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Abraham Lincoln: Thanks But No Thanks, Oregon Territory

OPB | Feb. 12, 2009 7 a.m. | Updated: July 17, 2012 1:12 a.m. | Portland, OR

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By Pete Springer

Today is Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday.  And while many believe he was the president from Illinois who was born in a log cabin, he was in fact born in Kentucky before moving to Indiana for his boyhood years.

Lincoln Letter
 View larger version of Lincoln's letter

Lincoln eventually moved to Illinois where he was first offered the job of secretary of the Oregon Territory.  He turned that down.  Then he was offered the job of governor of the Oregon Territory in 1849.

But he turned down that offer too in a letter to the Secretary of Interior.

“It’s a wonderful, short letter, very carefully written out unlike some of Lincoln’s quickly written letters.  This one really looks like he took the time to make it a formal letter and a very regretful one,” says George Vogt, executive director of the Oregon Historical Society. 

Lincoln doesn’t give a reason for rejecting the job.  But Vogt speculates that Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, didn’t want to move as far west as the Oregon Territory.  At the time, that territory was made up of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and part of Wyoming.

Other Lincoln historians suspect Oregon would placed Lincoln too far away from his political connections. 

In fact, Lincoln never even visited the Oregon Territory. 

But he didn’t give up much by rejecting the governorship.  Vogt says at the time, the job of territorial governor didn’t hold much power.

“It really didn’t.  It meant that you were an administrator on behalf of the federal government.   He had fairly considerable administrative powers, but keep in mind that you were dealing with a very small population at that point,” says Vogt. 

Vogt says the population of Oregon in 1849 was well under 50,000 people.  And at the time, Vancouver was bigger than Portland, mainly due to Ft. Vancouver and the Hudson’s Bay Company.

After Lincoln turned down the governorship of the Oregon Territory, he went back to practicing law in Illinois.  But he did maintain close relationships with several friends from Illinois who became Oregon politicians.

One of those friends was Edward Baker, one of Oregon’s first U.S. Senators after the state was granted statehood in 1859.

“He was a friend of Lincoln’s from Illinois days,” says Vogt.

Baker introduced Lincoln to the crowd at his 1861 inauguration. 

Baker later joined the Union army.  He was still a U.S. Senator when he was killed in the Civil War.  Baker County and Baker City in eastern Oregon are named after him.

Another friend of Lincoln's who made it big as a Northwest politician was Dr. Anson Henry.  Henry helped Lincoln court Mary Todd.  

"And when Lincoln went through a period of depression on a couple of occasions, he saw Dr. Henry.  Dr. Henry provided prescriptions for him," says Richard Etulain.  He's the author of "Lincoln Looks West" and a retired college professor.

Etulain says when Lincoln became president in 1861, he appointed Henry as the Land Surveyor General in the Territory of Washington.  That was important because anybody who wanted land had to go through the Land Surveyor office and Etulain says Henry was partial to members of his own party.

Henry was at the Whitehouse in 1865 when Lincoln was assasinated.  He helped Mary Todd with her grieving before returning west.  He died in a shipwreck off California later that year.

Another Lincoln connection to Oregon came in the form of Simeon Francis, an Illinois journalist who was friends with Lincoln.  Francis moved to Oregon in 1859 and became editor of The Oregonian newspaper in 1860 for several months.

Francis expected an appointment when Lincoln became president in 1861.

"He didn't get any major appointment, but he was named Army paymaster at Ft. Vanvouver," says Etulain. 

Finally, Lincoln pushed through three key pieces of legislation that changed life in Oregon.

The first was the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, which gave railroads thosands of acres of land and also brought many people west, mostly to California.  From there, it was a short jaunt to Oregon.

Similarly, Lincoln's Homestead Act brought thousands of homesteaders west.

And finally, Lincoln was responsible for so-called "land grant colleges".  This is where senators and congressmen were given land for the state to use.  Oregon State University, Washington State University, and University of Idaho are all located on parcels of land from these grants. 

If you’re interested in learning more about President Lincoln and Oregon, the Oregon Historical Society is hosting a lecture on March 24 called “The Civil War in Oregon”.

The lecture will be presented by Robert Sutton, the chief historian with the National Park Service.

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