February 14, 1859 – Oregon Joins the Union as the 33rd State

Oregon, in spite of the liberal reputation Portland now enjoys, has a history of discrimination. As the Ashland Daily Tidings recounts:

Following the Oregon trail in 1800s, white settlers passed an exclusion law in 1844 against all black people within Oregon territory. The law was later modified to prevent black people from settling here.

Then came the Oregon Land Donation Act of 1850, which permitted white settlers — and ‘American half-breed Indians’ — to claim lands between 320 acres to 640 acres without regard to legal subdivisions. Within five years, the act produced more than 7,000 of land patents to mainly white settlers.

When Oregon entered the Union in 1859 it did so as a ‘whites-only’ state, the only free state to do so. The statute wasn’t repealed until 1927.”

The open embrace of white supremacist policies tended to draw the kind of people to the territory that also favored such a stance, according to historian and Southern Oregon University professor Jeff LaLande.

Those settlers, LaLande said, hated slavery for economic reasons. “And they hated blacks just as much, if not more.”

When the Chinese came to work on building railroads, they too experienced discrimination. Southern Oregon University Professor Chelsea Rose, an historical archaeologist who specializes in the settlement and development of the American West, relates that the Chinese weren’t allowed to work in mines, own property or testify against a white person for a number of years in Oregon.

In August, 1857, Oregon held a constitutional convention to consider statehood, modeling its governing document on those of Iowa, Indiana, and Michigan. It also rejected slavery by three to one, but opposed admission of free blacks by eight to one. (The Oregon Blue Book insists, “In this Oregonians differed little from Thomas Jefferson.”)

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The matter of Oregon’s statehood finally came up in Congress in February, 1858. Southerners opposed a new free state unless Kansas was added as a slave state. Some northerners opposed the ban on free blacks. All opposed assumption of Oregon’s debt from waging Indian wars without having raised taxes to pay for it. Nevertheless, Oregon’s reputedly charming delegate to Congress, Joe Lane, managed to get the bill for statehood through by the slim margin of 114 to 103. President Buchanan signed it on Valentine’s Day. On Saint Patrick’s Day, the news reached Salem, Oregon City, and Corvalis. Oregon is a state founded on holidays.

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But discrimination remained a strong force in the state. In the 1920s, Oregon had the largest KKK organization [per capita] west of the Mississippi River. Moreover, it carried out three mock lynching incidents as an intimidating tactic, according to LaLande.

Mexican immigrants who arrived in the 1940’s as laborers fared no better. Southern Oregon University Professor Alma Rose Alvarez said the large number of Mexican men who came were promised decent living conditions but ended up sleeping in tents and facing a risk of food poisoning. Most businesses declined to serve nonwhites, with tensions leading up to “Operation Wetback” in 1954, in which Mexican and Mexican Americans were rounded up, put on buses and left in the desert at the border.

For years thereafter, Alverez reports, “Realtors continued to steer,” citing her own experience when she first came to Ashland in the 1990s. “Discrimination continues. … People don’t put up signs anymore, but it’s a more subtle form of discrimination.”

And about Portland? As CBS News reports, “Portland’s racist past smolders beneath the surface.”

But Oregon is liberal in other ways. In 1994, Oregon became the first U.S. state to legalize physician-assisted suicide through the Oregon Death with Dignity Act (DWDA). Under this law, a capable adult Oregon resident who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness by a physician may request in writing, from his or her physician, a prescription for a lethal dose of medication for the purpose of ending the patient’s life.

Despite the measure’s passage, implementation was tied up in the courts for several years, finally reaching the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005. In Gonzales v. Oregon (546 U.S. 243), the Court, by a 6 to 3 ruling on January 17, 2006, affirmed the right of Oregonians to to govern their own end-of-life, pain management and palliative care choices.

According to the Oregon Public Health Division, as of January 19, 2018, since the law was passed in 1997, a total of 1,967 people have had prescriptions written under the DWDA, and 1,275 patients have died from ingesting the medications. During 2017, the estimated rate of DWDA deaths was 39.9 per 10,000 total deaths. Of the 143 DWDA deaths during 2017, most patients (80.4%) were aged 65 years or older. The median age at death was 74 years. As in previous years, decedents were commonly white (94.4%) and well educated (48.9% had a least a baccalaureate degree). In addition, patients’ underlying illnesses were similar to those of previous years. Most patients had cancer (76.9%), followed by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) (7.0%) and heart/ circulatory disease (6.3%).

Oregon also passed a law forbidding the use of tanning beds by anyone under 18 except with a doctor’s note, as of January 1, 2014. (A majority of states now regulate the use of tanning facilities by minors. You can see a state-by-state list of tanning regulations here.)

As of January 1, 2018, Oregon joined a handful of states that have increased the tobacco age to 21. You can read about other new state laws in force here.

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The flag of Oregon is the only two-sided state flag. On the front is the escutcheon from the state seal showing thirty-three stars, for the number of states in the Union when it joined, and on the reverse is a gold figure of a beaver, the state animal.

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