Ewing Young & Champoeg

John Lesage

Most people, in trying to accomplish something, do so while still alive. Ewing Young had to be different.

        When he died intestate in 1841, he set in motion a series of events resulting in an American territorial government in the Pacific Northwest. At the Champoeg Meetings of 1843, settlers voted to become part of the United States. It might not have happened that way.

        The meetings involved a polyglot, multi-cultural mixture of peoples of various origins. In the preceding years, imperial powers vied for control in the region, including British, Spanish, and Russian. Young himself might have been a Mexican citizen. That's a possibility as he had converted to Catholicism to keep his business in Taos, and to keep his wife.

        Granted, Young didn't necessarily want a hand in forming a government of any kind. He probably didn't intend to die for that purpose, or any other for that matter. But he had the foresight to die owing a lot of money. Actually, it's more complicated than that: when he died, he had a number of debtors as well as creditors, left in various predictable states of bereavement.

      The settlers in the northern Willamette Valley had done just fine without any government at all for many years. They probably liked it that way. They had no need of law enforcement, as they had no law to enforce. Being able to defend one's self was the sine qua non of the frontier. They were used to the situation. They also liked the fact that they could travel for miles without hearing phrases such as sine qua non.

       Not having a government might have been advantageous in many ways, but when Young unexpectedly left this world, the community of settlers had no way to assuage their anguish. There were no courts. And, though he died with a lot of property, he didn't take it with him.

        Young had an eventful life up to that point. Born a year before the century began, he was trading while still in his twenties between Missouri and a newly independent Mexico. He traversed the Santa Fe Trail, selling Rocky Mountain furs in Missouri, and American goods at his trading post in Taos. There he married a woman of a prominent Mexican family. He ranged all over Nuevo Mexico and Alta California. He mentored a teenage Kit Carson. He teamed up with Peter Skene Ogden who climbed the ranks of the British Hudson's Bay Company. Then Young went to Oregon and croaked.

        Besides dying, he did a few other things during his five-year sojourn in Oregon. He arrived with a lot of Mexican gold. He acquired land and ran the first cattle not rented out by the Hudson's Bay Company. Still, dying was arguably his greatest accomplishment, if not a shrewd career move.

Young homesteaded on the left bank of the Willamette, across the river from a stretch of bottom land called French Prairie. It was called that for a reason, as the first inhabitants were mostly French-Canadian. They had settled after retiring as fur trappers and traders. In their language, they had transitioned from life in Quebec as habitantes, to running the woods as coureurs des bois, to becoming somewhat more respectable traveling traders as voyageurs, then back to being habitantes in the Oregon country. They founded settlements on French Prairie which became the towns of Butteville, Champoeg, St. Paul, St. Louis, and Gervais.

        Pioneers of a different paradigm also inhabited the area. Some came from the United States. But these were not an overwhelming majority. In 1841, the Oregon Trail wasn't yet passable for a wagon – not all the way – and wouldn't be for a few more years. In 1843, the population of French Prairie was split between Anglos and Francophones.

Up to that time, settlers had taken a minimalist approach to government. If solving a problem required positions of authority or any form of organization, discussions always resulted in something ephemeral.

        Back in 1835, Thomas Hubbard killed a drunk who was threatening his girl. Neighbors then convinced naturalist John Townsend that he had sufficient education to be a judge – perhaps sufficient because few others had any. The birdwatcher-judge then presided over the first trial among European-Americans in the Oregon country. They determined that this particular drunk “needed killing,” and called it justifiable homicide. To handle Young's estate few years later, Dr. Ira Babcock served as probate judge. Doubtless, many settlers hoped that judgeship wouldn't stick either.

       Similarly, settlers collectively decided in early 1843 that the problem wolves posed to their livestock required a systematic solution. A committee formed to collect funds for a bounty system. However, those with more anarchical sympathies distrusted the leadership of this committee. They didn't want the committee solving any problems that, in their estimation, weren't yet problems.

        On May 2, 1843, when settlers gathered on the prairie beside the Willamette, a sizable proportion were ready to resist any hint of real government. As feared, the anti-wolf committee proposed something much larger, and took a voice vote. The loudest bloc were the party of non.

        The Americans were taken aback. However, a committee secretary quickly suggested that the assembly divide into groups to be counted. Fifty voted with their feet for a continued ad-hocracy. That faction had been loudest, but 52 collected on the other side.

        Many of those present had retired from trapping, but one was more refugee than retiree. François Matthieu had joined a revolt against British rule in Quebec, an attempted revolution that included Canadians of both French and English descent. When the revolution fizzled however, he forged a passport for his flight into the United States, and for some extra insurance, continued to where passports didn't matter.

         Matthieu convinced his friend Étienne Lucier to join the American side of the field, and that made the difference. These two voted with their feet across the grass, joining some who had voted with their feet across a continent.

        Ewing Young went we know not where, but he died in a country of lessening ambiguity.

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