Earliest Laws of the Oregon Territory
Bill Long 8/3/06
Putting the Indians in Their "Place"
Even though there were only a few hundred American settlers in the Willamette Valley in 1840 and 1841, the people were desirous of some laws from some authority to guide their social interactions. But it was not until December 6, 1842 at a meeting at Lapwai that the newly appointed federal Indian agent, Dr. Elijah White, read the following laws, the first such laws commanded by the federal government. Objections to lawmaking in previous years had been made by Marcus Whitman as well as some representatives of the US Government; Whitman's objection was that the imposition of law suggested the primacy of a secular authority while he was eager not to have his spiritual authority undermined in any way. Furtwangler lays this out neatly, Bringing Indians to the Book, 107ff.
Nevertheless, new and immediate dangers to the missionaries arose in Fall 1842. Dr. White, who previously had lived in the Willamette Valley from 1836-40 and was basically thrown out by his peers only to return with the authority of the US Government behind him, brought with him in his 1842 trip the February 1842 letter from the American Board declaring their intent to close the Waiilatpu and Lapwai Missions. Marcus Whitman was dispatched to the East to try to get this decision reversed (which happened early in 1843), leaving his wife as the only White woman (adult?) at the mission. The grist mill at Waiilatpu was burned; an intruder nearly scared Narcissa Whitman to death; she decided to spend the Winter of 1842-43 at the Dalles.
Incensed by the lack of law and order at the mission station, Dr. White and a group of people from Fort Vancouver and the Willamette Valley made an early winter trip to Lapwai, mentioned above, at which time the following laws were imposed upon the Indians. The Indians were said to have gone along with them, but to what extent they knew what they were doing is uncertain. In any case, here are the laws (they appear also elsewhere online).
The Eleven December 6, 1842 Laws
1. Whoever wilfully takes life shall be hung.
2. Whoever burns a dwelling house shall be hung.
3. Whoever burns an outbuilding shall be imprisoned six months, receive fifty lashes, and pay all damages.
4. Whoever carelessly burns a house or any property, shall pay damages.
5. If anyone enter a dwelling, without permission of the occupant, the chiefs shall punish him as they think proper. [Public rooms are excepted.]*
*Apparently a bracketed addition to the rule.
6. If any one steal he shall pay back two fold; and if it be the value of a beaver skin or less, he shall receive twenty-five lashes; and if the value is over a beaver skin he shall pay back two-fold, and receive fifty lashes.
7. If any one take a horse, and ride it, without permission, or take any article, and use it, without liberty, he shall pay for the use of it, and receive from twenty to fifty lashes, as the chief shall direct.
8. If any one enter a field, and injure the crops, or throw down the fence, so that cattle or horses go in and do damage, he shall pay all damages, and receive twenty-five lashes for every offence.
9. Those only may keep dogs who travel or live among the game; if a dog kill a lamb, calf, or any domenstic animal, the owner shall pay the damage, and kill the dog.
10. If an Indian raise a gun or other weapon against a white man, it shall be reported to the chiefs, and they shall punish him. If a white person do the same to an Indian, it shall be reported to Dr. White, and he shall redress it.
11. If an Indian break these laws, he shall be punished by his chiefs; if a white man break them, he shall be reported to the agent, and be punished at his instance (reproduced in Furtwangler, 109f.).
Comment and Conclusion
Striking at first blush is not only the fact that the laws seemed to be drafted to reflect most recent problems but also the severity of the laws. While Indian society would punish offenders with rather mild punishments, the White man, with his Christian civilization, was now coming in and meting out severe punishments including whippings and death. One could get the death penalty, so to speak, without even having injured a person--intentional arson would do the trick.
These laws were printed on the printing press which arrived in Lapwai as a gift from some ABCFM missionaries in Hawaii in 1839. Were they printed in English? It certainly appears so. But the press had previously been used as a tool for printing books translated into the Nez Perce language (Furtwangler is irritatingly unclear as to what was printed and when printed on this press), and so the the printing of the laws wasn't the first use of the press. But it is an ironic usage--what was first conceived of as a means to propogate and spread the Gospel among the Indians soon became the means coopted by government to put limitations on the Indians, with threats of sanctions. Maybe that is a parable for what happened over the next decade or two, as the missionaries were shunted to the side and the full force of the US Government descended on the quiet Willamette Valley.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long