The Infamous Black Bird Southern Oregon History, Revised


Why were some of these fine, moral pioneers so keen on slavery?What was going on in their heads--if anything?

    A correspondent of the National Era under date of March 18th confirms the statement recently made by the New York Tribune, that Oregon will probably present herself for admission to the Union as a slave state. He represents that for the last six or seven years, the officials and prominent men in the territory have been steadily laboring for this object. The writer says:
    "For many years I have been a dweller on the shores of the Pacific. I have seen the close but gradual preparation of the minds of the Oregon people under the leadership of their Democrat slave propagandists, for this sequel in a state constitution. A large proportion of the inhabitants of Oregon are emigrants from Western Missouri. The hatred of these people for the dark races, mixed with the hope of plunder and the prospect of speculation, have led to those infamous aggressions on the rights of the weaker, denominated Indian wars. Never were wars more unjust or inexcusable. Some of the early settlers in Oregon were in California when the state constitution was formed, and were the most active on the side of the pro-slavery men. The partiality of the most prominent of the oldest inhabitants of the territory to a state of society admitting slavery has been long and well settled. And they have given a coloring to the customs of the country, and imparted a tone to legislation in keeping with the spirit they entertain. At the distance of the breadth of the continent from the agitation of the subject, and consequently indifferent to its fate, that portion of the Oregon community dissenting from the views of their Missouri and other pro-slavery neighbors have easily been lulled to a false repose, and until recently perceived no occasion to provide against the contingency which has come. Late accounts represent that the organization of the Republican Party is proceeding with considerable activity. But this is not enough to save the territory to freedom. The border Democracy will outvote them. Unless something be done, a slave constitution will be fastened on Oregon."
Anti-Slavery Bugle, New Lisbon, Ohio, April 4, 1857, page 2

