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Oregon historical overview

Colonial Mexico to Twentieth-Century U.S. Latino Oregon

Any discussion of Latinos in Oregon has to begin with a larger discussion of the history of Spanish colonialism, the emergence of independent Mexico, and

the imperial expansion of the United States as it laid claim to a large chunk of the western North American continent in the nineteenth century. In more contemporary times, the focus moves to U.S.-Mexican political, economic, and cultural relations, as well as to the migration of a smaller number of people from other Latin American countries. In large part, however, the history of Latinos in Oregon is a history of Mexicans in Oregon.

Spanish colonial claims to what became known as Oregon Country date back to the papal bull of 1493 and the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, which granted Spain the exclusive right to colonize all of the western hemisphere except Brazil. In 1513 the Spanish explorer Balboa Vasquez de Nunez solidified Spain’s claim to the west coast of North America by declaring that the Pacific Ocean and all of the lands its touches belonged to Spain. Beginning in the 1700s, Spanish adventurers such as Juan Perez moved beyond exploration and settlement in California and began to explore the northwest coast, including what is now Oregon. Spanish explorers mapped what became Oregon Country, and their work was reflected in the geographical details that guided the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819, in which the United States assumed all Spanish claims north of the 42nd parallel (now marking the California-Oregon Border). The treaty also granted the United States rights to what was known as Spanish Florida, and it settled a boundary dispute between Spain and the United States along the Sabine River in Texas.1

In 1821, when Mexico became independent of Spain, Oregon Country’s southern border became the U.S. territorial border with Mexico. After the U.S. government unsuccessfully attempted to purchase parts of Mexico’s northern territory, an armed clash between the U.S. and Mexican armies along the Rio Grande in 1846 provided the provocation for the United States to declare war on Mexico. With increased Anglo migration to Oregon in the 1840s, confrontations with the native peoples of the area, and U.S. President James Polk’s eye on Mexico’s northern territory, the Oregon border was of key importance. In the same year that the United States went to war with Mexico, it also settled the boundary of the Oregon Territory, with all land above the 49th parallel (what now makes the border between the Canadian province of British Columbia and the state of Washington) going to Great Britain. At the conclusion of the Mexican-American War in 1848, the two countries signed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which called for Mexico to give up more than half of its territory. This included the current states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and parts of Colorado, Nevada, and Utah, for which the United States paid $15 million in compensation for war-related damage to Mexican land.

The Oregon Territory (which still included the present-day states of Washington and Idaho) went from being the U.S. border territory with Mexico to sharing a border with the soon-to-be state of California (given statehood in 1850). Such shifting borders, however, did not greatly restrict the flow of people. Some of the earliest Mexican migrants to the state of Oregon were mule packers, miners, and vaqueros

who brought their trade from Mexico to the United States. Mule packers moved supplies from northern California to areas as far north as the Illinois River Valley in Oregon. In the 1850s, during the Rogue River war in Oregon, Mexican mule packers supplied the Second Regiment of the Oregon Mounted Volunteers, who were fighting against native peoples of the southern coast area. Two decades later, Mexican cowboys migrated to Oregon, coming from California with California cattlemen who settled in remote locations in eastern Oregon. For example, California cattleman John Devine first came to Oregon in 1869. He brought with him a crew of Mexican vaqueros to manage large herds that were driven up from California. Other California ranchers also established themselves in Harney and Malheur counties in eastern Oregon, developing some of the largest cattle spreads in the state. The nation’s first transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869, passed across northern Nevada, and the railroad’s shipping point of Winnemucca became a prime destination for cattle drives in the state. Mexicans, along with workers from China, Japan, and the Philippines, built railroads linking the East and West coasts, and these railroads eventually making mule-packing operations obsolete.

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