Benton County, Oregon

Making Benton County a Better Place to Live

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Printed on Jul 29, 2014 @ 7:46 AM

Thomas Hart Benton

Benton County was established by the Provisional Legislature in 1847. It was named in honor of Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, who was instrumental in promoting the development of Oregon Country.

A Short Biography of Thomas Hart Benton

Written in 1982 by Daniel G. Burk, former Benton County Department of Records and Elections Director

Thomas Hart Benton, photographed about 1845-50, courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington DCThomas Hart Benton was born of wealthy parents in Hillsboro, North Carolina. Benton's father died when he was 8 years old, and he became the family head by the time he was a teenager, supervising his mother's estate consisting of 3000 acres in farmland and 40,000 undeveloped acres near Nashville, Tennessee.

Five of Benton's seven brothers and sisters died of tuberculosis, and he contracted the same disease, suffering the debilitating consequences the rest of his life.

In 1809, Benton was elected to the Tennessee State Senate, and in 1811 was admitted to the Tennessee Bar. In 1815, he moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he developed a lucrative law practice and became editor of an influential newspaper, the Missouri Enquirer. In 1820, Benton became the US Senator from Missouri, where he served for the next 30 years.

Between 1818-1820, Thomas Hart Benton wrote a series of lengthy articles in his newspaper encouraging settlement of the western lands – particularly the wilderness now known as the Oregon Territory.

Photo of statue of Thomas Hart Benton by Harriet HosmerThis was something considered radical for its day – also often unpopular. His articles created much consternation among easterners who were concerned about the loss in power from any large population shift to the west. He declared in one editorial: "It is time that western men had some share in the destinies of this republic."

Throughout his career, he proposed and supported legislation to open up the west to settlement and to establish governments in the west capable of providing law, order, and justice for the settlers. To achieve these goals, he personally encouraged the formation of governments in Oregon and California.

He supported legislation to reduce the cash price of public lands and advocated the grant of free homesteads of 160 acres based on 5 years settlement and improvement, measures designed to assure the lands were open to settlement rather than land speculation. He championed the development of the Pony Express and the building of telegraph lines to connect the West and East.

Benton also advocated federal aid in the form of land grants to build the first transcontinental railroad with its terminus at St. Louis, and in the late 1840s he argued for the extension of a federal highway into the New Mexico Territory.

Benton was finally defeated for office in 1850 and also in his bid for Governor of Missouri in 1856. He died of cancer in 1858, just one year before Oregon became a state.

Thomas Hart Benton was a relentless advocate of western settlement and was generally considered an expert on the history, geography and topography of the Oregon Territory, which he had visited on six expeditions.

His son-in-law was General Fremont, the US military representative who secured the American claim to the Oregon Territory as opposed to the British claim, and for whom Fremont Bridge in Portland is named.

See more information regarding Thomas Hart Benton from the Federal Biographical Directory of the U.S.

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