In early 1846, Lieutenant Neil M. Howison, commanding officer of the U.S. schooner Shark, was assigned to “make an examination of the situation in Oregon.” That year was momentous in Oregon’s history. The long-festering question of who would own the vast region known as the Oregon Territory was answered by the signing of a treaty on 15 June. Great Britain ceded claim to more than 286,000 square miles of land that included the present-day states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho and portions of Wyoming and Montana.
Indigenous peoples who inhabited the region had been usurped by the Spanish in the 1540s, then by the English, and later by the Russians before the nascent United States claimed a stake there as early as 1792. Sea captain Robert Gray, on board the Columbia Rediviva, entered the major river of the territory while exploring the Pacific Northwest for the maritime fur trade and named the waterway after his ship. In 1805–6 during the Corps of Discovery Expedition, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark wintered just south of the Columbia, and in 1811 John Jacob Astor established Fort Astoria as a trading post for his fur trade near the river’s mouth.