The history of newspaper publication in the American West begins in a small pioneer village at the falls of the Willamette River. When Volume 1 Number 1 of the Oregon City Oregon Spectator ran off the press on February 5, 1846, it marked the birth of journalism not only in Oregon, but on the entire West Coast: California’s first paper wouldn’t appear for another seven months, while the future state of Washington would have to wait until 1852 for theirs.
The initial purpose of the Oregon Spectator was to effect an official publication of the acts of incorporation of the newly-organized Oregon territory. The Oregon Printing Association, which was set up specifically to achieve this goal, consisted of several of the most prominent citizens of the new commonwealth. These included George Abernethy, who would become the first territorial governor, Francis W. Pettygrove, who gave the city of Portland its name, and William G. T’Vault, the postmaster general who was appointed editor in large part because he was willing to accept a salary only half that requested by the other candidate.
The Spectator was four pages per issue, with four columns on each 11.5×17-inch page. It was initially printed twice per month and distributed to a list of subscribers that numbered about 155 at the height of its popularity. The R. Hoe & Co. Washington hand press that was used to print the paper–a high quality machine in its day–had been purchased in New York and spent ten months in transit over the ocean to the Northwest.
By current standards, the Spectator was of only modest journalistic merit. What little front page column space wasn’t dedicated to laws was generally used to print miscellany of dubious provenance and worth. Although it was the paper’s stated intention to provide “foreign as well as internal news,” this was difficult to obtain in the days before telegraph service. Reporting of local news, meanwhile, is generally regarded as the weakest point of this and other pioneer papers. Appeals for contributions of articles, particularly from “old settlers in Oregon,” occur repeatedly in the early issues, and “a respectable gentleman” was the ambiguous source cited for many authoritative pronouncements and important news items that saw print.
Editorship of the Spectator experienced a high rate of turnover. T’Vault was relieved of his duties after less than a year on the job–depending upon who was asked, the cause of his dismissal was either faulty syntax or a stubborn refusal to remain politically impartial. T’Vault’s successor was Henry A.G. Lee, a more literate and uncontroversial man who served for only nine issues before giving up the position with some evidence of relief. Succeeding editors included George L. Curry, Aaron E. Wait, and the Reverend Wilson Blain. More than once, the printer John Fleming would be called upon to prepare issues when the editor’s chair was vacated at short notice.
While it falls well short of contemporary standards of journalistic professionalism, the Oregon Spectator nonetheless holds undisputed priority as the first newspaper published west of the Missouri. A love for Oregon that feels downright contemporary still shines through in T’Vault’s opening salutation to his readers and fellow citizens:
Happily situated in a healthy and fertile part of the continent, with a salubrious climate, the soil yielding a rich reward to the industrious cultivator, with an abundance of water power not surpassed on the globe… [Oregon] must… in a short time, become one of the greatest commercial countries on the Pacific.
— Written by Jason Stone
See also: Oregon Spectator Index, 1846-1854. Prepared by W.P.A. Newspaper index project. Sponsored by City of Portland and Oregon Historical Society. Hosted by Oregon State University Libraries. Volume I. A-J, Volume II. K-Z.