Star of Oregon (event)

The Star of Oregon episode of American history began in 1840 and ended in 1843. This enterprise by pioneers in the Willamette Valley of present-day Oregon consisted of building a ship they named Star of Oregon and then sailing it to California in order to bring back cattle to Oregon Country. The group was led by Joseph Gale and received assistance from Captain Wilkes of the United States Navy prior to setting sail on the open ocean. These pioneers were able to procure nearly 4,000 head of cattle, sheep, and horses combined.

Star of Oregon
Date1840 to 1843
LocationOregon Country
North America
ParticipantsJoseph Gale
Thomas J. Hubbard
Josiah Lamberson Parrish


In 1837 the Willamette Cattle Company had brought over 600 head of cattle to Oregon via California. Prior to this, virtually all cattle in the region were owned by the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC).[1] While the events of 1837 had broken the HBC's monopoly, much of the cattle were owned by a select few such as Ewing Young, John McLoughlin, and the Methodist Mission.[2] The independent settlers of the Willamette Valley were left in the same situation as before, so they met and came up with a plan to alleviate their need for cattle.[2] This group of pioneers decided to build a ship, sail it to California, trade the ship there for cattle, and then drive the cattle overland back to Oregon.[2] In the early stages Joseph Gale, as an experienced sailor, was asked to assist on the project and serve as captain once they got further along in the building.[2]

Ship construction

Construction of the ship began in 1840 on Swan Island in present-day Portland, Oregon.[2] There the ship was built under the guidance of Felix Hathaway, a ship's carpenter.[3] On May 19, 1841, the ship was launched into the water, but only after Hathaway left the project for the lack of pay.[2] Construction then moved upriver to Oak Island to complete the vessel.[3]

As the area lacked many industries at the time, supplies were difficult to acquire. This was made more difficult when the Hudson's Bay Company's Doctor John McLoughlin denied the shipbuilders the ability to purchase supplies from Fort Vancouver.[2] McLoughlin refused, claiming that he did not think the boat would be seaworthy and even if it was able to set sail that the owners may attempt piracy with the ship.[2] Therefore, the builders covertly procured supplies elsewhere, mainly through buying from other settlers.[3] Additionally, the Methodist Mission’s blacksmith Josiah Lamberson Parrish would make metal spikes needed for the ship, plus Thomas J. Hubbard also made spikes for the ship.[2]

As construction progressed, the builders needed more and more materials to complete the boat. Coincidentally, in the summer of 1841 Captain Wilkes of the United States Navy arrived on the Columbia as part of the United States Exploring Expedition.[2] While inland, he learned of the construction of the ship and the plans of the builders.[2] Wilkes then impressed upon McLoughlin to change his position regarding the sale of supplies to the builders, including an offer to pay for any supplies the Americans were unable to buy.[2] With this, McLoughlin then allowed the ship builders to buy the remaining items needed, namely canvas and rigging.[2]

Even with a seaworthy craft, the builders also needed to get official papers to allow them to freely sail the ocean.[2] Once again Captain Wilkes was able to provide this necessity, but not before testing Captain Gale on his sailing and navigation skills.[2] Gale passed the test, and Wilkes presented papers to the crew along with a compass, kedge anchor, log line, two log glasses, and an American flag.[2][3]

As October approached, the builders stopped for the winter.[3] The next year, 1842, the ship was completed in August and Gale began training his crew as they sailed down the Willamette River.[2]

They named the completed vessel Star of Oregon, after which ship and crew set sail for California.[2] The enterprise left the Willamette River on August 29, 1842 sailing by Fort Vancouver.[2] As the ship progressed down the Columbia, Captain Gale continued training the others on sailing.[2] On September 12, the Star of Oregon left the Columbia and entered the open ocean.[3] The day before Gale met with Captain John H. Couch aboard Couch's brig Chenamus when Couch offered to Gale advice and to lead the way out of the mouth.[2]


Once on the ocean, Gale stayed at the helm for approximately 36 hours straight through the fog and rain. He wanted to sail out around 35 miles (56 km) from the coast and then head south, this due to the ship's lack of charts.[2] While sailing south the ship nearly hit rocks as they cruised too close to shore in the fog.[3] Then on September 17, 1842, the Star of Oregon and her crew reached San Francisco Bay.[3] They stopped at the Old Presidio and presented their papers to the Mexican officials, who then allowed them to proceed to Yerba Buena.[2]

Once in Yerba Buena, now San Francisco, the passenger Mr. Pfeffenhauser disembarked to continue his journey to find his relative Captain Sutter.[2] There the ship was sold to a Frenchman, Joseph Yves Limantour, in a three way transaction.[2] Limantour was in need of a new vessel since in October 1841, the merchant's schooner Ayacucho had gone aground near Point Reyes.[4] However, Limantour did not have cattle, but General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, Commander General of California, did have the cattle.[4] Vallejo owned a substantial rancho in Sonoma with plenty of cattle.[4] So in the deal Vallejo received merchandise from Limantour, the Oregonians received 350 head of cattle from Vallejo, and Limantour got the ship.[4] The vessel was then renamed the Jóven Fanita in honor of General Vallejo's seven-year-old daughter, Epifania.[4]

However, the Oregon crew did not immediately head back north, as Gale thought it best to wait the winter out and attempt to recruit more people for the overland journey.[3] Kilbourne then dropped out and decided to stay.[2] Meanwhile, Gale sent out several circulars to attempt to recruit more people to settle in Oregon.[3] Once spring came and the crew gathered at Cash Creek there were now a total of 42 people ready to head north to Oregon Country.

This party started north with 1,250 head of cattle, 600 horses and mules, and 3,000 sheep.[2] The journey overland took 75 days, and in mid May 1843, they arrived back in the Willamette Valley of the Oregon Country.[2]


The enterprise brought the first Spanish merino sheep to Oregon, and allowed for greater economic independence of the pioneers.[3] Gale was then elected to the provisional government of Oregon a few months later as one of three members of the executive committee at the Champoeg Meetings.[3]



Those participating in the construction of the vessel:

  • Known participants: George Davis, Henry Wood, Joseph Gale, Felix Hathaway, John Canan, Pleasant Armstrong, Ralph Kilbourne, Jacob Green


  • Known participants: Joseph Gale, John Canan, Pleasant Armstrong, Ralph Kilbourne, Jacob Green.
  • Passenger: Charles Pfeffenhauser


  1. "Willamette Cattle Company Agreement, 1837". Echoes of Oregon. Oregon Secretary of State. Retrieved 2007-01-23.
  2. Collins, Dean (1943). Stars of Oregon. Binford & Mort. 45.
  3. Dobbs, Caroline C. (1932). Men of Champoeg: A Record of the Lives of the Pioneers Who Founded the Oregon Government. Metropolitan Press. pp. 136–141.
  4. A Pamphlet Relating to the Claim of Senor Don Jose Y. Limantour to Four Leagues of Land in the County Adjoining and Near the City of San Francisco, California. Whitten, Towne and Company. 1853.
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