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Ken & Kris BilderbackWith the end last Thursday to the long standoff over grazing rights in Oregon’s southeast corner, there’s time for one last column on cows in western Washington County.


In the 1840s, 30 years before free-roaming, downtown-clogging cows sparked an uproar over grazing rights in Forest Grove, the problem was not too many cows, but rather too few. In fact, the shortage of cows was one of the major beefs that led settlers to start down the path to American statehood, and three men from the Forest Grove area were key players in that drama.

When American settlers first arrived in the area, Oregon was something of a no-man’s land. Native Americans governed most of it while the British, French and Americans occupied other parts.

Forest Grove was decidedly American, although that didn’t mean residents had much use for the federal government — beyond the Army’s help in claiming land from the native people. But in many ways, they were more dependent on the British because the British protected the large corporations (primarily the Hudson’s Bay Company) that held a virtual monopoly on necessities such as cloth, wheat and cows.

Cows were not native to Western Oregon but the lack of beef was not a huge issue — not when settlers could hunt game from their front porches. Milk, cream and butter were the issue because the corporations wanted to sell the settlers only milk, not cows to make their own.

Joseph Meek, from north of present-day Hillsboro, was a leader among settlers who wanted to formally join the United States to break the British monopoly, a move others feared would only complicate access to necessities.

That’s when Joseph Gale rode — or sailed — to the rescue. One of the few American settlers with sailing experience, Gale and a handful of others set out to build a ship to sail to San Francisco, where they would trade the ship for cattle.

The Hudson’s Bay Company at first refused to sell Gale the supplies he needed. Besides, corporate bosses scoffed, the ship surely would be smashed to pieces trying to cross the rugged Columbia Bar near Astoria. Even if it did make the open seas, the powerful British and Spanish navies would view it as a ship without a state and arrest the crew as pirates.

Against all odds, Gale completed the ship and secured a flag from the American government. Against even greater odds, he sailed it to California and traded it for cattle and sheep. He even persuaded other California ranchers to join him on his trek back to Oregon over the treacherous Siskiyou Mountains.

The United States’ support for Gale helped to galvanize interest in American rule, and while Gale spent the winter in California planning his return, a group of settlers planned a series of meetings in Champoeg.

Ostensibly the meetings would focus on how to eradicate wolves. But there was another, unspoken, agenda: To choose whether to side with the British or Americans.

Joseph Gale made it back to Oregon with impeccable timing, arriving in Champoeg just as the meetings were about to begin. By breaking British control over dairy products, Gale helped rally Meek’s America supporters and the Champoeg group voted 52-50 to join America.

For his efforts, Gale was awarded the honorary title of “Governor.”

Meanwhile, the meetings’ cover issue — wolf eradication — increased in urgency with the arrival of Gale’s cattle; protecting them from predators was paramount.

“Bounty Hunter” would become the provisional government’s first official job and it was filled by William Doughty, a renowned “mountain man” hunter from the hills near what today is Laurelwood, who set about shooting wolves and collecting the first taxes to pay bounties on wolves.

Thanks to three men from the Forest Grove area, Oregon was on its way to eventual statehood in 1859 and Forest Grove was on its way to eventual cityhood in 1872, with a downtown overrun with cows.

This story contains excerpts from books written by Ken and Kris Bilderback, including Walking to Forest Grove and Law and Order on the Oregon Trail and Creek With No Name.

Ken & Kris Bilderback

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