Oregon Historical Quarterly/Volume 9/Contests over the Capital of Oregon

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By Walter O. Winslow.

On May 2, 1843, at the call of the committee appointed at the "Wolf Meeting," the inhabitants of Willamette Settlement met at Champoeg for the purpose of taking steps to organize themselves into a civic community, and to provide themselves with the protection secured by the enforcement of law and order. At this meeting the decision was for organization and a committee was appointed to draw up laws suitable for a provisional government and report at a meeting of the people to be held at Champoeg July 5, 1843.

Pursuant to order, the people assembled July 5th to hear the report of the committee. The report, which became the first organic law of Oregon, was adopted, and a provisional government was formed.

The first legislative assembly of the Provisional Government met at Oregon City (then called Willamette Falls) in 1844. The first clause of the journal of their meeting states that they met pursuant to the organic law, but there is no provision in this law regarding their place of meeting; further, no part of the journal of the meeting, when the organic law was adopted, makes provision for a meeting place. AH that is left is the fact taken from, the journals of the legislative assembly, that the seat of the Provisional Government was established at Oregon City. On December 19, 1845, a bill was passed, specifying that the assembly should meet at Oregon City until otherwise directed. The journals show that the capital remained there until 1849.

The Territory of Oregon was established by act of Congress, passed August 14, 1848. This act provided that the legislative assembly of the Territory of Oregon should hold its first session at such time and place in said Territory as the Governor thereof shall appoint and direct; and at said first session, or as soon thereafter as they shall deem expedient, the legislative assembly shall proceed to locate and establish the seat of government for said Territory at such place as they may deem eligible, which place, however, shall thereafter be subject to be changed by said legislative assembly. (Sec. 15 of act of Congress establishing Territorial Government.)

According to the act. Governor Lane named Oregon City as the first meeting place of the territorial legislature, and in pursuance of his proclamation, the first legislature of the Territory of Oregon met at the above named place July 16, 1849. At this session a bill was introduced by Mr. Buck, Senator from Clackamas County, to locate the seat of government. The bill did not carry and the journal does not show what place it intended for the territorial capital. No final action being taken at this session regarding the location of the seat of government, the second session met at Oregon City, pursuant to act of Congress and proclamation of the Governor. During this session, however, a bill was passed locating the seat of the Territorial Government at Salem, where it remained until 1855.

This act not only located the capital at Salem, but also located the penitentiary at Portland and the university at Corvallis. The Governor, who believed that he should have been consulted regarding the location of these territorial institutions, claimed that the act was unconstitutional. He based his contention on the ground that the act dealt with more than one specific object, which, according to the act of Congress establishing a territorial government (this provided that no law should embrace more than one object and that should be expressed in the title) was unlawful. The case was taken before the Territorial Supreme Court, which sustained the Governor's contention, claiming that the law did contain a multiplicity of objects, and was, therefore, unconstitutional. This opinion was concurred in by Messrs. Justice Nelson and Strong, while Mr. Justice Pratt dissented, claiming that the act did not contain more than one subject. The people generally believed that Pratt was right, and when the time arrived for the next session of the legislature it found a large majority of both houses and one Justice of the Supreme Court sitting at Salem, with the rest of the supreme bench, the Governor and his appointees sitting at Oregon City.

The situation was a difficult one, and it was not relieved until on May 4, 1852, Congress settled the matter by confirming the "location" act and went on to declare that all proceedings had under it were done in conformity to law.

Thus the matter was settled and the third session of the territorial legislature, which had met at Salem pursuant to their own action, was relieved of the matter for the time being.

The territorial capital once being located, the next question was that of a building. Some money having already been appropriated by Congress for that purpose, a building committee was provided for, and the building began in 1854. According to the first plans, the building was to be a stone structure of Ionic style. After the foundation had been laid, the legislature became concerned that there would not be enough money to finish the building according to the original plans, so they changed the specifications from stone to wood, and from Ionic to Grecian-Doric style.

In 1855, at the sixth session of the territorial legislature, an act was passed relocating the seat of government at Corvallis, and also providing for a new building commission to erect suitable buildings at the newly chosen place. This was done, in spite of the fact that the new State House building at Salem was almost completed. The only argument advanced for the change was that Corvallis was at the head of navigation on the Willamette and was probably nearest the center of population of the territory.

