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Oregon Food and Farming History


The work of farmers and scientists, consumers and producers, writers and historians come together in the Special Collections and Archives Research Center.  We hope our Oregon Food and Farming guide will be a rich resource for your food and farming research projects!

The guide highlights archival and manuscript collections at SCARC, library books or journals in both our rare books collections and the main stacks, and offers links to our online collections and other resources.  We offer tips for keywords and search strategies for each section, as well as information about how the content in specific archival collections will meet your needs.

Though it is a rich guide, it does not contain every collection or possible avenue for exploration, and so much more exists beyond our collections. Follow your own leads.  After all, you are the expert on your project!  When conducting your own research, play around with different search terms.  These ever-evolving terms can complicate searching for more information.  Expanding and changing search terms in the course of your research may help combat this.

Furthermore, while we try to update our LibGuides regularly, SCARC is continuously working to put out newly processed collections and collections with updated finding aids to facilitate research.

If you are unable to find what you are looking for online, or need further help, please don't hesitate to reach out to us or schedule an appointment! 

The Impact of the Homestead Act

HomesteadThe land now referred to as the State of Oregon has been inhabited since time immemorial, overland travel between the East Coast and West Coasts of what is now the contiguous United States accelerated after the team led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark from 1803 to 1806.  

The Oregon Territory was established on August 14, 1848, and encompassed an area that included the current states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, along with parts of Wyoming and Montana.  The territory existed until February 14, 1859, when the southwestern portion of the territory was admitted to the Union as the State of Oregon, and the remaining area became the Washington Territory.

Passed in 1850, the Donation Land Act, a precursor to and influence for the Homestead Act, intended to increase settlement of the Oregon Territory by enticing white males or half-Indian settlers west with the promise of 160 acres, plus another 160 for their wives to hold in their own name.  During this time, about one third traveling west were women. 

Abandoned homestead--Harrison placeAfter Oregon became a state, the Homestead Act of 1862 accelerated the settlement of Oregon and other western areas by allowing any American 21 years or older, including freed slaves and immigrants to register a claim of 160 acres for a small fee.  Over the course of its enactment, 270 millions acres of federal land, or 10% of the area of the United States was claimed and settled (see: "About the Homestead Act").  The impacts of the Homestead Act are still apparent in Oregon today.  In total 62,926 homesteads were proved up in Oregon, which amounted to 17% of the land in the state settled in this manner (see: "Homesteading in Oregon").

Trains and the establishment of towns further encouraged westward travel and connected those living in the west with friends and family in the east.  Furthermore, towns and communities were established along rail lines to cater to those traveling on the train and those whose businesses were benefited by close proximity to transportation.  The old wagon trails were still used for local trips, while the better stretches became paved roads and highways.

The Homestead Act and advancements in transportation changed the way the West was settled and how people interacted with the land.  As more settlers moved west, Native Americans were forced from their lands and onto Indian reservations to make way for homesteaders.  Land use changed as large swaths of land were cultivated, and plants and other natural life were destroyed.  In Oregon specifically, the farming, logging, and mining that employed new settlers destroyed salmon run and Indian villages.  While Indians resisted, by the 1880s, Indians had suffered military defeats, disease, broken treaties, and been forced off their lands and onto reservations (see: "Native Americans and the Homestead Act"). 

View of Cow Creek Canyon with homestead visible in the distance.While the vision of the nuclear family traveling across the western United States is popular, under the Homestead Act, single women, or those who had been divorced or widowed were also considered as the head of the family.  The lands west of the Mississippi were areas where women could, and did, challenge more traditional gender roles.  This shift began as soon as the trip across the country began.  While women in more established areas in the east were expected to take care of their family’s domestic work, like cooking, cleaning, and raising children.  As soon as they were on the trail, women expanded their roles to include gathering buffalo chips to use as fuel in cooking, drove teams of oxen pulling wagons, and took care of the sick and injured.  These skills would remain useful in establishing farms on the often remote land they would live on and try to cultivate.  

The opportunities for women to pursue education in the west would have also been a boon to the population.  While the Milam Act did not specifically mention women, the 1862 Act encouraged the western states to establish new colleges to support agricultural education, many of which were more accepting than the older, private schools in the east.  In fact, Oregon State was one of the first public schools to promote coeducation.  A decade after the act was passed, the western US had 67 of the nation's 97 coed schools (see: "Women Traveling West"). 

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