    By the letter of our correspondent, published Monday, it appears that the Oregon convention has adjourned, and the question of slavery or no slavery is to be submitted to a vote of the people. This is in accordance with the principles recognized in the compromise measures of 1850, and more clearly enunciated by the Kansas-Nebraska bill of 1854. It is the true reading of the doctrine that the people of a Territory shall be left to determine the character of their institutions for themselves, when they come to form a state constitution. It is, too, the true construction of squatter sovereignty.
    Our correspondent confidently expresses the opinion that the question will be decided overwhelmingly in the negative. In this opinion we concur, but we see by the preparations making that the opponents of the institution are not to be permitted to walk over the course. There are to be some vigorous efforts made in behalf of slavery, even in the latitude of Oregon. In this we confess our disappointment. Into a country so remote from any slave state, with a climate and soil not adapted to the growth of those great staples which are peculiarly the product of slave labor, we have never supposed that reasonable men could be found who would advocate the introduction of the institution of slavery. Indeed, we have doubted whether one man could be found to advocate the introduction of slavery into a community where it was not recognized by law. In this, too, we find ourselves mistaken. There are men in Oregon who avow themselves in favor of introducing slavery, with its ills, its anxieties and its blighting influences.
    Slavery on the Gulf of Mexico, where cotton, cane, rice and tobacco are made, and where the scorching sun and immense swamps render it almost impossible for the white man to live and labor in the field, may be considered an institution which a kind of overruling necessity forces upon the people. At any rate, the institution is there--inherited by the present generation; they could not, if they would, rid themselves of it, and would not if they could; therefore, it is natural and proper for people emigrating from a state bordering on the Gulf to a territory lying west, to carry slavery with them, and establish the institution by law in said territory.
    But Oregon occupies a vastly different position. She is located a long distance from any slave state, in a northern latitude, which is in the highest degree favorable to the labor of the white man. Her soil produces in agriculture those articles upon which his labor can be most profitably expended. Under this condition of things, the laboring white man in Oregon, we conclude, will never commit the folly of voting to introduce slave labor into the state. To believe him capable of so doing is to give him the credit of having parted with his natural instincts.
    Upon the profit and loss side of the question, the Jackson[ville] (Oregon) Sentinel thus discourses:
    "As to the expediency or policy of slavery in Oregon, that can and will be estimated by dollars and cents, and the cost of a slave should be compared to the amount of capital at interest, taking as a data that a slave will cost in Oregon $1,200. Now, that amount of money at ten percent interest per annum will make $120 per year profit to the owner, and if in the hands of a money lender, he may loan it in some instances at two percent per month. In that case it will amount to $24 per month, but this is hardly a fair case, for all men cannot become money lenders, for the best reason in the world: there would then be no borrowers. Rated at the last mentioned high rate of interest, the labor of the slave would be worth more than the interest on the amount of money the slave would cost."
    The question of "dollars and cents" is really but a small portion of the consideration coming under review, when arguing the proposition to introduce slavery into a community where it does not exist. But upon that branch the argument is excessively weak--the reasoning fallacious. "All men cannot become money lenders," says the Sentinel; it might, with equal truth, have added that all men cannot become slave owners in a slaveholding community. It is the few, and not the many, who own slaves where the institution exists; and the few, per necessity, become the aristocracy of the land.
    Those who own slaves must also provide themselves with more land than those need who cultivate their own farms. The slave owner, being a capitalist, must also have the best land, or the labor of his slave cannot be made as profitable as to loan out the $1,200 paid for him. Large tracts of land cause a country to be sparsely populated in a slave state; they place white neighbors at a distance from each other. This produces an unfavorable social condition, and destroys, as a general rule, all prospects of the success of a common school system. The poor white man who has his family to support, not being able, from want of capital, to compete with the slaveholder in buying good land, is gradually forced to take up with that which is classed poor, and which the slaveholder does not want.
    In political economy a negro is considered as property--capital invested. He is as much a machine as the spinning jenny, and the profits of his labor are considered as the interest paid to the owner upon the money invested. The returns of his year's work are, therefore, not the product of labor, but of capital. Whenever his work is brought into competition with the labor of the white man, it becomes at once a rivalry--a contest between the capital of the rich man, in the form of negroes, and the labor of the white man without capital. This result cannot be avoided; it may be traced in any slave state, and hence we consider it next to impossible for any white man in Oregon, who works to support himself and family, to vote to introduce slavery into that new state.
    There is another dollar and cent consideration which weighs heavily against slavery, and that is, to judge from the past history of the western states, that in ten years the land in Oregon, as a free state, will be twice as valuable as it would be were slavery incorporated in the constitution. This, in a great degree, is owing to the fact already mentioned, that slaveholders most generally own much larger tracts of land than non-slaveholders. On each tract but one improvement for a family is usually needed. The negroes live in cabins near the residence of the master. But when a country is cultivated by the labor of the white man, every head of a family strives to procure a piece of land; the country is cut up into small farms, and on every one there must be put sufficient improvements to accommodate a family. The land is vastly better cultivated, the production of the state greatly added to, and the taxable value of the soil and improvements very much augmented. This is only one view of the case, but even with this, it seems to us impossible for a laboring white man to vote to bring into competition with his labor the money of the capitalist in the shape of negro property.
Sacramento Daily Union, September 30, 1857, page 1

    The thirty-second ection of the Bill of Rights in the Oregon Constitution declares that the Legislative Assembly shall have power to restrain and regulate the immigration to this state of persons not qualified to become citizens of the United States. This points to the slave trade.
"The Latest News," New York Daily Tribune, February 14, 1859, page 4

