In 1834, Ewing Young led a party of 16 men from California into the Willamette Valley of Oregon. They would be the first Mountain Men to permanently settle in that rich and verdant country.
Young was initially urged to push north from California into Oregon by a promoter named Hall Jackson Kelley, who was an agitator pushing for American annexation of Oregon. The territory was jointly occupied by the United States and Great Britain under the terms of the Treaty of 1818, but it effectively operated under the sway of Great Britain through the administration of the Hudson’s Bay Company. There was a growing chorus of American agitation to take Oregon, by force if necessary. That agitation would carry James K. Polk into the Presidency a decade later as Americans proclaimed that the northern Oregon boundary must be “54-40 or Fight!”
Kelley was a Manifest Destiny zealot before that term was popularized, a figure of a type that would become more and more common through the mid-19th Century.
Young was a businessman, not a political nationalist, and he didn’t think much of Kelley. He initially declined to act as his guide and escort. According to historian Robert Utley, the ever-present drive to make a buck shifted Young’s perspective, and he agreed to guide Kelley while pushing a herd of California horses north for sale in the Willamette Valley.
Despite his exploits in working around Mexican authorities in the Southwest, Young was fundamentally an honest man. His horses were bought and paid for. His party, however, was joined on the trail north by a set of horsethieves that Kelley labeled “The Marauders.” If that sounds like a one-percenter biker gang, their behavior matched the image. They stole from and murdered native peoples along the trail, and they raped and abused Indian women. Young may not have personally condoned such vicious behavior, but he didn’t really care about Indians, so he didn’t stop it, either.
A letter from California Governor José Figueroa beat Young to Oregon, and was placed in the hands of Hudson’s Bay Co. Chief Factor John McLoughlin at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River. The letter damned Young as a horse thief. McLoughlin, a stern exemplar of 19th century rectitude, rendered Young persona non grata.
The American Mountain Man was not intimidated by being blacklisted by McLoughlin. He liked the country and saw opportunity in its fertile soil, tree clad mountains and growing population of farmers and Methodist missionaries. Nevertheless, the displeasure of the HBC posed serious problems. Not only were Young and his men cut off from commerce with a company that essentially held a monopoly on trade, no one else would trade with them either, for fear of being cut off themselves.
Young’s men managed to make a living hunting and fishing and trapping beaver in the Coast Range, getting their furs out on American ships on the Columbia. Over the next couple of years, the frosty reception eased a bit, and former-HBC-employed French-Canadian settlers and Methodist missionaries began to have tentative dealings with the American Mountain Men.
Then Young hit upon a brilliant ploy to break out of HBC’s blacklist. He set up a whiskey still and made known his intention to offer a product that he knew, as Utley notes, “could undermine the power of the company.” It was, as they say, a matter of leverage.
The Methodists were, of course appalled by the prospect of distilled spirits anywhere near their community, and they wanted HBC to intervene. HBC didn’t relish their French-Canadian retiree community getting soused on American popskull, and the Company certainly didn’t want Young debauching the Indians with whom they traded.
HBC made an offer: Abandon the whiskey distillery, and Young could have full trading rights with the Company. That was the outcome Young wanted, and he took the deal.
The rapprochement soon led to another enterprise. Young proposed to drive a herd of California cattle north on behalf of the American settlers in the Valley. The Willamette Cattle Co. was formed, and HBC jumped in as an investor in the venture, since they needed cattle, too. Young turned cattleman and drove 630 head north along what would become the Siskiyou Trail.
Ever the hard-driving entrepreneur, Young set about building himself a thriving, diversified economic fiefdom in the area of what is now Newberg, Oregon.
As Oregon Encyclopedia recounts:
Between 1838 and 1841, Young expanded his enterprises. His sawmill on Chehalem Creek produced Douglas-fir planks and oak flooring. He built a gristmill, fenced his land, enlarged his wheat-farming operations, and mended his relationship with the HBC. In 1839, he and his workers discovered fossil mammoth remains on the Willamette River, the earliest paleontological find reported in the Pacific Northwest.
He wouldn’t live to enjoy the fruits of his constant labors. In 1841, he sickened and died of unrecorded causes at the age of about 45. He died intestate, and the need to deal with his estate had an important impact on the establishment of American governmental structures and procedures in Oregon. The influx of American settlers along the Oregon Trail in the early 1840s would lead to the Treaty of Oregon in 1846. By 1848 — without a war — Oregon had become a U.S. Territory. In 1859, it became a state.
Ewing Young was an avatar of the type of Jacksonian Man that Richard Hofstadter characterized as:
“…an expectant capitalist, a hard-working, ambitious person for whom enterprise was a kind of religion.”
In his ruthless drive and his callous disregard for indigenous people, he embodied many characteristics that post-modern America now rejects. The vandals that toppled the Pioneer Statue at the U of O during this summer’s perpetual unrest might well cite Young’s aggressive capitalist bent and his transgressions against native peoples as justification for the act. Nah, probably not. Doubt they know who Ewing Young was.
For all that he embodied traits that now cause discomfort, Young was a man of vision, a highly capable leader and a genuine pioneer.
Take him in his fullness, the good, the bad and the ugly. Ewing Young is, like it or not, who and what we are, and we live in our ease and wealth on land that he and his kind explored, exploited, conquered and settled.
No matter how many statues are toppled, we will live always in his long shadow.