The Oregon Argus
Oregon City, Clackamas County, Oregon
The Oregon Argus [LCCN: sn83025129] has the distinction of being the first Republican newspaper in Oregon, and quite possibly the Pacific Coast, with its debut issue appearing on April 21, 1855.
William Lysander Adams, the Argus’ proprietor and first editor, had already made a name for himself in frontier literature by the time the Argus was first printed. Having crossed the plains in 1848, Adams became a farmer and teacher in Yamhill County. A talented and well-educated man, Adams began writing “Whiggish attacks” on the Democrats for the Portland Oregonian [LCCN: sn83045780] in 1851. He frequently contributed political commentary to this paper under the pseudonym “Junius,” and a year later he penned Oregon’s first satire, A Melodrame Entitled “Treason, Stratagems, and Spoils" under the signature “Breakspear,” a play on Shakespeare’s name. This sharp and cultured attack on the members of the territory’s Democratic Party is considered the finest writing to come out of Oregon’s frontier period. The Melodrame, which was published serially in the Oregonian, also included the territory’s first editorial cartoons, marking Adams as Oregon’s first published cartoonist as well.
It is no shock that Adams’ paper, the Oregon Argus, had distinctly pro-Whig, anti-Democratic undertones. In 1855, Adams purchased the plant of the defunct Oregon Spectator [LCCN: sn84022662] for $1200 and began printing in Oregon City. The Argus’ motto, “America… knows nought of golden promises of Kings, Knows nought of Coronets, and Stars, and Strings,” only strengthened the paper’s affiliation with the Whig Party and its hostility towards sovereigns. Before his nomination for presidency, Abraham Lincoln even subscribed to the Argus.
The Argus was a six-column folio, published every Saturday morning. Subscriptions cost five dollars a year or three dollars for six months. Such a pricy subscription rate can be attributed to the paper’s appearance so early on in the history of the state when readers were few and far between. The Argus covered Oregon City and Clackamas County; its first issue declaring that it would “penetrate many parts of the country where Oregon papers are not taken.”
The Argus reported on local events, such as deaths and marriages, and especially focused on local politics. The paper took a very strong pro-temperance stance with several columns devoted to the perceived follies of liquor, but commentary was never religious in tone and, in fact, the Argus gave very little attention to religious affairs. International news appeared sporadically as more space was dedicated to advertisements and coverage of the Civil War dominated later issues. The paper also devoted “a column or two to agricultural interests” and encouraged local farmers to write “short, pithy communications” on the topic.
One dispute that would lead to the demise of the Whig Party was the question of whether or not territories should be admitted into the union as free or slave states. Since Oregon was granted statehood in 1859, four years after the Argus first went to press, this issue was heavily covered in the paper. The Whig Party may have been torn in half, but the Argus took a decidedly pro-freedom position and reported on anti-slavery meetings and events.
On April 16, 1859, after four years at the helm of the Argus, Adams turned control over to David Watson Craig. The paper continued for the next four years relatively unchanged. In May of 1863 the Argus was moved to Salem, where it was consolidated with the State Republican [LCCN: sn83025130], another anti-slavery paper, becoming a seven column publication with obvious political associations. The Oregon Argus was published every Monday by Craig and James Newton Gale until October 26, 1863, at which point the paper was combined with the Oregon Statesman [LCCN: sn85042470],which was purchased by Craig and others.
In a letter from Craig to Adams, dated November 4, 1863, Craig comments on the closing of the Argus and proclaims that the Oregon Statesman will “run measurable on the right track” but may not live up to the high standards set by the Argus.
Prepared with reference to:
Belknap, George N., ed. A Melodrame Entitled “Treason, Stratagems, and Spoils” by William L. Adams. New Haven: Archon Books, 1968.
Craig, David Watson. Letter to William Lysander Adams from the author. November 4, 1863. University of Oregon, Knight Library Special Collections.
Turnbull, George S. History of Oregon Newspapers. Portland, Oregon: Binfords & Mort, 1939.
--Written by Emily Vance