Initial European interest in the region was aroused by the search for the Northwest Passage. Spanish seamen skirted the Pacific coast from the 16th to the 18th cent., hoping to claim the area. The English may first have arrived in the person of Sir Francis Drake, who sailed along the coast in 1579, possibly as far as Oregon.
Two centuries later, in 1778, Capt. James Cook, seeking the award of £20,000 for the discovery of the Northwest Passage, charted some of the coastline. By this time the Russians were pushing southward from posts in Alaska and the British fur companies were exploring the West. Oregon's furs promised to become an important factor in the rapidly expanding China trade, and the Oregon coast was soon active with the vessels of several nations engaged in fur trade with the Native Americans. British captains, among them John Meares and George Vancouver, made the coastal area known, but it was an American, Robert Gray, who first sailed up the Columbia River (1792), thus establishing U.S. claim to the areas that it drained.
Canadian traders of the North West Company were approaching the Columbia River country when the overland Lewis and Clark expedition arrived in 1805. David Thompson was already making his way to the lower river when John Jacob Astor's agents (in the Pacific Fur Company) founded Astoria, the first permanent settlement in the Oregon country. In the War of 1812 the post was sold (1813) to the North West Company, but in 1818 a treaty provided for 10 years of joint rights for the United States and Great Britain in Oregon (i.e., the whole Columbia River area). This agreement was later extended. The North West Company merged with the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821, and soon the region was dominated by John McLoughlin at Fort Vancouver.
In 1842 and 1843 enormous wagon trains began the "great migration" westward over the Oregon Trail. Trouble between the settlers and the British followed. The Americans set out to form their own government, and demanded the British be removed from the whole of the Columbia River country up to lat. 54°40−N; one of the slogans of the 1844 election was "Fifty-four forty or fight." War with Britain was a threat momentarily, but diplomacy prevailed. In 1846 the boundary was set at the line of lat. 49°N, but disagreements over the interpretation of the 1846 treaty were not successfully arbitrated until 1872 (see San Juan Boundary Dispute).
Two years later the Oregon Territory was created, embracing the area W of the Rockies from the 42d to the 49th parallel. The area was reduced with the creation of the Washington Territory in 1853, and Oregon became a state in 1859 with a constitution that prohibited slaveholding but also forbade free blacks from entering the state. Although the California gold rush caused a temporary exodus of settlers, it also brought a new market for Oregon's goods, and the Oregon gold strike that followed attracted some permanent settlement to the eastern hills and valleys.
Wheat farming prospered and in 1867–68 a surplus crop was shipped to England—the beginning of Oregon's great wheat export trade. Cattle and sheep were driven up from California to graze on the tallgrass of the semiarid plateaus, and soon cattle barons, such as Henry Miller, acquired huge herds. They dominated the industry until the late 19th cent., when sheepmen and homesteaders succeeded in reducing the cattle range. The 1850s, 60s, and 70s were plagued by Native American uprisings, but by 1880 troubles with the Native American were over, and the next few decades brought increasing settlement and internal improvements.
During the 1880s, and largely under the management of Henry Villard of the Northern Pacific RR, transcontinental rail lines were completed to the coast and down the Willamette Valley into California, bringing new trade and stimulating the beginnings of manufacture. Lumbering, which had long been important, became a leading industry. Seemingly overnight logging camps and sawmills were built in the western foothills. The huge stands of Douglas fir and cedar brought fortunes to the lumbering kings, but the threat to natural resources led ultimately to the creation of national forests.
By the time of the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition at Portland in 1905, less than 50 years after statehood had been gained, the frontier era had passed. Most of the feuding on the eastern plateaus was over, and cattle and sheep grazed peacefully on fenced-in ranges. In spring the Willamette Valley was abloom with fruit blossoms, and the river cities were busy with trade and industry.
Oregon has been a leader in social, environmental, and political reforms. It was the first state, for example, to institute initiative, referendum, and recall; to ease the laws governing the use of marijuana; and to initiate a ban against nonrecyclable containers. Several issues have sharply divided conservatives and liberals; one of the most important has been the question of minority groups. In the 1880s the influx of Chinese threatened the labor market and brought violent anti-Chinese sentiment, and in the 20th cent. there was opposition to the Japanese. Feeling against minorities has never been statewide, however, and large groups have vigorously opposed it.
In the 1930s one of the most disputed issues was the question of whether the development of power should be public or private. Today, however, it is widely recognized that the federal power and irrigation projects have had a profoundly positive effect on the economy of the entire Pacific Northwest. Many acres have been opened to irrigated farming, and the tremendous industrial expansion of World War II was to a large extent dependent on Bonneville power.
Environmental issues have dominated Oregon politics since the 1970s. Controversy arose in the late 1980s over the spotted owl, which has become endangered as old-growth forest has been cut down. Restrictions on logging on public lands were initiated in 1991, and attempts to establish forest policies acceptable to both environmentalists and the timber industry bogged down as other species were also shown to be in danger. There also is concern that the state's numerous hydroelectric dams are disrupting the migratory cycle of Pacific salmon.