo for company; and during this time, are reminded of no law but expediency. That they should, so soon after their union into societies at their new homes, voluntarily place themselves under any restraints of law or penalties whatever, is an evidence of a good disposition, which time will be sure to improve and refine. If some facts I have related would lead to unfavorable opinions of them, it will be understood that the number is very limited—by no means affecting the people as a mass, who deserve to be characterized as honest, brave, and hardy, rapidly improving in those properties and qualities which mark them for future distinction among the civilized portion of the world.

News from the West

On the 28th of October the winter set in, with a strong gale at southeast, and heavy rain. The Cadbury was prepared to receive us on board by the 1st of November; but unremitting gales from the southward, with rain, prevented us from embarking until the 16th. In the meantime the American barque Toulon arrived from the Sandwich islands, and brought us news of the Oregon treaty, Mexican war, and occupation of California. This intelligence rendered us doubly anxious to escape from our idle imprisonment in the river, and we seized upon the first day of sunshine to embark. This was on the 16th of November.

Additional Resources

"A Gallant Little Schooner" by Gregory Paynter Shince in the Winter 2008 issue of Oregon Historical Quarterly.

Lieutenant Neil M. Howison’s handwritten account of the USS Shark’s shipwreck in the National Archive’s Records of the United States House of Representatives.

Portrait for Lieutenant Neil M. Howison, 1847. Photo by W. W. Forester. Courtesy of Oregon Historical Society Research Library.
USS Shark (1821-1846). From an original watercolor by François Roux, n.d. Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.

The First Flag

Baker's Bay, Columbia River
December 1, 1846.

DEAR GOVERNOR: One of the few articles preserved from the shipwreck of the late United States schooner Shark was her stand of colors. To display this national emblem, and cheer our citizens in this distant territory by its presence, was a principal object of the Shark's visit to the Columbia; and it appears to me, therefore, highly proper that it should henceforth remain with you, as a memento of parental regard from the general government.

With the fullest confidence that it will be received and duly appreciated as such by our countrymen here, I do myself the honor of transmitting the flags (an ensign and union-jack) to your address; nor can I omit the occasion to express my gratification and pride that this relic of my late command should be emphatically the first United States flag to wave over the undisputed and purely American territory of Oregon.

With considerations of high respect, 
I remain your obedient servant,
Lieutenant Commanding United States Navy. 

Map of Astoria, 1846. The maker of this map, Burr Osborn, survived the 1846 wreck of the USS Shark. The ship was lost, but the crew survived, spending several months in Oregon Territory. Courtesy of Oregon Historical Society Research Library.
Fort Vancouver, Vancouver, Washington, 1845, by Henry James Warre. From Warre’s Sketches in North America and the Oregon Territory (Dickinson & Co., 1848). Toronto Public Library.
Portrait of Dr. John McLoughlin. Courtesy of Oregon Historical Society Research Library.


I was surprised to find so great a scarcity of game in this country. I lugged a heavy gun more than a hundred and fifty miles through the Wilhammette valley, and in all that ride saw but three deer. Wolves are numerous, and prey upon the other animals, so that the plains are entirely in their possession. The little venison I saw in Oregon was poor and insipid; a fat buck is a great rarity. Elk are still numerous, but very wild, living in the depths of the forests, or near those openings which the white man has not yet approached. An Indian hunter often brought elk meat to us at Astoria, which he had killed in the unexplored forests between Clatsop plains and Young's river. Black ears are very common, and destructive to the farmers' pigs; the grizzly bear is more rarely seen, but one of the Shark's officers procured a very promising young grizzly, and sent him a present to a lady friend at Oahu, whence it is probable he will be conveyed to the United States.

Oregon Trail by Albert Bierstadt, 1869. Joslyn Art Museum.
Crossing the Platte (woodcut) by Albert Bierstadt, 1859.
Map of the Oregon Territory. From A New Map of Texas, Oregon and California, 1846. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.
Oregon City on the Willamette River by John Mix Stanley, c. 1850-1852. Amon Carter Museum of American Art.
Willamette Falls, Oregon City. Photo by Carleton E. Watkins, 1867. The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.


Eight or nine miles above Linton, on the same side of the Wilhammette, we come to a more promising appearance of a town. It has been named Portland by the individual under whose auspices it has come into existence, and mainly to whose efforts its growth and increase are to be ascribed. This is Mr. F. W. Pettygrove, from Maine, who came out here some years back as agent for the mercantile house of the Messrs. Benson, of New York. Having done a good business for his employers, he next set about doing something for himself, and is now the principal commercial man in the country. He selected Portland as the site of a town accessible to shipping, built houses, and established himself there; invited others to settle around him, and appropriated his little capital to opening wagon roads (aided by neighboring farmers) into the Twality plains, and up the east side of the river to the falls where the city of Oregon stands. Twelve or fifteen new houses are already occupied, and others building; and, with a population of more than sixty souls, the heads of families generally industrious mechanics, its prospects of increase are favorable. A good wharf, at which vessels may lie and discharge or take in cargo most months in the year, is also among the improvements of Portland.

First photograph of Front Street in Portland, 1952.


Nisqually, the innermost labor of Puget’s sound, may at some future day become an important port for the exportation of produce from the north side of the river; but the inland transportation is at present impracticable for the articles of more than a hundred pounds of weight, on account of the mountains and water-courses. No wagon road has yet been opened from an interior point to Nisqually. Its importance will increase with the settlement of the country around it, possessing, as it does, natural advantages exceeding those of any other port in the Territory.

Bartering Blue Beads for Otter Robe by Newman Myrah (1921–2010), n.d. This painting depicts Meriwether Lewis and William Clark trading with the Clatsop, a scene that Clark wrote about in his journal. Fort Clatsop National Memorial Collection.
Salmon migrating up Willamette Falls. Photo by Ralph Eddy. Courtesy of Oregon Historical Society Research Library.
Sketch of Willamette Falls and American Indian fishers by Joseph Drayton of the Wilkes Expedition, c. 1841. Courtesy of Oregon Historical Society Research Library.
Champoeg, 1843 (mural) by Barry Faulkner. This mural, located in the House of Representatives chamber of the Oregon State Capitol, depicts Oregon pioneers meeting at Champoeg in 1843 to establish a provisional government. OSU Special Collections and Archives Research Center.