For most people, the phrase Jefferson Davis and the Pacific Northwest sounds like the ultimate historical paradox. Yet, throughout his long career of public service to the United States as Congressman, Senator, Secretary of War and closest advisor to President Franklin Pierce, matters concerning the Northwest commanded his close attention.
As an ardent expansionist, Jefferson Davis was a great supporter of creating a continental nation. From the time he entered Congress in 1845, through his final term in the Senate, as Chairman of Military Affairs, he sponsored numerous bills and secured appropriations to promote American settlement of the West. In the 1840’s, many in government discounted the value of the remote Oregon Country. Yet, in his first congressional speech, Davis addressed the boundary dispute with Great Britain, calling for the U.S. to assert its claims to the region. Expanding the Army presence along the Oregon Trail and throughout the Northwest, as well as sponsoring numerous surveys, topographical expeditions and scientific studies were top priorities. Advocating the initiation and expansion of mail service as well as securing pay increases for soldiers serving in the “Pacific possessions” were among his efforts.
Jefferson Davis’ most enduring legacy to the Northwest may be his patronage of numerous engineering projects, among them the Pacific railroad surveys. On a more topical note is his enthusiastic sponsorship and supervision of the construction of the early military roads, many of which are in use today. Despite rising sectional differences in the prewar years, Davis maintained his longstanding dedication to addressing the needs created by America’s recent territorial expansion and “binding the Pacific slope more permanently to this Union.”
In 1977, Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield called for the restoration of Davis’ U.S. citizenship. In introducing Senate Resolution 16, he made a stirring speech alluding to many of Jefferson Davis’ little-known contributions to the United States, calling him “an outstanding American.”