Exclusion Laws

In June, 1844, the Provisional Government of Oregon enacted its first laws regarding the status of slaves, and therefore blacks, in the Oregon Country. Slavery was declared to be illegal, and settlers who currently owned slaves were required to free them within three years. Any free blacks age 18 or older had to leave the area, men within two years and women within three. Black children were permitted to stay in the Oregon Country until they reached age 18.

The original exclusion law was the infamous “Lash Law” which subjected blacks found guilty of violating the law to whippings — no less than 20 and no more than 39 strokes of the lash — every six months “until he or she shall quit the territory.” It was soon recognized that this punishment was far too severe, and the law was modified before it went into effect.

The new version, enacted in December, 1844, replaced the whippings with forced labor. If a black person was tried and found guilty of being in the Oregon Country illegally, he or she was to be hired out publicly to whomever would employ them for the shortest amount of time. After the period of forced labor expired, the “employer” had six months to get the black individual out of Oregon. Failure to do so was punishable by a fine of $1000. This law was to go into effect in 1846, by which time those who wrote it doubtless hoped that most blacks would have left Oregon, but it was repealed in the 1845 session of the Provisional Legislature.

Another exclusion law was passed in September, 1849, which simply forbade blacks from settling in the newly-declared Oregon Territory. Any already in residence were permitted to stay. In 1851, Jacob Vanderpool, a Salem boarding house and saloon owner, became the only person known to have been exiled from the Territory under Oregon’s exclusion laws. The law under which he was charged and sentenced was repealed in 1854.

Oregon ratified its state constitution in November, 1857. On the popular ballot for the constitution, there were also two other referendum issues on which citizens were asked to vote. Oregonians rejected slavery but approved adding a new exclusion law to the constitution. This law became part of Oregon’s original Bill of Rights.

When Oregon’s constitution was submitted to Congress for approval, some Northern legislators complained about the exclusion law. However, others saw it as a structured way to avoid bloodshed over racial issues and the spread of slavery. Thus, in February, 1859, Oregon became the only state admitted to the Union with an exclusion law in its constitution. After several unsuccessful attempts, the state constitution was finally amended in 1926 to remove the exclusion law from the state Bill of Rights. Over 60,000 voters declined to vote on the issue when casting their ballots. A separate clause in Oregon’s constitution banning black suffrage was repealed the following year. Of course, these laws had long since been superseded by federal laws and amendments to the US Constitution following the Civil War, but they remained enshrined in the state constitution for 60 years.

Exclusion laws seems bizarre and reprehensible today, but they were not uncommon in the Nineteenth Century. Settlers in the Oregon Country brought the idea with them from their old homes in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Both Illinois and Indiana had exclusion laws on the books in the Nineteenth Century, and all four states denied free blacks the right to vote and restricted their ability to testify in court. Some state and local laws required blacks to post a bond to guarantee their good behavior or to produce proof of their freedom upon the demand of any white person.

The fact that exclusion laws were enacted in Oregon was attractive to some prospective emigrants. Oregon seemed so far away from the United States in the 1840s that some of the settlers probably thought that they really did have a chance to avoid the issues of race and slavery by simply legislating away people of African descent. Some Oregonians supported the laws because they feared the violence that surrounded the politics of slavery in the East; others feared that enslaved blacks would take their jobs if they were brought West in significant numbers; still others were simply out-and-out racists.

Following the killings at the Whitman Mission in 1847, a wave of racial paranoia swept through the Willamette Valley. Many Oregonians convinced themselves that blacks and Indians might collaborate, joining forces to wipe out all the whites in the Oregon Country. Some went so far as to argue that without the exclusion laws, African Americans and Native Americans might intermarry and eventually reduce the white population to a threatened minority. As noted, the modified “Lash Law” was repealed in 1845; the fear following the Whitman Massacre led to the exclusion law of 1848.

There was no organized abolitionist movement in Oregon the way there was in the East, but many white friends of black settlers submitted petitions to the Provisional and Territorial Legislatures asking for exemptions for their friends. In addition, there were many petitions to repeal the exclusion laws submitted through the years. They even succeeded once or twice, but the laws were never out of force for long.