The seventh session met at Corvallis, pursuant to law. About this time the officers of the United States Treasury Department ruled that no money appropriated by Congress for building at Salem could be expended elsewhere, nor could money appropriated for the mileage and pay of members, officers and clerks be paid them if a session should be held elsewhere than at Salem. This caused consternation among the members of the legislature, and on the 12th of December, 1855, an act was passed relocating the seat of government at Salem. On the same day a resolution was passed calling for a recess of four days, at the expiration of which time the legislature should convene at Salem. In the discussion on the relocation act, Mr. Tichenor said: "Let us go where the property of the Territory is. Let us clew-up, tack-ship, and steer for Salem. The facts are to my mind most conclusive, that it was nothing but corruption that caused it to be removed here in the first place. It has been removed by the tickle-me-and-I'll-tickle-you game." This is simply quoted to give a possible, at least one man's, reason for the removal from Salem to Corvallis.

In accordance with the act and resolution, the legislative assembly met at Salem on December 17th to resume the work of the seventh annual session. Two rooms having been especially fitted up for the purpose, they met in the new State House. After a few days' session, they adjourned for the holidays, and during the recess, on the night of the 29th of December, 1855, the new State House building, which was nearly completed, with the library and most of the public records, was burned to the ground.

As soon as the legislature assembled, a committee was appointed to investigate the matter. This committee entirely exonerated the watchman and gave as their opinion that the fire had been set by some mischievous hand.

The people throughout the Territory seemed to accredit the disaster to a strong feeling in Corvallis, that with this building at Salem, which was largely the cause of the ruling of the Treasury Department, and the people eager to be economical, Corvallis would stand little chance in the race for the permanent location of the seat of government. However, this is merely an opinion, influenced by the newspaper reports of the fire.

Before the end of the seventh session, a bill was passed submitting the question of the permanent location of the capital to the people. The act provided that the vote should be taken at the next regular election, and that no place should be chosen unless it should receive a majority of all the votes cast. In accordance with this act, the question was submitted to the people at the June election, and the vote was as follows: Salem, 2,049; Portland, 1,154; Corvallis, 1,998; Eugene, 2,316. Thus there was no election. The law which provided for this election further provided that if no place should receive a majority of all votes cast, those receiving the two highest number of votes should be voted upon at a special election. At this special election, the people refused to vote on the question, being tired of the matter, according to the Salem Statesman. No records of the returns of the election can be found either in newspaper reports or on public record. It is believed that, and some authority can be found for the statement, from the memory of the early pioneers who are still living, this is the time that Eola, then Cincinnati, came nearly being chosen for the seat of government.

Thus, after so much trouble and expense, the question as to where the seat of government should be permanently located was still an open question. Temporarily Salem had won.

During the eighth session of the legislature, a bill was introduced in the house by Mr. Allen, to remove the seat of government from Salem to Portland, but this bill was lost. In the council, Mr. Bagley introduced a bill to resubmit the question to the people; this met the fate of the house bill. During the ninth session nothing was done regarding the matter, but the tenth session w^as almost taken up by discussion on relocation bills. The house passed a bill to relocate from Salem to Portland, and to submit the relocation to the people. While the bill was pending before the house, an amendment was offered, proposing to strike out Portland and insert in lieu thereof Eugene. The amendment was lost. When the measure came before the council, an amendment was proposed to change the time of the election from the regular election to the first Monday in October, following. This amendment, along with some others, was passed, and the bill, as amended, was passed in the council. When these amendments came up before the house for consideration a fight ensued, and a joint committee was appointed to bring the two houses together upon the amendments. The report of the committee was that the council should recede, but this report was not adopted in the council. As a result thereof, the bill did not become a law, and the question still remained unsettled.

According to the State Constitution, which went into effect upon Oregon's admission into the Union, the legislature did not have power to locate the seat of government, but at its first regular session after the adoption of the Constitution it was to provide by law for the submission to electors of the State at the next regular election thereafter the matter of the selection of a place for a permanent seat of government; and no place should ever be the seat of government under such law which should not receive a majority of all the votes cast on the matter of such election. The Constitution further provided that when once located, the seat of government should not be changed for a period of twenty years. (Art. 14, Sec. 1, Oregon Constitution.)

At the first extra session of the State legislature, held in May, 1859, a bill was proposed to put the matter before the people, but this bill was lost.

Pursuant to the Constitution, the first regular session, which met September 18, 1860, acted upon the matter November 19th. By this act, the location of the seat of government was to be submitted to the public vote at the next general election in June 1862, "and every general election thereafter," until some one point should receive a majority of all votes cast upon the question.

At the election in June, 1862, owing to the fact that nearly every town in the State received a few votes, there was no election. But at the election in 1864, Salem received 6,108 votes; Portland, 3,864; Eugene, 1,588; and all other places 577 votes. Salem received 57 majority of the whole vote cast, whereupon Salem was duly declared "the permanent seat of government."

Thus, after a struggle which lasted for nearly fifteen years, the question was settled. The account of the erection of the Capitol is a story complete in itself, and will not be touched upon here.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).