Early Political Leaders
The First Men In Charge
There are six men with a legitimate claim to being called the first Governor of Oregon. The Organic Act of 1843 called for a three person executive committee in the place of a governor. Two were elected in 1843 and 1844 before the Organic Act was amended in 1845. The first committee was comprised of David Hill, part of Dr. Elijah White’s 1842 wagon train, Alanson Beers, part of the 1837 Methodist reinforcement, and Joseph Gale, an early immigrant who arrived in 1834 with Nathaniel Wyeth. Beers would join Governor Abernethy as a partner in the Oregon Milling Company. Gale built the first ship in Oregon, the Star of Oregon.
The second executive committee, elected May 25, 1844, was made up of Peter G. Stewart of the Great Migration of 1843; Osbourne Russell, a trapper along with Gale in the 1834 Wyeth Party who had taken to the mountains and returned to Oregon in 1842 as guide to Dr. Elijah White; and Dr. William J. Bailey, a sailor who jumped ship in Yerba Buena (San Francisco), was wounded by Rogue River Indians on his journey north, joined Ewing Young’s cattle company, and then took up the study of medicine in Oregon under Dr. Elijah White.
George Abernethy — Whig, merchant, and steward of the 1840 Oregon City Methodist Mission — was the first man elected to the post titled “Governor” in Oregon. The meadow behind his house was the end of the Oregon Trail. He was elected on June 3, 1845, as the candidate of the Mission-supported “American Party.” He was reelected in 1847. As Governor, he used his position on the Oregon Spectator’s Board of Directors to squelch the Democratic editors by demanding that the paper not become involved in political debates. He vetoed a liquor law and was a member of the Oregon Exchange Company which coined Beaver money.
Joseph Lane was a Mexican War hero and Indiana Legislator. President Polk offered him the job of Oregon Territorial Governor in 1848. Polk, a Democrat, gambled that Lane would be in Oregon before incoming Whig President Taylor could legally cancel the commission. Lane accepted immediately and, escorted by mountain man Joe Meek, set off for Oregon. With a layover for winter at Fort Hall, they arrived in Oregon City one day early. Upon his arrival, Lane invited Abernethy to pay him a visit at William Holmes’ Rose Farm, where he was residing. Ever the Whig, Abernethy noted that Lane had not yet shown his credentials and responded that he would be glad to receive Lane should he call to pay his respects.
Lane resigned the governorship in 1850. Territorial Secretary Kintzing Pritchette became acting Governor for two months until the arrival of John Gaines. A veteran of both the War of 1812 and Mexican War, Gaines was a Whig appointed by President Taylor. En route, his two daughters died of yellow fever, his wife died from a fall from a horse in Salem, and his son died soon after.
Gaines spent three years bickering with the Democratic legislature. He kept the capital in Oregon City. His most vocal opponent, Asahel Bush, wanted Salem to be the new capital. The Whig newspaper The Argus called him “Ass of Hell;” Bush responded in kind by calling it the “Air Goose.”
Lane returned for a three-day term in 1853 just so President Pierce, a Democrat, could remove Gaines from office. As Oregon moved inexorably toward statehood, Lane became Delegate to Congress and eventually one of Oregon’s first U.S. Senators. However, Lane’s views favoring slavery and secession made him unpopular in Oregon, and he served only one 6-year term.
George Law Curry, an overlander who emigrated to Oregon in 1846, was Territorial Secretary when Lane resigned. The former editor of the Oregon Spectator, Curry had resigned rather than accept Abernethy’s demand that politics be kept out of the paper. He served as Territorial Governor in Salem until Pierce’s appointee John Davis arrived.
Davis served only one year as governor before resigning to return to Indiana — and he spent half of his term just getting to Oregon. Curry again became interim Governor, this time serving for six months until his own appointment as Governor arrived. He remained chief executive of the Territory until statehood.
For seven months, Oregon had two governors in office. The state Constitution was adopted and “Honest John” Whiteaker was elected Governor of the State of Oregon in June 1858. He was an authentic 49er, having made some money in the gold rush before going back home to fetch his wife and returning in 1852 to live in Eugene City. Rather than force the issue, Whiteaker quietly waited for President Buchanan to give him a state to govern. Statehood was granted on February 14, 1859, and Whiteaker was sworn in on March 3, becoming the last man who could call himself “the first governor of Oregon.”
As governor, Whiteaker fought for land laws that favored settlers over land speculators and urged that Salem remain the capital. Before the Civil War, he had advocated slavery, yet he guided the state with the motto “The Union” through those turbulent years. Judge Matthew Deady said of him, “Old Whit … Wrong in the head in politics, he is honest and right in the heart.”