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A Witness to Westward Expansion

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This is a secondary source designed by Humanities Texas that include excerpts from the report of Lieutenant Neil M. Howison in 1846. If historical documents are passports for time travel, there is no better embarkation point than the stacks of the National Archives. On dimly lit shelves, gray Hollinger manuscript boxes and bound volumes preserve countless handwritten reports, petitions, and letters spanning more than two centuries. Among the documents are compelling first-hand accounts that record the nation's saga: its emergence and conflicts, its innovations in communication and transportation, and its inexorable westward expansion. One such document begins with its location and date: "U.S. Frigate Savannah, San Francisco, California, February 1, 1847." It is an American naval officer's remarkable report on the Oregon Territory and its diverse population in the pivotal year of 1846. Lieutenant Neil M. Howison sailed up the Columbia River and traveled by horseback, visiting settlements and penning colorful descriptions of personalities, cultures, and scenery. He wrote of his encounters with British naval officers, French Canadians, American Indians, missionaries, and employees of the Hudson's Bay Company. As destitute American settlers emerged from their arduous journeys on the Oregon Trail, Howison documented their desperate plight in graphic detail. Howison's departure in September was thwarted, when his schooner, the USS Shark, was shipwrecked on a sand bar in the treacherous mouth of the Columbia. All of his crew miraculously survived. While awaiting another vessel, he learned of the outbreak of the Mexican War, the U.S. occupation of California, and the successful resolution of the Oregon Territory's boundary dispute with Britain. He hoisted the American flag that he had saved from the shipwreck over the territory for the first time. Howison's report was originally published by the U.S. House of Representatives in 1848. Its author had died from heart disease earlier that year. The following excerpts are from the 1913 reprint of the report, published in The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society. M. L. G.
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