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Prohibition, 19th century style

So if you have ancestors who trekked over the Oregon Trail, you know what kind of people they must have been.

If your folks walked that wagon road, you know they traveled a path stretching 2170 miles from Missouri to Oregon’s Willamette Valley — a wagon road in name only, and really little more than a pair of parallel ruts.

If your great grandparents or great great grandparents took that trip, you know they traversed across endless prairie, sagebrush desert, and mountains on a trip that averaged 120 days, covering 15 miles day, from sunrise to sundown.1

If your family members were among the 200,000 to 300,000 who set out … and not among the 20,000 to 30,000 who died along the way … well, you know what they were made of.2

If these are your people, you know these were hearty folk indeed.

You know they were tough.

These, after all, are the people who, in the words of the Oregon Legislature:

endured hardships and privations, together with great sacrifices, in effecting a settlement in Oregon; they not only left the places of their birth, their native homes, and graves of their ancestors, for thousands of miles behind, but they launched their property, their own lives and the lives of their helpless families on the great plains, surrounded by the howling savages, and pilgrim-like, pursued their journey to the shores of the great Pacific…3

A hard-working, hard-fighting, hard-drinking bunch of pioneers, right?

Well… maybe not that last part.

The hard-drinking part.

Because, on the 24th of June 1844, Oregon went dry.


The statute that became law that day provided:

That if any person shall hereafter import or introduce any ardent spirits into Oregon, with intent to sell, barter, or trade the same and shall offer the same for sale, trade or barter, he shall be fined the sum of fifty dollars for each and every such offense, which may be recovered by indictment or by trial before a justice of the peace, without the form of pleading.4

Actually selling booze in Oregon carried a fine of $20 for each sale,5 and distilling liquor would cost you $100 — not to mention the fact that the sheriff was to be ordered “to seize and destroy the distilling apparatus.”6

The only out under the law was for medicinal use: “this act shall not be so construed as to prevent any practicing physician from selling such liquors for medicine,” though there was a limit — “not to exceed one gallon at one time.”7


Somehow the “Wild Wild West” and “bone dry” just don’t seem to go together.

But never fear for your 2,000-mile-walking relatives.

Those two didn’t go together, at least not for long.

That law stayed on the books for only five years. It was repealed in 1849.8


I’ll bet those tired, dusty, thirsty folks who’d just walked 2,000 miles were happy about that…

“Bartender, give me a –”

“Water or lemonade, son?”

Well, at least genealogists might like this… after all, it might have created records


  1. The Oregon Trail,” U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, History and Educational Resources ( : accessed 17 Apr 2017).
  2. The Oregon Trail: An Education Resource, 2016 Edition, PDF at 10-12, National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, Bureau of Land Management ( : accessed 17 Apr 2017).
  3. Join Resolution, 9 Jan 1851, in Statutes of a Local Nature and Joint Resolutions … of the Territory of Oregon … 1850 (Oregon City: Asahel Bush, Territorial Printer, 1851), 59; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 17 Apr 2017).
  4. §1, “An Act To prevent the introduction, sale and distillation of Ardent Spirits in Oregon,” in Laws of a General and Local Nature … from the Year 1843, … to … the Year 1849 (Salem, Oregon : Asahel Bush, Territorial Printer, 1853), 94-95; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 17 Apr 2017).
  5. §2, at 95.
  6. Ibid., §3.
  7. Ibid., §6.
  8. Prohibition in Oregon,” Highlights of the Oregon State Archives, Secretary of State ( : accessed 17 Apr 2017.
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