Oregon Free Press
Oregon City, Clackamas County, Oregon
Oregon City, established along the Columbia River near Willamette Falls in 1829 as the first incorporated city west of the Rocky Mountains, was not only the home of the short-lived Oregon Free Press [LCCN: sn84022661], it was also the birthplace of the first newspaper to be produced west of the Missouri River – the Oregon Spectator [LCCN: sn84022662], founded on February 5, 1846, 13 years before Oregon became a state.
The Oregon Free Press was founded in 1848 by George L. Curry as a protest paper in opposition to the Spectator, under the motto, “Here shall the Press the people’s rights maintain, un-awed by influence, and un-bribed by gain.” Curry, originally from Philadelphia, had worked as editor and co-publisher of the Saint Louis Reveille [LCCN: sn83025403] in 1843. He came to Oregon in 1846 via the Cow Creek Canyon route and became editor of the Spectator, through which he hoped to promote “‘temperance, morality, science, and intelligence,” allowing equal access and expression of all views in the paper’s columns. However, on January 28, 1848, Curry was dismissed from the Spectator for refusing to promote the sole interests of Oregon’s first governor, George Abernethy.
A poem in the second issue of the Free Press described Curry’s sentiment: “When grasping tyranny offends, or angry bigots frown; When rulers plot for selfish ends, to keep the people down; When statesmen form unholy league, to drive the world to war; When knaves in palaces intrigue for ribbons or a star; We raise our heads, survey their deeds, and cheerily reply – Grub, little moles, grub underground; There’s sunshine in the sky!”
Starting a newspaper in the pioneer days of Oregon was no easy task; the printing plant for the Spectator had been transported all the way from the Atlantic coast. To create the Free Press, Curry ordered a press to be built of wood in Oregon City by local machinist Victor M. Wallace, rather than waiting for one to arrive from the East. He obtained 80 pounds of type from Catholic missionaries who had been printing in French and were lacking the letter “W”. Curry often used two of the letter “V” to make a “W,” and eventually whittled his own out of hardwood. Readers could pay $3.50 for a year’s subscription, with “currency and produce taken at their cash value.”
The Free Press was only 7.5×15 inches in size, and contained four pages, with two columns on each page. A small number of advertisements for new goods and supplies were published with each paper in card form, often including ads for Curry as a manufacturing jeweler. News stories and notices often omitted detailed information that is considered essential in modern journalism. Several issues contained history of Oregon settlements, local events and news, reports of army activity, poems, opinions, and updates on relations with Native Americans. One of the first issues gives notice to correspondents to keep in mind the paper’s small size and shape by condensing thought and expression and keeping ideas “perspicuous” for effective compositions.
News of the French and Italian revolutions, U.S. immigration policies, trade routes, politics, and elections are among the topics discussed in the Free Press, as well as commentary on the unfavorable legal system in Oregon at the time and other grievances. Announcements were made for gatherings and ladies’ meetings, and opinion columns and letters expressed a number of different views. One letter from a local man asserted that “Oregon…may rejoice that she has within her borders a flock of independent females to warn her of danger,” advising men that “you must either defend your country and the gals or drag out your days in the rusty halls of bachelorship.” The writer then went on to beg pardon for comparing women to geese.
The Free Press only ran from April 8, 1848 to October of the same year, due to the outflow of subscribers to the gold mines of California. Five years after the Free Press suspended, Curry was appointed as secretary of the interior for Oregon territory, and became one of the youngest governors of Oregon in 1854. From 1861 to 1863, Curry worked with Stephen J. McCormick on the publication of the Portland Daily Advertiser [LCCN: sn84022664], Oregon’s second oldest daily paper.
Prepared with reference to:
Turnbull, George S. History of Oregon Newspapers. Portland, OR: Binfords & Mort, 1939.
– Written by Sheila Rabun