Newspapers among Oregon's pioneering spirit

Oregon’s first newspaper printing press came around “The Horn” to publish the Spectator

February 03 - History of Oregon Newspapers Part 1

The creation of the Oregon Lyceum and Literary Club

It will be 177 years this week, when the first newspaper was printed and distributed in Oregon with the Oregon Spectator. By the time of its publication, the content inside was “old news” but the new periodical displayed the essence of what would become a continuous feed of posts, streamed in first by the necessity to report on commercial fur trapping in the Pacific Northwest and to hold intelligent discussion on current events.

The Pacific Northwest’s first printing press was brought to the Whitman mission from the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) and it was used to print religious texts and legal documents. The press was in use at the Waiilatpu Mission as early as 1839. Most early publications in those days were printed in small runs but there were no newspapers published in the area until after the Mexican American war in 1846.

Richard Heinzkill, author of A Brief History of Newspaper Publishing in Oregon, wrote that the “Oregon Lyceum or Pioneer Lyceum and Literary Club was founded in Oregon City, Oregon Country around 1840. The forum was a prominent fixture for the leading pioneer settlers during its brief existence. It would begin publishing the first American newspaper west of the Rocky Mountains in 1846.” “[The Lyceum] was founded in Oregon City for the express purpose of providing the growing community with a newspaper. Shares were sold to finance the purchase of a press, type, and paper,” Heinzkill wrote in his heavily researched and detailed article in 1993, posted to the University of Oregon’s website.

In 1846, the Oregon Printing Association was formed in Oregon City with the purpose of establishing a newspaper. A board of seven early Oregon pioneers and members of the Oregon Lyceum — including editor William G. T'Vault, politician James W. Nesmith, entrepreneur George Abernethy, sea captain and a founder of Portland John H. Couch, and frontier doctor, fur-trapper, and politician Robert “Doc” Newell.

The board declared the Oregon Spectator non-partisan and never to be used for exclusive party politics or propaganda. In addition to debates on government and the creation of the press, the group discussed literary items, scientific pursuits, and other local issues. Literary works of the group were published exclusively in the Spectator. The group was also known as The Willamette Falls Debating Society or The Falls Association.

Shipping a printing press around “The Horn”

In the early days of sailing, it took more than 200 days (about 6 and a half months) for a ship to travel from New York to San Francisco, a voyage of more than 16,000 miles. Clipper ships eventually cut that time in half to about three months in 1843, when merchant sailing ships were produced for speedy transport. Travelers and cargo first boarded a ship on the East Coast of the United States, in New York City or Boston.

Ships traveled south, though the Eastern seaboard to the Southernmost tip of Chile at the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego in South America, and around Cape Horn. Then, north to California, where passengers and items on the ship's manifest would unload at San Francisco. It was an arduous but necessary journey for each ship before the construction of the Panama Canal.

Author Finn J.D. John wrote in a column for “Offbeat Oregon'' republished in The Sentinel in June 2022, where he brought to light the “satirical publication called The Flumgudgeon Gazette and Bumble Bee Budget, also from Oregon City, which came out [in 1845] — with every copy written out by hand” using pen and paper three times a week.

It took a while for the Lyceum's press to arrive from New York City around “The Horn” so Charles Edward Pickett, farmer, and secretary of the Lyceum, took it upon himself to write, press and distribute dozens of editions of the newspaper, only while the Provisional legislature. His “flamboyant style, pugnacious writing and eccentric behavior that most struck Willamette Valley’s re-settlers” is also told in an article written by the Oregon Historical Society.

So, it was not until Feb.5, 1846, that the Oregon Printing Association produced the first issue of the Oregon Spectator, becoming the first publication on the Pacific Coast of the United States. It was a semi-monthly periodical, 11” in x 15'' tall with four columns of printed copy.

The Oregon Spectator changed hands various times. By 1848, the editor resigned saying the paper needed a “firm and consistent American tone." The United States formed the Oregon Territory in August 1848, with Oregon City, home of the Spectator, serving as seat of commerce and government in the state's early history.

The Oregon Spectator as a political and commercial tool

The Lyceum's first meeting was held at the home of Sidney Moss who had purchased his land in Oregon City from Dr. John McLoughlin of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), fur traders. For the first four years, the owners of the Oregon Spectator did not allow sectarian, political discussion in the paper. Although there was a lack of partisan politics from the Oregon Spectator pages, it did have an overt political line.

Historian Hubert Bancroft, sees the Oregon Spectator as “the organ of the American merchant class against its British competitors.” Bancroft also notes that “During most of its provisional government period it was the only newspaper published in Oregon. The paper also advocated for the principles of morality, temperance, and education among the European American immigrant population of the Oregon Territory.”

Owing to transportation and communication difficulties in “current national news” was usually six months out of date, consisting of rewrites of material covered in newspapers brought into Oregon by annual migration set of settlers or by ship via the Hawaiian Islands.

The Oregon Spectator was the main newspaper in the region. It was often used to inform its readers of current topics, such as debating over the banning of the manufacturing and sale of ardent spirits (liquor) by law of the provisional legislature.

When Oregon Country pioneers Samuel Parker and James Douglas debated the proposed law in public, Parker accused Douglas and the Hudson Bay Company of selling rum at fort Vancouver with Douglas asserting sovereignty of the Hudson Bay Company over its own people but pledging to enforce any laws of the provisional government against all other parties. Parker's allegations were denied and unfounded but would hurt the perceived independent spirit and board members of the newspaper who sided with Douglas, one of the Lyceum’s members.

Under George Curry's editorship, the newspaper attacked Jesse Thornton, an early settler, and Supreme Judge of the Provisional Government of Oregon, when he was sent to Washington D.C. as a representative of the government. Curry accused Thornton of “actually trying to secure favorable federal appointments for himself and his political allies” according to the Spectator.

Oregon City's position being eclipsed by that of nearby Portland as the center of commerce and Salem for politics, the paper's fortunes faltered, and publication ceased in 1855.

Jason Stone noted in his article on the Oregon Spectator for the University of Oregon that, “While it falls well short of contemporary standards of journalistic professionalism, the Oregon Spectator nonetheless holds undisputed priority as the first newspaper published west of the Missouri. A love for Oregon that feels downright contemporary still shines through in editor William T'Vault's opening salutation to his readers and fellow citizens,” which read:

“Happily situated in a healthy and fertile part of the continent, with a salubrious climate, the soil yielding a rich reward to the industrious cultivator, with an abundance of water power not surpassed on the globe... [Oregon] must... in a short time, become one of the greatest commercial countries on the Pacific.”

Ceasing publication in 1855, the first edition of the Oregon Spectator was four tabloid pages and printed on a hand press purchased in New York, and shipped via Cape Horn. It made an undeniable impression. But, by 1855, papers like The Oregonian in Portland, and the Statesman Journal in Salem, had elbowed out the Spectator, which was eventually indexed in 1941 on microfilm and is now available on the University of Oregon online newspaper archive here:

ook for Part 2 in new weeks edition of The Sentinel)