    SLAVERY IN THE TERRITORIES.--Gen. Lane, of Oregon, thus expresses himself upon this question: In regard to the perplexing question of slavery, I hold that Congress has no power to legislate on the subject; that Congress can neither establish nor prohibit slavery in the territories; that the territories are the common property of the states of the Union, and while in a territorial condition, the people of all the states have equal rights in the enjoyment of such property as they may bring to the territories--otherwise there could be no equality of states; and further, I hold that the Legislative Assembly of a territory have no right, by non-action or hostile legislation, to exclude slavery from a territory, or, in other words, Congress cannot authorize a Legislative Assembly to do that they could not do themselves; and, that the Assembly can do nothing that Congress itself could not do. But I hold, also, that when the people of a territory come to form a state government, they then have the right to establish or prohibit slavery; and whatever their decision at that time may be on that question, Congress should admit the state into the Union regardless of that decision.
San Joaquin Republican, Stockton, California, May 7, 1859, page 2

    I lived on the frontier, the Platte Purchase in Missouri, right among the people who contributed in men and money to the invasion of Kansas a few years afterwards, and I must say that I never lived in a more hospitable and law-abiding community. The forceful faculties were more prominent than in New England, but for personal honor, honesty and brotherly feeling it would compare favorably with any portion of the United States. I had left that country when the Kansas troubles began, and was somewhat puzzled to reconcile the doings of the Border Ruffians with the character of the people as I knew them, but when I considered that a large majority of them were from the South, and, being born to the institution of slavery, were inheritors of all that such a state of society implies, I ceased to wonder.
    Notwithstanding the great advance in biological science, the human being is very much of an enigma, and, however well disposed he may be from natural endowment, we cannot guess what he may do until his previous environment has been examined. Suppose John Brown had been born and raised in the South, and had read his Bible through Southern spectacles, and had heard the Word expounded by devout defenders of the patriarchal institution, would he not have been found praying and fighting with Stonewall Jackson when the time came for war?
    A large proportion of the pioneers were from Missouri, and at the time of the adoption of our [Oregon state] constitution, which submitted the question of slavery to a popular vote, much solicitude was felt by anti-slavery men as to the result. Argument and inquiry were on the wing, and there was eminent opportunity, not only to learn the opinions and wishes of men. but how those opinions and wishes came to be formed. Some of the ablest and best advocates of a free state were from the South, and some of those who voted to fasten the relic of barbarism upon this free soil were from the North. One solid, earnest, but uneducated free state man, born and raised in Kentucky, and a resident of Missouri for several years just before coming to the Oregon Territory, was asked as to the evolution of his opinion and answered "that when living in his native state, a doubt as to the rightfulness of slavery had never crossed his mind; that he regarded abolitionists the same as horse thieves and would have meted out to them the same punishment; that when he got to northern Missouri, where there were but few slaves, he was struck with the difference he felt and saw as respects social conditions; people were more on an equality; that conservative deference paid to slaveholders was conspicuous by its absence, and when he got to Oregon, the spirit of abolitionism was in the air." He thought that if the good people of Kentucky could experience what he had they would clear slavery from that state in a year. I was intimately acquainted with that man for thirty years, and I am confident that I never saw one more honest and truthful, or one more ready to assist in reforms or more willing to be informed. Ignorance was his sin, as it was of the majority of those subject to the malign influence of slavery, and yet in his native state he was a possible border ruffian. What an honest, earnest man believes to be right he will defend, and for his convictions there is always a higher law to which he will appeal, notwithstanding the limitations of statutes and constitutions.
    Though a Webster might lose himself in adoration of the Federal Union and an Everett offer up his mother a living sacrifice to preserve it, it is to the credit of human nature that human rights, human interests, human convictions and affections stand nearer and dearer to the people than any mere machinery of human government. The abolitionists believed the Constitution of the United States was a covenant with Death and a league with Hell, and they protested with all their soul and strength; to those Southerners reared to believe in the divinity of slavery, the Constitution was a worthless rag, for it did not protect them in their supposed rights. To the men of earnest convictions on both sides we owe our present disenthrallment.
T. W. Davenport, "An Object Lesson in Paternalism," Oregon Historical Quarterly, March 1903, pages 41-44

Last revised April 13, 2021